Unless you have been living under a rock you must be aware of the recent debate in our society regarding the meaning of the institution of marriage. The Catholic Church certainly has something to say in the realm of politics and social policy on this subject, not to mention in regard to her own faithful and the way they live out marriage. (See the Catechism, 2210 for more on this subject.) In fact, because Jesus elevated the natural institution of marriage to the dignity of a sacrament, the Church has much to say to her own people. What is at stake in this debate is the very meaning of the Sacrament of Marriage as a sign of God’s love for the Church and the world.
In the Letter to the Ephesians St. Paul wrote about the dynamic relationship of husband and wife as a sign that points to the mystery of Christ’s love for the Church. (Ephesians 5:32) In this way the Sacrament of Marriage reveals the invisible reality of God’s love. Christ showed his love for the Church by giving his life on the Cross. On the third day he rose from the dead becoming the head of his body, the Church. Recently, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith commented: “Marriage is understood as an all-embracing communion of life and love, body and spirit, between a man and a woman who mutually give themselves and receive one another as persons,” the archbishop said. The indissolubility of marriage “becomes the image of God’s enduring love for his people and of Christ’s irrevocable fidelity to his Church.” (Cardinal Müller, Oct. 23, 2013 article in L’Osservatore Romano)
How exactly is marriage a sign of this mystery? The mystery contains three basic elements. Marriage is a sign of God’s love and faithfulness, of the blessing of life, and of the new life in Christ that is possible as a result of the grace of the Cross and Resurrection.
First, it is a sign of God’s enduring love because the spouses promise to love “until death do us part.” The permanence or indissolubility of marriage is not a limit on the freedom of the spouses; rather it becomes a source of stability and provides a sure foundation for a lasting relationship based on trust and fidelity.
It is also a sign of God’s blessing to “be fruitful and multiply.” (Genesis 1:28) This blessing comes in the form of a command; the first command that God gives to the first married couple. So for example, the teaching which prohibits the use of contraception is not a prohibition for the sake of having a prohibition. Rather, it is a teaching that protects those who would heed it from harm and provides a moral basis for spouses to use their human freedom and reason throughout their married life in relation to their fertility.
Finally, St. Paul describes a revolution in the relationship of spouses in Ephesians 5:21-33. He describes the new way of living in Christ: loving service “as to the Lord.” (5:22) The key word St. Paul uses is submission. In living out marriage “as to the Lord” the wife puts herself under the mission of her husband. Simultaneously, the husband “should love his wife as his own body” by putting himself under the mission of his wife. As parents they order their life in this way towards their children. In loving one another as Christ loved the Church they strive to rid themselves of selfishness and act as Jesus would; desiring the best for their spouse and children, especially with regard to their eternal salvation.
This way of living stands in stark contrast to a model of marriage that is about “getting what I want” and the common practice of compromise so popular today. A marriage based on “taking care of myself” at the expense of one’s spouse or children does not allow for the vision of Ephesians to be realized. Neither does the practice of mere human compromise allow for both of the spouses to benefit. In compromise each side takes up an attitude of getting what they want by giving up something the other wants. The end result of the compromise model is that nobody “wins” completely and the self-giving love of Ephesians is never allowed to bloom or bear fruit. The paradox of mutual submission allows for everyone to “win” when no one in the family strives to “win.”
This vision of the Sacrament as a sign of God’s love helps us understand how the protection and development of the family for the good of our society is a matter of religious conviction because marriage is not merely an institution for public recognition of relationships for adult fulfillment. Opposed to an adult centered vision of marriage, stands the vision of marriage as an institution that unites a man and a woman with each other and any children born from their union. It is an institution for the good of society precisely because it is for the good of the spouses and any children they may be blessed with. Christian spouses have an amazing responsibility to live out their marriage in such a way that God’s love is revealed to all who come in contact with their family. May God help them in this mission of loving service.
Dino Durando is director of the office of family life for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.