In January, the Diocese of Cheyenne will begin focusing on a new set of priorities in our strategic plan. Marriage and Family are among those new priorities. I hope to do a series of articles on marriage and family over the next several months, beginning with this one.
The topics of marriage and family have received much attention in recent months at the Extraordinary Synod in Rome, in a recent ruling here in Wyoming and the Federal Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, and elsewhere. I wish to review our Catholic perspective on marriage. It seems quite clear that much confusion exists concerning this foundational institution of society. We Catholics simply seek to know the truth, rooted always in Jesus Christ. We need to raise up this truth as it is reflected in marriage and Holy Matrimony.
When we Catholics consider marriage, the two realities of nature and sacrament confront our quest for understanding; our belief in a Creator brings clarity to our reflection. We believe that God created everything from nothing. (Colossians 1:12-20) Everything in nature, then, has its origin and fullness in God; and each created thing has a natural tendency towards God, particularly fitted and proper to it.
Marriage includes reference to God, precisely because God created the institution and endowed it with its significance. In this act of creation and bestowal, He willed specifically to bring man and woman together, establishing the nature of marriage and fitting it to the nature of man and woman. Marriage is, for this reason, always more than the mere will of two people (as in a contractual relationship), even though the free will of two people to enter into marriage is also necessary. For this reason, when asked about divorce, Jesus drew attention to the origins of marriage:
“Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” (Matt. 19:4-6)
Pope Francis has also fittingly emphasized that “[t]wo Christians who marry…have recognized the call of the LORD in their own love story.” (Pope Francis 10.4.13)
In Matthew 19:4-6, Jesus teaches, not only that God has ordered and established marriage as a union of man and woman, but also that the union is indissoluble. Even prior, then, to any consideration of the sacramental character of Holy Matrimony, the close association of nature and grace and the intimate presence of the divine to the human, in God’s establishment of marriage, is manifest.
The one flesh union of the husband and wife aids the couple to express their love for each other. Their love is unique because it is the generative and natural force that brings new life into existence. Precisely in its unity and generativity, the conjugal love of man and woman mirrors the inner love of the Trinity, generative of all creation; so, it is a pathway for both persons to the apprehension of God’s living presence. The love of man and woman, in a very special way, then, “ends towards God. It is, in its very character, a participation in the love of God that generates new life.
An understanding of the sacramental nature of marriage begins with a discussion of Baptism. Every member of the Church is a member of the Body of Christ. In Baptism, we are joined in a very real and permanent way to the person of Jesus. Our natural life, upon our receiving Baptism, is oriented to its fullness in the person of Jesus. To use other language, we have become one flesh with Christ; but the union is even more intimate than the conjugal relationship of man and wife.
Once our bodies are joined to Jesus, we become increasingly oriented to Christ, to His Gospel and His Truth. Our relationship with Christ frees us from sin and helps us to find our proper freedom in all that we do. Christ is intimately a part of us and we an intimate part of Him, through Baptism.
All that we do in the flesh, upon Baptism, involves our one flesh union with Christ; recollection of this reality consciously informs us in our behaviors, our thinking and our values. We no longer engage in actions which seem unworthy of Christ because they do not recall us to Him; we no longer indulge ourselves or define things and relations in our own way, apart from His teaching. What we see Jesus do and teach, we seek to imitate. (See 1 John 2: 3-6.)
Sacramental marriage is the union of two people whose one flesh union is open to life. Both spouses live their lives as a total gift to the other and to the children generated from their love. Their love is a bond knitting the family together. They learn ever more to imitate the self-sacrificial love of Christ as their proper model; so they help each other to grow in holiness and obtain, with Christ, their eternal life in heaven. The marital love of husband and wife, faithful and true for life, provides a stable foundation for their children and for all of society.
For a husband and wife, their one flesh union is a participation in the Body of Christ, recalling the unity of Christ with His people. On this very point, I quote Jose Granados, vice-president of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at the Lateran University in Rome:
The one flesh of the spouses becomes sacramental because they belong to the Body of Christ, to his flesh (cf. Eph. 5:30). The marriage of baptized persons, their act of making themselves one flesh, is transformed by the fact that they are members of Christ. Configured to the Body of Christ in their flesh by baptism, they can be united in one flesh only if they unite according to Christ’s standard. This is how they will be rendered capable of a new love, the love that unites Christ and the Church; this is how they will be able to obey Paul’s exhortation to love one another according to the standard of Jesus and his Bride. (The Sacramental Character of Faith…)
If the Church is structured as one flesh, if being one flesh (the Bride of Christ) contains her fundamental definition, then marriage possesses a singular gift with which to build up the Church. (The Sacramental Character of Faith…)
The above remarks capture the reason that we must all properly understand both the nature of marriage and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. What God intends through this beautiful institution of human love is fundamental to the common good of society; and it is critical for the building up of the Body of Christ, the Church.
Properly understanding marriage and the sacrament of Holy Matrimony matters because we must respect that we are created in God’s image and likeness and that the way we live in the body either honors this belief, ignores it, or disrespects it all together. It matters also because we believe in eternal life and salvation and the critical character of our free will response to God’s will and the laws that He has written on every human heart in relation to them. Our response matters, not only because of eternity, but also because the degree of our adherence to God’s truth directly impacts our ability to live meaningful lives now.
The truths discussed here are important because marriage is neither a matter of equality nor of human rights. It is a gift given and created by God, specifically designed to encompass the loving and life-giving relationship between a man and a woman. This self-giving human relationship of life-generating love is intended by God to mirror the inner life of the Trinity and the life humbly given by Christ for His Bride, the Church. Granted, marriage is not the only means of participating in the divine life of God; but we need to be clear about the nature of marriage and do more to support and strengthen the life of married couples and families.
To the many men and women who are faithfully living the demands and joys of married life and love, we owe our profound respect and support. We want to reaffirm the nobility, the truth and the beauty of marriage. Realizing that others suffer from the failures of marriage and broken families, we pledge our understanding and accompanying presence. Together, we are all called to seek the truth and to live the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). Together, let us seek Christ and the fullness of life and love that are to be found in Him and lived and loved as members of the Church.