We live in strange times, disconnected from ultimate reality. We have managed to untether ourselves from self-evident truth, universal truth, and the nature of reality itself. Human life is becoming a free-for-all, in which we are apt to fancy ourselves our own creators.
Our current problems began centuries ago when we began to doubt the existence of God. A few centuries after that, we began to doubt the efficacy of reason and the right use of the intellect. We find ourselves today in a general state of radical skepticism where, in spite of doubting all truth, we make unending truth-claims grounded in self-reference.
Nowhere is our modern confusion so evident than in our public and private treatment of marriage. For us Catholics, marriage is a divine and natural institution bestowed upon us by God and written into the very structures of the human person.
Oddly it seems everyone in the world agrees that there are limits on who can marry whom. However, while the Catholic Church recognizes the boundaries to be between one eligible man and one eligible woman, those who deny the fixed and authentic definition claim a different set of criteria for eligibility while still admitting that there are limits. All this confusion has led to much unhappiness in marriage — not because of marriage itself, but by our misuse of this divine and natural institution.
Concept of Marriage
Marriage is “the conjugal union of man and woman, contracted between two qualified persons, which obliges them to live together throughout life” (Catechism of the Council of Trent). The nature of the union inherently involves only one man and one woman. It’s a requirement that they have an appropriate relationship grounded by the complementarity gifted them by their Creator. There is a mutual agreement between the man and woman to become one flesh, monogamous and faithful, “for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, for better and for worse, until death do [they] part.” This is the nature of the commitment a man and woman agree to for an authentic marriage to occur.
In the Catechism of Trent, it’s explained that “matrimony is to be considered from two points of view, either as a natural union, since it was not invented by man but instituted by nature; or as a Sacrament, the efficacy of which transcends the order of nature.” Marriage can only be properly understood in these two ways, either as a divine sacrament or as a natural institution. Both are the same in character and the only two options for marriages in a healthy society.
The Divine Origin of Marriage
Marriage is a primary theme throughout the Holy Scriptures. It’s the symbol and sign of God’s sacred covenant with His people, first appearing in the beginning of the Book of Genesis, and last appearing in Revelation 19:9 (“Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb”). From the beginning we are instructed in marriage and in the end we are all invited to the wedding feast. As Catholics we cannot abandon God’s truth concerning the concept, origin and nature of marriage.
Marriage is created by God and is a thing of nature with a divine origin. In Genesis 2:18 (NAB), God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” With divine purpose and intention God made Eve of Adam’s rib and Adam said: “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called woman, because she was taken out of man” (Genesis 2:23 RSVCE).
It’s revealed further, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (v. 24). “Male and female He created them” (Genesis 1:27) and He instilled in them the desire to reproduce, to “be fruitful and multiply” (v. 28). God’s plan for man from the beginning was to be joined to woman in holy matrimony to be fruitful.
Christ Himself restates the truth to the Pharisees: “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Matthew 19:4-6) This is a restatement of the divine institution that flows out of God’s economy of salvation. The call to marriage is written into the very nature of man and woman by the hand of God.
The Sacramental Nature of Marriage
The Catechism of Trent explains that marriage’s “indissolubility arises principally from its nature as a Sacrament, as it is the sacramental character that, in all its natural relations, elevates marriage to the highest perfection.” When Christ answered the Pharisees, He was reasserting the divinely instituted ideal of marriage to what God intended for it from the very beginning. He explained that Moses had granted the ability to divorce only because the Chosen People had become “hard-hearted”, and God had never intended that (Matthew 19:8).
The sacramental nature of marriage is illustrated in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church:
The love of the spouses requires, of its very nature, the unity and indissolubility of the spouses’ community of persons, which embraces their entire life: so they are no longer two, but one flesh. They are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving. This human communion is confirmed, purified, and completed by communion in Jesus Christ, given through the sacrament of Matrimony. It is deepened by lives of the common faith and by the Eucharist received together. (CCC 1644)
The divine and sacramental nature of marriage becomes further evident when we examine the three blessings that come with marriage: children, fidelity and sacrament.
Marriage is obviously designed by nature and intent to be ordered to procreation. To deny this fact, which is the very essence of human propagation, is folly. Children are a blessing; they are the incarnation of the love between spouses.
Marriage demands inviolable fidelity between man and wife. The forging of an unbreakable union between husband and wife requires self-donation, the total gift of oneself. Faithfulness in marriage is an imitation of God’s faithfulness to His creation and covenant.
Lastly, the sacramental nature of the marital bond illustrates its indissolubility. As St. Paul said, “To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Corinthians 7:10-11)
Marriage and the Family
In this age, we seemingly have been disconnected from the truths about the concept, origin and nature of marriage. It’s vital that we understand the nature of a thing before we can respond appropriately to it. In the case of marriage, once we recover an understanding of all its aspects, then it becomes clear who can and cannot marry.
A very wise priest once explained, “Much of the self-pity that underlies unhappiness in marriage is due to one of two things: the victim of self-pity did not enter into marriage under God’s terms, or he did not understand what God’s terms of the marriage contract are. The most important fact to know is that the terms of marriage are not laid down by the free will of human beings, but by the authority command of God.” The honest truth is that we are not free to invent our own definitions of marriage.
We need to recover the truth that the well-ordered family is the building block of civilization, that sacramental marriage is the source of the well-ordered family. The wise priest also tells us, “Marriage has a necessary purpose to fulfill in society under the plan of God that cannot be fulfilled except by certain unchangeable terms and rules. God established the purpose once and for all. God has determined the rules by which the purpose is to be attained. No human being is at liberty to change either the purpose or the essential rules.” We cause grave harm to society, children especially, if we arrogate to ourselves the license to do what is dictated by our desires instead of following rightly ordered reason.
Pope St. John Paul II boldly stated, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (Familiaris Consortio 85). And Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI warned, “Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself” (Sacramentum Caritatis 29).
The suffering in society has reached epic proportions; most of that suffering finds its roots in the breakdown of the family, resulting largely from attacks on marriage. For the sake of our souls, for our children and for a restoration of society as the ground to colonize heaven, let us recover the truth about the concept, origin and nature of marriage, our eternal salvation depends upon it.