The Difference between Civil and Sacramental Marriage

In our teaching we have found that there is much confusion and misunderstanding about marriage in the United States.  How is marriage in the Catholic Church different from civil marriage?  What is the effect of a civil divorce on the sacrament of marriage?  How is an annulment different from a divorce?  We will attempt to clarify these issues in this post.

There are three aspects of Marriage in the Church.  It is contract, covenant and sacrament.

Marriage as Contract

The contract is the legal part of marriage (the civil marriage).  The state requires a license and completion of promises before an agent of the state and witnesses. The priest or deacon serves as the agent of the state as well as a witness for the Church, which leads to confusion about differences between the legal and religious aspects of the ceremony. In many European countries couples must have separate civil and religious ceremonies.  They often go to city hall and then to the church.  Here are some of the consequences of the legal contract

  • Allows couples to file taxes jointly and (sometimes) get a break
  • Spells out some financial responsibilities and affects ownership of property (traditionally it was to protect woman when they didn’t have paying jobs and the children of that union).
  • Affects inheritance of property.
  • Determines the legitimacy of children.
  • Gives hospital visitation rights to the spouse and allows them to make health care and medical decisions

Civil divorce dissolves the legal contract which is not a forever commitment, no matter what is said in the vows.  It has no connection to the religious aspects of the marriage. Divorce usually replaces the marriage contract with a new set of legal requirements related to the financial matters of the spouses and custody and financial care of children.

Example to illustrate the differences.  We have a friend whose father was a widower.  He met a widow and they decided they wanted to spend the rest of their lives together.  Some of their combined children were concerned about the assets of each and the inheritance issues that would result from their marriage. They decided not to get legally married but went to their parish priest who blessed their union. Their assets remain legally separate.

Marriage as Covenant

Covenant is a common term in real estate related to restrictions on the use of a property.  It is a legal document and can be changed or dissolved.  In the Bible we find the word covenant used in a different way.  In the Old Testament God says to the Israelites: “You will be my people and I will be your God.” (Jer 30:22)   It is a never-ending commitment of God to his chosen people and their commitment to God.  We also enter into a never ending religious covenant when we say our vows in the marriage ceremony.  The marriage covenant is like the covenant that God made with His people and Christ made with the Church as we say “as long as we BOTH shall live” or “unto death do us part.”  Because this covenant is between the husband and wife, they are the ministers of their vows.  The priest or deacon witnesses the covenant/vows for the Church as well as the contract for the state.

The religious covenant created in the wedding vows is:

1.  Never ending just as God’s promise to His people as stated in Jeremiah “You will be my people and I will be your God.”  (Jer 30:22)  We promise to be husband and wife for each other and to mirror those words of Jeremiah: “I will be your wife, you will be my husband.” and “I will be your husband, you will be my wife.”   The promise is reinforced in the words of the vows:  “for better or for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, until death.

2.  A commitment to love. St. John, in his letter says “God is Love and whoever remains in love remains in God and God in Him.”  1 Jn 4:16b.  Our marriage covenant commits us to love—to place the needs of the other before our own.  As St. Paul says in Ephesians 5:32e “this is a great mystery but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church.”  This means that in loving Rita and being loved by her I can experience a little of Christ’s love for me. Together our love touches others and gives them an experience of God’s love for them.  We don’t have to do anything extraordinary – just love.  No other vocation does this in quite the same way.

3.  Our path to heaven.  Dutch priest, Fr. Henri Nouwen, says our goal in life is to experience love unconditionally.  In this life we can have glimpses of God’s unconditional love in marriage and find ourselves growing in our love for God as a result.

To personalize:


Your first response to the above might be that you will experience unconditional love in sexual encounters.  That may happen, but it can occur in many other situations.  A couple of years ago we were in Chicago’s Millennium Park with two of our granddaughters.  There is a sculpture there with a curved, mirrored surface that produces distorted images.  I was taking some pictures of the girls as they stood near the “bean”, as it is commonly called, laughing at their images, when I noticed Rita off to the side watching me interact with the girls and obviously enjoying our play.  She was looking at me in a way that spoke volumes about her love for me.  I took a picture of the girls with Rita off to the side and feel greatly loved every time I see it.


The night my mom died brings to mind for me this experience of unconditional love.  Bob, my sisters and I were with my mother when she died.  We had laughed and cried together and with her.  I thought I had shed all the tears that I had.  Somewhere in the middle of the night I began to sob.  I was facing anew the love I felt for her and all that she had done for me and I was overwhelmed by the loss of her in my life.  In the midst of this I felt Bob’s arm surround me and draw me tightly to him.  He said nothing but just held me until I stopped crying.  I experienced his all encompassing love at that moment even with the terrible loss.   I was loved!!

The real work of the covenant for a couple comes in living their vows every day.  When we are experiencing better, richer and health, life is good.  It is possible to take each other for granted and it is easy to lose our sense of gratitude.  The test of commitment comes in hard times, worse, poorer and sickness, that are inevitable in every marriage.

Some time ago, we came across a book titled, Toward Commitment, written by a couple who were married for over forty years.  They had been through infidelities and separation and were still trying to figure out whether they could make a commitment for their lifetimes.  Unlike them we saw the commitment we made in saying our vows to each other as immediate and permanent from that moment forward.  While we have had trying moments in our marriage, neither of us has ever questioned that commitment.  It has required us to summon the courage to speak up when necessary and work through the demands of taking our relationship to new depths.

Here are some of the things we have had to do to maintain the permanence and fidelity we promised:

a. We have had to face issues.  When either of us feels neglected, unloved or taken advantage of, one of us has had to summon the courage to broach the subject and maybe risk a fight.  This is especially tough for Rita, the peacemaker.

b. It took effort and experience to learn how to resolve differences – to always remember that we are fighting for our relationship not to prove that either of us is right.  This is hard for Bob since he likes to win.

c. We have learned to support the growth of the other as a person and to celebrate the accomplishments of the other.  As St. Paul says love is not jealous…but rejoices with the truth. 1Cor 13:4-5

d. We strive to keep some romance and fun alive. We still tease each other and make each other laugh.  We like to travel and enjoy time for just us. It is like an unending honeymoon. (Our kids often roll their eyes and say:  “Oh, no, mom and dad are being teenagers again.”)

e. It has been necessary for us to make the effort to heal and forgive – most marriages end not because of a major infidelity but as the result of many small things that have not been forgiven.

f. We shared fully in parenting our four children, avoided putting most of the responsibility on one.  This was especially important in making decisions involving them. We made an effort to anticipate some of the difficult decisions we would have to make and have an answer ready when the situation arrived.  Sometimes we would make a child wait for a decision until we could speak to each other.

Remember that the covenant is a commitment to journey together.  We cannot expect to live it perfectly.  It is a human relationship and relationships are inherently messy.  We have embraced the messiness and come to laugh often at our imperfections.

The vows on our wedding day were just the beginning.  We live out those vows in different ways as the circumstances of our lives change.  The constants that enable us to do that are love and the power of the Holy Spirit present in our lives.

Couples entering into marriage promise to one another before witnesses that they will love each other and give themselves to each other.  Christians say that, but also affirm that they will try to love each other as Christ loves the Church, and give themselves to and for each other as Christ gives himself to and for the Church.”  This for most of us is scary and awesome.

When we live the vows with permanence and fidelity for each other and the Church, we become Sacrament.

Marriage as Sacrament

Marriage has not always been included in the Church’s list of official sacraments.  In the 13th century marriage was officially recognized to have the characteristics that each sacrament must have – it is an outward sign in the human world of the presence of God who is grace.

Like other sacraments, the Church requires the recipients of matrimony to meet certain conditions, in order to be valid.  The following is a brief explanation of the qualities that make marriage a valid Sacrament.

a. While the couple entering into the covenant of marriage administers the vows to each other, they must be witnessed for the Church by a priest or deacon and one other Catholic person.  In addition, the marriage is not considered valid until the couple has had sexual intercourse.

b. The persons entering into the marriage must be capable of entering into the vows –be of a certain age, mentally capable and emotionally able to make the commitment required in the vows, etc.

c.  Each person must be free to enter into the covenant – not married to someone else, including a previous sacramental marriage which is divorced, but not annulled, must not be bound by religious vows, or have the bond of holy orders, to name the most common.  These conditions are referred to as impediments to marriage.

d. Both partners must have the intent to live out what they promise – unity, to love the other and be one in mind, body and spirit, and procreation, to be open to children

If any of the above conditions is not present the Church may nullify or invalidate the marriage.  The official term is a “Declaration of Nullity” which can only be made by the Church.  It is not a like a legal divorce, which ends a contract, but officially declares that the Sacrament never existed.  We know the nullification as an annulment. This is a Church matter and has no effect on the legal contract, which is the domain of the state.

We do not live out the Sacrament of Matrimony as we do our vows.  Rather, we become the Sacrament, which has effects on us, on the people who live with us and meet us in the course of our lives and on the communities in which we live.  These effects are far-reaching and positive.  This post is already long, so we will hold the discussion for another time.

We hope this helps to clarify the nature of Catholic marriage, compared to civil marriage and helps you to see some of the great possibilities marriage has for you.

Did this article clarify your understanding of Catholic marriage? Does it help you to see possibilities for your own marriage?  Leave a comment below.

This material is excerpted from our unfinished commentary on the 2009 US Bishops’ pastoral letter   Marriage:  Love and Life in the Divine Plan which is available here.  (pdf. Select the list item Marriage)


About Rita & Bob Boeke

Rita Boeke has experience teaching scripture and with her husband Bob has experience in enriching marriages through workshops and retreats. They post a weekly blog at and co-authored Forever and a Day: An Invitation to Create a Marriage that Lasts a Lifetime.
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