Sept. 19 is Catechetical Sunday. Each year a new theme is chosen by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to reflect the most pressing and urgent topics relative to catechetical instruction.
The theme this year is “Matrimony: Sacrament of Enduring Love.” I firmly believe this is a most timely topic as many, both in society and even in our church, misunderstand the essential reality of both the natural elements of marriage and its divinely revealed nature as a sacrament.
Today within our culture and throughout the world, contemporary societies do not always support marriage as the fundamental social institution that it is. Being seriously affected by difficult social and economic trends, many couples are forced to struggle in balancing their home and working responsibilities.
In their 2009 pastoral, “Marriage Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the U.S. bishops’ conference lists four contemporary challenges that threaten the very meaning and purposes of marriage: contraception, same-sex unions, divorce and cohabitation. These are areas of great concern for marriage that are not only foundational to our faith but also to the society in which we live.
As a citizen, it is important to understand how marriage, as a union between one man and one woman, has been and continues to be an essential good for our society. In a previous newspaper editorial (StarTribune, April 27, 2010), I addressed the urgent need to protect marriage in our society, and I suggested how this can be best accomplished through a constitutional amendment here in Minnesota. (See: http://www.archspm.org/news-events/news-detail.php?intResourceID=2512.)
However, I now wish to focus precisely on what the Catholic Church teaches us about the truth of marriage, and to address some catechetical points on this topic that may be helpful to us all. In doing so, I hope that our priests and deacons will also reflect on this issue in their homilies on Catechetical Sunday.
Two essential facts
In the Nuptial Blessing of the wedding liturgy of the Catholic Church, we read these moving words:
“Father, to reveal the plan of your love,
you made the union of husband and wife
an image of the covenant between you and your people.
In the fulfillment of this sacrament,
the marriage of a Christian man and woman
is a sign of the marriage between Christ and the Church.”
These words beautifully express two fundamental facts about the sacrament of marriage: 1) God is the author of marriage, and 2) that it is a sign of his love.
Defining marriage as an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman does not in any way deny the inviolable dignity of the human person made in the image and likeness of God. Treating different things differently is not unjust discrimination. Marriage is unique for a reason.
From the beginning, God designed it to be so, as a sign of his love for us. Later, St. Paul expanded the notion to reflect the relationship of Christ for the church (Ephesians 2:32).
So marriage comes from God; that much is clear. But what exactly has God revealed about the ends or purposes of marriage through the teaching office of the church?
The clear and consistent teaching of the church, which corresponds to human reason and natural law, is that God’s design, or purpose, for marriage intends that it be a life-long, mutually exclusive commitment between one man and one woman that is both unitive and procreative.
The term “unitive” expresses the relational aspect of marriage, wherein the husband and wife selflessly give themselves to each other, and by that act, which reflects their exclusive and life-long union, they become “no longer two but one flesh” (Matthew 19:6).
This united way of life has traditionally been signified by a common residence. It is a moment of great joy when a newly married couple, full of dreams, excitement and probably a little fear about their new life together, enter for the first time, as husband and wife, into their new home.
Unfortunately, the widespread practice of cohabitation has robbed many newly married couples of this experience. No longer is a common home synonymous with a life-long commitment of trust, love and joy. Rather, “living together” has so often been reduced to a matter of mere convenience.
Marriage is also “procreative.” Human experience confirms, over and over again, that marriage and the common life it demands are the best context into which new life is brought forth. Marriage is not just for the couple involved. Rather, marriage provides the setting in which new life is formed and nurtured.
How regrettable it is when bringing new life into the world is seen as a burden! To combat this culture of selfishness, we must do all we can to support families who are striving to be open to new life and to bringing children into the world.
The church also teaches clearly that there is an inseparable connection between these two ends, or purposes, which arises from the very nature of conjugal love.
Like marriage itself, each and every conjugal act ought to be an act of mutual self-gift, which means that these acts ought to be open to life. To separate the ends of marriage through artificial contraception, domestic violence or the deliberate use of another for mere sexual gratification, not only violates the law of God, it also denigrates our human dignity. And, as statistics show, it is often women who suffer the most when marriage is reduced to convenience or sex is reduced to pleasure.
I applaud the fact that so many couples in our archdiocese are living their marital commitment with fidelity. Through good times and bad, these couples proclaim the beauty, goodness and truth of marriage as lived out in everyday life.
I am grateful for the witness I see in that fidelity, which in itself reflects the marvelous gift and blessing that we have received from the hand of our Creator. These couples truly are salt of the earth and a light for the world.
Standing up for marriage
All of us, as the Body of Christ, cannot shy away from standing up for the truth about marriage. As Christians, we are confident that a defense of marriage is right and just, as there is no room for compromise with opposing positions that challenge this reality that serves as the very foundation of human society.
Therefore, I encourage all Christians to stand up for their faith and share with others the truth about marriage and the good of family life — both of which flow not only from the Scriptures, but from right reason and the natural law.
In doing so, let the world also know that God is love, and in his love, there is a special plan for husbands and wives.
God bless you!