National Marriage Week starts today, culminating in St. Valentine’s Day and coinciding with “World Marriage Day,” observed the second Sunday of February. Its secular rationale is to “mobilize individuals, organizations, and businesses in common purpose to strengthen marriage in communities and convey what the social sciences clearly tell us: marriage leads to greater wealth, health, longevity, and happiness.”
The Catholic perspective does not deny those utilitarian personal and social benefits, but it adds the perspective that comes from the Church teaching that matrimony is a sacrament instituted by Christ to give grace.
Researchers (like the National Marriage Project) have for decades been amassing data that marriage is essential to the personal, familial, children’s, and social good. However, woefully little of that information has been translated into concrete policies to strengthen marriage. Furthermore, in recent years, particularly in the civil controversy over “homosexual marriage,” public thought about what “marriage” means has gone in contradictory directions. Arguably, marriage is now “whatever two people think it is and the government of the moment accepts.”
Our perspective here is Catholic, yet even among Catholics living in modern society, not a small amount of confusion reigns as to what marriage is. Our society blithely throws around the line “love is love,” neither defining what “love” is nor acknowledging that not everything done in the name of love is loving.
Love is, first and foremost, an act of the will. It is not—at least not in its highest form—an emotion or a feeling, which ebbs and flows. That’s not to say that emotions and feelings do not play important parts in our lives. They do. But love is a decision, and we can decide things regardless of how we feel about them. There are lots of things I do because I ought to, even if I don’t feel like doing them. If, in the final analysis, love is not a decision, but an emotion, then Jesus’ greatest commandments make no sense: I may not “feel” like loving my neighbor, but the Lord didn’t make that commandment contingent on my feelings.
Catholicism attaches central value to decisions about marriage: the sacrament occurs when fiancés give and receive mutual consent by exchanging vows. The Church also takes those vows seriously: they’re not pretty poetry, but the real terms of what is to bind these two people “until death do us part.”
Now, marriage as a sacrament is of the Church. It was instituted by Christ and reflects his relationship, as eternal bridegroom, with his bride, the Church (Eph. 5). What marriage is is independent of the spouses: they do not “create” marriage but come to celebrate marriage in the Church. The reality of marriage precedes them and does not depend on them.
Pope Pius XI spoke to this question in his encyclical Casti Connubii. The circumstances under which Casti Connubii was written—namely, the decision of the Anglicans to abandon 1,900 years of received Christian teaching about contraception—have overshadowed the fact that the encyclical also provides a comprehensive vision of what marriage is and how Catholic Christianity has understood, taught, and lived marriage through its history.
Pius turns attention to the question of consent. He makes it clear that when one comes to the Church to be married, a Catholic’s consent is about whom he is marrying, not what marriage is. In other words, Adam can decide whether he wants to marry at all and, if he does, to marry Eve or Alina.
But—contrary to the emerging trend in civil society—a Catholic is not free to redefine marriage. His “freedom, however, regards only the question of whether” he wishes “to enter upon matrimony or to marry this particular person; but the nature of matrimony is entirely independent of the free will of man,” and man is “subject” to its “essential properties” (6).
And what does the Church teach are those “essential properties” of marriage? Pope St. Paul VI lists them in another encyclical, Humanae Vitae. They are human, total (and exclusive), permanent, and fruitful (9).
1. Marriage is “human” in that spouses are human beings. That might seem obvious, but it’s not—especially in today’s world. They are not angels. They are beings with souls and bodies . . . and what they do with those bodies is relevant. Their bodies are essential to who they are; their bodies are not sub-personal tools.
2. Marriage is “total”—i.e., given completely to another. That totality demands exclusivity, because exclusivity is what love requires. Adam can pick Eve or Mary, not both simultaneously. That is why the Church opposed polygamy, whether in its traditional form or in the “polyamory” rearing its ugly head in some American circles.
3. Marriage is permanent—i.e., indissoluble. Love is permanent, which is why the Church asks fiancés freely to accept the marriage vows “as long as we both shall live.” Adam cannot say “I love you, Eve, for ten years, with an option on another ten and a six-month cancelation clause.” Sounds laughable, right? Visit an American divorce court.
4. Marriage is fruitful—i.e., connected to life. I cannot love the other without loving the other totally, which is to say as a potential parent. Otherwise, I say, “I love you, but not your fertility (at least not right now)—let’s change that about you.” The connection between marriage and fruitfulness is most under stress in modern society, as some people want to cut an absolute line between the two. This is never how the Church understood marriage and, frankly, is not how any group of Christians understood marriage for the first 1,900 years of Christianity. (Remember the reference to the Anglicans above?) If, despite all the other things that divided Christians through twenty centuries, they could all agree that marriage and parenthood go together, it says a lot about what is the true Christian understanding.
Because of all these things, it also follows from a Catholic (and natural law) view that marriage is sexually differentiated. That the encyclicals do not explicitly speak about this means that the Church saw sexual differentiation’s relationship with marriage as obvious and essential to the other elements listed above, particularly fruitfulness.
These elements are essential to a Catholic marriage, so much so that—without them—there is no marriage. A Catholic cannot enter into a valid marriage with Eve and Mary simultaneously. A Catholic cannot enter a valid marriage with the understanding that either one of us can subsequently renege on our vows and “marry” somebody else. A Catholic cannot enter a valid marriage intending to foreclose any possibility of being a parent.
That is what Catholic marriage is, always has been understood to be, and will continue to be as understood by the Church. It’s what Catholics celebrate this “National Marriage Week” and “World Marriage Day.”