Questions Answered

Adoration of the Baby, by Gerrit van Honthorst (c. 1620); The Ascension of Christ, by Garofalo (c. 1515); The Crucifixion, by Carl Bloch (1870).

Question: A local priest has, on more than one occasion, preached that Jesus “became a human being.” Is that the same thing as he “became man?” Are the two terms interchangeable?

Answer: This question takes up the famous issue of what the Fathers of the Church call the “communication of idioms.” This term is central to the developed theology of the Incarnation.

The problem is how to express the fact that the one Person of the Word subsists in two natures. The important point is that, in the expressions used to explain the faith of the Church concerning Christ, neither the unity of the divine person of the Word nor the fact that Christ is altogether God and altogether man after the Incarnation can be compromised.

The Church has actually developed rules to ensure that all parts of the mystery of Christ are correctly expressed. They are generally the following:

  1. Words which refer to both the divine and human nature can indiscriminately be attributed to the person of Christ, but not things which belong exclusively to one nature and not another. One could say that Jesus is eternal and created, but one could not say that Jesus, as God, was created or that Humanity was eternal.
  2. Concrete terms like the Son of God, and the Son of Man, designate the person, and abstract terms, the nature. Concrete terms could be used of both Christ’s divine and human nature. For example, you could say that the Son of God is man, but not that the Divinity is man, as the latter would tend to designate the divine nature. One could not say that Christ created the world as a human being.
  3. Terms can be used indiscriminately of Christ if they are positive, but not if they are negative. Nothing can be denied of Christ which expresses either nature. So one could not say that Jesus is not almighty, nor say that he did not suffer.

I would say that the statement that the “Word became a human being” is very misleading and tends to the interpretation that he was not an individual person before the Incarnation. He was, in fact, a human individual, concretely speaking, but this is because he was already a person before his conception in the womb of Mary. I would not say that to say that the Word became a human being is the same as to say that he become man because the term “man” stands for the uniting of the human nature with the Word. The term “human being” does refer to nature, but, to an individual person, and there is no human person in Jesus of Nazareth. He was already a divine person.

Question: For a baptized person to participate in the sacrament of matrimony, must the participant be in the state of grace? If so, must a Catholic couple in an “irregular union” (i.e., cohabitation) confess that union as sinful and receive the sacrament of penance before receiving/administering the sacrament of matrimony?

Answer: Couples who are cohabiting are living together in a sexual relationship without being married. Today, many couples do this. They can contract a valid marriage in the Catholic Church. The reason for this is that cohabitation is not, in itself, a canonical impediment to marriage, and that couples have a general right to marry.

However, that being said, there are many important points to make about marriage preparation. These include a judgment on the validity of a marriage entered into in the state of mortal sin.

The dilemma of the pastor is that one should encourage people to marry even if they are cohabiting. This is first, of course, to free them from the objective sin of concubinage. A part of the marriage preparation of these couples should include the various problems which such a relationship can cause for the future of a marriage which ought to be characterized by chaste self-control, friendship which is very deep, and children. As a result, the preparation for marriage should involve telling the truth, but in a gentle way, so as not to alienate the couple, that cohabitation is a mortal sin which has serious spiritual and human consequences.

The bishops of the United State have put out a number of documents to guide pastoral practice in this situation. If the couple is living together for reasons like finances, then they should be encouraged to separate. If they are committed to seeking Catholic marriage because they are genuinely in love with each other, then they should also be encouraged to understand that cohabitation puts the sexual side of the relationship before the spiritual side, and is not a good preparation for marriage. If they are just seeking a Catholic wedding because the Church is pretty, they should be encouraged to wait before entering into marriage as their reasons for Christian marriage are very superficial.

Once they have committed to marry, they should not approach marriage without fitting spiritual preparation. This is a requirement for all the sacraments, and sacramental confession would be required for someone in mortal sin for fruitful reception of this sacrament, just like any other. If the couple agree, then well and good. If they do not, they cannot be refused marriage. On the other hand, some priests and dioceses emphasize that they would not receive the grace of the sacrament, though the marriage is certainly valid, and so suggest that, out of respect for the religious nature of this celebration, it be done with a discreet, private service, and without a nuptial Mass.

So, two points must be emphasized. Couples have a right to marry, and cohabitation and being in the state of mortal sin are not impediments to this. On the other hand, for a couple who cohabits to enter into such a union without confession of their sins would be a sacrilege, and they would not receive the grace of marriage. If, at some later date, they decided to confess their sins, then at that time, the grace of the previously contracted marriage would begin to operate in their lives.

Two further points. Couples preparing for marriage are regularly encouraged and offered the opportunity to receive the sacrament of penance. This is not unique to those who are living together. However, it would be improper to designate a time, place, and priest to whom they MUST go to confession, as the faithful have the right to choose their own confessors. It would also be grossly improper for a well-meaning but “militant” person to ASK a couple if they went to confession before the marriage ceremony. Also, the sacrament of penance is a private affair, and no one should presume people have not confessed and judge them accordingly.

Fr. Brian Mullady, OP About Fr. Brian Mullady, OP

Fr. Brian T. Mullady, OP, entered the Dominican Order in 1966 and was ordained in 1972. He has been a parish priest, high school teacher, retreat master, mission preacher, and university professor. He has had seven series on EWTN and is the author of two books and numerous articles, including his regular column in HPR, "Questions Answered".

Please send your questions to:
Fr. Brian T. Mullady, O.P.
375 NE Clackamas St.
Portland, OR 97232
Or please see the Ask a Question page to send it online.


  1. Avatar Martin B. Drew says:

    Father Mullady has logically and clearly explained the Incarnation and the Sacrament of Marriage , cohabitation confession and impediments. It is a very good read and I cannot add anything else. Thank you

  2. On the first question, I would actually think the opposite. Based on the rules given in the above answer, to say that He “became a human being” doesn’t pose a problem. All human persons are human beings, but not all human beings are human persons (because Jesus is the lone human being who is not a human person). In other words, the priest quoted in the question was indeed making a positive statement.
    Conversely, it would be problematic to say that “He became human” because that connotes that He became a human person, but we know that He is a divine person who became a human being.

  3. Avatar Dorrie Daly says:

    If a couple is married in a nuptial mass in the state of mortal sin and later wants the marriage annulled,
    would this fact be a reason for an annullment to be granted?