This is the second in a series exploring the theology of the Sacrament of Marriage, the virtues and skills needed to live the reality and aides to help discern if you are marriage ready.
Sacred Scripture reveals that God designed marriage for the wellbeing of His people (see the U.S. Bishops’ Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, hereafter, “Marriage Pastoral,” pp. 7-8). Whether married or not, marriage is a blessing that effects everyone, for it nurtures spouses, creates family and builds up society. These simple but very important points are at the heart of the bishops’ pastoral letter on marriage. They are at the heart of our Catholic beliefs about marriage. They make up the ingredients that allow us to say that marriage is a vocation, a real path to holiness in life.
Marriage, the Catholic Church proclaims, has God as its author (see The Marriage Pastoral, p. 7). In the contemporary world, where the spotlight is often on the talents and abilities of men and women, it is easy to think that even marriage is subject to human invention. Our faith tells us otherwise: “Marriage is not…the effect of chance or the product of evolution of unconscious natural forces, it is the wise institution of the Creator to realize in mankind His design of love” (Humanae vitae, #8).
Marriage is an “original blessing” that God gave men and women from the “beginning of the world” for the good of humanity (see The Marriage Pastoral, pp. 1-2). The Genesis stories speak about God creating men and women “in His image” (Gn.1:27). Being made in God’s image has profound meaning. Only humanity holds both the material world and the spiritual world in its nature (see The Catechism of the Catholic Church, #355).
Only men and women are “able to know and love” God. (CCC, #356; quoting Gaudium et spes #12). Only men and women are able to share in God’s love. Such a noble calling means that every man and woman possesses the gifts to give and receive love that is selfless, faithful, total, permanent and fruitful.
It is therefore not an exaggeration to say that every one of us has the capacity to give and receive love. This is our heritage as made in God’s image. When we marry, it also means that we have the capacity to give of ourselves to the beloved. It means that we are equipped to receive the love of the spouse. Now of course we all know that some of us are not good communicators, or have been terribly wounded by a host of bad events in life, but despite personal wounds, let me repeat myself: we all have the capacity to give and to receive love. That is part of God’s gift to men and women.
These God-given gifts take on a unique meaning when shared in marriage because God inscribed “the vocation to marriage in the very nature of man and woman” (The Marriage Pastoral, p. 1; see also p. 7). Marriage is a sacred or blessed gift that God gave men and women for the good of humanity. First, it is God’s will that the “essential elements” of marriage are a man and a woman, with the complementarity of their maleness and femaleness (and we can talk about this in another reflection), and all their natural and supernatural gifts. If there is no man or no woman, marriage cannot exist as God intended (see The Marriage Pastoral, p. 7).
Marriage is for the continuation of human life on earth. As The Marriage Pastoral says, the “roots of marriage can be seen in the biological fact that a man and a woman can come together as male and female in a union that has the potential for bringing forth another human person” (p.10). Marriage is personal as well. This is what we can easily see. God made marriage for the wellbeing of the individual man and woman. So, The Marriage Pastoral quickly points out that, “Marriage does not exist merely for the reproduction of another member of the species, but for the creation of a communion of persons” (pp. 10-11). Marriage is for love and life. Marriage is for the life of the couple as well as the life of the family and therefore, the world.
So essential is the blessed gift of marriage that it was not lost by Original Sin. Rather it was redeemed by Christ and elevated by Him to become one of the Seven Sacraments for those who are baptized. In this way, Christ restored the original blessing of marriage in its fullness by making it a sign or visible embodiment of His love for the Church. Marriage in the Lord means that authentic human married love “is caught up into divine love and is directed and enriched by the redemptive power of Christ and the salvific action of the Church, with the result that the spouses are effectively led to God and are helped and strengthened in their lofty role as fathers and mothers” (Gaudium et Spes, no. 48).
As gift, marriage cannot be forced. It is something we are to receive with gratitude and to live according to God’s plan. Of course, we can do exactly what you are doing now—we can be open to receiving this gift of marriage from God. We can associate with people who have the same faith and hope. We can also periodically do a little “self-house-cleaning” (and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is perfect for this!). We can work to divest ourselves of anything that may be a hindrance to marriage readiness.
Marriage is also a gift that the spouses make to one another when they give themselves freely and accept the other completely (body—with our fertility as well—mind and soul). Marriage is formed when a man and a woman vow to share their lives together. It is “a lifelong partnership of the whole of life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between a man and a woman” (The Marriage Pastoral, pp. 7-8).
When a man and a woman receive the gift of marriage they open the door to a life that continually requires them to give and receive the gift of their selves to each other. It is almost as if they continually have new gifts to give, receive, open and use every day of their married lives. Our faith teaches us that it is God’s will that married couples receive and nurture these gifts. For when they do, their love will overflow and be gift to their children, their extended family, the local community, the world and to the Church.
When married couples accept and live God’s gift of married love they give witness to His generosity and love in all aspects of their married lives. They will take their place within the Communion of Saints who lived lives of loving generosity.
Theresa Notare, PhD, is the Assistant Director for the Natural Family Planning Program, Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Washington, DC.
Aides for Discernment: “Are you marriage Ready?”
Questions to ask yourself as you discern whether you are marriage ready can include the following:
Can I list some of the ways that I express love? (Try to give at least three examples.)
Am I better at “gift giving” rather than “receiving?”
If I am not good at receiving gifts, why?
How can I do my part to fix this?
Am I better at “receiving gifts” rather than “gift giving?”
If I am not good at gift giving, why?
How can I do my part to fix this?
Am I aware of my weaknesses that get in the way of giving and receiving gifts?
What can I do to deepen my capacity to love?