What is the philosophical/theological logic for why unconsummated (ratum tantum) sacramental marriages can be dissolved?

  • I'm aware of people paying as much as $40,000 or more to be married in a Catholic church. Many of my friends lived together for as much as decades, without marrying, until they had enough for their church wedding--perhaps when the children were already out of school. It is doubtful that the church would refund the wedding costs if the marriage were dissolved. This, then, seems to add a bit of financial conflict of interest to letting it be dissolved--expecting another payment when the next marriage candidate arrives.
    – Biblasia
    Nov 27, 2022 at 16:32
  • @Biblasia It doesn't cost $40,000 to be married in the Catholic church. What costs is the celebration which the spouses decide if they are even going to have. The fact that you speak about some conflict of interest for dissolving a marriage when they are dissolved to enter the religious life speaks volumes of how uninformed you are.
    – Glorius
    Nov 28, 2022 at 14:51
  • @Glorius I won't claim to be well informed; I'm not a Catholic. But my friends would spend $15,000+ for a wedding-like "quinceañera" for their 15-year-old daughters, and then not have sufficient to pay for her wedding a few years later. It seemed to be a matter of peer pressure, and some "keeping up with the Joneses." When we saw limousines in our small town, it was a good indication someone was having her 15th birthday celebration. It was my friends who told me they had nearly saved up the $40k for their own church wedding, and I was a bit shocked.
    – Biblasia
    Nov 28, 2022 at 14:57
  • @Biblasia the fact that some people spend exorbitant amounts of money on celebrations has nothing to with this question nor Catholicism.
    – Glorius
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:00
  • @Glorius How much do the parishioners pay to have the priest(s) marry them? I had understood that the $40k was the cost of using the church facilities (presumably inviting family and friends as well), in addition to clergy fees. Is this not true? I was not under the impression that this was the cost of celebration--only of the church-sanctioned "official" wedding (as opposed to their justice-of-the-peace wedding).
    – Biblasia
    Nov 28, 2022 at 15:04

1 Answer 1


Theological explanation

Spiritual and physical bonds of marriage

Super Sent. lib. 4 d. 27 q. 1 a. 3 qc. 2 co.:

before consummation there is only a spiritual bond between the spouses, but after it there is a physical bond between them as well. And therefore just as after consummation marriage is dissolved by physical death, so also it is dissolved before consummation by entrance into religious life: for the religious life is a certain spiritual death, by which someone, dying to the world, lives for God.

Spiritual and physical significations of marriage

St. Thomas gives the traditional significations of marriage,

  • unconsummated (spiritual) marriage → union of Christ to soul by grace (can be broken by sin)
  • consummated (physical) marriage → hypostatic union of fleshly human nature with the Second Person of the Holy Trinity (absolutely indissoluble),

in Super Sent. lib. 4 d. 27 q. 1 a. 3 qc. 2 ad 1:

Before consummation marriage signifies the union of Christ to the soul by grace; which indeed is dissolved by a contrary spiritual disposition, namely, sin. But by physical intimacy is signified his union with the Church by the assumption of human nature into the unity of his person, which is indivisible in every way.

The state of celibacy (being unmarried) is higher than the state of marriage, so the Church allows those in even consummated marriages to separate in order to enter religious life and advance in charity.

Whether matrimony can be dissolved by entrance into religious life?

St. Thomas Aquinas, Super Sent. lib. 4 d. 27 q. 1 a. 3 ("Whether matrimony can be dissolved by entrance into religious life?") qc. 2 ad 2:

Before consummation one’s body has not been transferred to the power of the other absolutely, but under the condition that in the interim the other spouse does not aspire to the fruits of a better life. But by consummation the aforementioned transfer is completed, for then each person enters into bodily possession of the power handed over to each other. This is also why before consummation one is not bound to render the debt immediately after the marriage is contracted in terms of the present, but the time of two months is given to them, for three reasons. First, so that in the meantime he might deliberate about entering religious life. Second, so that the necessary things may be prepared for solemnization of the wedding. Third, lest the husband should hold cheap a wife whom he did not have to pine in wait for.

quoted in Ford, S.J., Validity of Virginal Marriage pp. 110-11

Canon Law

Marriage is a contract

by which each party gives and accepts perpetual and exclusive rights to the body, for those actions that are of themselves suitable for the generation of children.
1917 can. 1081 §2; cf. 1983 can. 1057

If those rights/privileges are used/exchanged by the partners, the marriage cannot be dissolved:

A ratified and consummated (ratum et consummatum) valid marriage can be dissolved by no human power and for no cause, outside of death.
1917 can. 1118; cf. 1983 can. 1141

However, if they are not, then

A non-consummated marriage [matrimonium ratum tantum] between the baptized or [a marriage] between a baptized party and a non-baptized party can be dissolved by law upon solemn religious profession, or by dispensation granted by the Apostolic See for a just cause if both parties or [just] one ask for it, even if the other is unwilling.
1917 can. 1119; cf. 1983 can. 1142

Commenting on 1983 can. 1142, Juan Fornés writes (Exegetical Commentary on the [1983] Code of Canon Law vol. III/2 pp. 1546-7):

5) With respect to the basis of the absolute indissolubility of a ratified and consummated marriage, in contrast to the possibility of dissolution in other marriages, the specialists have not yet offered an entirely satisfactory explanation. This is logical, if one bears in mind that this is a subject in which the sacramental nature of marriage comes into play and in which, therefore, there are facts of faith that exceed purely speculative human limits. We are in the very field of mystery, in which the magisterial teachings are decisive.

Nevertheless, from a juridical point of view, some clues can be provided. The first highlights the importance of consummation in sacramental marriage by considering consummation as a juridical category ("a juridical fact, which strengthens the indissolubility of the bond"9) that affects sacramental marriage, to the extent that it contributes to the sacramental symbol. Hervada stresses: "It is not a transaction consummation but rather a sacramental consummation. The characteristic firmness that, due to the sacramental nature, is brought about by the first conjugal act is not in the order of the consummation of juridical transactions, but in a singular order of efficacy that cannot be reduced to the usual categories of the effects of the consummation of real or consensual juridical transactions."10

The second considers indissolubility in light of the essence of marriage as one flesh: "the significance of a consummated marriage does not lie anywhere but in the very fact that the spouses have ontologically expressed themselves as one flesh, a reality similar to the union between Christ and the Church through Incarnation."11 It also considers the inseparability between marriage and sacrament: "The fullness of the significance creates a correctness of the juridical value of the bond, attributing to it a firmness that it does not have only because of the pact, giving it an indissolubility that makes it similar to the indestructible union of Christ with the Church."12

  1. J. HERVADA, "El matrimonio canónico. Teoria general," in Derecho canónico (Pamplona 1975), p. 394.
  2. J. HERVADA-P. LOMBARDÍA, El Derecho del Pueblo de Dias, 111/1, Derecho matrimonial (Pamplona 1973), p. 303.
  3. Ibid. , p. 303.
  4. Ibid. , p. 304.
  • So the unconsummated marriage can be dissolved because the spouses have not become "one flesh", which represents the idea of indissolubility? Nov 26, 2022 at 20:04
  • Honestly, I'm not convinced by that argument. How exactly does the idea of "one flesh" relate to indissolubility? I'm not understanding how one flesh = indissolubility. Nov 26, 2022 at 20:13
  • @GuilhermedeSouza "How exactly does the idea of 'one flesh' relate to indissolubility?" The marriage contract is about rights to those bodily acts that are ordered toward procreation. Consummation is an external sign of the marriage.
    – Geremia
    Nov 26, 2022 at 20:29
  • 1
    @Geremia It's a bad example. You could sell the car to someone else after having driven it. Nov 26, 2022 at 22:04
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    @MikeBorden I can't sell it as a new car if I've driven it.
    – Geremia
    Nov 26, 2022 at 23:29

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