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Can Anyone Define Marriage? (Part 1)

Marriage has been redefined by the state, but was there ever a precise definition of marriage? Could reason lead us to such a definition? And who is the competent authority to decide these things?


Cy: Hello and welcome again to Catholic Answers Focus. I am Cy Kellett, your host, and I wonder, can you explain marriage? It’s not unusual today to be asked for your definition of marriage, what makes a marriage a marriage, why do you think that that’s what marriage is? It’s a bit like being asked to define truth or goodness. It’s so fundamental that precise definitions are often difficult to come up with in the moment or to explain and defend. Helping us get a handle on the meaning of marriage today is Father Sebastian Walshe. Father Walshe is a Norbertine priest of the Abbey of Saint Michael up in the diocese of Orange, California where he’s a professor of philosophy for the seminary program. Father Walshe holds a masters in sacred theology and a doctorate in philosophy from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas in Rome, known to you probably as the Angelicum. Hello, father, thank you for being with us.

Fr. Walshe: You’re welcome, Cy. It’s great to be here in studio with you.

Cy: I know. Usually we connect other ways. Would you agree that marriage is one of those things that’s so fundamental, if someone asks you to define it, if you’re just a normal, regular person, you might go, “Well, isn’t it obvious? I don’t have a definition in my back pocket.”

Fr. Walshe: Yeah, I think that’s true. It’s partly because of the fact that people haven’t thought clearly about what marriage is that’s led us to this crisis in marriage today.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: We don’t understand what marriage is. We don’t understand what male and female are anymore. We don’t even understand what “person” is.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: A lot of these fundamental aspects of human experience are left undefined, and therefore unknown, and because unknown, confusion reigns.

Cy: Okay, so if someone says to me … It’s weird how this will actually come up in conversation in a way that you never thought before this was going to come up in conversation. “Okay, then, well, how do you define marriage?” I’m sputtering and doing my usual … Help me out. I say, “Well, I’ll turn to my friend, Father Walshe here.”

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. Well, first, let me give you the traditional definition of marriage in the natural sense.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: Now as Catholics, we understand marriage as a sacrament and there’s a further aspect of the definition. I’ll get to that in a little bit.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: But first, the natural understanding of marriage that’s been common to all civilizations at all time and in the history of our human race. Here’s that definition: Marriage is a lifelong communion of a husband and his wife established by their free consent for the sake of the generation and the education of children.

Cy: No wonder I would sputter. That’s a lot. Okay. A lifelong communion …

Fr. Walshe: Of a man and a woman, you could say.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: Established by their free consent for the sake of the generation and education of children.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: That’s a classical definition of marriage and its got different parts. If you were an Aristotelian, you could talk about the four causes involved in that definition, but that might be a little bit too much for a radio show. In any case, the part that’s in dispute today is the last part, what we would call the purpose, the final cause of marriage.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: Just as the purpose of anything tells you about the rest of it, so also the final cause, or the purpose, of marriage tells you about the rest of it. Let me give a simple example.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: If I tell you what the purpose of a knife is, it’s something to cut. Immediately, you know everything else about it. Well, it’s got to be hard and sharp, and if it’s going to be handheld it’s got to have a handle, and then a blade.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: You know about its form, you know about its matter, you know its shape, etc, from its purpose.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: The same way with marriage, if the purpose of marriage is the generation and the education of children, well, right away I see why it’s got to be a man and a woman, because obviously generating children doesn’t happen naturally without a man and a woman.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: I also see why it’s got to be lifelong, because educating children is a lifelong endeavor. A lifelong endeavor. Even when you’re in your sixties and seventies and all the way to the end of your life, you’re offering to your children an example of how to live the next stage in their life.

Fr. Walshe: You even teach your children how to die well. And so really marriage has to be lifelong because you’re giving an example your entire life to your children.

Cy: Yes. Okay. I have to say, though, I mean, we’ll get to some objections about this, but even the immediate Catholic objection that I think that a lot of listeners will have will be, “You didn’t say anything … You’re talking about the procreative. You didn’t really say anything about the unitive.”

Fr. Walshe: Yeah.

Cy: Is that because we’re involved with natural marriage here and not supernatural…

Fr. Walshe: No.

Cy: No? Okay.

Fr. Walshe: No. There’s a unitive aspect. Remember I included in the definition the word “communion.”

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: “A lifelong communion.” Let me talk about the … What’s the difference between a communion and, say, a community? A community is a multitude of persons, like say Catholic Answers, where everyone’s striving for a common goal. Okay? Even the city of Pasadena would be a community. A communion is a multitude of persons in which each person somehow lives the life of every other person, right? A friendship would be a communion. A family, a marriage. The church is a communion because we all live the same life of Christ. In Holy Communion we receive Christ. Most especially the Trinity and heaven is a communion. In each case there is a unity of life there. And that communion is intimately bound up with the procreative aspect of marriage. Why? Because when you enter into a relationship that’s for the sake of generating children, even if no children happen to come about, you have said to your spouse, “I am willing to enter into an eternal union with you, because when a child comes about, that child’s an immortal soul,” and therefore you will always be related as a father and mother of that child. And the very fact you’re open to life means, “I’m open to entering into this eternal union.” The procreative gives the deepest meaning to the communion, the sharing of life. It becomes incarnated in the very attempt to bring new life of new children into being.

Cy: That communion, you can see in the way you organize that definition, that communion is good for the spouses because communion is what humans are made for.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: But that it’s essential for the children.

Fr. Walshe: Yeah.

Cy: If the parents are not involved in a communion with one another, something essential is missing for those children.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. Absolutely. In fact, when I do marriage preparation for young couples I tell them, “Engrave these words in your heart. You cannot love your children except through your spouse” and right away they understand that. Children understand instinctively, they’d rather have their parents yell at them 10 times than see their parents yell at each other. You know?

Cy: Yes. I see what you mean. Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: A child sees that they’re equally from each parent, and so unless there’s unity among the parents the children themselves will feel like a division in their own heart. It’s amazing.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: If the father rejects the mother, then the part of the child that’s from the mother can’t feel loved by the father. If the mother rejects the father, the part of the child that’s from the father can’t feel loved by the mother. So in order for the children to experience love, they have to see the parents loving one another. You cannot love your children except through your spouse. It’s really true.

Cy: All right, so this, you said, is a natural definition of marriage. That means it applies to every human meaning.

Fr. Walshe: Yes. That’s right.

Cy: If I live on an island in the Pacific or in India, Africa, Europe, America, wherever, this applies to me.

Fr. Walshe: Yes, absolutely.

Cy: Okay. What’s the supernatural, then? Does that change the definition of marriage?

Fr. Walshe: It specifies it, I would say. It doesn’t contradict it. It’s not an alternative parallel definition, it’s a specifying definition. Because what we find out through revelation is that God intended marriage and family to be more than just a communion to bring new physical human life into the world.  He intended to be a sacrament, that is, a sign of the union of God and man, of Christ and the Church, and even the union of the divinity and the humanity in the Incarnation. Okay? The Fathers of the Church talk about that, the union of the divine and the human in the womb of the Virgin Mary, as a marriage that took place right in the womb of Mary; the marriage tent, so to speak, of Mary’s womb. So God intended the union of husband and wife to be furthermore a sacrament, a sacred sign, of the union of God and man. And this is a second reason, even more powerful, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, why marriage must be indissoluble: because it’s intended by God to signify the indissoluble union between God and man, God’s love, which is given and never taken back.

Cy: Okay, so…I don’t want to shock you. That is not what the modern world believes about marriage.

Fr. Walshe: Yeah.

Cy: Maybe you could give us the contrast because …

Fr. Walshe: Sure.

Cy: This is a very clear definition, very helpful. You can see how well reasoned-out it is. I suppose it’s taken a long time to get all that reasoning down. I think thousands of years. You mentioned Aristotle and Aquinas, and that’s a lot of work people did.

Fr. Walshe: Yeah, absolutely.

Cy: I’m saying that because… I’m not a complete idiot because I can’t reason that all out on myself. We do need help.

Fr. Walshe: We stand on the shoulders of giants, even with regard to the most fundamental concepts of our life.

Cy: Right, right. Okay. Could you give us a contrast, then, between that well-established traditional view of the definition of marriage and the modern idea of marriage?

Fr. Walshe: Yes. Yes. Absolutely. First of all, I’m going to lay out three different objections here and try to briefly answer each one of them. One of the main views of marriage today is that marriage is not for the sake of the generation and education of children, but for emotional or romantic fulfillment or something like that. The purpose of marriage ends up being some kind of fulfillment at the emotional, romantic level. It changes the purpose of marriage there. Another modern understanding is that marriage is therefore not indissoluble, because obviously if you stop loving one another, and the purpose of marriage is to feel loved, then you should move on to get your new spouse or whatever else.

Cy: Yeah. Right. Once that’s gone, what’s the point of this?

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: Then there’s a final objection that comes up very frequently and that is, “Well, how is it possible for your definition of marriage to stand, that traditional definition, when even the Catholic church admits that elderly and infertile couples can marry? So how could marriage possibly be for the sake of the generation and education of children?”

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: Let me go backwards through those objections and just answer each one of them in turn.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: When I say that marriage is for the sake of the generation and education of children, notice the definition does not say that marriage is between persons who can have children but only that marriage is for the sake of generating children and then educating once they’ve been generated.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: Let’s take a simple example. A blind eye. Is a blind eye for the sake of seeing? Of course it is. Can it see? No. Is an infertile orange tree for the sake of producing oranges? Absolutely. Can it produce oranges? Sadly, not.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: But it still fulfills the definition of an orange tree because it’s for the sake of bringing about oranges. In the same way, an infertile couple can enter into a union, which is intrinsically for the sake of generating children, even if they’re unable to. “Unable” does not equal “for the sake of,” or “able” does not equal “for the sake of.” Those are not equivalent concepts.

Cy: A knife is for the sake of cutting even if it never cuts anything.

Fr. Walshe: That’s right.

Cy: Okay. Got you.

Fr. Walshe: In fact, the English word “broken” means it’s for the sake of and unable. The two are perfectly compatible.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: An infertile couple can certainly get into something which is for the sake of generating children, even though they’re unable to. And there might be reasons why that that’s still perfective of their nature. I’ll come back to that in a minute. But the main thing to see is that those are not incompatible concepts.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: So when an infertile couple promises to one another the exclusive right over their bodies for the acts that are apt to generate children, intrinsically or to generating children, they’ve entered into something which of its nature is for the sake of generating children. Just like a man who might be a car collector and unable to drive; when he’s buying something, collecting a car, which is for the sake of driving–even if he’s unable to drive, he’s still buying a car. He’s still getting into a car. And the infertile couple, the elderly couple, are still getting into something which is intrinsically for the sake of generating children. A sign of that is that every marriage involves some agreement about the reproductive act. Two people just agreeing to share rent together, that’s not marriage.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: Every marriage, even for infertile couples, means that there’s an agreement of exclusivity with regard to the reproductive act. So it’s intrinsically ordered to generating children regardless of whether or not you can. Okay, that’s one response.

Cy: Got it.

Fr. Walshe: Okay. Secondly, what about this idea that marriage is not lifelong? How do you deal with that question? Marriage is not lifelong?

Fr. Walshe: Well, again, if you look at the purpose of marriage, you say: since it’s for the sake of generating and educating children, and education of children is really lifelong, therefore marriage should be lifelong, but then you raise the objection, “Well, what if they don’t have children?” Still, that communion is perfective of human nature. If an orange tree can blossom, but it can’t actually bear oranges it’s better for it to at least blossom.

Cy: Yeah. Okay.

Fr. Walshe: In the same way, human nature is perfected by living in a communion that’s lifelong. In fact, every friendship, by its nature, is lifelong. When’s the last time you said to a friend, “Hey, let’s be friends for four years.”

Cy: Yeah. Okay.

Fr. Walshe: Every friendship isn’t that way. Now, all the more so, the communion between a husband and his wife. It may not be the full perfection of marriage because they’re unable to have children, and probably in a case like that adoption is something that can help perfect their marriage.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: But nevertheless, even if you don’t have the full perfection of marriage, you still have this idea that it’s perfective of human nature to be in a lifelong communion with someone that’s ordered to the generation of children. So in and of itself, it’s still lifelong, regardless of whether or not the children come.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: Now all the more so with sacramental marriage, because even without children, you’re a sign of the union of Christ in his Church, the divine and the human.

Cy: Right. Once you’re bearing that, once you’re a sign of something so noble and lofty, then…

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. The sacramental marriage is even clearer than natural marriage.

Cy: Okay.

Fr. Walshe: One last point, and that’s the objections about love. Is marriage for the sake of love, or is it for the sake of children? That’s an interesting question.

Cy: Yes.

Fr. Walshe: No doubt a good marriage involves love. That’s implied in the definition, right? The definition says it’s a communion. A communion involves love. The definition says it’s by free consent. That certainly involves love.

Cy: Right.

Fr. Walshe: The definition says it’s for the sake of generating and educating children. Would you want to have children with just anyone? Certainly implied in the definition of marriage is the fact that for it to be good there must be love. But we can’t confuse the motive–why people enter into marriage–with the intrinsic purpose of marriage. To give a simple example, the intrinsic purpose of medicine is to heal. The art of medicine is to heal. The motive why someone might enter would be, maybe, money. Maybe a guy wants to be a doctor because he wants to be rich, but he doesn’t study medicine the way he studies business, right? He enters into something that’s intrinsically for the sake of healing, and if he starts to make medicine about making money instead of healing, it ruins medicine. The same thing happens in marriage. Your motive for getting into marriage may well be love. In fact, for most people it is. But what you’re getting into is intrinsically, on its own merits, for the sake of the generation and education of children, and you’ll do better as a married couple if you focus on that part of it and then realize love is a property that comes out of it that makes the marriage good.

Cy: Yeah.

Fr. Walshe: I don’t define a man by virtue or health. Those are things that make a man good. Right? I don’t define marriage by love. That’s what makes a marriage good, and absolutely love should be in marriage; but don’t make it the purpose of marriage, because then we run into this situation where people think, “I’m not loving you anymore. My marriage is over.” No, you’re married regardless of whether or not you continue to love that person, and you have an obligation to come back and try to love that person precisely because you’ve entered into something intrinsically lifelong.

Cy: It’s extraordinary. Really. You just wish people would spend more time thinking about what this thing … Well, I mean, I guess that’s part of what the Church wants, is for people to spend more time thinking about this, but there will be objections in the modern world and across the world that don’t emerge from the modern, having to do with plural marriage, having to do with same-sex marriage, having to do with the question of whether consent is really required in marriage. Many people forget that’s actually a major question in much of the world.

Fr. Walshe: Yes.

Cy: Could I invite you to have another conversation with me?

Fr. Walshe: Absolutely. We’ll cover those things in the next conversation.

Cy: OK. Father Sebastian Walshe is our guest. You’re listening to Catholic Answers Focus and I am Cy Kellett, your host. If you enjoy Focus, would you please give us a like or share us wherever you get your podcasts, whether you get it at Apple or Google or wherever else people get their podcasts. If you give us a a like and a share that really helps us grow. Also, we’d love you to be a member of Radio Club. If you’re a member of Radio Club you get a notice every time one of these new Focus episodes is available. To join Radio Club just go to CatholicAnswersLive.com, scroll down, put your email address in, and we just start sending you free stuff. You don’t have to do anything else. You just get free stuff. We’ll see you next time, God willing, on Catholic Answers Focus.

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