Several years ago, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a pastoral letter entitled Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan[i]. This document clearly explains the central points of Catholic teaching on marriage. In addition, it identifies the contemporary challenges to marriage and how the Church addresses those challenges.
Following is a summary of the seven themes that form the structure of the letter:
- Theme 1: A Natural and Supernatural Union
Marriage is a natural blessing or gift given by God the Creator. It is to be received with gratitude to God and lived according to His plan. The spouses are called to give themselves to each other and to accept each other completely. Marriage benefits the community through the bearing and rearing of children and serving the needs of others.
Christ restored and elevated marriage between two baptized people to a sacrament. Christian marriage is a sign of Christ’s love for the Church. Christian spouses help each other to grow in holiness and lead each other to heaven.
- Theme 2: Unique Union of a Man and a Woman
The creation stories in Genesis chapters 1 and 2 show that man and woman are created in God’s image and equal in dignity: “male and female He created them” (Gn 1:27). Both sexes are necessary for God’s plan for marriage. A husband and wife uniquely complement each other and are made for each other: “bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn 2:23). Only a man and a woman can form the intimate union of love and life called marriage. The couple is called to love like God by giving themselves to each other. Their union is unique because of its potential to bring new life into the world.
- Theme 3: Communion of Love and Life
Because men and women are created in the image of God, they are called to love like the Trinity, a communion of persons. Similarly, the husband and wife form a unique communion of persons that brings together the totality of a man and a woman -body, mind, soul – for two, inseparable purposes: unitive (love-giving) and procreative (life-giving).
In exchanging marital consent, the spouses establish a partnership for “the whole of life.” They vow exclusive fidelity and promise openness to the procreation and nurturing of children. By God’s grace, they are empowered to make a “total gift of self” to each other. Sexual intercourse is the physical sign of the supernatural bond formed by the marital covenant between the couple and God. Each act must be open to life; contraception is wrong because it separates the unitive and the procreative purposes of marriage. Natural methods of family planning respect God’s design for married love.
- Theme 4: Sacrament of Christ’s Love
Spousal love participates in and makes present Christ’s love for his Church, thus marital love is to be total, faithful, permanent and fruitful. Matrimony and Holy Orders are the Sacraments at the service of communion by being directed toward the service of others which leads to personal salvation. The grace of the Sacrament of Marriage is that Jesus will help the couple to continue in love even in difficult times when it seems impossible.
- Theme 5: Foundation of the Family and Society
Marriage is the foundation of the family and society. Marital love is life-giving to children, the supreme gift of marriage, the extended family, neighbors and the wider community. Husband and wife create a “domestic church” that mirrors the larger Church community. It is characterized by care for each other and growth in faith and love. Familial love overflows to embrace the world and through service to society, the family helps to build up the Kingdom of God.
- Theme 6: Journey of Human and Spiritual Growth
Human and spiritual growth go together (“Grace builds on nature”). Spiritual growth is a growth in holiness through growing in virtue. For married couples, the goal of their marriage is to image Christ’s unbreakable love for His bride, the Church. The foundational theological virtues are faith, hope and charity. Upon these are built the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
Marriage is a vocation, a call from God. It is as necessary and authentic as other vocations in the Church and is a specific way to respond to the universal call to holiness. It is an imitation of Christ’s self-giving love.
- Theme 7: School of Love and Gratitude
Recognizing each other as God’s gift leads to gratitude which helps the couple to persevere in charity. Gratitude opens the spouses to receive further gifts, especially the gift of children. Christ dwells with the couple, sustaining and renewing their marriage covenant. As the couple grows in Christ’s love, they are changed, becoming a sign of God’s Kingdom. They become a blessing and gift to each other and to the world, a sign of hope in Christ’s power to transform hearts.
The bishops go on to address fundamental challenges that contemporary society poses to the meaning and purpose of marriage. These challenges are:
Each act of intercourse must be open to procreation because the whole meaning of marriage is expressed in each marital act. Contraception closes off the possibility of procreation and separates the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage. This is objectively wrong and opposed to God’s plan for marriage. Deliberately separating these two meanings can damage or destroy the marriage and bring many other negative consequences, both personal and social. Natural family planning methods enable a couple to plan their family in accord with God’s design.
- Same-Sex Unions
Male-female complementarity is essential to marriage. It makes possible authentic union and the generation of new life. Attempts to make same-sex unions the equivalent of marriage disregard the nature of marriage. Since marriage and same-sex unions are different realities, it is not unjust discrimination to oppose the legal recognition of same-sex unions.
Marriage is meant to be a lifelong covenantal union. Troubled couples are encouraged to rely on God’s help and to use the resources of the Church for support and healing. An annulment is a possibility for some divorced persons. This is the determination by a church tribunal, or court, that no valid marriage bond was formed because the requirements for valid consent were not met at the time of the wedding.
Many couples live together in a sexual relationship without marriage. This is always wrong and objectively sinful because the complete gift of self can only take place within the public, permanent commitment of marriage. Cohabitation can have negative effects on couples themselves, as well as any children who are part of the relationship.
Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan is an informative guide to the Church’s teachings on the Sacrament of Marriage. We highly recommend it for individual couple or group study. The USCCB also offers numerous resources to assist in understanding this important teaching on marriage.
[i] Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. USCCB Publishing: Washington, D.C., 2009. ISBN: 9781601370921.