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A Catholic Response to the Desacralization of Marriage

Updated: 3 days ago

The institution of marriage has been integral to humanity for all of recorded history. Marriage is the foundation of society. Until the modern period, marriage was viewed as the best way to produce, nurture, and educate offspring. However, during the modern era, the procreative aspects and the goods attached to them have largely been abandoned. The modern divorce between marriage and children would have been incoherent in previous civilizations. Thus, while modern society may use the word “marriage,” there is something essentially different about what is meant by the word. The divergence of these views has been shaped primarily by the Christianization of marriage and the subsequent desacralization of marriage by the Protestant reformers, which influenced the Enlightenment. The Protestant desacralization of marriage planted the seeds for the modern denial of the goods of marriage; thus, the Catholic sacramental meaning of marriage, which provides the form and foundation of enduring and fruitful human relationships, must be restored.

Christ radically challenged common perceptions about marriage. In the ancient world, marriage was strongly related to the rights of property and the connection between families. Yet, Christ showed marriage was considerably more than this. Marriage was about the union of two persons. The Christianization of marriage is primarily focused on purifying marriage from its abuses and how the Church developed in her understanding of Christ’s teachings about marriage over the centuries. The Catholic sacramental view of marriage best supports the common good and the flourishing of the human person. Only this vision of marriage adequately affirms the needs of both spouses and children. It provides the stable, loving relationship necessary for the family to be the foundational unit of society.

However, the Protestant reformers rejected much of the Catholic understanding of marriage. First and foremost was the denial of the sacramentality of marriage. This desacralization was the impetus for the relaxing of other goods of marriage. This was a return to some pre-Christian practices of marriage, especially as considered in the Mosaic law. Once the goods of marriage were loosened, they were further eroded as time progressed. Thus, how people conceive of marriage has undergone a dramatic shift in the last several hundred years.

This change in understanding of marriage profoundly affects what people understand love to be and how it should be practiced between spouses. If marriage is understood incorrectly, then that understanding ripples across any number of human relationships. To see the best way for persons to relate to one another, it is necessary to understand what it means to be a human person and what is necessary for enduring and faithful human relationships. Marriage affects the two persons who get married. However, it also affects myriads of people surrounding that couple. It affects how their children perceive love. It affects the communities they live in. Ultimately, it has grave consequences for entire cultures. Hence, it is critical to know how to define marriage in a way best suited to the flourishing of the human person.

It is beneficial to see how the Catholic view of marriage developed over time to appreciate the truth of her teaching. This can be contrasted with the Protestant rejection of that understanding and the parallel reversion of marital practices. This is further exacerbated by the Enlightenment thinkers’ separation of marriage from any spiritual perspective. The western world is stymied by a deficient understanding of love, an anemic sense of personal relationships, and a mistaken view of what it means to be married.

There are many challenges to rectifying the near collapse of marriage in western culture. While these problems originate from the rejection of Church teachings, it does not follow that Catholics have been immune from their influence. Hence, we are at a point when most Catholics do not understand what true marriage offers them. It is critical to evangelize the proper understanding of marriage in the face of a hostile culture. It is necessary to teach that only the correct understanding of marriage can succeed in building the people of God and our entire society. If the Church is not successful in turning the tides of the modern onslaught against the true understanding of marriage, then our entire culture will suffer.

Wedding Rings

What is Marriage?

Any claims made about what marriage is are fundamentally connected to what a human person is. To put it another way, the purpose of sex depends on human nature and natural law (Blosser 39). If human beings are created with a specific end in mind, then human activities ought to be ordered to that end. Those activities are limited both in kind and in how they ought to be undertaken. On the other hand, if the human person is a randomly appearing biological automaton, then the entire question of what one ought to do is largely without meaning. In this case, the human person has no constraints about their activities (Moore 89).

Until very recently, Western society has always asserted that human beings have a certain nature. Those actions that are in line with human nature lead to human flourishing, while actions outside of that nature lead to suffering. In evaluating the value of any conception of marriage, it is important to consider the impact it has on the human person. This includes the spouses, of course, but also those around them. Marriage is not merely a private affair but a social reality that affects those surrounding it. Marriage needs to affirm both the personal goods of spouses as well as the common good.

In the Western tradition, there have been five classical ends of marriage that emerge from Greco-Roman and biblical sources. These ends affirm both the personal and the common good in varying ways and degrees. Marriage is not reducible to any of these ends but includes each of them. However, different groups have tended to emphasize some aspects over and against others (Zion 187). These five classical purposes of marriage are consent and commitment to the relationship between spouses, the faithfulness of spouses to one another, procreation, social order, and sacred order. In Muslim and some rabbinic conceptions of marriage, the sexual services of wives to their husbands might be considered a sixth end. However, this final aspect will not be examined in depth here.

The first classical end of marriage is the freely entered contract between husband and wife. This formed the legal basis of Roman marriage law and influenced later canon law (Zion 188). Although there is some difference in perspectives between varying views, the commitment to a marriage must be voluntary. In Roman law, marriage was predicated on consent to such a degree that a marriage could be immediately dissolved if either partner withdrew their consent (Reynolds 36).

Secondarily, each spouse must be faithful to uphold the commitments of the agreement they have freely contracted as well as upholding faith and love between spouses. Although we often think of this as mutual fidelity, in ancient views of marriage, this was not often applied equally between husband and wife. For example, Semitic legal systems did not impose any restraint on extramarital intercourse for the husband (Neufeld 163). Yet, he was still responsible for the well-being of his wife and providing a home for their family (ibid 237).

Notable Greek philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle argued that spouses should be united in love and friendship (From Sacrament to Contract 18). Many Roman Stoic philosophers considered the attachment between man and woman integral to the concept of marriage. Similarly, many Roman jurists’ ideal vision of marriage was that of companionship between spouses (ibid 24). In both cases, marriage was seen as a monogamous friendship whereby each spouse was committed to one another. However, the requirement of sexual fidelity for the man was something unique to Christian marriage.

The third good is procreation, which has been considered the primary purpose of marriage throughout most of history. A contract of mutual consent and an agreement to faithfulness does not necessarily entail children. Thus, children make marriage different from other kinds of human relationships. The beginning of the creation story has the edict to “be fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). The bearing of legitimate children was the principal purpose of marriage in classical Rome (From Sacrament to Contract 25). Thus, we find both a religious and political interest in marriage as the kind of relationship that supports the birth of children in the ancient world.

Children build up society and contribute to the fourth end of the social order. Aristotle wrote that children bond parents together and contribute to the formation of communities and polities (Aristotle 8:12). The bonded pair of mother and father contributes to the common good by having children and educating them properly. Marriage forms the foundation of society by providing people and educating them about the values of that society so they can be productive members. Thus, marriage integrates fundamentally into the larger social order.

Finally, there is a religious aspect to marriage. This aspect is very clear in the Catholic view of marriage and largely in the Protestant covenantal view. However, even the classic Romans invoked the blessing of the gods in their marriage ceremony (Zion 220). One Roman formulation of marriage described it as a lifelong partnership under both divine and human law (From Sacrament to Contract 24). In the Hebrew Scriptures, marriage is often compared to the relationship between God and His people.

Thus, the Greeks, Romans, and Hebrews all saw these ends as integral to what marriage is. That is not to say they all understood those ends in the same way, nor did they agree on every aspect of marriage. For example, the Greeks and the Romans did not permit polygamy, while the Hebrews did. Yet, they all saw marriage as contractual, faithful, procreative, societal, and religious to some degree.

Considering these ends, marriage might be defined as the consensual, faithful union of man and woman for the production and education of children, which contributes to the good of society. Both the Christianization of marriage and the subsequent secularization of marriage are based on a natural conception of marriage that would be very much like this. Until very recently, this definition of marriage would not have been controversial. Every tradition would have accepted it, although they tend to emphasize different aspects. Marriage is voluntary, religious, social, and natural (Blosser 40). These are each complementary, although not without certain tensions throughout history. In the so-called Enlightenment, and continuing into the present, the contractual aspect was of paramount importance. In Protestantism, we find an emphasis on the social perspective, while the Catholic model emphasizes the spiritual or sacramental perspective (ibid). However, the Catholic combination of sacramental, natural, and contractual elements developed in the thirteenth century. This understanding is unique in human history (Ruster 4). A deeper examination of what marriage is in each of these traditions will help highlight the similarities and differences.

Marriage in the Ancient World

Although there are copious amounts written on marriage in a wide range of cultures, the two most influential ancient cultures to Western thought are Greco-Roman and Hebrew. There are both similarities and differences found in Greco-Roman and Near Eastern cultures. Both would affirm the primacy of procreation in marriage as well as the importance of the legitimacy of children to inherit wealth. There is also a shared understanding of paternal authority. However, there are also some key differences concerning polygamy and the role of consent in marriage.

The Near East

In ancient Near Eastern cultures, including Hebrew culture, there are many distinct types of marriage, but fundamentally, marital rights are property rights (Neufeld 32). Marriages served to produce children to whom wealth was handed on as well as connect those families for economic and social purposes (Rashkow 144). Near Eastern cultures were extremely interested in how to preserve wealth within a family, and the primary way of doing so was through laws regarding inheritance. Love and sexual satisfaction were considered of much lesser importance (Mendelsohn 40).

It is not entirely clear how the rights of the wife would differ in distinct types of marriage; however, a wife was considered the property of her husband (Neufeld 231). Yet, his power over his wives was not absolute. For example, the Mosaic law prohibits him from killing or selling his wife (Exodus 21:8, Deuteronomy 21:14). Conversely, the husband was obligated to protect and provide for his wives and children (Mendelsohn 40). This support typically consisted of feeding, clothing, and sheltering her, as well as fulfilling his marital duties (Neufeld 237).

The Babylonians and Assyrians saw crimes against women, such as adultery, primarily as property crimes against her husband or father (Mendelsohn 34). However, the Hebrews considered these to be evil acts and offenses against morality. Although this is a positive in the Hebrew conception of women, the husband was still free to divorce her for virtually any reason (Rashkow 154). In addition, polygamy without limits seems to have been an acceptable practice. This was curtailed, however, in the Talmud and later Rabbinic laws by the time of Christ (Neufeld 118).

Another aspect of Hebrew marriage law was to limit some of the abuses commonly found in the surrounding cultures. Levirate unions, for example, attempted to provide childless widows with some degree of material security (Weisberg 405). Although sons could inherit wealth and daughters could do so under some exceptional circumstances, widows were not able to keep their husband’s wealth (Numbers 27:8-11). A widow with children was in a much better position because her children were obligated to care for her. Thus, the lawgiver seems to have been especially vested in protecting the widow, who was essentially powerless on her own (Neufeld 30). It is difficult to overstate how important children were to the concept of marriage in these cultures.

The Romans

The Roman view of marriage was at once similar and dissimilar. Marriage was defined as the union of two persons of equal social standing that functioned as a single social unit (Reynolds 8). Monogamy was one of the key differentiators between the Greco-Roman concept of marriage and many of the cultures that surrounded the empire. This was considered good for the household and the community (From Sacrament to Contract 17). However, although bigamy was banned, there was another common type of sexual relationship: concubinage.

Concubinage was the way for a man to have a legitimate sexual relationship with a woman of an inferior social class or who did not want the responsibility of children (From Sacrament to Contract 26). The children of a concubine had no legal status, and the relationship could be dissolved without the procedures for divorce (Reynolds 38-39). Concubinage was for companionship without the strings that legally came with marriage. This was the only kind of relationship possible with a woman of a lower social status. Children from this kind of relationship were not eligible to inherit.

The Romans considered the primary purpose of marriage to be the procreation and education of children (Reynolds 15). These children were to inherit wealth and maintain familial power. Early in the republic, the father held absolute authority over his children, similar to the Near East, but by the time of Christ, this had largely waned (ibid 11). To maintain the wealth of the family, the mother needed to be of the same social standing as her husband. Although this is primary, the Romans also considered marriage as a form of companionship, or even friendship, between man and woman (From Sacrament to Contract 24).

While divorce was seen as regrettable, it was also quite easy to obtain. The Romans held that divorce was something of an innovation that was not done in the golden age of Rome (Reynolds 9). There was a preference for marital permanence that does not appear to have been practiced very widely. Roman law essentially allowed for no-fault divorce, which was granted by a written repudiation witnessed by seven others (From Sacrament to Contract 29). Regardless of whether there was a fault (such as adultery), both parties were free to remarry.

Thus, the Romans considered marriage as the union of a man and a woman into a single social unit. The purpose of this relationship was both marital affection and procreation. It could not be contracted between multiple people and was ideally a permanent relationship. The Romans had noble ideals for marriage but did not often live up to them in practice.

Christianization of Marriage


The practices of the ancient Near East and the Romans give some context to Jesus’ teachings about marriage. He desired to take what was good about natural marriage and restore the supernatural efficacy that was lost along with original innocence (Mystery of Marriage 106). By the time Jesus was born, marriage was mostly monogamous. Fidelity and affection were the goals, and children were the desired outcome (Martin 38). However, when pressed by the Pharisees on the question of divorce, Christ explicitly demonstrated his desire to restore marriage to its original dignity (Matthew 19:1-12). Jesus responds to the question of whether divorce is permissible by referring to the beginning of creation. In marriage, one man and one woman were joined together as one; therefore, they may not be separated. Jesus taught that marriage was fundamentally a communion of persons (Mystery of Marriage 140).

Again, Jesus made it clear that the Mosaic law regarding divorce was not part of God’s original plan for marriage. Rather, it was a concession made because sin had destroyed the way that each person related both to God and to one another. Jesus reminded his listeners that in the beginning marriage was a union that could not be broken by man. Jesus tells us that whoever does so commits the sin of adultery (Haffner 264). However, his listeners were so shocked by this teaching that they thought it would be better to not marry at all.

Upon further examination, it is clear that Jesus had a broader understanding of adultery than either the Romans or the Jewish people. The Old Testament saw adultery as an external activity with another man’s wife (Mystery of Marriage 145). Christ taught that adultery was not only external but that even lusting after a woman was adultery of the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). Fundamentally, marriage was the communion of two persons. This was the basis for all of society. Lust is the objectification of the person and causes us to lose sight of the person as a gift of one to the other (Mystery of Marriage 146). It is not enough to merely restrain oneself from extramarital relationships; indeed, each person must refrain from treating the other as an object.

Christ himself demonstrates the love the bridegroom must have for the bride. He offers himself completely for the Church, for his people. He does not withhold himself from his beloved but gives his entire life for her. Marriage is a sign of the love of Christ and the Church. Christ’s teaching is the beginning of the purification of marriage, but it took time for the Church to fully understand the depths of this teaching.

The Early Church

Many of the patristic fathers affirmed the goodness of marriage against the Gnostic and Encratite teachings that marriage is evil. Clement of Alexandria, as an example for many Church Fathers, writes that marriage and procreation are part of God’s plan for creation and that it fulfills a civic function (Clement 2.23). Marriage is part of the natural law in which man and woman come together to beget children as well as an innate desire to do so. This contributes to the common good of society. At the same time, man must take care not to desire a woman for his selfish purposes or simply to satiate his lust (ibid 3.6). In contrast to others of this day, the husband must remain faithful to his wife in all ways, and as such, he is not permitted to consort with slaves or take a concubine, as was the common custom (2.23). The Gospel confirms natural law and those things which are good about natural marriage, but the sacred image of Christ and his church must be kept chaste and pure.

On account of this belief, Christians should not divorce. Although this is permitted by the laws of the land, Clement writes that “the Scripture counsels marriage, and allows no release from the union, [which] is expressly contained in the law” (2.23). On the contrary, husbands must love their wives even when they are sick, barren, or aged. There are no acceptable excuses to put her away. Other ancient writers, such as Tertullian, forbade remarriage after divorce and even cautioned anyone from remarrying after the death of their spouse (Daniel-Hughes 272). There is a clear view that marriage is good, but it needs to be faithful and permanent because it is a sign of Christ and the Church.

Late Antiquity

Saint Augustine

There is arguably no one more influential to Christian thought on marriage than St. Augustine. Although many modern readers of St. Augustine emphasize his negative views on sex, which they often interpret with undue harshness, Augustine considers marriage to be a good thing that God made from the beginning (Clark 140). For Augustine, conjugal love reflects divine love. The friendship between spouses must seek the ultimate good of the other and a total giving of self (“Saint Augustine on Conjugal Love and Divine Love” 372). Marriage is a kind of friendship in which three goods differentiate it from other types of friendship. Those three inseparable aspects of marriage are procreation, fidelity, and sacrament. This relationship forms the pillar of society.

The human person is social, and the first natural bond of society is between husband and wife (The Excellence of Marriage 1). Augustine bases his view of marriage on the natural friendship between husband and wife. This results in a natural society between man and woman (Connery 245). This bond goes beyond procreation, which is itself a particularly good thing, but is so important that it cannot be ruptured (Clark 153). This kind of friendship is first in the spouse but also extends to their offspring (Fullam 670).

The kind of friendship that Augustine envisions is similar to Aristotle’s friendship of virtue. Although it can include pleasure and utility, it must also transcend them. A friend is a partner in life’s work who helps us become more virtuous (Fullam 666). In a Christian paradigm, it might be said that a true friend helps us toward salvation. However, friendship can be corrupted on account of our selfish desires, so great care must be taken to love in the correct manner.

Concupiscence causes the human person to use their sexuality incorrectly. For Augustine, concupiscence is not limited to the modern meaning but includes all kinds of sensitive appetites (“Saint Augustine on Conjugal Love and Divine Love” 348). Modern readers tend to think of Augustine’s views on sex as quite negative, but if concupiscence is considered an appetite, then whether that desire is sinful or not depends on how it is directed by reason (Nolan 120). In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine instructs his readers that they must enjoy each other in God (“The Proper Order of Conjugal Love” 123). Later in the same writing, he describes lust as enjoying oneself and one’s neighbor without reference to God (On Christian Doctrine III.10.16). Marriage is not to be used as gratification for lust (On Marriage and Concupiscence I.5). Using sex to satisfy a disordered desire for sexual pleasure is not the correct way to use the good of sexuality. Augustine points out that chastity, the right use of our sexuality in marriage, is a gift from God (On Marriage and Concupiscence I.3).

Sexual intercourse and desire both exist for the ends of marriage (“Saint Augustine on Conjugal Love and Divine Love” 353). Procreation, fidelity, and indissolubility together are the triune good that is marriage. Any attempt to separate one of them from marriage would be to desire something that is not marriage. Augustine points out that intercourse in marriage is not sinful; however, the selfish use of another person is (The Excellence of Marriage 20).

Augustine notes that the word matrimony is related to motherhood and hence marriage is the kind of friendship that leads to children (Fullam 669). Procreation is the natural good of marriage, and sexuality must be used for this purpose (On Marriage and Concupiscence I.4). Augustine wrote that contraception was tantamount to adultery because it violated the goods of marriage (Clark 147). Even if children were not possible due to infertility or old age, the good is not frustrated. Augustine does not go into detail on this point, but the sterile couple acts according to reason because they do not distort or oppose God’s design for marriage, whereas the contracepting couple acts contrary to reason by acting contrary to life (“Saint Augustine on Conjugal Love and Divine Love” 360). However, even though children are a great good, the desire for children is not a sufficient reason to break the marriage bond through concubinage or divorce (The Excellence of Marriage 14, 15).

Fidelity is also a good of marriage. This fidelity cannot be reduced to sexual faithfulness, although it does include it. It “implies a self-sacrificial concern for the partner’s salvation as well” (Fullam 673). In the sexual sense, each partner was bound to each other exclusively. Yet, this sense serves the larger good of the friendship of spouses. The sacrament extends marital fides into a lifelong commitment.

Augustine uses sacramentum in a variety of ways (Reynolds 226). In the context of marriage, it refers to the monogamous, indissoluble marriage that “symbolizes the eschatological unity of all in the City of God, who are faithful to one God, not many gods” (Fullam 674). The nature of the bond is not completely clear, but it does make the marriage unbreakable (Clark 153). Although he permits divorce in the case of adultery, he does not permit remarriage. This is because the bond between husband and wife cannot be truly broken, even by divorce.

The value of marriage lies in procreation and faithful observance of chastity (The Excellence of Marriage 24). Marriage is the kind of friendship that is tightly integrated with reproduction. The spouses are bonded to one another in love, and the three goods of marriage are tied to that friendship. If any of these elements are removed, then a marriage simply does not exist (“Conjugal Love and Divine Love” 354).

Saint John Chrysostom

John Chrysostom also affirmed that marriage was for procreation and moderation of life. The married couple was bonded by God for this purpose (Homily 12 on Colossians). However, although procreation was an important part of marriage, the bond between spouses was at least as important. He wrote that marriage makes us parents and makes us chaste (ibid). He considered the latter to be even more important because marriage does not always lead to children.

The union of spouses is the closest kind of relationship among all human beings, provided they use it correctly (Homily 20 on Ephesians). Thus, the union of husband and wife forms the basis of society and contributes to the common good (Sermon on Marriage). He wrote that the child is the bridge that uniquely connects husband and wife (Rubio 60). The spouses, together with their children, make a holy and unified body. They are united in love; the kind of love that sacrifices for the good of the beloved.

He exhorts husbands to love their wives and children with this kind of self-sacrificial love (Homily 20 on Ephesians). The source of the husband’s authority is love; therefore, he is not free to treat his wife badly. “What kind of marriage can there be when the wife is afraid of her husband?” (ibid). He goes on to point out that Christ offered himself in sacrifice even though mankind was corrupt. This is the kind of love that spouses ought to have for one another. Christian marriage cannot be a power struggle. The spouse has nothing of his own, and he belongs solely to his wife (ibid 63).

Marriage was a sign of the relationship between Christ and the Church. Christ and the Church are a great mystery, and marriage must be respected because it symbolizes that union (The Mystery of Marriage 188). In marriage, the couple becomes an image of God himself, an earthly symbol of divine reality. This points to how husbands and wives should love one another. The Christian household is based on this love (ibid 190).

The Middle Ages

Saint Thomas Aquinas

Aquinas is one of the most influential theologians who has ever lived. Yet, much of Aquinas’s contribution to marriage is in synthesizing and analyzing the writings that came before him (The Mystery of Marriage 227). His contributions to the definition and understanding of the sacraments, in general, are especially useful. Additionally, he explores the relationship between natural and sacramental marriage. In either case, the essence of marriage is the union of husband and wife. It is the joining of bodies and minds of a man and a woman for the begetting and upbringing of children (ST Suppl. Q. 44, A. 1, co.).

In his account of natural law, Aquinas demonstrates that marriage is a monogamous, faithful, and permanent union. First, on account of the helplessness and long development of human children, the father’s involvement is extremely important (ST Suppl. Q. 41, A. 1, co.). Additionally, these children place a heavy burden on their parents because they have many needs. Thus, the bond of marriage helps the mother with the care of the children. Second, the father will be invested in his children if he is certain they are his. Hence, exclusivity helps ensure that this is the case (SCG III. 124.1). Faithful and indissoluble marriage enables human flourishing.

It is also a matter of justice that polygamy should not be practiced. Polygamy hinders the love and friendship between spouses (ST III Q. 65, A. 1, ad. 7,8). Similarly, a man would be unjust to his wife if he were to divorce her when her youth and fecundity were at an end (SCG III. 123). Thus, polygamy, divorce, desertion, and other extra-marital unions are an affront to justice. This would do great harm to their friendship because equality is a condition of friendship (ibid 124). However, for Aquinas, the sacrament is the most excellent good of matrimony (ST Suppl. Q. 49 A. 3 co.).

Aquinas wrote that marriage is a sacrament in the formal sense. It is a source of grace in two possible senses. First, in the limited sense of legitimizing sexual activity. Secondly, and much more importantly, in the sense that it enables the spouses to do the works required of matrimony (ST Suppl. Q. 42 A. 3 co.). This grace enables husbands and wives to love one another in friendship. The lover seeks the good of the beloved in a habitual way (Flood 444). The grace of the sacrament actualizes the greatest friendship possible between two human beings. The lover communicates himself to the beloved by making a gift of himself (ibid 454).

The grace of marriage also connects the couple with the community of the Church, which the couple is part of (Waldstein 702). Of course, the common good is not in competition with the goods of individuals; rather, they both flourish together. Marriage is ordered both for the good of the spouses and the good of the whole Church, which benefits primarily from the material multiplication of the faithful (Sent. IV, d. 24, q.1, prologue). At the same time, offspring contribute to the good of husband and wife as well (Sent. IV, d.33, q. 2, a. 1 ad 4). The covenant between man and woman is part of the whole of the mystical body (Waldstein 703).

For Aquinas, marriage is the joining of husband and wife. Like Augustine, this is procreative, faithful, and permanent. Christian marriage is sacramental and gives the grace necessary for the couple to live out their marital lives. Aquinas considers friendship as the kind of love that desires the good of the beloved and brings about a real union in which the friends share their lives (Nolan 129). In addition, marriage contributes both to their good and the good of the entire Church.

Marriage in the Catholic Church

The Catholic understanding of marriage has developed since the beginning of the Church. Of course, the influence of Christ’s teachings is paramount. However, the patristic fathers, notably St. Augustine, and medieval theologians have shaped the understanding of marriage. Marriage in the Catholic Church is certainly sacramental, but it does not exclude what is good about the natural state of marriage. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines marriage as “the matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament” (CCC 1601). This has much in common with the traditional western view of marriage except for its sacramental character and the indissolubility which flows from it.

The Dignity of a Sacrament

To understand the sacramentality of marriage, it is critical to consider the Catholic view of the creation and redemption of the world because it is integral to the Catholic sacramental worldview. Perhaps the key foundational concept to that worldview is that God created a physical world that is ordered, coherent, rational, and good. Man and woman are created as the stewards of that creation (Haffner 2). In other words, God creates the material universe ordered toward goodness, and the pinnacle of that material creation is a being with intellect and will. He creates a being that reflects the divine attributes as an Image of God: man (Mystery of Marriage 22).

In His perfection, God is in no way potential and does not need anything outside of Himself (ST I. Q. 3, A. 7, co.). Hence, His act of creation is purely an act of love. Although in modernity we often think of love as a kind of feeling or sentimentality, divine love is an act of will. God wills the good of His creation and acts for its good. God reaches down to his creation; He does not remain inaccessible to it. He offers himself as a gift to his creation. Each rational being is created to know and love God and so to return that love to Him. Each person has innate value and a share in the divine life. This capacity to love as God loves is at the heart of the sacramentality of marriage. Fundamentally, creation is the marriage of God and humankind whereby God gives Himself to His creation (Levering 1).

Ultimately, the end of creation, and most especially the human person, is God himself. Every human person is the composition of body and spirit which is both visible and invisible. When God created the universe, He ordered it in such a way as to communicate with both aspects of the human person. This is not unique to Christianity, but there are many physical signs that God used to communicate with His people in the Old Covenant. Amongst many examples, rainbows, circumcision, and the flood are all divine communications through sensible means (Haffner 3). These are all ways that God reaches down to commune with His creation. However, creation quickly went awry.

Man and woman were created in a state of innocence in the beginning (ST I. Q. 95, A. 1, co.). Both their wills and their passions were perfectly aligned to the good. They desired the correct things for the correct reasons, and their sensual appetites did not lead them astray (ST I. Q 95, A. 2, co.). In addition, they were given the gift of original holiness, which enabled them to give themselves completely to God and to be in communion with one another (Mystery of Marriage 37). Unfortunately, when Adam and Eve chose an inordinate love of self over the pure love of God and neighbor their appetites became distorted. Their will was weakened, and their intellect was darkened. They struggled to choose the right goods and often chose lesser goods instead of greater ones. Yet, despite this, God’s love for them remained. Even though they chose the love of self, God did not cease to love them, nor did He abandon them.

At the same time, creation was wounded by sin and evil. Sickness, suffering, and death all became part of it through the disobedience of Adam and Eve. Mankind lost the gift of God that enabled him to love as he ought. God chose to redeem man and save him from his sickness, not by denying his physical nature but by embracing it. God chose to redeem man by uniting Himself to the nature of man, taking on the form of a slave. He took on lowly flesh and became incarnate, all for the sake of love. Those Sacred signs of the Old Covenant were perfected by Christ, who embraced our humanity. He embraced the senses of mankind to communicate his mission to all people so that his power and his kingdom could be made manifest (Haffner 3). The transcendent God of the universe was made immanent so that men could tangibly experience God’s love. The invisible put on the visible to reach down and make mankind whole once again. Christ restores the divine image of each person in the work of His redemption (Mystery of Marriage 44).

Christ chose to communicate his grace to us by providing special signs to accompany the spiritual realities of God’s love (ST III Q. 60, A. 4, co.). The Church’s understanding of these signs developed over time, but St. Augustine was one of the first to explain the relationship between the sensible sign of a sacrament and the spiritual reality that accompanies it (Haffner 8). Throughout salvation history, God has communicated with men by means of material signs, but Christ uses the sacraments to communicate the divine life to mankind. Christ’s Sacrifice and His resurrection bring about the redemption of all men, which gives these signs their efficacy (Haffner 10). Christ is the first cause, and the sacramental signs are instrumental causes. These signs offer the grace mankind needs to return God’s love as originally intended.

Sacramentality of Marriage

The Catholic Church teaches that human nature is good, although wounded by original sin. Christ Himself came to restore human nature by assuming it (ST III. Q. 5., A. 4). Each human person is a body-soul composite. Since human nature includes both body and soul, He does not redeem our soul alone but our entire nature, including our sexuality (Gondreau 391). Christ includes the natural institution of marriage in the sacramental economy by perfecting unitive love and childbearing, to which natural marriage is ordered (ibid 398). Thus, marriage enables husband and wife to love one another selflessly as Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:21-33). They are bonded together exclusively and permanently by the grace of the sacrament, which perfects their love (Schumacher 385).

The human body itself is a sign of God’s purpose for humanity. Human sexuality expresses the complementarity between the sexes, whereby each can give themselves as a gift to the other (The Mystery of Marriage 28). The human body points to the self-giving love of the God who created it. Man is not meant to be isolated, but he is meant to be in a relationship of self-gift. Naturally, love can express itself in a variety of ways. There is the love of family and friendship as well as erotic and conjugal love. True love affirms the good of the other while desiring communion with the other. The love of marriage is a commitment for the good of the other in friendship.

The friendship of marriage is aimed toward the sanctity of the spouses. Each spouse helps the other in virtue and supports one another toward salvation. This friendship is different from other forms of friendship because it is rooted in procreation, fidelity, and permanence (Connery 248). The spouses cooperate with God in His creation and remain faithful to one another for their entire lives. The grace of the sacrament helps each spouse live out their promise of indissoluble friendship with one another.

Marriage is a covenantal relationship with certain rights and duties, much more so than a normal contract. The exchange is that of one person to another “whose dignity far exceeds that of any good or service” (Mystery of Marriage 78). The essence of this covenant is consent to a lifelong partnership—a communion of persons that is committed to mutual love, children, and community (Rubio 54). This covenant is faithful, permanent, and open to life. It is these goods that differentiate marriage from other kinds of friendships.

Secularization of Marriage

Marriage in the Reformation


In the sixteenth century, views on marriage began to diverge from the Catholic understanding. The Protestant reformers had a different conception of human nature, which limited the purpose of marriage. One of the principal ideas of Luther was that sin corrupted human nature utterly (Nolan 120). Hence, every human action was sinful because of the damage of original sin. Marriage could in no way be a source of grace, but only an antidote to lust (Strohl 159). Luther considered marriage obligatory to curb the fallen appetites of men. He saw marriage as a divine institution for having children and avoiding fornication and sin. However, Luther also saw marriage as a secular affair that should be regulated by the state.

In his early teachings, Luther based his doctrine of marriage on the creation and affirmed the three goods of marriage described by St. Augustine. The woman is created as a companion for Adam, with the special task of bearing children (“A Sermon on the Estate of Marriage” 24). Before the fall, they would have shared a perfect love whereby the husband and wife would have desired only each other. However, this vision of marriage was corrupted, and so the married state is no longer pure or free from sin (ibid 25). In these early writings, Luther still sees marriage as a sacramental sign of the union between God and man, wherein God gives himself to mankind (ibid 26). The conjugal duty of spouses ought not to be condemned when expressed in marriage because God covers the shame of lust in the marital embrace.

Further, in the fidelity of marriage, the husband gives himself to his wife and vice versa. This is the essence of marriage, and each must promise to remain faithful to one another (ibid 27). He must give himself only to his wife and no other. It is this faithfulness that leads to offspring, which is the chief purpose of marriage. Yet, it is not only to have children but to bring them up “to serve, praise, and honor God” (ibid 29). Although Luther initially embraced marriage as sacramental, faithful, and fruitful, this understanding did not last.

In his later writings, Luther described marriage as an institution by which God brings husband and wife together so that they might beget and care for children (“The Estate of Marriage” 38). To understand Luther’s conception of marriage more fully, it is helpful to briefly examine the way he divides human relationships between God and neighbor. Luther sees God as having created two kingdoms: a spiritual and a worldly kingdom (Parsons 109). On account of the fall of Adam and Eve, God exercises his authority in each of them to confront sin, either by the gospel or by the law. The Spiritual kingdom is primarily concerned with man’s relationship with God and interior change, while the worldly kingdom is about man’s relationship with his neighbor and is enforced on him from without. In either case, the purpose is to promote the order that ought to be present in creation. Yet, on account of man’s rebellion, he is not only unable to restrain sin, but apart from the grace of God, every action he performs is sinful (ibid 111).

Luther rightly notes how great a departure this is from the Catholic position, which understood original righteousness as a gift superadded to human nature (Nolan 120). In his lectures on Genesis, we see this position rejected; indeed, to use his own words, human nature has completely fallen (“Lectures on Genesis” 3,7). Mankind is incapable of uniting in the conjugal act without the passion of lust (Nolan 121). Sex is always sinful in a certain sense.

Man is completely depraved because of the loss of original holiness. His natural state is such that he cannot do anything except use everything and everyone around him because something fundamental to his essence has been corrupted. His nature is wicked and sinful. Luther’s two-kingdom theory is meant to attempt to limit the sinful acts of mankind. The spiritual kingdom seeks to change man from within, while the worldly kingdom seeks to restrain sinful behavior from without (Parsons 113). Man’s love is no longer pure as it was in the beginning (Strohl 162). His temptation to use the other is so great that it consumes him, and so God provides marriage to prevent him from doing so. Marriage, as part of the relations of mankind to one another, falls under that earthly kingdom. Hence, it is the state that ought to control the right use of marriage and not the Church.

In The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther begins to deny the first good of marriage: sacramentality. Luther denies that marriage is a source of grace as he does not find evidence for this in scripture (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church 99). Although he acknowledges that marriage is a divine institution, it is not a sign of grace. This is also because marriage existed before the Church and is found among all peoples, even unbelievers (Strohl 163). All of this contributes to the idea that marriage is primarily a civil matter, although the Church should be willing to pray over and bless the couple (O’Reggio 57).

Marriage is meant to be a union where man and woman love one another to build up the kingdom of God with children. However, original sin has destroyed the love between them while the procreative aspect remains. Marriage is now considered a way to limit the damage caused by lust. Sex outside of marriage is gravely sinful, but within marriage, it is obligatory because the human person cannot control their sexual impulses (Strohl 170). Each spouse is required to offer their body to the other for the sake of Christian charity.

Luther continued to affirm the good of faithfulness, but not in an absolute way. If one of the spouses is unable to render the conjugal debt, then Luther taught that the other spouse was within their rights to secretly marry another to have their sexual needs fulfilled (“The Estate of Marriage” 20). Luther saw this as so fundamental that he thought that bigamy would be acceptable under some circumstances (The Babylonian Captivity of the Church 109). Although in many places Luther implies that continence is not possible, he also wrote that it was not acceptable to take another wife if a man’s wife was an invalid (“The Estate of Marriage” 35). Luther maintained that faithfulness was preferable; however, polygamy was acceptable since scripture did not expressly prohibit it (Jastram 12). Nor was this merely theoretical since he was known to have approved of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse.

Although Luther thought that bigamy was preferable to divorce, he taught that divorce was acceptable under limited circumstances. He maintained that divorce was a secular matter (Strohl 178). Luther did not favor divorce for any reason whatsoever, but the two acceptable grounds for divorce were adultery and abandonment (ibid 179). Remarriage after divorce was encouraged because men were unable to remain continent.

For Luther, marriage served two main purposes. First, for procreation and the education of children. However, since intercourse is never without sin, the second purpose was to excuse that sin (“The Estate of Marriage” 49). Marriage is not a source of grace, nor does it contribute to the holiness of spouses. It should be permanent and faithful, but since mankind is so sinful exceptions must be made.


Calvin largely took up Luther’s conception of the depraved human person. Lutheran theology and laws provide the basis for the entire Protestant tradition. Early in his career, Calvin considered marriage to be mostly a secular matter. However, in his later writings, Calvin saw marriage as a kind of covenant between husband, wife, and God. Throughout his career, he developed new laws and theology regarding the formation and dissolution of marriage, children’s welfare, and other sexual concerns for both church and state (From Sacrament to Contract 160). Marriage is also the foundation for order and stability in the social relationship between men and women (Parson 289). His views on marriage had a profound and lasting influence on later thinkers.

Early on, after he was established in Geneva, Calvin focused primarily on the law and liturgy of marriage (ibid 161). He spent a great deal of time filling the void caused by replacing Catholic canon law and Catholic liturgical marriage norms. Calvin kept Luther’s division between the spiritual and temporal kingdoms (Calvin 6.13). Like Luther, Calvin taught that marriage was for procreation, as a remedy for lust, and to promote love between spouses (Witte & Kingdon 39). Marriage was relegated to the earthly kingdom because it had no bearing on one’s salvation (“Between Sacrament and Contract” 19).

Calvin defined a sacrament as a sign of the covenant that confirmed God’s goodness and inspired belief in those who received it (Parsons 258). Based on this, he considered only baptism and the eucharist as true sacraments. Although Calvin acknowledged that marriage did symbolize the bond between Christ and the Church, he rejected that it conferred grace (“Between Sacrament and Contract” 18). Marriage was established by God as a holy ordinance; however, so were things like architecture, shoemaking, and shaving (Calvin 4.19.34).

Although it was instituted by God, Calvin thought that the governance of marriage should be handled by the state (“Between Sacrament and Contract” 19). The church should teach spiritual norms for family life, while the state is responsible for enforcing those norms. Calvin maintained that even the pagans recognized the natural duties of sexual restraint, heterosexual monogamy, marital fidelity, and procreation of children as essential to sexual morality and the survival of marriage and the family (Calvin 2.8.6-10). The law restrained people from sin and, when applied properly, cultivated charity (Witte & Kingdon 78). The legal code of Geneva called for consent, permanence, and faithfulness with an eye toward maintaining social order.

While Calvin thought that companionship in marriage was important, it was not the purpose of marriage. Rather, marriage provided the only legitimate context for sexual relationships (Parsons 283). It was the sexual relationship that provided the purposes of marriage. First, it provided a way to control unbridled lust, which is uncontrollable without it (ibid 270). Second, it made the legitimate procreation of children possible (ibid 275). Finally, marriage rid the world of confusion by maintaining “decency and order” in the community (ibid 261). It was expected that all fit parties who could consent to marriage should be married (Witte & Kingdon 106). Thus, almost every person was called to control their lust, raise children for God, and maintain the social order through marriage.

The consent of the couple was essential to contracting a marriage. Calvin did not spend a lot of time writing on this since it was commonly accepted by virtually everyone. There were a few differences in Calvin’s conception of consent, however. It was expected that parents would also consent to the match (“Between Sacrament and Contract” 23). This was considered proper (although not strictly required) even for adult or emancipated children. More controversially, however, Calvin did not seem to apply this requirement for consent consistently. For example, based on his reading of Exodus and Deuteronomy, if an unmarried woman under her father’s protection was raped, then the rapist should marry the victim if her father gives consent (Witte & Kingdon 121). It is not clear how this squares with Calvin’s insistence on consent, even of the woman. His main concern seemed to be to prevent the rape victim from becoming a prostitute (ibid 122). It is also possible, although not clearly expressed, that Calvin assumed the woman in this situation to have consented to the marriage, also.

Marriage was considered permanent if contracted properly (“Between Sacrament and Contract” 25). While permanence was the expectation, it was still possible to divorce. The two acceptable reasons for divorce were adultery and desertion, which was considered a kind of adultery (ibid 26). In either case, the innocent spouse could remarry, and the guilty spouse faced criminal punishment. Calvin saw divorce as quite undesirable and kept the understanding that it ought only to be used if the body or soul were imperiled (ibid 16). Separation of room and board, or divorce without remarriage, was not considered an acceptable practice.

Calvin was strongly opposed to any sexual activity outside of marriage. He would not countenance any kind of polygamy, which was a real concern because of Lutheran and Anabaptist support for the practice (Witte & Kingdon 220). Calvin held that God prescribed monogamy as part of the order of creation. This made marriage the most sacred and primal institution. Man and woman become one person to serve and support one another in marriage (ibid 222). Calvin regarded any kind of adultery as the worst abomination. This included a broad range of activities, such as “lewdness, bawdy gaming, sexual innuendo, coarse humor, provocative primping, suggestive plays and literature,” which were all against the law (“Between Sacrament and Contract” 49).

In the beginning, Calvin grounded his view of marriage on the Lutheran conception of the two kingdoms. Later, he began to reconceive his conception of marriage around the biblical concept of covenant. He noted that the bible often described the covenant between God and man as a marriage (From Sacrament to Contract 185). Calvin began to use covenant to describe the relationship between God and man as well as husband and wife. Marriages then became a triparty agreement with God as a witness, participant, and judge (ibid 7). Church consecration became part of the marriage formulation (Witte & Kingdon 485). As the Lutheran Pastor Paul Koch points out, this is deeply antithetical to the Lutheran conception of marriage because, while God established marriage, “neither marriage nor a particular arena of marriage is for the religious alone” (Koch 15).

This combination of consent by the couple, parental consent, civil registration, and church consecration became universal requirements for marriage in the west. This covenantal model could be considered between the Lutheran and Catholic positions. Marriage was more than a contract but less than a sacrament (ibid 489). This form of marriage proved to be extremely influential to Enlightenment thinkers.

Marriage in the Modern World

Enlightenment thinkers agreed with Luther that marriage was a secular matter (Koch 16). John Locke further reduced the concept of marriage as a covenant to a private contract between a man and a woman who freely consent. It had no set conditions from God, nature, or the state (Blosser 43). Hence, the form and purpose of marriage were left to the spouses themselves. This paved the way for the modern conception of marriage. As time progresses, love is seen as the source of self-validation, and it becomes a good choice to alter any relationship that does not serve that purpose. In the modern period, the human person is a changing consciousness filled with emotion that is shaped according to the whims of the individual.

Locke considered marriage a voluntary contract (From Sacrament to Contract 280). Its chief end is procreation, which requires mutual support. However, this does not have a necessary form. Each couple was free to negotiate other aspects of their marriage. He cast this as a rights issue; it was a natural right for a man to enter a marital contract. Children impose their right to survive upon their parents (Locke 11.79-80). The bond of marriage was primarily a bond relating to children. In his view, even the state had very little role to play, except to enforce the contract agreed upon (ibid 11.83). Locke divorced marriage both from religion and the state. Marriage as a contract could be defended even if God did not create it.

Locke was quite influential on later enlightenment thinkers. Most agreed that marriage was a private bargain that man and wife agreed upon. The terms of that contract were not set by “God or nature, church or state, tradition or community” (From Sacrament to Contract 290). Some, such as Henry Home, made natural law arguments very much like Aquinas before him. Marriage is part of human nature because children flourish in a monogamous, committed relationship. This arrangement maintains the equality of husband and wife (ibid 292).

However, once marriage was unmoored from church and state, it gradually becomes disconnected from nature and social contracts as well. John Stuarts Mills emphasized that the only way for marriage to be equal was by shaping it to the preferences of husband and wife and “not the prescriptions of church and state” (ibid 308). Mills could find no reason that marriage should be exclusively heterosexual or monogamous. Rather, husband and wife were free to contract whatever kind of relationship they desired if both parties and their children had their rights upheld.

Ultimately, as the modern ethos became reduced to being happy and healthy, the most important consultant for marriage became a combination of romantic feelings and sex drive (Zion 354). Every era has known passionate love, but it is only recently that this has been considered an adequate ground for marriage. This conception of love and friendship is far different than what was understood in the past. This kind of love seeks self-fulfillment by consuming the other (Zion 466). It is through the consummation of romantic love that the lover seeks to fulfill themselves by taking what they need from the other person to make them happy.

The modern sense of love focuses on romantic attraction and sexual union above all other things. Yet, at the same time, it recognizes the need for negotiation because of the natural tensions that exist between the competing needs of two persons. The modern concept of marriage is often in conflict with itself because there is an odd contradiction between autonomy and commitment (Zion 350). Love as the fulfillment of self is a fragile basis for a lifelong partnership (Browning 24). The balance between love as a feeling of passion and marriage as a commitment is negotiated as a contract.

Naturally, people would still prefer friendship with their marital partner. Yet, this is more akin to the Aristotelean friendship of mutual utility or pleasure (Aristotle 8:13). The desire to have friendship and passionate feelings of affection are deprioritized to the freedom to express the authentic self. Many are reluctant to commit to a relationship because of a conflicting desire to not violate the autonomy of their partner (Illouz 66). In such a conception of marriage, there is no way for any kind of moral growth because there are no shared moral norms, only preferences.

There is no telos, or ultimate end, of the human person on which to base marriage. The modern concept of the human person finds its basis in writers such as Rousseau. The human person is not fundamentally an individual of a rational nature; rather, he is his feelings, and his being is grounded in sentiment (Zion 400). For Rousseau, to exist is to feel. Reason does not control our behavior. Because of this, partners need to affirm the feelings of one another because their primary purpose is validating the unique inner core of each individual and maintaining the right kind of emotional connection. This kind of romantic love exists to affirm the uniqueness of the object of that love (Illouz 159). If this fails to be the case, the relationship ought to be altered or abandoned to search for one that does, at least temporarily.

To understand the definitions and limits of such a relationship, the terms must be laid out precisely, as in a contract (Illouz 160). While love is a feeling, a relationship is a contract. Each partner weighs the costs of the contract against the fulfillment of needs. The only kinds of valid criticisms are those that attempt to mitigate violations of that contract. Each partner’s love is based on passionate attraction, but the limits of the relationship must be spelled out to make sure that both partners get what they need from the relationship. This is designed for the affirmation of the individual, but with no greater vision for the common good.

Every aspect of the relationship is up for negotiation. This includes the roles of the participants, possessions, and sexual contact. The only limits are found in the consent of each individual. There are no strict expectations of exclusivity between partners. Each relationship sets its own rules. This is also true of children. Couples mutually agree on whether or not children should be part of their relationship. These relationships are based on whatever is good for those who make the contract, and the effects on others, including children, are not of any particular interest.

Marriage, in the modern sense, is a contract between two persons. The contract protects the rights and obligations of each person. The only tie between the two individuals is their mutual feelings toward one another, and those feelings are directed toward the affirmation of one another. These relationships are fluid because emotions are fluid. This kind of relationship can be formed between any two (or more) people. They can be broken without fault. Their only purpose is to make the participants happy in the sense of emotional well-being and pleasure. Thus, of the classical ends of marriage, the only one that remains part of marriage is that of the freely entered contract between parties. Faithfulness, procreation, social order, and religious order are only considered if they are agreed upon in the contract, which is subject to change at the whims of the participants. The purpose of a modern marriage then is neither procreation nor union of spouses, but only self-affirmation. The relationship described as marriage in the modern sense is of a completely different kind than that considered in earlier traditions.

The Options

Catholics see marriage as a sacrament that unites husband and wife in love and friendship and provides the correct environment to care for children. Luther saw marriage as a safeguard against lust. Calvin saw marriage as a covenant. Modern marriage is a private contract for the good of spouses alone, based on feelings of passionate attraction. These competing claims are compatible in some ways and completely at odds in other ways. However, only the Catholic vision of marriage provides the complete basis for the flourishing of the human person.

The modern concept of marriage is predicated on the idea that a person is his feelings. In this way, he is no different from many animals who similarly experience feelings. However, it is his rationality that distinguishes him from other animals. Indeed, it would not be possible for him to enter a contract at all without possessing rationality. It is an odd thought that to be authentically human he must make his rationality a slave to his passions.

Not only this, but he uses his rationality to force another person to serve his whim. He desires something from his partner and will negotiate to receive it. He uses his reason to contract a relationship with another to get what he wants from them. He does not seek their good but will tolerate their demands so long as they do not interfere with his self-affirmation. He treats the person as a commodity to discard as soon as he no longer gets what he wants. He makes the object of his affection a kind of possession and himself a slave to his passions. This is the opposite of the freedom and equality that is sought.

Calvin and Luther suffer from a similar problem. Since human nature is so completely depraved, mankind can no longer give himself freely to another. He cannot love as he ought. Marriage may once have existed like this, but no longer. Marriage is the way for a man to use his wife to satisfy his sexual needs. He can keep his passions in check, but he does not love for the sake of the other. Spouses cannot assist one another to grow in holiness, but only to keep their lust from becoming uncontrollable.

Yet, Luther and Calvin also recognize that marriage is good. They both recognize that husband and wife should share companionate love. They recognized that children are the fruit of that love. At the same time, mankind is broken by sin and incapable of selfless love. It is an interesting paradox that marriage should include love, but that men also cannot love as they ought.

The Catholic view of marriage works best because it affirms that every person is made in the image of God, and God grants grace in marriage for a man to love his wife as a person and not reduce her to an object. Grace is the key that enables a man to give himself completely to his wife as a gift. Grace enables her to receive him and offer herself back to him. Each spouse loves the other and offers their life for the other. Selfishness is the enemy of love. This love bears fruit in children and the sanctification of the couple.

This love enables the couple to help one another grow in holiness. Husband and wife can be bound in virtue and the desire for the other to become more than they were. Love has two terms: “I love” and “I am loved.” This kind of love unites the two into one, without ceasing to be distinct. This models what authentic love should be like. Christian marriage provides a tangible experience of what sacrificial and self-giving love is. It leads man out of the isolation and despair of egoism. As St. Paul reminded his reader, “love is patient, and it is kind. It does not envy, boast, or insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).

The Call to Action

There are several key issues facing the Church as she proclaims the truth about marriage. Foremost among them, many couples do not see the value in marriage. They come from broken homes and are surrounded by a culture that is hostile to the concept of permanent, self-giving love. Often, even when they do desire to be married, the desire is the legitimization of a sexual relationship.

Marriage, when properly understood and entered into, does provide the appropriate relationship for the sexual relationship of man and woman. Sex is such a powerful gift that it does need guidance in its proper use. Yet, what is missing from this understanding is the depth of marriage. No matter how long marriage preparation lasts, it will not bear fruit without the correct message. Unfortunately, many couples have not been well prepared to receive that message. Their formation must begin before marriage is even considered.

Many couples do not understand sacraments. They do not see the marvelous gift that is being offered to them. Even when they desire to be married, they do not grasp what they are consenting to. They do not understand that marriage is a source of grace and is ordered toward sanctification. They often do not adequately understand the purpose of marriage and the gifts they are granted by it. Most couples lack the scaffolding necessary to make sense of marriage.

Even before teaching the truth about marriage, the Church needs to teach the truth about the sacraments. She needs to teach her children the connection between God’s love of creation, redemption, and the sacraments. While this can begin in the marriage preparation, it would certainly bear more fruit if the engaged couple was formed well throughout their lives. Every person, but especially every Catholic, needs to understand what they are being offered by frequent reception of the sacraments. Every Catholic needs to understand the value of the sacramental life of the Church and how those sacraments prepare them for holiness.

It is critically important that any kind of marriage preparation teaches what a sacrament is. If a person does not know what a sacrament is, they are not likely to care whether marriage is a sacrament or not. While increasing the time of discernment could be useful, it certainly will not be if the person lacks the basis to understand what they are attempting to discern. This is foundational for understanding that marriage is the kind of friendship that is faithful, permanent, and procreative. A relationship that lacks any of these ends is not a marriage. The culture has completely lost sight of this, and many Catholics have gone along with this deception. The Church must be clear on the true understanding of marriage because the message has become so confusing to the population at large. The sacrament of marriage enables the couple to live out this kind of relationship.

Marriage is often reduced to sex, but this is a grave mistake. It is so easy to focus on the boundaries of sexual encounters. However, marriage unites two persons in a way that is unique among all human relationships. There will certainly be times during marriage when conjugal relationships are simply not possible. Marriage gives couples the strength to stand by one another through the hardships and suffering that inevitably come. At times, husband and wife hurt one another because they love imperfectly. It is only through grace that the inordinate love of self can be overcome. This is a message that is sorely lacking.

Very few persons in our society, Catholic or otherwise, have a correct understanding of love. If love is only a feeling, it is subject to whim and fancy. However, if love is an act of will, then it can persevere even during the ebb and flow of feelings. This applies both in marriage and outside of it. Marriage can provide a concrete example of how to will the good of another for the sake of the other. One of the most essential lessons required for marriage is that selflessness is required for true love. This is necessary to offer oneself to another person.

Finally, Catholics need to live out their marriage with joy. This is not because there will be no hardships or pain. Rather, marriage enables each spouse to endure those hardships. When lived out in this way, marriage is a beautiful witness to the world because it models how loving human relationships ought to work. This teaches children how to love one another and what they should give and expect from their other relationships. When children see that marriage enables man and woman to die to self for one another and their children, it provides the basis for them to live out Christian charity.

This also affects other people who interact with them. The love and joy of a couple is the most profound witness to the sacrament of marriage and ultimately points back toward the love Christ has for his Church. This is especially important in our culture when many grow up in households devoid of any semblance of this type of love. It demonstrates that Christian marriage is something different and worthy of consideration. Christian marriage is something inestimably valuable to share.


When God created mankind, He did so out of love. He poured Himself out solely for our benefit. Man and woman are created out of love and for love. It is not the kind of love that is focused solely on oneself, but instead, it is focused on the beloved. This is most perfectly expressed by giving oneself completely to another without holding any part back. This is why God instituted marriage. Just as God’s love is faithful, permanent, and life-giving, so too is the love between a husband and wife. This type of love is inherent to what it means to be a person.

Marriage is not primarily about property rights. In the modern sense, this could apply to those who can visit us in the emergency room or make decisions on our behalf when we are incapable of doing so. Nor is love something that one can put on and take off at a whim. No-fault divorce is antithetical to the very concept of self-giving. How can one give oneself partially or for a limited time? This is the love of self.

Luther and Calvin rightly realize that sin marred the human ability to love as we were intended to. However, they did not understand how Christ’s sacrifice of atonement is the redemption of our entire nature. They have misunderstood how grace works and hence could not recognize how grace helps us overcome the injury done by sin. As Paul says, “I can do all things in him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13). There is no need for love, in any sense, to merely satisfy lust. This is the love of self.

Nor can love be reduced to feeling alone. If a man feels affection in the morning and anger in the evening, should it be said that he was both in love and not in love? Feelings are too ephemeral a thing to base love on. Love requires us to commit, even amidst difficulties. Otherwise, we are left with the love only of our wants. This is the love of self.

No one would desire the friendship of a man who only took what he wanted from him. Yet, this is the basis of many kinds of marriage found throughout history. Human relationships are stunted when limited by an inordinate love of self. A society cannot thrive without the concept of the common good, and the common good requires desiring the good of one’s neighbor. When lived out fully, marriage also requires this.

The correct understanding of marriage provides the form and foundation for enduring and fruitful human relationships of all kinds. Children cannot be effectively taught virtue if the only kind of love they see is selfishly possessive. Love is common to the virtues, and authentic relationships require the practice of virtue. This, naturally, contributes to the common good. Virtuous children contribute positively to society, and this makes society healthy. Marriage teaches the couple, their children, and those surrounding them that we must renounce the inordinate love of self.

Yet, it also contributes to the good of each spouse. When the spouse desires the good of the beloved and offers himself to her, she has much to gain. It is this mutual desire for one another’s good that makes a marriage work. This enables each of them, and their children, to flourish. This is the only way for man and wife to truly be in communion with one another. This requires a love that is sacrificial and self-giving. Surprisingly, marriage is a love that both gives and receives. The spouse gives himself completely and receives the beloved completely. This leads to joy for both and provides an example of true love for all those surrounding the couple.


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