Universitas, Number 9, September 2001
We live in an age where the idea of marriage and the family is constantly challenged. While some still recognize that family life founded on a lifelong bond between a man and woman is a good thing, marriage is widely regarded as too hard in practice. Some seek to redefine the notion of family to include a partnership of two men, two women or other combinations which are alien to the true meaning of family. Recently, one country gave official recognition to homosexual relationships and a public "wedding" was held for several male couples and other female couples. The women "marrying" other women were each dressed up as traditional brides in an attempt to imitate the appearances of marriage while overturning the essence.
Amid these and other confused notions of marriage, it will be well to consider the Catholic teaching on what marriage really is, in both its natural and supernatural dimensions. A good starting point is the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC):
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. (CCC 1601, and Code of Canon Law, 1055 § 1).
It is noteworthy that although Christ has elevated the matrimonial covenant to be a sacrament, the covenant has a natural foundation first of all. Grace builds upon and perfects nature and there would be no sacrament of marriage if there were not first a marriage bond in the natural order, for marriage is natural.
How can marriage be natural when it proceeds from will?
"Natural" may mean of necessity, such as we say that it is the very nature of fire to heat. Clearly, since marriage is a bond between free persons, this is not what is meant when we say marriage is natural. But natural can also mean what nature inclines to, albeit via the exercise of free will. It is in this sense that we say that marriage is natural to man, since human nature inclines to marriage both for the preservation of the species and for the services which the spouses render each other. Man is a social animal and it is in his nature to incline to the society of marriage.
Those who claim marriage isn't natural to man usually do so on one of three accounts. Some regard marriage as no more than an arbitrary human convention, a legal fiction. To answer this we need to see that although the marriage ceremony may take a variety of forms, the institution of marriage is a natural one.
Others who claim to accept Divine revelation say that marriage is exclusively from God's will, so that God could, if he wanted, have decreed the human race to continue without any marriage ever taking place. They might just as well claim that God could have decreed that marriage be between two men, or two women, or three men and four women or any combination at all. In saying that marriage is from the will of God they hold that the natural law is from God's arbitrary will, so that God might just as easily have told us to hate him as to love him, or to murder the innocent rather than protect them. St. Thomas comments that such a doctrine is blasphemous because it puts imperfections in God.
Still others, such as the Manichees, holding to an exaggerated pessimism about man's fallen nature, regard marriage and sexual relations as intrinsically evil, a consequence of the fall. Against these it is enough to point out that the first recorded words addressed by God to man predate the fall and are in the form of a blessing:
And God blessed them, saying "Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth and subdue it" (Gen. 1:42).
When Christ was challenged about divorce being allowed by Moses he pointed out that marriage "was not so in the beginning." He implied that marriage, too, had fallen somewhat with man, but that God's original plan for the human race included marriage, not as a punishment for sin but as a blessing.
Back to the Catechism definition. It speaks of the matrimonial covenant, "by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership for life." Marriage, then, must be between free agents, which means they must be moral adults. Even a marriage arranged by someone other than the spouses is valid provided the partners knowingly and freely give themselves to each other for life in marriage.
The marriage covenant "is, by its nature, ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring." "By its nature", that is, even (in the order of being) before the bestowal of grace, there is a natural order within marriage and that order is both unitive and procreative. In the popular English translation of the prophetic encyclical of Paul VI, Humanae Vitae, there is the quote that every marriage act must remain open to the transmission of life. In recent years the Vatican has amended this expression to give it more force and fidelity to the original and the official English translation now says that "every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life. "
Since it is necessary for the continuation of the human race that new members be born, the human race has, as a race, an obligation to marry. This is not to say that each individual is called to marriage, for many have good reasons why they do not "plight their troth." But the human race must continue and for this it is necessary that children be born. A human child is not merely an animal so it is not enough for children to be born within the limits placed upon us by biology. A child has a right to be born in wedlock. Why is this?
St. Thomas points out that since man is a rational animal, the role of a human parent differs from that of a brute animal because man has to bring his offspring to the maturity of a rational animal. It is not enough for a man and woman to bring children into the world and abandon them. Nor is it sufficient to provide all they need in the physical order, leaving the children to their own devices once they are able to maintain their physical health and wellbeing. The responsibility of human parents extends far beyond the physical order. "For nature intends not only the begetting of offspring, but also its education and development until it reach the perfect state of man as man, and that is the state of virtue." It is immediately obvious why human parents are parents for life since the path of virtue is lifelong. "Now a child cannot be brought up and instructed unless it have certain and definite parents, and this would not be the case unless there were a definite tie between the man and the woman, and it is in this that matrimony consists."
Here we can see the natural foundation for marriage, namely the good of the offspring. And even those who, independent of their wills, are unable to have children, their marriage is still ordered towards the procreation and education of offspring.
But that is not all that marriage is for. Man is a social animal. Aristotle observed that he who lives without human society is either a beast or a god. When a man and woman form a new society, a family, they do so out of love for each other. Naturally enough, love is the foundation of their union and that love is deeper than, but cannot exclude, the emotions. It is the nature of love to sacrifice itself and in giving themselves to one another their love is meant to grow. If they are faithful to their marriage covenant their love will deepen and their union will be strengthened. Clearly, such a union is for their mutual good but it is also good for society as a whole. Marriage is a social act. Think of the immense harm done to society and its relationships by widespread divorce, adultery, infidelity or couples living together without marriage.
Marriage as a Sacrament
Christ raised marriage to the supernatural order so that between the baptized a valid natural marriage necessarily is a sacrament. The sacrament of matrimony between Christians signifies the marriage between Christ, the divine Bridegroom and his spouse, the Church. This was prefigured in the Old Testament when God spoke of his love for Israel in terms of marriage.
"I will espouse thee to me forever, and I will espouse thee to me and justice and judgment, and in mercy and in commiserations, and I will espouse thee to me in faith and thou shalt know that I am the Lord" (Hosea 2:19-20).
This Old Testament covenant was broken repeatedly by man. It is interesting to see that when the Jews asked Christ for a sign of his messiahship he accused them of being not just faithless or perverse as some translations render it, but adulterous. "It is a wicked and adulterous generation that asks for a sign."
There are many references in the New Testament to Christ as the Bridegroom. "A king had a wedding banquet for his son… when the bridegroom is no longer with them they will fast …" Of course there is the key passage on Christian marriage which is found in Ephesians 5 in which St. Paul parallels the marriage of Christ for his bride with the marriage a husband should have for his wife. The Apostle also speaks of Christ's love for his body which he nourished and cherished and made the same demands of husbands in their love for their wives.
In speaking of Holy Communion the Catechism makes a reference to the wedding banquet:
First Holy Communion. Having become a child of God clothed with the wedding garment, the neophyte [convert, "newly planted"] is admitted "to the marriage supper of the Lamb" and receives the food of the new life, the body and blood of Christ.
It is not possible to have a complete understanding of the role of Christ and the Church without a grasp of the place of marriage both as a natural and supernatural covenant. When marriage is regarded with cynicism, the Church also passes through difficult times. And when marriage and the family are given their rightful places, the Church flourishes.
And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband;
Although not all are called to marriage, all are invited to enter into the marriage covenant by their membership in the Church, the Bride of Christ.
The Spirit and the Bride say, "Come." And let him who hears say, "Come." And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price. (Rev. 22:17).
Anthony English is a lecturer at the Centre for Thomistic Studies, in Sydney, Australia.
This article posted September 2001. It was published in Universitas, No. 9 (2001).
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