Today many people think that promising love forever is impossible because they no longer have the reference point of God’s beautiful plan for marriage and family. By way of analogy the stars in the sky are like God’s plan for marriage showing the way to lasting love with Jesus as the guiding North Star. On a sailing vessel the navigator is responsible for guiding the ship to the captain’s desired destination. Long before GPS technology this was done by charting a course using the stars. However, our culture at large is like a navigator who has forgotten how to look up at the sky for guidance and so, for many, the ship of marriage is adrift on the sea with no way to know how to reach its proper destination. Perhaps the widespread lack of understanding regarding what marriage is comes from a horizontal view of marriage? If we would only look up we would discover that married love according to the teachings of Jesus reveals the way to lasting love.
The challenges leveled against the institution of marriage today cause many to ask, are the Church’s teachings on marriage and family really good news? The prevailing attitude many seem to hold is that the nature of marriage as a lifelong union that is open to life is unrealistic at best, oppressive at worst. Can one man and one woman really be expected to stay together through “good times and in bad, in sickness and in health?” Jesus says that it is possible to love in this way. The Church reflects Jesus’ teaching in the wedding vows from the Rite of Marriage in the words of consent, “I will love you and honor you all the days of my life” or “to have and to hold… until death do us part.” This love – that is lasting and faithful, persevering and committed – is the love strengthened by the grace of the Sacrament of Marriage. “Grounded in this love, a man and a woman can promise each other mutual love in a gesture which engages their entire lives and mirrors many features of faith. Promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love.” (Pope Francis, “The Light of Faith” Lumen Fidei, 52)
In brief, the plan of God for marriage can be described in three statements.
Marriage, freely entered by one man and one woman, is a “partnership of the whole of life… ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring… has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1601)
The love of the spouses involves a sharing of the totality of who they are with one another including “appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and will… aim[ed] at a deeply personal unity.” This shared love “demands indissolubility and faithfulness.” (Catechism, 1643)
The love of the spouses calls them to be open to becoming co-creators of new life. “Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves.” (Catechism, 1652) Some spouses carry the cross of infertility, and the Church rightly offers them care and support without approving of immoral means of obtaining a child through IVF. She does support other effective and moral means like the FertilityCare™ system and adoption.
To summarize, when spouses live God’s plan for marriage it becomes for them a school of generosity. Pope Francis recently commented on the challenging nature of this calling when he met with 10,000 engaged couples in St. Peter’s Square on Valentine’s Day.
“We must not allow ourselves to be conquered by a ‘throwaway culture’. This fear of ‘forever’ is cured by entrusting oneself day by day to the Lord Jesus in a life that becomes a daily spiritual path of mutual growth, step by step. Because ‘forever’ is not simply a question of duration! A marriage does not succeed just because it lasts; its quality is also important. To stay together and to know how to love each other for ever is the challenge Christian married couples face! … In the Our Father prayer we say, ‘Give us this day our daily bread’. Married couples may also learn to pray, ‘Give us this day our daily love’, teach us to love each other, to care for each other. The more you entrust yourselves to the Lord, the more your love will be ‘forever’, able to renew itself and to overcome every difficulty.”
In part three of this series we will look at the mystery of marriage as described by St. Paul and the value of children and family life.
Dino Durando is Director of the Office for Marriage and Family Life.