The institution of marriage is under attack today, perhaps more than at any other time in history.
In a 2015 address, Pope Francis said the family “as God wants it, composed of a man and a woman for the good of the spouses and also the generation and education of children, is deformed by powerful contrary projects supported by ideological colonization.”
The pope has applied the term “ideological colonization” to a number of social evils, but it always refers to the conflict between troubling ideologies and the Christian ideal. When it comes to marriage, the ideal is rooted in God’s design from the beginning of creation, Christ’s establishment of marriage as a sacrament, and the Church’s long tradition of the marriage covenant.
Marriage in scripture
Although detractors may claim marriage is a strictly human institution, it is of divine origin. The Book of Genesis tells us that God created man and woman for one another: A man “leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh” (2:24). Genesis also affirms marriage as a complementary relationship of equals: Adam called Eve “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (2:23). Together they are called to participate in God’s life-giving power and exercise stewardship over the created world: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it” (1:28).
Marriage is therefore the “default” or natural human vocation for man and woman; when a person has a vocation to celibacy, he or she is “called” away from the marriage vocation.
Following the First Couple’s commission of Original Sin, however, marriage suffered from the disorders it introduced; man and woman could not live according to God’s plan for marriage without divine assistance. That help arrived when Christ elevated marriage to a sacrament, providing supernatural grace for husbands and wives to live according to the ideal.
Christ performed His first public miracle at the wedding feast in Cana, which the Church sees as His affirmation of the goodness of marriage and a sign of His efficacious presence in marriage. Whereas the law of Moses had allowed divorce in some instances, Christ would later explain that marriage “from the beginning of creation” was meant to be a lifelong, exclusive union of one man and one woman. Citing the passage from Genesis, He said of the relationship between husband and wife: “So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has brought together, let no man put asunder” (Mk 10:9). To divorce and marry another, He continued, constitutes adultery.
Nuptial imagery had been used in the Old Testament to convey the covenant relationship between God and Israel. Christ in His parables sometimes portrayed Himself as a bridegroom as though preparing for his bride. In the Book of Revelation, the heavenly banquet is described as the wedding feast of the Lamb, who is Christ, united with His bride, the Church.
St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians in the New Testament draws upon all these scriptural images to reflect upon the sacramental character of marriage. Not only are man and woman individually created in the image of God, but in marital union they constitute “a great mystery.” They are to “be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ” (5:21). The husband is to love his wife “as Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for her,” even as He loves His own body. This reciprocal self-sacrifice and self-giving reflects the relationship between Christ and His Church. The Second Vatican Council relates sacramental marriage to this covenant relationship.
Sacramental theology took centuries to develop, but Christian marriage was recognized as something sacred by leading Church fathers from a very early date. In the early second century, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote that “it becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God.” In the early fifth century, St. Augustine said of marriage that “now this is threefold, faithfulness, offspring, and the Sacrament” — affirming matrimony as exclusive, fruitful, and lifelong with the help of God’s grace. Popes and councils over the centuries defended marriage as a sacrament against heretical claims to the contrary.
St. Thomas Aquinas drew greatly from patristic and later Church sources to systematize our understanding of marriage and sacramental theology. His work was heavily influential during the sixteenth-century Council of Trent – which set the groundwork for Catholic teaching on marriage today.
Marriage and the Catechism
The Catechism of the Catholic Church, summarizing the Council of Trent and the development of doctrine that preceded it, states: “The sacrament of Matrimony signifies the union of Christ and the Church. It gives spouses the grace to love each other with the love with which Christ has loved His Church; the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life” (CCC 1661). It further states: “Unity, indissolubility, and openness to fertility are essential to marriage” (CCC 1664).
Catholic marriage law requires that for a sacramental union to exist both bride and groom must be free to marry, give full and knowing consent, and intend to enter a faithful, lifelong, and fruitful commitment of love and mutual self-giving. In the Latin Rite, the bride and groom themselves are the ministers of the sacrament, with the priest or deacon as its official witness.
Children are the “supreme gift of marriage,” says the Catechism (1652). The family is considered “the domestic church” because it is through their parents – as they’ve promised in their sacramental marriage vows – that children are educated in the faith and its practice (cf. CCC 1655-1658). It also is “a communion of persons, a sign and image of the communion of the Father and the Son in the Holy Spirit” (CCC 2205).
Sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage because it is a sign of the total self-giving of the marriage covenant. It properly has two essential dimensions: It is unitive, because as an expression of selfless love it strengthens the marital union for the good of the spouses; and it is procreative in that the sexual act must be open to the creation of new life (CCC 1643).
Today there are mounting challenges to the true meaning of marriage:
• Divorce and remarriage (without benefit of Church annulment) go against the indissolubility of marriage.
• Same-sex “marriage” and polygamy run counter to marriage as a covenant between one man and one woman.
• The practice of cohabitation, like all premarital and extramarital sexual activity, fails to honor and obey the Church’s sacramental covenant of Holy Matrimony as binding, permanent, procreative and unitive under God.
• Gender theory – the idea that a person may subjectively identify as a gender that differs from his or her biological sex – is a “great enemy of marriage today,” remarked Pope Francis in 2016.
• Illicit forms of contraception and elective sterilization deny the procreative purpose and potential of married love.
• Self-absorption and materialism mitigate against the ideal of mutual self-giving.
• Fear of commitment and radical feminism can create distorted perspectives on the meaning of marriage and male/female roles.
The Catholic response
What should Catholic men and women do in the face of such challenges? Even as we seek to restore the dignity of marriage and family through educational and legislative means, our most effective response is the faithful witness of Catholics living in the world: those exemplifying Catholic living as put forth by the traditional teachings of the Church.
“People are hungry for the truth; and they’ll choose it, if it’s presented clearly and with conviction,” wrote Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput, OFM Cap., ahead of the 2015 World Meeting of Families.
“Therein lies the need for every Christian marriage to be engaged in preaching by example. A husband and wife who model a love for Jesus Christ within their family — who pray and worship together with their children and read the Scriptures — become a beacon for other couples. … Catholic families have a key role in God’s healing of a broken world.”
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.