Updated: Aug 29
For many years, the world has drifted further and further away from the Catholic worldview. Perhaps more so than in any other area of life, the modern view of human sexuality has deviated from traditional views. As society has progressed it has become harder for people to have real and meaningful relationships. It is precisely the Catholic sacramental view of marriage that models how authentic and meaningful interpersonal relationships should function.
In order to understand how the sacrament of marriage can demonstrate proper relationships it is necessary to start with the creation of the universe. Part of the foundation of the Catholic worldview is that God created a physical world that is marked by “order, coherence, rationality, goodness... and a promotion of man and woman as stewards of creation” (Haffner 2). The entire creation is ordered toward goodness and man is created as the pinnacle of that physical creation, as a being with intellect and will, reflecting divine attributes as an image of God (Cahall 22).
A natural question arises when considering creation. If God is perfect, lacking in nothing, why create the world to begin with? The answer is much simpler than one might suppose: He created the world to communicate His glory and to share His love (CCC 293). This is nearly unfathomable, especially to the jaded modern mind. God creates the entire universe out of pure love. Romano Guardini once wrote, “Before such an unheard of thought the intellect bogs down... but love does such things!” (Guardini 17).
God’s love reaches down to his creation; He does not remain inaccessible (Deus Caritas Est 17). God created man in his own image with inherent dignity (Cahall 23). The entire creation was made for the sake of men, but human beings were made to know and love God and offer His creation back to Him (CCC 358). Each man is created by God for his own sake with innate value to share in the divine life (Gratissimam Sane 9). God has inscribed the vocation, capacity, and responsibility of love and communion in each human being (Familiaris Consortio 11).
Human persons are created as a composite of material and spiritual, visible and invisible. The universe is ordered to communicate to both the spiritual and physical aspects of human beings. The ends of the universe, and human beings particularly, is God himself (Levering ch. 1, RELIGION). In the old covenant, God communicated to his people through many physical signs such as rainbows, circumcision, or the blood of bulls (Haffner 3). All of these hint at the ways God reaches down to man, but there remains an important reality left to explain.
When the first man and woman were created, they were created in a state of innocence (ST I. Q. 95, Art I, co. ). Their will and their passions were perfectly aligned. Or to put it another way, their sensual appetites or their desires and cravings were always directed at the correct object. They did not desire what was not good for them and their appetites were ordered properly (ST I. Q 95. Art II co.). This gift of original holiness enabled men to give themselves “completely, body and soul” to God and self-giving communion with each other (Cahall 37). However, when the first parents disobeyed, their appetites were distorted and they found it more difficult to choose the right goods, often preferring lesser goods to greater ones (Cahall 39). God’s love remained and He did not abandon his creation even when it chose self-interest.
It is necessary to take into account “the reality of sin and evil... sickness, suffering, and death” (Haffner 3). God did not choose to solve men’s sickness by denying their physical nature, but by embracing it. The redemption of man is brought about by God taking on the form of a slave and incarnating Himself, taking on lowly flesh. The Sacred signs of the Old Testament “were perfected... to express Christ’s power and His Kingdom” as Jesus uses people’s senses to communicate his mission to everyone (Haffner 3). He unites the Transcendence and the Immanence of God so men can tangibly experience God’s love. Through Christ, the divine image in each person is restored (Cahall 44).
Jesus, however, provided a very special way to communicate the spiritual realities of God’s love through sensible signs (ST III Q. 60 Art. 4 co.). St. Augustine was one of the first to explain that the visible sign of a sacrament relates to the spiritual reality that it signified (Haffner 8). God has communicated to men by matter and word throughout all of salvation history, but Christ communicates the divine life to each person through these signs. These signs draw their efficacy from Christ’s Sacrifice and His resurrection to bring about the redemption of all men (Haffner 10).
These signs give grace to the recipient of the sacrament. The effects of the sacraments vary from one to another, but are each carried out in the power and invocation of the Holy Spirit (Haffner 23). Each sacrament requires the proper words and material of sensible action (ST III, Q. 60, Art. 6, ad. 2). Additionally, the person performing the sacrament must possess the authority to be able to confer the sacrament as well as the correct interior intention (Haffner 19). Finally, the recipient of the sacrament must prepare himself to receive the sacrament by having the correct disposition so that the grace he would receive will not be impeded (Haffner 20).
As critically important as these signs are, human bodies themselves are signs of God’s purpose for mankind. The sexual difference between men and women “reveal the nuptial foundation of reality” (Cahall 28). Human sexuality expresses a complementarity between sexes that is at odds with modern culture. This complementarity demonstrates that mankind is made to be a gift of love, to exist for someone else (Cahall 28). “The body itself is a visible sign that points to a deeper truth and an invisible reality” (Cahall 29).
Recall that God created man “through love, He called him at the same time for love” (Familiaris Consortio 11). Human sexuality reveals that human beings are not meant to be “isolated thinking and acting selves... [but] a gift, to express love for another, to exist for someone” (Cahall 29). The love men receive from God in their creation is meant to be communicated both back to God, who is their final end, and to their neighbor. Just as God’s love creates man and woman, man and woman participate in creation in through the use of their sexuality. Their love participates in the divine love by bringing forth new life (Cahall 29). “In fact, every act of true love towards a human being bears witness to and perfects the spiritual fecundity of the family” (Familiaris Consortio 41).
However, love is one of the most misused words in the English language. People often mistake strong emotions for love, and modern cultures often mistake infatuation or lust for love. True love is an act of the will “whereby we affirm it is good that something exists, we will the good of that reality, and we desire to experience some sort of communion with that reality” (Cahall 47). Naturally, love can express itself in different ways: familial, friendship, erotic, conjugal. Each of these aspects arises at different times, but fundamentally all love affirms the good and the communion with the other (Deus Caritas Est 8). The love of marriage is an act of the will to commit, regardless of the transitory nature of feelings.
Conjugal love is especially dedicated to the mutual self-gift of another in a life giving way (Cahall 58). Marriage, however, is more than just conjugal love. “Marriage is a solemn act of the will by which the couple hands themselves over to each other” (Cahall 59). The marriage covenant between a man and a woman is an image of the communion of love between God and men (Familiaris Consortio 12). Just as Christ lives in service, each spouse lives in service of one another (Lawler 6).
The marriage covenant itself is a life-long gift of self. It is lasting and irrevocable. “The indissolubility of marriage flows in the first place from that very essence of that gift: the gift of one person to another person” (Gratissimam Sane 11). This gift becomes an essential part of their life and the communion of persons becomes a communion of parents. A newborn child is a gift to the parents from the Creator of the universe, and in the care of its parents, the babe can flourish and its nature is affirmed in their love (Gratissimam Sane 11). Thus, life giving conjugal love needs a permanent union of spouses which is open to participating in the life creating love of God which enables each partner to will the good of the other and be in communion with the other as a gift of total self-donation (Cahall 54).
Clearly, marriage predates the Incarnation and therefore also the institution of the sacraments. However, even in the book of Genesis the union of man and woman was permanent and ordered toward procreation (Haffner 261). Marriage is a natural institution for propagation of the species and “maturation of individuals” (Levering ch 8). However, that is not to say that marriage is merely a human invention, but it was instituted by God from the very beginning (Casti Cannubii 5). Even this kind of natural marriage reflected the covenant “which God had made with His chose people” (Haffner 262). Marriage is used as a sign of the relationship between God and the people of Israel (Levering ch 8), as in the prophet Hosea for example (Hosea 1:2-3). However, due to sin people often failed to see the true purpose of marriage and God patiently led them back so they could see how his plan for marriage was a sign of his saving love (Cahall 111).
It is often observed that throughout history an overemphasis is placed on procreation (Cahall 112). Husbands could divorce their wives, and take a concubine if his wife was barren, or a wife could prefer death to childlessness (Cahall 113). Many people failed to live out the single-hearted relationship. Infidelity such as that of Solomon shows how far people strayed from the original intent of marriage and was also a sign of people’s infidelity to their covenant with God (Haffner 263). The plurality of spouses and divorce lead to the relaxation of the nuptial bond and caused great confusion about the nature of marriage (Arcanam Divinae 7).
After all the years of faithlessness, Jesus’s teachings must have been quite a shock. Christ’s presence at the wedding feast of Cana was the “confirmation of the goodness of marriage” (CCC 1613). Later, he was emphatic that what God had joined together no man may divide. Jesus perfected the order of creation and for marriage that meant insisting that a man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery (Haffner 264). Jesus took what people correctly understood about marriage, but purified it so people could “live out the fullness of God’s design for it” (Cahall 138). Jesus demanded that marriage is between one man and one woman and “that the marriage bond is by the will of God so closely and strongly made fast that no man may dissolve it or render it asunder” (Arcanam Divinae 5). This is not an easy thing and it requires special grace to live out faithfully. Thus, Jesus instituted marriage as a sacrament to make it possible to live out the indissoluble bond (Casti Cannubii 31).
“The first and immediate effect of marriage (res et sacramentum) is... the Christian conjugal bond” (Familiaris Consortio 13). The grace of the sacrament of marriage helps spouses use their sexuality in accordance with God’s plan. It is also a sign of the love of Christ for his Church, both unity and in its fruits (Familiaris Consortio 33). This grace helps the spouses attain holiness, ordered to their mutual salvation. It strengthens the couple to welcome children and to see to their education. Finally, "the grace proper to the sacrament of Matrimony is intended to perfect the couple’s love and strength their indissoluble unity” (Haffner 284).
Christian marriage provides grace for husband and wife to lay down their lives for one another, willingly embracing suffering to bring spouse and children to God. However, marriage has to be approached with faith and charity or the grace of the sacrament is “inert, unused, and unprofitable” (Anders 126). Pope Pius XI compared it to the unused talent hidden in the field, explaining men do not “reap the fruit” unless they cooperate with the grace of the Sacrament (Casti Connubi 41). Patience and humility must permeate every aspect of married life for the grace of the sacrament to effect the changes needed for husband and wife to accept and respond to God’s plan (Familiaris Consortio 33). The grace of marriage helps each spouse overcome their selfish individualism to embrace true love, love that denies self-interest for the interest of the beloved (Cahall 69).
In each sacrament, including Matrimony, the ministers allow Christ’s power to act through them. It is not a matter of worthiness but of fittingness (which varies from sacrament to sacrament) and the intention to perform the sacrament. In the case of marriage, the spouses themselves are the ministers “by manifesting their consent and expressing it physically” (Amoris Laetitia 75). The conjugal consent is a visible sign, both the announcement and cause that two are now one flesh (Theology of the Body 105:3). They minister to each other provided that each spouse is baptized and they intend a faithful, permanent union and are open to God blessing them with children. In other words, they must really desire marriage (Cahall 299). Baptism is “a necessary condition for the spouse’s love to be taken up into Christ’s martial bond with the Church” (Cahall 298). This marriage is then a sign for the union of Christ with His Church (Humanae Vitae 8).
Marriage is an ecclesial reality and so the Church is normally represented by a priest or a deacon. They also help to make sure that the liturgical form is followed (Cahall 303). The ecclesial role of the family is in building up the Kingdom of God. They are to be active in the life and mission of the Church (Familiaris Consortio 49). Individuals in the family “enter upon an ecclesial experience of communion among persons, which reflects, through grace, the mystery of the Holy Trinity” (Amoris Laetitia 86). The love of the family strengthens the life of the Church.
During the Rite of Marriage, the epiclesis happens during the nuptial blessing. The celebrant prays that the grace of the Holy Spirit is poured out on the spouses (Gratissimam Sane 11). The Holy Spirit provides a new communion of love and unity which reflects the unity of the Lord Jesus and his Mystical Body (Familiaris Consortio 19). In turn, they are also united with Christ. So, the couple is in communion both with each other and with Christ (FC 21).
Each of the spouses must be free to contract a marriage. No sacrament can be received if obstacles are in the way. Both man and woman must be free according to divine, ecclesiastical, and natural law (Haffner 278). Natural impediments might include age or the inability to perform the martial act (Haffner 279). Disparity of cult, wherein one of those to be married is not Catholic, or if one spouse has taken a perpetual vow of virginity would be examples of ecclesiastical impediments. A divine impediment may include having a previous bond (Cahall 308).
Assuming both spouses truly desire to enter marriage and are free of all impediments they must exchange their consent. The matter of the sacrament consists in the “content of the consent, or more precisely the mutual self-donation of a man and a woman to each other” (Cahall 304). The form consists in the mutual acceptance of this self-giving (Haffner 272). “Naturally, love is much more than an outward consent or contract, yet... undertaking certain commitments shows how important it is” (Amoris Laetitia 131). The gift of self-giving consent is a serious and profound obligation. The liturgy of marriage is crowned by the Eucharist, which “finds expression in the consent of the spouses” (Gratissimam Sane 11). The couple consents to three goods for marriage: fidelity, indissolubility, and fruitfulness (Cahall 83).
The couple first consents to fidelity. Unicity is a natural consequence of the marriage bond which is reflected by Christ’s exclusive bond to the Church (Haffner 284). The fidelity of marriage is a “source of profound and enduring happiness” (Humanae Vitae 9). Christ accompanies the couple to fortify their fidelity so that they may be consecrated to their universal call to sanctity (Familiaris Consortio 56). At its heart, marriage is a reciprocal self-giving which must be exclusive because this giving must be total (Cahall 57).
The next good of marriage lies in its permanence. The total self-giving of marriage cannot be for a limited period of time, for handing yourself over to another cannot be temporary (Cahall 58). The indissolubility of marriage is not a burden imposed, but a gift granted by God’s love to accompany spouses with healing and transformation (Amoris Laetita 62). The gift of self can only be truly realized by committing totally until death, otherwise, it will not be a total giving of self (Familiaris Consortio). “The indissolubility of marriage flows in the first place from the very essence of that gift: the gift of one person to another person” (Gratissimam Sane 11).
Finally, true conjugal love is life giving so the consent of marriage must also be life giving (Cahall 58). When a couple closes themselves off from life they refuse to give of themselves and thus jeopardize both fidelity and unity (Haffner 287). Love between husband and wife changes all things even to bringing new life into being (Humanae Vitae 9). Through conjugal love the good of the spouses is fulfilled and the spousal love is “emodied in the newborn child” (Gratissimam Sane 11).
The married couple also consents to a commitment to the common good of the future family. By this consent, the couple cooperates with God so they may become ministers of the Divine Omnipotence (Pius XI 80). Spouses must affirm their commitment to accept children and to raise those children as Christians. The two primary ends of the family are the acceptance and education of children. Parents have both a spiritual and physical responsibility for their children (Gratissimam Sane 10). Parents are the first and most important educators. “They are educators because they are parents” (Gratissimam Sane 16).
As can be seen in the liturgy, the consent of spouses also has a eucharistic dimension. Conjugal love is a sacramental sign of Christ’s love for his Church. His love was a sacrificial love, a “’marriage’ with humanity” that was also the origin of the Eucharist (Sacramentum Caritatis 27). Embracing sacrifice is integral to a successful marriage and sharing in the sacrifice of the Eucharist helps deepen the love between spouses (Cahall 350). The Eucharist expresses the nature of God’s love in Christ for his Church which corresponds to the “indissolubility to which all true love necessarily aspires” (Sacramentum Caritatis 29). Christ is bonded to the Church in an indissoluble, exclusive, faithful unity that earthly marriage images. This bond finds its expression in the Eucharist (Sacramentum Caritatis 28).
This sacrificial love is a key component of marriage. “Family communion can only be preserved and perfected through a great spirit of sacrifice” (Amoris Laetitia 106). Each member of the family must die to themselves, joyfully offering their daily tasks to the Father (Cahall 350). This is not an easy cross to bear and without strong will and grace many will shirk the repeated demands and sacrifices required (Casti Cannubii 102). Men must keep in mind the sacrificial offering that Christ made. He offers himself completely for the bridegroom, the Church, and spouses likewise offer themselves completely to one another (Cahall 351).
Closely related to the sacrifices required for marriage is the suffering present in marriage. Spouses learn true compassion by suffering with their beloved (Cahall 353). This suffering is of great value by teaching men to appreciate what they have. It can help each person achieve good things or learn what they need to know (Amoris Laetitia 130). This call to suffering exists even when one of the spouses causes the suffering of the other and it invites each to become part of the Mystical Body by joining to the sufferings of Christ (Cahall 353). The suffering in the family is not without meaning, but Jesus draws good out of it (Cahall 358).
Human sexuality is a critical aspect of the Sacrament of Marriage, and that sexuality can be a source of suffering. It is important that the sexual union of husband and wife upholds the human dignity of each spouse (Amoris Laetita 156). Each spouse should first bear in mind that they are not their own. Human bodies are holy and so the spouse must not objectify their bodies or the bodies of their spouse (Theology of the Body 63:2). This also means that all men must be in control of their innate drives and order them properly (Humanae Vitae 10). “When spouses realize their complete dependence on God... their lives, each other, their marriage and their sexuality... are elevated by the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage” (Cahall 373).
Human sexuality is about a union of persons, body and soul. This deep personal union connects man and woman in the very mystery of creation (Theology of the Body 10:2). Sexuality is far too important to reduce to a type of amusement and such abuse of their bodies cannot fill the deep yearning for intimacy of the human heart (Cahall 381). It is only through marriage that sexual union of man and woman becomes a reciprocal gift (Theology of the Body 103:5). When used otherwise, sex is “the mutual use of each other’s bodies” (Cahall 383). True love cannot be about what can be gained from the another, but instead true love is to be able to enrich the other with the gift of self (Humanae Vitae 9).
Sexual expression itself points toward the two ends of marriage: the good of the spouses and the procreation of children (Cahall 84). The good of the spouses includes the goods of marriage: unity, fidelity, indissolubility and openness to life. However, the sacrament also helps each spouse lead the other to friendship with the Lord (Amoris Laetitia 77). The sacrament of marriage is in a “true and proper sense a journey towards salvation” (Familiaris Consortio). Marriage is a gift of sanctification, a permanent reminder of the sacrifice Christ made for the Church and a witness of that love both to each other and to the children that result from that love (Amoris Laetita 72).
Procreation of children is the second end of marriage. Through their union the couple forms a family which is the foundation of society (Cahall 87). This family unit is the first expression of man’s social nature as each family is a communion of persons (Gratissimam Sane 7). Spouses receive a new responsibility from God as their children become a visible sign of His love (Familiaris Consortio14). "Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the procreation and education of children. Children are really the supreme gift of marriage and contribute in the highest degree to their parents' welfare" (Humane Vitae 9).
On the other hand, being unable to conceive is also a source of great suffering in some marriages. Being open to life is not frustrated by an inability to conceive. The strengthening of the marriage union remains even when the fruits of conjugal love cannot be realized, independent of the will of the spouses (Humanae Vitae 11). The cross of infertility is often difficult to bear and such a cross in no way lessens the sacrament (Cahall 412). It should be kept in mind that children are a great gift from God, but God does not bestow the same gifts on everyone. “We also do well to remember that procreation... [is] not the only ways of experiencing the fruitfulness of love” (Amoris Laetitia 181).
Jesus Christ instituted the sacrament of marriage to restore the perfected order of creation (CCC 1625). God created marriage for the good of spouses and procreation of children. The sacrament provides the grace to live out the goods for marriage: fidelity, indissolubility, and openness to children (Cahall 104). Love unites the spouses to each other and to Christ. Grace is necessary because this is not an easy vocation.
In fact, the Protestant reformers thought Catholic teaching on human sexuality was simply too difficult (Anders 66). When Luther and other reformers like Calvin rejected the Church they also rejected much of the sacramental system. They did not believe that justification involved any kind of real change or renewal, but only a kind of legal covering of sins. Thus, the entire sacramental worldview was rejected (Cahall 237). The obvious result of these things was the naturalization of Christian marriage (Anders 66).
John Calvin wrote that “[marriage] is a good and holy ordinance of God. And agriculture, architecture, shoemaking, and shaving, are lawful ordinance of God; but they are not sacraments” (Calvin 4.19.34). Once marriage was robbed of its sacred purpose it was removed from the purview of the Church and handed over to the state (Cahall 241). Since marriage is now in the control of the state, it is more a personal matter between people then a social reality. It is reduced to a way to satisfy sexual desires instead of a way to unite two people to each other and to God (Anders 65). Such reduction robs marriage of any meaning and replaces it with fleeting attempts to justify the use of another person as a thing instead of as a person to be loved.
Martin Luther similarly reasoned that the Sacrament of Marriage was invented by the Church. He maintained it was a natural institution that should be regulated by the state (Cahall 239). Luther taught that men should always satisfy their sexual impulses, comparing it to the need to eat and drink. He even suggested that adultery was permissible if the wife was not willing (Reston 222). Eventually, Luther even approved of the bigamous marriage of Philip of Hesse (Anders 65).
The Protestant desacralization of marriage has had devastating results. Martin Luther nearly immediately jettisoned the goods of fidelity and indissolubility. Luther and Calvin denied that there could be such a thing as a sacramental marriage, that marriage could provide grace, or enable spouses to help each other toward salvation. Not much later, the Puritans compelled married sexual activity (Anders 65). This view of sexuality deprives it of its true value and reduces it to the prerogative of consent between a couple no matter how demeaning it may be (Anders 66). The entire purpose of marriage and marital sexuality becomes confused.
Once marriage is secularized it becomes primarily a “means of attaining personal fulfillment and satisfaction” (Cahall 241). The Protestant view maintains that the only limitation to sexual activity is consent within marriage, while the modern secular view is roughly the same but with no need for marriage (Anders 58). Subjective pleasure is the only good worth seeking. The secular worldview is then free to compromise on permanence, fidelity, and the procreation of children (Cahall 241). Further, since marriage is the fundamental building block of society "a very torrent of evil has flowed from this source, not only into private families, but also into States” (Arcanam Divinae 27).
The fruits that flow from this are easily seen. Divorce, unfaithfulness, harm to children, the destruction of homes, and harm to every level of society (Arcanam Divinae 29). When divorced from its divine purpose, married love will be found wanting, unable to satisfy the human longing for love (Cahall 242). Even worse, the entire conception of “relationships are left to the changing winds of personal desire and circumstances” (Amoris Laetitia 34). The self-giving love of husband and wife is the model for relationships between brothers and sisters, and all family life (Familiaris Consortio 37). If the model is broken, then people do not learn what authentic love looks like and they descend into loneliness and despair. When the Protestant reformers denied the Sacrament of Marriage they lost what so many desperately seek: “a love that never dies because it truly participates in the love of Christ” (Cahall 242).
Restoring an authentic understanding of marriage is the only way to teach people what authentic, loving relationships are like. The correct understanding of the human person and the correct understanding of marriage are intrinsically linked (Cahall 268). God willed human beings for their own sake, but men need union and to give themselves to the other at the most basic level (Theology of the Body 15:5). The exclusive and definitive love of marriage models the relationship between God and his people (Deus Caritas Ext 11).
Man cannot be happy without communion, primarily with God but also with one another. Men are made through love and to love (Familiaris Consortio 11). The Sacrament of Marriage is a clear model that God has given to reflect His Divine love. It is through the permanent, exclusive, and life-giving relationship of marriage that men can see the love Christ has for his Church. It is the only way for modern society to understand the correct way to love one another. Christian Marriage demonstrates how sacrificial and self-giving real love must be. It leads men out of the quagmire of isolation and despair that flows from egoism. As a model of real love, it is patient, and it is kind. It does not envy, or boast, or insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:4-5).
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