What is so special about marriage, and why does it matter?
The short answer is that healthy marriages equal healthy families. Healthy families lead to healthy societies, which in turn leads to human flourishment. All of which is what God has always intended.
The Author of Marriage 1
In Matthew, Jesus asks the Pharisees:
“Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matthew 19:4-6)
What God has joined together!
In a certain sense, marriage reveals God’s love for us, both within and through marriages, to the whole world. We know that we are made in the image and likeness of God. We also know that God is love – so when God loves, He does so entirely, giving everything. 2
Marriage between a man and a woman is of supreme importance to God. Indeed, the whole of salvation history as revealed in Scripture is shot through with images of and allusions to marriage. It is there in the beginning (Genesis) and the end (Revelation). It comes through again and again throughout the Old and New Testaments. The first public miracle of Jesus is at the Wedding Feast of Cana.
Catholic Theology shows us (the Church) to be the Bride of Christ! Our very existence as Christians is expressed as marital covenant.
The Big Picture – the Battlefield
Before we delve deeper, let’s consider for a moment the big picture. These words, written by Sr Lucia, the oldest of the visionaries of Fatima, to Cardinal Caffarra are very telling.
“The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid because anyone who works for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be fought and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue. However, Our Lady has already crushed its head.” 3
We can be sure that because it matters so much to God, revealing in an intimate and beautiful way His relationship with us His bride, Satan seeks to undermine, distort, and destroy marriage. Satan’s hatred for all that is truly good and made by God finds a particular focus in his attack on marriage.
It is plainly obvious that life, marriage and family are being attacked and systematically destroyed from every direction. We see same-sex unions masquerading as marriages, divorce, gender confusion in children being actively encouraged by parents and others, continued acceptance and use of contraception, the genocide of abortion and ongoing issues with reproductive technologies. The list goes on as the dignity of the human person, historically protected and nourished within the family, becomes secondary to individual desires.
There is a real battle raging today over recognising and protecting the sanctity and critical importance of authentic marriage in today’s relativised world.
In the Final Battle – Marriage as Witness
How the war over marriage is waged is key. Marriages based on covenant between a man and a woman (and in particular Christian marriages imbued with Sacramental Graces) are a hugely important witness to the world.
- the hope that is found in true love – not a feeling, but a reflection of God’s life and grace within us
- that the vocation of marriage seeks what is best for the other through selflessly giving
- that the natural result of this is the birth and nurturing of families which in turn contribute to healthy societies
God created man and woman as complementary – a fact that is physically obvious since each is required for a baby to be naturally conceived. Within marriage between one man and one woman, children are welcomed and can best flourish as they learn to love and serve others. Within Christian marriage, children are also led to know, love and serve God.
In marriage “God invites a man and woman to love like He loves. It is the very nature of this kind of love to overflow, to be life-giving. Children are the natural outcome of this generous outpouring of selfless love.” 4
There are of course circumstances of age or pathology where a married couple are not able to conceive. This does not diminish the importance or fruitfulness of their witness to the world.
William May rightly points out that if we look at marriage through the eyes of children, we soon notice and “recall our own desire for knowing our origins and being loved and cared for by our mother and father. Even if we never knew our mother and father or by some circumstances felt alienated from them, that desire is still there.” 5
In other words, it is in our very nature to want the certainty and stability of an enduring and healthy committed union between our mother and our father. Our relativistic culture blunts and distorts this truth over time, and thus it is of critical importance to witness this truth to the world through our marriages.
Marriage and family are therefore the seed bed for healthy society.
In the Final Battle – For the Good of Society
In virtually all cultures matrimonial union is recognised and understood as possessing a certain greatness. It is readily apparent that it is not merely a human institution.
“The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.” 6
The sociological evidence is unarguably clear – children do best in every sphere of human endeavour when they are raised within the home of their natural parents who are joined together in an avowed covenantal relationship.
The very nature of marriage between a man and a woman as intended by God is good for the spouses, good for any ‘begotten’ (or adopted) children, and through the nurture and education of children good too for the well-being of society. Well founded and healthy marriages are in fact the necessary building blocks for healthy societies.
In the words of His Eminence, Raymond Cardinal Burke: “There is no greater force against evil in the world than the love of a man and woman in marriage. After the Holy Eucharist, it has a power beyond anything that we can imagine.” 7
Marriage itself can feel like a battlefield
Even the best of marriages, between the holiest of spouses, will have to battle against the effects of original sin – the fruits of our first parents’ fall.
The Catechism notes “[t]heir union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. ….” 8
The good news is that God is ever ready to provide the grace we need to overcome this innate problem. It is not an impossible burden, since He has designed things in such a way that; “[t]hrough marriage we can learn to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving.” 9
Our brokenness as sinful human beings, with all the warps and wefts of relativistic cultural influences, can nevertheless result in the breakdown of even apparently strong marriages. Breakdowns and separations might be temporary or permanent, but always tear at the fabric of what it means to be family.
Because each marriage is so critically important to the family created by and around that marriage, every effort to repair, renew, sustain, and strengthen marriages is worthy.
Hallmarks of authentic marriage
Let’s look more closely at the hallmarks of authentic marriage.
1. It is set in the context of a ‘conjugal covenant’ that is:
- Between a man and a woman;
- Freely giving their “irrevocable personal consent”10, and;
- Committing themselves to one another, “in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health.”
2. By its very nature, this union in marriage is and must be:
- permanent and indissoluble,
- faithful and unique (exclusive),
- open to children and life giving.
When the couple make their covenantal promises to each other (before witnesses), they are making what G.K. Chesterton has called “rash vows”. To paraphrase his insight, we naturally fear of our inability to commit ‘forever’, yet we find that the very act of making a vow gives us the assurance that we need. Somehow, by God’s design, a vow moves us from mere potential for a fully committed and sustainable marriage, to the substance and actuality of it – empowers us.11
St John Paull II talked of the ‘reasonableness’ of our ordinary human experience of love.12 The good news is that God has ordered our nature in such a way that we are up to the challenge of giving and sustaining this consent.
It is clear from Christ’s teaching that chastity (sexual purity) is an essential virtue in a healthy marriage. As Christ said in His sermon on the mount: “[b]ut I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” 13 Put simply, the virtue of chastity protects and nurtures conjugal love.
To sum up, authentic marriage matters because:
- God intended marriage to reflect His nature, and to be the essential building block of healthy society,
- It is truly good, for the husband and wife, for their children, and for wider society,
- It gives witness to the world what is truly important, and life-giving for society.
1 Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes (December 7, 1965), n. 48.
Here it is stated that “[t]he intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent… God Himself is the author of matrimony.”
2 C.f. Gen. 1:27, and 1 Jn. 4:8 & 16
3 Carlo Cardinal Caffarra, “Cardinal Caffarra: ‘What Sr. Lucia wrote to me is being fulfilled today,’” interview by Diane Montagna, Aletia, May 19, 2017, https://aleteia.org/2017/05/19/exclusive-cardinal-caffarra-what-sr-lucia-wrote-to-me-is-being-fulfilled-today/, (accessed January 12, 2023).
In this interview Cardinal Caffarra talks about the letter he received from Sr. Lucia. The quotation he provides is slightly different than in the text above, however it has the same meaning as the one we have provided, and is widely known. In the interview Cardinal Caffarra says: “a time will come when the decisive battle between the kingdom of Christ and Satan will be over marriage and the family. And those who will work for the good of the family will experience persecution and tribulation. But do not be afraid, because Our Lady has already crushed his head.”
4 “Home,” Understanding th Purpose of Marriage, Archdiocese of Cincinnati, accessed January 12, 2023, https://catholicaoc.org/vocations/marriage-and-family-life.
5 William B. May, Getting the Marriage Conversation Right (Ohio: Emmaus Road Publishing, 2012), 5.
6 Paul VI, Gaudium et Spes, n. 47.
7 Raymond Cardinal Burke, “Cardinal Burke says confusion spreading among Catholics ‘in an alarming way’ (full text),” interview with Jeanne Smits, LifeSite, March 24, 2015, https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/exclusive-interview-cardinal-burke-says-confusion-spreading-among-catholics/?fbclid=IwAR2sJaqgbSNgqjg6dIHWQdro-A0Ccz-iiQG4VHO7lhDgyELDfLQLyZ9F37s (accessed January 12, 2023).
8 C.f. CCC 1606
9 C.f. CCC 1609
10 C.f. CCC 2364, which also references Gaudium et Spes n. 48.
11 G.K. Chesterton, “A Defence of Rash Vows,” in The Defendant (Dover Publications, 2012). Abridged version of chapter found at The Society of G.K. Chesterton (accessed January 12, 2023).
12 Christoph Cardinal Schonborn, “Foreword,” in Man and Woman He Created Them, John Paul II, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1997), xxv.
Cardinal Schonborn’s foreword talks of how one of Saint John Paul II’s key goals in his Theology of the Body catechesis was a defence of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humane Vitae, which is centred on conjugal love.
13 Mt 5: 27-28