When is a marriage sacramental?
This is a question that is subject to significant confusion. For a start, some individuals use the word "sacramental" when they mean "valid." In other words, they are under the impression that any marriage that is not sacramental is invalid.
This is not the case. Many people have marriages that are valid in the eyes of God, yet these marriages are not sacramental.
Because marriage as a sacrament can exist only between two baptized persons. Therefore, if either or both persons are not baptized then their marriage is not a sacrament. That doesn't mean that it's invalid. It's just not a sacrament.
But what about marriages between the baptized? What makes their marriages sacramental? Is it the act of getting married itself that results in the sacrament or, as I've heard more than one person suggest recently, is it the act of consummation that makes a marriage between the baptized sacramental?
The answer is found in the Code of Canon Law.
Canon 1055 states:
Can. 1055 §1. The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized.
§2. For this reason, a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament.
This means that as soon as the matrimonial contract comes into existence between two baptized persons, they have a sacramental marriage. The moment of sacramentality does not wait upon consummation or anything else.
We can show this, for example, by reading a few additional canons:
Can. 1061 §1. A valid marriage between the baptized is called ratum tantum [established only] if it has not been consummated; it is called ratum et consummatum [established and consummated] if the spouses have performed between themselves in a human fashion a conjugal act which is suitable in itself for the procreation of offspring, to which marriage is ordered by its nature and by which the spouses become one flesh.
So there are two kinds of valid--and thus sacramental--marriages between the baptized: those that are established but unconsummated (ratum tantum) and those that are established and consummated (ratum et consummatum). Hence consummation is not necessary for validity or, between the baptized, for sacramentality.
If that's the case, what does happen at consummation?
Can. 1141 A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.
Can. 1142 For a just cause, the Roman Pontiff can dissolve a non-consummated marriage between baptized persons or between a baptized party and a non-baptized party at the request of both parties or of one of them, even if the other party is unwilling.
It is consummation that makes valid sacramental marriages indissoluble. Prior to that point, even valid sacramental marriages can be dissolved, as can marriages in which a baptized person is validly but non-sacramentally married to an unbaptized person.
These cases are referred to colloquially as "Petrine privilege" cases, since they involve the action of the Roman Pontiff. (So-called "Pauline privilege" cases involve two unbaptized persons are do not require the intervention of the pope.)
So, to sum up, here are the types of valid marriages that can exist:
- Non-sacramental marriages between unbaptized persons
- Non-sacramental marriages between a baptized person and an unbaptized person
- Sacramental marriages (i.e., between two baptized persons) that are unconsummated
- Sacramental marriages (i.e., between two baptized persons) that are consummated
The last of these categories is intrinsically indissoluble. The first three categories are at least potentially dissoluble.
Hope this clarifies matters.