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Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan

by Helen Hull Hitchcock

“While marriage is a special blessing for Christians because of the grace of Christ, marriage is also a natural blessing and gift for everyone in all times and cultures”, the US Catholic bishops wrote in their pastoral letter “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan”, issued in November 2009. Marriage “is a source of blessing to the couple, to their families, and to society and includes the wondrous gift of co-creating human life”, they wrote. “Indeed, as Pope John Paul II never tired of reminding us, the future of humanity depends on marriage and the family”.

We rejoice that so many couples are living in fidelity to their marital commitment. We thank them for proclaiming in their daily lives the beauty, goodness, and truth of marriage. In countless ways, both ordinary and heroic, through good times and bad, they bear witness to the gift and blessing they have received from the hand of their Creator.... At the same time we are troubled by the fact that far too many people do not understand what it means to say that marriage — both as a natural institution and a Christian sacrament — is a blessing and gift from God.

The pastoral letter on marriage is part of the marriage initiative undertaken by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). The Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage has special sections on the USCCB web site to provide resources for the support of marriage: and Current members of the committee are Bishop Salvatore Cordileone, Oakland (chairman); Cardinal Donald Wuerl, Washington; Bishop William Lori, Bridgeport; and Bishop Gabino Zavala, Los Angeles. (Bishop Cordileone succeeds Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, who was elected vice president of the USCCB in November 2010.)

Marriage in the order of creation

The pastoral letter is in two main parts: Part one, “Marriage in the order of creation”, defines the meaning of marriage: “a lifelong partnership of the whole of life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation of offspring”.

A section entitled “Male-female complementarity is essential to marriage” shows how the mutual self-giving of the man and woman in marriage parallels the relationship of Christ and the Church, and that the objective of marriage is not merely biological procreation, but “for the creation of a communion of persons”.

Marriage has a twofold purpose: “the good of the spouses as well as the procreation of children. Thus, the Church teaches that marriage is both unitive and procreative, and that it is inseparably both”.

Four challenges to maintaining the true purposes of marriage, the bishops write, are contraception, same-sex unions, divorce, and cohabitation. They reflect on each of these challenges.

1. Contraception

The bishops observe that “Conjugal love is diminished whenever the union of a husband and wife is reduced to a means of self-gratification. The procreative capacity of male and female is dehumanized, reduced to a kind of internal biological technology that one masters and controls just like any other technology”. Methods of natural family planning are mentioned as acceptable means of maintaining the integrity of the unitive and procreative aspects.

2. Same-sex unions

The idea of same-sex marriage, the bishops write, is “one of the most troubling developments in contemporary culture”.

Marriage is a unique union, a relationship different from all others. It is the permanent bond between one man and one woman whose two-in-one-flesh communion of persons is an indispensable good at the heart of every family and every society. Same-sex unions are incapable of realizing this specific communion of persons. Therefore, attempting to redefine marriage to include such relationships empties the term of its meaning, for it excludes the essential complementarity between man and woman, treating sexual difference as if it were irrelevant to what marriage is.

“Male-female complementarity is intrinsic to marriage” the bishops emphasize.

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 to 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.

Further, they observe that

Today, advocacy for the legal recognition of various same-sex relationships is often equated with non-discrimination, fairness, equality, and civil rights. However, it is not unjust to oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions, because marriage and same-sex unions are essentially different realities.

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. 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.

The Church upholds the human dignity of homosexual persons, the bishops stress, and also “encourages all persons to have chaste friendships”.

3. Divorce

“By its very nature, marriage is meant to be a lifelong covenantal union”, the bishops state. “Fidelity until death is what couples aspire to and what they promise to each other”, and divorce breaks this covenant. This is true even in circumstances such as spouse or child abuse, in which “divorce may be the only solution to a morally unacceptable situation”. The Church offers support and assistance in such situations, and even in cases of civil divorce, Although the Church cannot recognize such subsequent unions as valid marriages, “she hopes that people in this situation will participate in parish life and attend the Sunday Eucharist, even without receiving the Sacrament”.

4. Cohabiting couples

“To refuse the full commitment of marriage expresses something distinctly less than the unconditional trust required of complete self-giving”, the bishops write. “At the heart of cohabitation lies a reluctance or refusal to make a public, permanent commitment”, and they note that this can undermine a couple’s chances for a stable marriage, and may have serious effects on the couple’s children.

Marriage in the order of the New Creation

Part Two, “Marriage in the order of the New Creation”, explores the sacramental meaning of marriage as a gift and blessing.

“The Family is a ‘Domestic Church’”, the bishops write:

Through the Sacrament of Matrimony, Christian couples are configured to Christ‘s love for the Church. Because of this participation in the love of Christ, the communion of persons formed by the married couple and their family is a kind of microcosm of the Church. For this reason, the Second Vatican Council employs the ancient expression “domestic church”, ecclesia domestica, to describe the nature of the Christian family. The family is called a “domestic church” because it is a small communion of persons that both draws its sustenance from the larger communion that is the whole Body of Christ, the Church, and also reflects the life of the Church so as to provide a kind of summary of it.

Marriage is a vocation, the bishops observe: “As a vocation, marriage is just as necessary and valuable to the Church as other vocations. For this reason, all of us should pray that men and women will enter into marriage with the proper understanding and motivation and that they will live it generously and joyfully. As with every vocation, marriage “must be understood within the primary vocation to love”, because humanity “is created in the image and likeness of God who is Himself love”. The bishops outline factors that make it possible to discern a “calling” to marriage.

The conclusion of the pastoral letter is “Marriage Fulfilled in the Kingdom of God”:

A marriage that is truly in Christ, a marriage upon which His school of gratitude and openness has left its mark of joy and warmth, is a sign of the Kingdom that is coming. It is a blessing to the couple, to their children, and to everyone who knows them. It offers a sign of hope and a loving witness to human dignity in a world where hope often seems absent and human dignity is often degraded. It is a sign of the Kingdom because the love of Christ moves the married couple to ever greater heights of love.

Christian married love is a preparation for eternal life. At the end of time, the love to which spouses have been called will find its completion when the entire Church is assumed into the glory of the risen Christ. Then the Church will truly be herself, for she will experience fully the self-giving love of her spouse — the Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the glorious wedding supper of the Lamb, to which the Spirit and the Bride say “Come!” (Rev 19:9, 22:17).

Just as Christ once proclaimed the greatness of marriage by His presence at the wedding feast in Cana, so now, at the heavenly wedding banquet, marriage and all the blessings of the Holy Spirit, given to us by the Father through Christ, His Son, will find their ultimate consummation because we will be in perfect union with God.

The complete document is accessible on the USCCB web site:

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