Why We Care About Marriage (Part 3)

26 Aug

As we discussed in the previous post, marriage is a sign of God as the eternal exchange of love before time began.  Marriage represents this truth because the husband and wife commit and give themselves as a gift to each other. The married couple images God as a communion of persons.  God’s wisdom in establishing marriage as a union between one man and one woman did not stop with signifying Him “as it was in the beginning.” Marriage also signifies God as He “is now.” We have come to experience and know God through time, and so this is the second aspect I would like to explore.

Marriage is a sign of God’s loving existence during time.  In fact, St. Paul reminds us that “when the fullness of time had come, God sent His son . . .” (Gal. 4:4).  Every sacramentally married couple is called to be a sign of Christ’s love for the Church.  By the way a married couple loves each other, they bear witness to the reality that God is a God who is passionately in love with His People, faithful to His promises, and generously merciful and life-giving.

In fact, this truth is at the core of the vows that the bride and groom exchange at the altar. The vows are what establish the sacrament. No vows, no sacrament. The couple has to promise to love each other in the same way that Christ loves the Church. If they are not willing to do that , then they do not become a sacrament.  Let’s look at those vows more intently.

If you have not been to a Catholic wedding recently, let me refresh your memory.  The priest or deacon who is officiating the wedding asks the couple three questions.  The couple is asked is they have come freely.  Next, the couple is asked if they promise to be faithful to one another, and finally, the couple is asked if they will be fruitful and receive children lovingly from God.  Freely, faithfully, and fruitfully are the three hallmarks of Christ’s love for the Church, so for Her part, the Church is doing its due diligence to make sure the couple is not being tricked in any way.  The Church is essentially asking the couple, “Do you want to be a sacrament?  Do you want to be a sign of Christ’s love for the Church?  If you do, we will proceed to the exchange of the vows.”

First, what is it about freedom that is so important?  If you remember the night before Christ died, He said, that he lays His life down freely.  The couple has to be offering their lives freely as a total gift to one another.  So, if someone is already married, they are not free to give their life away as it already belongs to someone else.  We recognize this principle in everything else.  For instance, if I freely give my car away to someone, and I sign all the paper work to make it legally binding, then I cannot take that car back and then tell someone else that I am giving them the car.  We call that stealing, and I could end up in jail for taking that car.  The car is no longer mine to give.  If we recognize this principle with a simple material good like a car, how much more important is it to recognize the dignity of the humans involved to make sure they are free to give their lives away.  A previous marriage is not the only thing that can hinder a person’s freedom to marry, but it is a common one.

This freedom sheds light on why the Church has its teaching on divorce and remarriage.  Once someone is married, while they may get civilly divorced, they cannot separate what God has joined together in the sacrament.  The only way that a person in this situation would be free to marry is if it were determined that the couple never had a sacramental marriage.  Without getting into a total discourse on canon law, that is the basic principle involved in what Catholics call “annulments.”  Annulments are not “catholic divorce,” but they are a declaration that a sacramental marriage never actually occurred.

The question of faithfulness is perhaps the least controversial. This seems like an obvious question that someone desiring to marry should answer in the affirmative. The Church, however, is not simply asking the question of whether or not the couple is intending to be faithful to one another for the whole of their earthly life because it is a nice quality to have in a marriage, but rather, faithfulness is the direct signification of Christ’s love for the Church as revealed on the Cross. Jesus Christ is faithful to His Bride, the Church, even to the point of dying for her. He died even though He did nothing to deserve it.  Even when His people are unfaithful and sin against Him, reject Him, and turn to idols as their greatest love, Christ still offers His Body to His Bride and says to her, “I will not abandon you, and I will not forget you. Nothing can change that!”

Faithful love for one another in “good times and bad, in sickness and health”  is how a married couple live out the high calling of being a sign of Christ’s love for the Church. Adultery is a clear violation of marital fidelity, whether the adultery is with another person or a pornographic image on a screen. Yet faithful love is more than simply “not having an affair.” True, faithful love is the daily offering of one’s life for the good of the spouse. Some couples do this better than others, but the important thing is that the couple intends this type of love when they make their vows. If the bride or groom does not intend to love permanently through the end of their earthly life, and in their heart intend to love like that only until the age of 43, then a sacrament has not occurred.

One of my great heroes of living this type of faithful love is a good friend of mine, Curt. Curt’s wife, Annie, was diagnosed with a very rare and aggressive form of cancer this past spring. The treatment has involved an equally aggressive attack on the cancer which has included numerous stays in the hospital. While I cannot go into every detail of their experience here, Curt has been a shining icon of Christ’s love for the Church in the ways he has supported Annie through this experience.

Annie, for her part, has been an equally heroic figure in the humility in which she has allowed Curt to share in her sufferings and relied on his support and encouragement. The picture of Curt and Annie is exactly the picture of what happens when a human turns to Christ. Cancer attacks the body like sin attacks the soul. Christ’s mercy offered is the exact remedy that heals us from this “spiritual cancer of sin.” Like Annie allows her husband to support her, we are called to allow Christ to help us by accepting His gift of mercy.

Finally, the couple vows to be open to the gift of children from God. God’s love gives life, and so if the couple desires to be a sign of Christ’s love for the Church, then they commit to being open to God’s gift of life through the act of intercourse. Each time the married couple comes together through intercourse, God intends that act to be a renewal of the vows they exchange at the altar. This means the act must be “open to life.” Whether or not God blesses the act with an actual child is at His choosing, but the couple cannot purposely frustrate the life-giving act through contraception or sterilization.

The Church does not want any couple to break their vows to one another, and that is why it has teachings against contraception and sterilization.  The dignity of the sexual act and the couple is always at the forefront of the Church’s teaching on any matter of marriage, and this is no different. This is a hard teaching in our culture given the widespread availability of contraception and sterilizing procedures, but like a good mother, the Church is there to protect her children and echo the love of God for His children who does not wish to see any of His children surrender their dignity for the sake of convenience.  Obviously, most couples who are contracepting or have themselves sterilized are not intending to break their wedding vows, or they would not do it. It is not that the Church has been silent on this matter, but unfortunately, its voice has been drowned out by the all too often louder voices in the culture that distract us from hearing the gentle whisper of the Holy Spirit in our conscience. Through prayer and study, I came to understand and love the Church’s teaching on this aspect of marital love, and now I recognize the voice of my shepherd who guides me. I am confident that anyone who sincerely seeks to understand and listen to the shepherd’s voice will come to cherish it and gain a whole new appreciation of human and marital dignity in the process.

Equally difficult teachings that are often misunderstood by the popular culture are the teachings that the Church has against homosexual activity and masturbation.  At the heart of these teachings is the reverence for the ability to co-create life with God that is woven into the very design of man and woman. The physical body reveals that under normal human function, the body is created to give life with a person of the opposite sex. A homosexual act  cannot result in the creation of new life, and therefore cannot rise to meet one of the very important promises of marriage. Masturbation cannot result in new life either, therefore, reason tells us that it cannot be part of God’s design for the human person. It is not an “other-centered act” but rather it focuses on self.  The design of marriage revealed through the body is that God desires us to be other-centered.

New life potential obviously raises the difficult question of infertility.  The skeptic would say that there is no difference between an infertile heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple or an act of masturbation because none of them result in new life. The difference is in the fact that the infertile couple simply has an issue of something not working properly, whereas the other two situations could never result in new life even if everything is working correctly. This is not to demean anyone, but it is simply a matter that we believe the body matters. The body reveals the soul and the union of a man and woman in sexual intercourse in marriage has significance beyond that of good of sexual pleasure.

Saint John Paul II said it best, “Couples are a permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross.” (Familiaris Consortio) God has a beautiful plan for marriage, and He has given every man and woman a great affirmation of how much He trusts them when He allows the married couple to be a sign of His own love for the Church, and yet, every sacramentally married couple when they offer their lives freely to one another, vow to be faithful to one another, and open themselves to receive children lovingly from God does this. We have nothing to fear, though, because as the popular Christian song proclaims, “His grace is enough!”

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