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Voices Online Edition
Vol. XXV, No. 1
Eastertide 2010

The US Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage
Rediscovering Marriage

by Mary Ellen Bork

The Catholic teaching on marriage is severely under attack in the great debate over redefining marriage. And yet it is the only teaching that illuminates the depth and beauty of marriage as a sacrament for the benefit of spouses, children and the good of the human race. In order to help the laity defend the future of marriage, the US bishops gave us an excellent pastoral letter on marriage entitled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”. The pastoral letter, approved by the bishops at their November 2009 meeting, is a centerpiece of their efforts to protect marriage.

Many groups in society challenge the traditional meaning of marriage using legislatures and courts to enact changes that the majority of Americans have said they do not want. In December 2009 the District of Columbia city council rammed through a law legalizing same-sex marriages in Washington with no public discussion allowed.

Before the vote, Washington Archbishop Donald Wuerl wrote a letter to Catholic homosexuals pointing out that Catholic teaching on marriage as created by God for the good of the human race does not discriminate against homosexuals. But “discrimination” is the primary argument put forward by those who demand equal rights for “gay marriage”.

In November, people in the state of Maine voted down an attempt to call same-sex relationships “marriage”. In January, a trial concerning Proposition 8, the 2008 voter-approved initiative that restored California’s ban on same-sex marriages, began at the US District Court in San Francisco. The much-publicized trial challenges the constitutionality of the state’s ban on the right of same-sex couples to wed. The prosecution hopes that this case will go to the US Supreme Court.

Overcoming myths about marriage

The battle over marriage is part cultural and part spiritual. In the last thirty years we have lost much of the meaning of marriage and replaced it with various misconceptions that have influenced even some faithful Christians. One of the myths that have grown up about marriage, observed Alan Wisdom from the Institute on Religion and Democracy, is that marriage is a legal fiction invented by the state for the benefit of society. But the biblical view places marriage at creation, a gift of God to the human race and an institution that is universal in human society.

Another myth is that marriage is all about feelings of love. But marriage is much more than feelings; it is a life-long commitment with economic, social and political aspects, usually involving children.

Another myth is a “false defeatism that looks at negative trends and concludes that marriage is on the way out”.1 But studies show that young people think marriage is desirable and want it. They often confuse same-sex relationships and cohabitation with marriage and need to know the truth about the temporary quality of these relationships as compared with marriage.

“Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”

The US bishops’ letter has a good section on this. Dispelling misconceptions is not only a matter of information and logic. There is a spiritual struggle between the biblical view of marriage and a view of sexuality that involves rejecting God’s plan for the human race, and the spiritual values that go with it. In this situation we should all make greater efforts to rediscover marriage and the foundational role it plays in society and in the Church.

“Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan” reflects the thought of Pope John Paul II’s “theology of the body”, which is attuned to the personal dimensions of nuptial love.

There are two parts to the bishops’ letter: 1) “Marriage in the Order of Creation”, explaining that marriage was created by God to fulfill our human vocation to personal communion and outlining the challenges to the nature and purpose of marriage; and 2) “Marriage in the New Order of Creation”, explaining that marriage is lifted by Christ to a sacrament, and that marriage is a vocation that leads to holiness.

The first section gives the doctrinal and theological foundation for the Catholic position on marriage. If we accept that marriage is not invented by man we are accepting God’s ordering of creation and rather than argue with God, we begin by trying to fully understand God’s design, which is meant for our happiness. The secular view ignores this starting point and makes a real dialogue difficult. God created man and never intended him to be alone, giving him a helpmate and a partner in the first woman. This relationship was not merely private but was the foundation of order in human society. Founded on love, this relationship is indissoluble because love is not temporary and because it is the foundation of the family.

One of the essential points in the Genesis account of creation is male and female complementarity. Both sexes are necessary for God’s plan. “Adam and Eve were literally made for each other. Man and woman have been made to come together in the union of marriage. The text of Genesis continues: ‘That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body (flesh)’ (Gn 2:24).”2 Male and female are different, “but the same as human persons who are uniquely suited to be partners or helpmates for each other. The difference between man and woman, however, cannot be restricted to their bodies, as if the body could be separated from the rest of the human person. The human person is a union of body and soul as a single being. Man and woman are two different ways of being a human person.”3

The language of the human body

These foundational concepts about the human person are key to understanding the Catholic approach to marriage. The human body has a language — the “spousal meaning of the body”, as Pope John Paul II described it — and it is important to grasp it as a key to understanding our human experience and our vocation as human persons. These points are beautifully explained.

After laying out the fundamentals of marriage, the bishops’ letter responds to the challenges to the nature and purpose of marriage so prevalent in society today: contraception, same-sex unions, divorce and cohabitation. This section is particularly helpful in explaining why same-sex relationships can never be marriages.

For those Catholics who have never received a good explanation of the Church’s reasons for prohibiting contraception, this letter may be especially helpful. It explains why contraception violates our call to communion of persons, and is a denial of the full truth of our bodies, of what it means to be a man or a woman.

The letter explains the communion of human love between the two expressed in marriage — a “spousal relationship” in which the man and the woman complete each other (complementarity). If the body has this spousal (or nuptial) meaning, and the marriage act expresses that communion of the two — the spiritual and physical union of a man and woman — then contraception is a denial of that expression of love, which should always be a total gift of self to the other.

The letter’s section on same-sex unions is especially timely now that the political movement to promote same-sex relationships as “marriages” is intensifying the attack on the unique institution of marriage.

The bishops point out that redefining the nature of marriage and the family “harm(s) both the intrinsic dignity of every person and the common good of society”.4

To lose sight of the unique union that is marriage will bring irreparable harm to individual families and the very structure of society because it will affect every aspect of the way our lives are organized. The most obvious point is that same-sex unions are incapable of realizing the one-flesh communion of persons that is marriage. To try to define a same-sex relationship as marriage, the bishops write, “empties the term [marriage] of its meaning”.

Many observers think that destroying the very concept of marriage is an objective of the movement. True marriage must include the male-female complementarity, the bishops’ letter says:

Male-female complementarity is intrinsic to marriage. It is naturally ordered toward authentic union and the generation of new life. Children are meant to be the gift of the permanent and exclusive union of a husband and a wife. A child is meant to have a mother and a father. The true nature of marriage, lived in openness to life, is a witness to the precious gift of the child and the unique roles of a mother and father. Same-sex unions are incapable of such a witness. Consequently, making them equivalent to marriage disregards the very nature of marriage.”5

The attempt to make same-sex unions and marriage equivalent undermines the well-being of society, the bishops write:

By attempting to redefine marriage to include or be made analogous with homosexual partnerships, society is stating that the permanent union of husband and wife, the unique pattern of spousal and familial love and the generation of new life are now only of relative importance rather than being fundamental to the existence and well-being of society as a whole.”6 (Emphasis added.)

Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly warned us about the triumph of cultural relativism and its dangers for the future of humanity. The loss of the biblical and spiritual vision that understands the true meaning of marriage is what makes this struggle so painful and at the same time so consequential for society and for the Church.

On the question of discrimination, the bishops’ letter states that the Church’s teaching — that marriage and same-sex unions are essentially different realities — is not discriminatory. Archbishop Donald Wuerl made the same point to the Washington, DC, city council.

The bishops’ letter quotes the 2003 statement on homosexual unions by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which said, “The denial of the social and legal status of marriage to forms of cohabitation that are not and cannot be marital is not opposed to justice; on the contrary, justice requires it”.

The bishops add,

To promote and protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman is itself a matter of justice. In fact, it would be a grave injustice if the state ignored the unique and proper place of husbands and wives, the place of mothers and fathers, and especially the rights of children, who deserve from society clear guidance as they grow to sexual maturity. Indeed, without this protection the state would, in effect, intentionally deprive children of the right to a mother and father.7 (Original emphasis.)

The chief argument in opposition to the natural meaning of marriage is that homosexuals are being denied equality, fairness, and civil rights as American citizens. But this argument deliberately misstates of the true meaning of marriage and denies any real distinction between the sexes — the complementarity that Pope John Paul II has described. With such manipulations it is actually marriage that is being “subjected to a grave injustice”, as the bishops so clearly state.

“Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan” presents the issues in the marriage debate very clearly. This is most welcome, especially for Catholics who are looking for a good way to explain these issues to their children and grandchildren.

One of the factors contributing to the confusion about the true meaning of marriage has been feminist ideology, which sees the difference between the sexes as a “social construct” intended to diminish women. Feminism during the last thirty years has eroded a true understanding of the feminine gift and feminine identity rooted in Christian teaching. Redefining marriage is a logical outgrowth of this movement.

The bishops’ letter states unequivocally and beautifully the Catholic vision of marriage, and reveals the high stakes in this cultural conflict. Let us hope that in rediscovering the real meaning of marriage we will preserve it for the next generation. Without that ordering there can be no peace.

1 Alan Wisdom, “Rediscovering Marriage”, Faith and Freedom, Winter 2010, Institute on Religion and Democracy, (, 8.

2 “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”, Bishops’ Pastoral Letter on Marriage, November, 2009, 9.

3 ibid., 10.

4 ibid., 22.

5 ibid., 22.

6 ibid., 23.

7 ibid., 23.

Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.

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