Friday, 18 May 2012

Back to Basics 2: Catholic Marriage (1)

When my husband Edek and I were engaged, I – a non-Catholic at the time – was given a book called How to Survive being Married to a Catholic.  It set the fundamental teachings of the Church on matrimony out in cartoon strip form and was rather funny as well as very useful.  The page on sex, I remember, began with a cartoon depicting a grim-looking Bishop pointing his crozier in rather threatening fashion at a romantic couple below.  He was perched high atop towering words which read, “NO YOU CAN’T”. 
“NO YOU CAN’T” does rather sum up the impression many both inside and outside the Church have of Catholic teaching on sex and marriage, especially just now with gay partnerships so much in the news.  However, the boundaries that the Church places on sexual relationships arise out of the desire to protect something beautiful, meaningful and overwhelmingly positive.  May I suggest an exploration of the Church’s great big “YES!” to the beauty of human sexual love, taking the quotation below as our starting point.  
It’s too big a topic to cover in one go, though, so will be covered in a trinity of posts (fittingly enough really, as we shall see...)

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 baptised persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.  (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1601)


"The matrimonial covenant..."

The rate of change of modern life can be frightening at times.  It’s not just that we’re advancing so rapidly in technological terms: that in and of itself is a value-free thing which can be turned to good or bad according to the use we make of it.  However, it seems that our approach to every aspect of life has become transitory, marked by impermanence, the desire for change, a mistrust of commitment, a valuing of some nebulous concept we call “progress” at the expense of tradition.  The way we view relationships is no exception.  We cohabit, we expect easy access to divorce; increasingly, children live in single parent families or households where one partner is not their natural parent.  “If it breaks, rather than try to fix it we dispose of it and get a new one” doesn’t just apply to our treatment of toys, socks or computers.

Marriage, in the eyes of the Church, is a covenant.  It is a binding partnership which two parties, the man and the woman, make together in clear recognition that amongst its terms is that of indissolubility – for better, for worse.  Why would two people do that?  Because they recognise that permanence and stability are the only conditions in which love can flourish.  Where the cold winds of conditionality blow, the seedling plant of human love dares not grow and bloom.  “Accept me for who I am” is the clarion call of many these days – well, Catholic marriage is the ultimate manifestation of this desire, a promise of permanent acceptance, even if you mess up or get wrinkly.

That’s exactly the type of relationship that God has had with His people from the very beginning.  The history of humankind as related in the Old Testament is a series of Covenants, made by God so that His people could live in close relationship with Him.  It’s exactly the type of relationship Jesus came to reaffirm and secure when He established the "New Covenant in His blood" - and that's the reason why marriage reflects the union of Christ with His bride, the Church, and with every human soul.  As the Catechism says, 

         Seeing God’s covenant with Israel in the image of exclusive and faithful married love, the prophets prepared the Chosen People’s conscience for a deepened understanding of the unity and indissolubility of marriage.  The books of Ruth and Tobit bear moving witness to an elevated sense of marriage, and to the fidelity and tenderness of spouses.  Tradition has always seen in the Song of Solomon a unique expression of human love, a pure reflection of God’s love – a love “strong as death” that “many waters cannot quench”.  (CCC 1611)
Christ Himself affirms this in Matthew 19:8 when he “unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning: permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts” (CCC 1614).

God’s in it for the long run with each of us, just as he was with Israel throughout its chequered history.  He asks us to be in it for the long run with each other.

“ which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life...”
That’s all very well for God, you might say.  I’m only human and there’s only so much I can or think I should put up with.  (Before going on, it should be said that, of course, in cases of physical or mental abuse this is true and no-one should be asked to remain under the same roof as a spouse who, for example, beats them.)

Such cases aside, marriage does demand it all.  All of you, all of your love.  All your patience, tolerance and forgiveness. It’s because marriage demands it all that it is so wonderful and beautiful, such an unparalleled opportunity for growth and fulfilment as a human being.  “No pain, no gain” does not apply just to the gym.  Push your capacity for virtue and see how your moral muscle power and your heart's ability to pump out love both grow!

We all have bad days... wish I looked
this good when I was having one
God’s nuptial covenant with us brought Him to earth to suffer and die on the Cross so that He and we might enjoy each other in love for all eternity; similarly, married love is sacrificial.  Good marriages work so well because the sacrifice is mutual – the spouses, as encouraged by St Paul, “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).  I don’t need to detail how one makes those sacrifices; big and little, they are called for every day. 

It can help to avoid two traps.  One: you are not two people living under the same roof; you are “one flesh” and each other’s priority (even when there are children on the scene).  Making that a lived reality rather than a pretty idea requires effort.  Two: don’t even vaguely hope for perfection.  God wants you to try for perfection, He helps you get closer to it, but He doesn’t send you packing because you haven't attained it yet.  Give your spouse the same leeway!

“... this covenant between baptised persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament....”

The disciples muttered and murmured amongst themselves when Jesus gave them the news that from here on in, marriage was forever.  It’d be better not to go near a woman in the first place, they decided.  However they were not allowing for the Jesus Factor.  Many engaged couples are told on marriage preparation courses that Jesus is the third person in their marriage.  Through Him, they receive what is known as a “grace of state” – supernatural aid to help them fulfil their vows.  The Catechism puts it beautifully,

          ...Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy – heavier than the Law of Moses.  By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God.  It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to ‘receive’ the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ.  This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life. (CCC 1615)
It’s this presence of Christ in marriage that the Church has recognised in instituting it as a sacrament.  That is, like Baptism or Holy Communion, marriage is a vehicle of God's "grace" or life-changing power. It’s the one sacrament which the Latin Church does not bestow via an ordained minister; the man and woman confer it upon each other, with the minister there as witness on behalf of the Christian community (see CCC 1623).  It has to be bestowed with the free consent of both parties, and we’ll look at that in a further post.

Christians are ambitious for their marriages.  Man and wife, they are working together for a great and glorious ideal – to reflect in the world the love of God for humankind, of Christ for His Church and for every soul.  Together they aspire to offer themselves as a joint vessel of the grace and goodness of the Lord, a sacramental chalice of the Lord’s blood “poured out for many”.  That’s an ambition to make every other goal pale by comparison. 

As a married couple, you form the fabric of a living breathing sacrament.  You are a means through which God acts in the world. Next time you hold your spouse, then, remember how precious, how sacred their flesh is!


 “ by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring...”
We’ve discussed that the stability and acceptance offered by a permanent marriage partnership offers the best environment for the flourishing of the human personality, secure in love and acceptance, and is even a necessary antidote to an increasingly transitory world. Marriage also, the Church teaches, shines a divine light on human nature so that we see it as God intended it.

        The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator.  Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures... These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics.  Although the dignity of this institution is not transparent everywhere with the same clarity, some sense of the greatness of the matrimonial union exists in all cultures.  “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.” (CCC 1604)

What are these "common and permanent characteristics"?  The Church refers back to Scripture, to the opening two chapters of Genesis where we see humanity created as male and female and given the command to be fruitful and multiply; where God sees that it is not good for the man to be alone and gives him woman as a “helpmate”, representing “God from whom comes our help” (CCC 1605).  In fact the human being, in his intrinsic need to love and be loved, is reflecting the nature of God, Three in One, who exists in a permanent relationship of love.  
Marriage reflects this Trinitarian love precisely in its composition as a relationship between man and woman, a relationship which is inherently fruitful (just as the Holy Spirit springs from the love of Father and Son within the Trinity). This is why gay marriage is not “marriage”.  It is a relationship of a different type.  One cannot separate out the procreative aspect of the sexual relationship from the “unitive” or loving aspect without denaturing it... but that will be the subject of one of the two further posts, when the call to have children will be looked at as well and we’ll finish our unpacking of the quotation above!

This is already a very long post and we haven’t covered:
“Free consent” and what about when it all goes wrong?
Sex, love and children

So watch this space!  Further “Back to Basics” are planned on euthanasia and embryo research amongst others but please do let us know if there’s a particular topic you’d like delved into.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Anneli for such a marvellous and beautifully explanation of what marriage is. There is so much...confusion about it it is hard to spearate fact from fiction a lot of the time. I look forward to the next.