A Basic Theology of Marriage
by Christopher West
century witnessed significant developments in the Church’s
theology of marriage, beginning with Pope Pius XI’s 1930
encyclical Casti Connubii, passing through the Second Vatican
Council and Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, and
culminating in the manifold writings and original insights of
Pope John Paul II. In fact, over two thirds of what the Catholic
Church has ever said about marriage in her two thousand year
history has come from John Paul II’s pontificate.
Vatican Council marked a shift from a merely “juridical”
presentation of marriage, typical of many previous Church
pronouncements, to a more “personalist” approach. In other
words, rather than focusing merely on the objective “duties,”
“rights,” and “ends” of marriage, the Council Fathers emphasized
how these same duties, rights, and ends are informed by the
intimate, interpersonal love of the spouses. “Such love, merging
the human and the divine, leads the spouses to a free and mutual
gift of themselves, a gift providing itself by gentle affection,
and by deed; such love pervades the whole of their lives,
growing better and growing greater by its generosity.”
conjugal love is a “merging of the human and the divine” is the
task of a theology of marriage. While much more can and should
be said than this article allows, we can at least present a
basic marital theology. We’ll start with a definition of
marriage gleaned from Vatican II and Canon Law, and then explain
each of its points.
Definition of Marriage
Marriage is the
intimate, exclusive, indissoluble communion of life and love
entered by man and woman at the design of the Creator for the
purpose of their own good and the procreation and education of
children; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised
by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.
communion of life and love: Marriage is the closest and most
intimate of human friendships. It involves the sharing of the
whole of a person’s life with his/her spouse. Marriage calls for
a mutual self-surrender so intimate and complete that spouses –
without losing their individuality – become “one,” not only in
body, but in soul.
communion of life and love: As a mutual gift of two persons to
each other, this intimate union excludes such union with anyone
else. It demands the total fidelity of the spouses. This
exclusivity is essential for the good of the couple’s children
communion of life and love: Husband and wife are not joined by
passing emotion or mere erotic inclination which, selfishly
pursued, fades quickly away. They are joined in authentic
conjugal love by the firm and irrevocable act of their own will.
Once their mutual consent has been consummated by genital
intercourse, an unbreakable bond is established between the
spouses. For the baptized, this bond is sealed by the Holy
Spirit and becomes absolutely indissoluble. Thus, the Church
does not so much teach that divorce is wrong, but that divorce
is impossible, regardless of its civil implications.
Entered by man
and woman: The complementarity of the sexes is essential to
marriage. There is such widespread confusion today about the
nature of marriage that some would wish to extend a legal
“right” to marry to two persons of the same sex. The very nature
of marriage makes such a proposition impossible.
At the design of
the Creator: God is the author of marriage. He inscribed the
call to marriage in our very being by creating us as male and
female. Marriage is governed by his laws, faithfully transmitted
by his Bride, the Church. For marriage to be what it is, it must
conform to these laws. Man, therefore, is not free to change the
meaning and purposes of marriage.
For the purpose
of their own good: “It is not good that the man should be alone”
(Gn 2:18). Conversely, it’s for their own good, for their
benefit, enrichment, and ultimately their salvation, that a man
and woman join their lives in marriage. Marriage is the most
basic expression of the vocation to love that all men and women
have as persons made in God’s image.
procreation and education of children: “By their very nature,
the institution of marriage itself and conjugal love are
ordained for the procreation and education of children and find
in them their ultimate crown.” Children are not added on to
marriage and conjugal love, but spring from the very heart of
the spouses mutual self-giving, as its fruit and fulfillment.
Intentional exclusion of children, then, contradicts the very
nature and purpose of marriage.
marriage involves a legal contract, this must be subordinate to
the spousal covenant which provides a stronger, more sacred
framework for marriage. A covenant goes beyond the minimum
rights and responsibilities guaranteed by a contract. A covenant
calls the spouses to share in the free total, faithful, and
fruitful love of God. For it is God who, in the image of his own
Covenant with his people, joins the spouses in a more binding
and sacred way than any human contract.
The dignity of a
sacrament: Marriage between baptized persons is an efficacious
sign of the union between Christ and the Church, and, as such,
is a means of grace (see below for a more thorough discussion).
The marriage of two non-baptized persons, or of one baptized
person and one non-baptized person, is considered by the Church
a “good and natural” marriage. While not sacramental, such
marriages are holy unions that share in the same goods and
purposes of sacramental marriage.
Centrality of Marriage in God’s Plan
begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and
likeness of God and concludes with a vision of the ‘wedding
feast of the Lamb.’ Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and
its ‘mystery,’ its institution and the meaning God has given it,
its origin and its end, ...the difficulties arising from sin,
and its renewal ‘in the Lord.’” Throughout the Old Testament,
God’s love for his people is described as the love of a husband
for his bride. In the New Testament, Christ embodies this love.
He comes as the Heavenly Bridegroom to unite himself
indissolubly to his Bride, the Church.
is not a peripheral issue in the Christian life. It finds itself
right at the heart of the Christian mystery and, by means of its
grand analogy, serves to illuminate it. All analogies are
inadequate in their attempts to communicate God’s mystery. Yet,
speaking of marriage and the family John Paul states, “In this
entire world there is not a more perfect, more complete image of
God, Unity and Community. There is no other human reality which
corresponds more, humanly speaking, to that divine mystery.”
Pope John Paul II
goes so far as to say that we cannot understand the Christian
mystery unless we keep in mind the “great mystery” involved in
the creation of man as male and female and the vocation of both
to conjugal love. According to the analogy, God’s eternal
plan is to “marry” us (see Hos 2:19). He wanted this eternal
plan to be so present to us that he stamped an image of it in
our very being by creating us male and female and calling us to
Female: Image of the Trinity
The human person
is made in God’s image (see Gn 1:27). John Paul II brings a
dramatic development to Catholic thinking by positing this image
not only in our humanity as individuals, but also in the
communion of male and female.
As John Paul II
says, “God is love and in himself he lives a mystery of personal
loving communion. Creating the human race in his own image,
...God inscribed in the humanity of man and woman the vocation,
and thus the capacity and responsibility, of love and communion.
Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every
human being.” The Pope continues, “Christian revelation
recognizes two specific ways of realizing the vocation of the
human person, in its entirety, to love: marriage, and virginity
or celibacy. Either one is in its own proper form an actuation
of the most profound truth of man, of his being ‘created in the
image of God.’”
and Christian celibacy are not in conflict, but stem from the
very same call to the sincere gift of self in “nuptial” love.
Every man is called, in some sense, to be both a husband and a
father. Every woman is called, in some sense, to be both a wife
and a mother. This is why the terms husband, wife, father,
mother, brother, and sister are applicable to both marriage and
the celibate vocation. Both, in different but complementary
ways, form us into the one family of God.
Marriage is an
earthly foreshadowing of the heavenly reality of love and
communion. When Christ calls some to celibacy “for the sake of
the kingdom” (Mt 19:12), he calls some to “leapfrog” over the
sacrament in order to devote all of their desires for union to
the marriage that alone can satisfy: the heavenly marriage of
Christ and the Church.
Sacrament of Christ & the Church
The marriage of
Christians is a sacrament by virtue of the spouses baptisms. In
other words, marriage is a living sign that truly communicates
the love of Christ and the Church. The spouses’ vows lived out
in their daily commitment, and most specifically in their “one
flesh” union, constitute this living sign. As St. Paul says,
“‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be
joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is
a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the
church” (Eph 5:31-32).
Since the “one
flesh” union of man and wife foreshadowed Christ and the Church
right from “the beginning,” John Paul II speaks of marriage as
the primordial sacrament. “All the sacraments of the new
covenant find in a certain sense their prototype in marriage,”
says the Holy Father. This is why Baptism is a “nuptial
bath” and why the Eucharist is “the Sacrament of the
Bridegroom and of the Bride.” When we receive the body of
Christ into our own, in a mysterious way, like a bride, we
conceive new life in us – life in the Holy Spirit. It is this
same Holy Spirit that forms the bond that unites spouses in the
Sacrament of Marriage.
This is the
“profound mystery” in which marriage participates. The
Eucharist, then, is the very source of Christian Marriage. “In
the Eucharistic gift of charity the Christian family finds the
foundation and soul of its ‘communion’ and its ‘mission,’”
that is, to love as God loves.
The free exchange
of consent properly witnessed by the Church establishes the
marriage bond. Sexual union consummates it – seals it, completes
it, perfects it. Sexual union, then, is where the words of the
wedding vows become flesh. The very “language” that God has
inscribed in sexual intercourse is the language of the marriage
covenant: the free commitment to a union of love that is
indissoluble, faithful, and open to children.
willfully contradict any of these goods of marriage in their
sexual expressions, marital intimacy becomes less than God
intended it to be. In turn, spouses, rather than renewing their
vows through intercourse, contradict them. In practical terms,
how healthy would a marriage be if spouses were regularly
unfaithful to their vows? On the other hand, how healthy would a
marriage be if spouses regularly renewed their vows, expressing
an ever-increasing commitment to them?
disputed sexual moral teachings of the Church become lucid when
seen through this lens. Like all sacramental realities, if
sexual union (as the consummate expression of the sacrament of
marriage) is truly to communicate God’s life and love, then it
must accurately symbolize it.
Sexual union that
is free, total, faithful, and open to new life (i.e., sexual
union that truly expresses wedding vows) symbolizes and
participates in the communion of Christ and the Church.
Masturbation, fornication, adultery, intentionally sterilized
sex, homosexual acts, etc.– none of these accurately symbolize,
and thus never bring about the love of Christ for the Church.
None of these behaviors are marital. Thus, for sexual union to
consummate a marriage it must be performed in a “human manner”
and be “per se suitable for the generation of children.”
and the Rupture Caused by Sin
vision of marriage often meets with much cynicism and
resistance. When Jesus proclaimed the permanent nature of
marriage, even his disciples said to him, “If this is the
situation for a husband and a wife, it is better not to marry”
experience reveals that marriage is wrought with difficulties.
“According to faith, the discord we notice so painfully does not
stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of
their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first
sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original
communion between man and woman.”
the poignant story in Genesis attesting to the havoc wrought in
the sexual relationship as a result of our disobedience to God.
Male and female differences, rather than complementing one
another and bringing about communion, are often a cause of great
tension and division. Sexual attraction itself, originally given
by God to be the power to love as he loves, tends to be –
because of sin – a desire for self-gratification at the expense
All of this
inflicts deep personal wounds on husbands, wives, and their
children who, in turn, often grow up to repeat the same fallen
patterns of relating. Hence, it becomes easy to loose faith in
marriage. Even Moses conceded to human weakness and allowed
divorce. Yet, as Jesus says, “For your hardness of heart Moses
allowed you to divorce.” But then he adds that “from the
beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8).
Christ is able to
restore God’s original plan for marriage as the norm because,
unlike Moses, Christ is able to remove our “hardness of heart.”
His miracle at the wedding in Cana tells the story of marital
redemption. If couples have “run out of the wine” needed to live
marriage according to God’s original plan, Christ came into the
world to “restore the wine” in super abundance (see Jn 2).
A Call to
If men and women
are to experience marriage as God intended it “in the
beginning,” they must consciously renounce all that is contrary
to God’s plan and continually surrender themselves to the grace
of redemption. The cross of Christ, therefore, lies at the
center of the Church’s theology of marriage.
Since it was man
and woman’s turning away from God that distorted their
relationship in the first place, it makes sense that restoring
marriage requires a radical return to God. Thus, an authentic
theology of marriage is not only informational but, above all,
transformational. It calls couples to a life of ongoing personal
conversion. Only as spouses renounce themselves and take up
their crosses to follow Christ can they experience the true joys
of marriage that God ardently wishes to shower upon them.
family life find themselves, as Pope John Paul II explains, “at
the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between
life and death, between love and all that is opposed to
love.” Living the truth about marriage, then, is a very
difficult struggle, even for those with solid moral formation.
This struggle brings us to the heart of the “spiritual battle”
(Eph 6:12) that we must fight as Christians if we are to resist
evil (in the world and in ourselves) and love each other as
Christ loves his Bride, the Church.
for the World
History tells the
tale of entire nations separating from the Church because of
disputes over the nature and meaning of marriage. In the face of
fierce persecution and resistance, right up to our own day, the
Church stands firm in her teaching. Why is the Church so
obstinate? Because marriage is the primordial sacrament of God’s
love. To diminish in any way the nature and meaning of married
love is to diminish the nature and meaning of God’s love.
teaching on marriage can seem almost impossible to live. “With
men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”
(Mt 19:26). As we surrender our lives to the grace of
redemption, it is truly possible to know the joy and freedom
that come from living and loving according to our true dignity
as men and women made in the image and likeness of God. It is
truly possible for men and women, husbands and wives, to
experience restoration of proper balance and mutual self-giving
in their relationship.
This is the Good
News of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit has been poured into our
hearts (Rom 5:5). The Spirit of love makes the cross of Christ
fruitful in our lives enabling us to live the full truth about
marriage. The Church never ceases to proclaim this Good News for
the salvation of every man and woman.
John Paul II’s
“theology of the body” – a collection of 129 addresses delivered
between September 1979 and November 1984 – provides the Pope’s
most extensive biblical theology of marriage.
Spes, n. 49
expositions see Christopher West, Good News About Sex & Marriage
(Servant, 2000) and Theology of the Body Explained (Pauline,
Cf. Gaudium et
Spes, n. 48 and Code of Canon Law, Can. 1055
Cf. Gaudium et
Spes, n. 49
Spes, n. 48
the Catholic Church, n. 1602
Homily on the
Feast of the Holy Family, December 30, 1988
Cf. Letter to
Families, n. 19
Consortio, n. 11
Cf. John Paul
II, General Audience 1/5/83
the Catholic Church, n. 1617
Dignitatem, n. 26
Consortio, n. 57
the Catholic Church n. 1606, 1607
Families, n. 23
with permission from: