Catholic Classroom: Beliefs About Marriage
Question: What does the Church say about marriage?
Since God created the earth, marriage has been a part of His divine plan. Though the relationship between man and woman (and, therefore, marriage) was damaged by original sin, Jesus repaired this relationship and raised marriage to a sacrament. The Church recognizes marriage as a sacred institution that is not merely a personal decision, but a vocation.
In the pastoral letter Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops defines marriage as “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” (p. 7).The Catechism of the Catholic Church emphasizes two main purposes for marriage, which the bishops include in their definition:
- The unitive purpose, which refers to the mutual good of the spouses
- The procreative purpose, which refers to the procreation and education of children
Marriage, then, is an extremely important institution in the life of the Church. In fact, in its sacramental nature, the bond of marriage mirrors the love Christ has for His Church. Marriage forms the foundation of the family, by which the Church sustains itself, spreads, and raises up leaders and saints. For this reason, married couples have the essential, solemn duty to raise their children in faith and support one another in a loving partnership built on that same faith.
Before Jesus raised marriage to a sacrament, there were serious threats to the marriage bond among the Israelites. One of the biggest threats was divorce, which ignored the permanence of the union. Jesus explained that marriage is a bond forged by God that no person can break. Even though Moses had allowed for divorce, Jesus said, “It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8). Jesus healed this rupture by no longer allowing divorce.
Annulments are sometimes granted by the Church, but this does not diminish the permanence of marriage. In an annulment, a tribunal determines that the conditions of consent were not adequately met at the time of marriage, meaning that a valid marriage did not take place. In this case, the couple granted an annulment may enter marriages with other people. On the other hand, a divorced couple may not remarry, since the sacramental bond still stands.
Even though the Church has been given the gift of sacramental marriage, there are still threats to marriage today. These threats include contraception, same-sex unions, and cohabitation outside of marriage. All these threats go against one or both of the purposes of marriage that the Church has described. Ultimately, things like contraception, same-sex unions, and cohabitation fail to properly recognize the sacramental nature of marriage and the openness to new life that is an integral part of the very meaning of marriage.
The goal of the Church’s teachings on marriage is to recognize and live out, with utmost reverence and piety, the sacrament given to us by Jesus. Marriage can be understood as a loving and truly freeing bond when it is seen as a mutual decision entered into by the married couple in union with God. We pray that the Church may have the freedom to live out its commitment to marriage in all of its work.