A while ago, I started a series of posts on paragraph 1601 in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, but I didn’t get far. I thought I would try to finish it out.
“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”
The last time, I talked about matrimonial covenant. Now I move on to the next part: “by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life”.
When God created Adam, he said “It is not good for the man to be alone” and he created Eve to be his life partner. He created them for Himself, of course, but also for each other ~ for love and intimacy, for family and co-creation. God does nothing haphazardly or incidentally. He created a man and a woman. He put them in the first marriage. After God created Eve, He gave them a mission. They became co-stewards of creation and were commanded to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Only the union of man and woman is capable of co-creating with God in order to “fill the earth.” He created them with equal dignity, but with many complimentary differences. Men cannot conceive and carry a child. Women cannot impregnate women. Biologically, it is only man and woman who have the complimentarity to create another human being.
Marriage is about partnership, but not the same kind of partnership you find in business or other worldly endeavors. Marriage is about love and intimacy, but not selfish desire, power or money. Marriage is about family. God designed marriage for the good of the spouses, but also for the good of the children He desires to create within marriage.* That is God’s design.
Marriage, at its best, is an intimate relationship. It encompasses, truly, the whole of life ~ from the details of how each spouse lives out their own particular aspect of their joint vocation, to where they live, to how they spend their money, to how they educate their children, to what they have for dinner! This partnership does not require that each spouse has the same role, but rather that they have the same goal and work toward it together, each in his proper sphere, each giving his best to the marriage and to attaining those goals, each exercising his strengths for the good of the marriage.
Every aspect of life is to be shared in common. Couples live in a common household (though this may be interrupted from time to time… for example during deployments!) and share common finances. The attitude of “this is my money” does not belong in marriage. You see, really it is God’s money, given through employment, for the good of the family and to serve God’s people. It’s not his and hers. It’s God’s and we, together, are stewards of it no matter how many incomes a family has.
A good, healthy marriage has no secrets. Everything ~the whole of life~ should be open and transparent between spouses. This kind of open honesty builds trust. Keeping secrets from our spouse is like a poison. It destroys trust and trust is so essential to a happy marriage.
Worshiping together is essential for a successful Christian marriage. (In a mixed marriage, this may not take place at Mass or another service, but it can take place within the home by means of shared prayer.) Growth in holiness together, in addition to our corporate worship, is another key ingredient ~the whole of life. We do this by living a sacramental life together, praying together, studying and reading together, encouraging one another, and praying for one another, and, of course, offering sacrifices for one another (just to name a few ways this is done.)
It is not simply enough to maintain a home and never divorce. The whole of life really means the whole. This can be risky business, to trust another with everything and to put all of our eggs in that one basket. However, this is what we need to do and we need to remember that we have a basket, too, and we ought to be careful to not drop the basket!
Sadly, I know that there are some situations where trust has been severely damaged and may never be fully regained, but even in those hard circumstances, we must be working toward restoring trust. If trust was broken by physical abuse (or any other dangerous situation), it may be necessary to remain apart, but we must always pray for our spouse that they receive and use the grace they need to change.
There are other relationships that are mentally, emotionally and spiritually intimate. The bond between mother and child, sisters, brothers or best friends can all be deep, true and intimate. Only marriage finds one additional, legitimate, and unique aspect: sex. And this makes everything different. Marriage sets a couple apart, makes the two become one in a unique way and grants them the right to use their sexuality in its proper, exclusive order, for the purposes God has given to marriage and sex. Sexual intimacy is a gift from God that has two integral purposes or aspects: unitive and procreative (bonding and babies.)* The two aspects of sexuality exist by design and are a true reality, whether we intend them or not. (We will explore this more in a different post)
The term “for the whole of life” also, obviously, speaks to the indissolubility of marriage. Where a true marriage is entered, there is no “back door”, no “out.” Marriage is a permanent, unbreakable bond. Sometimes this is a hard saying! Marriage can be very difficult. Many individuals are not properly disposed to living marriage as a vocation. I am not saying that they are not capable, but are not disposed to it, are not trained for it. Many do not understand what marriage is, even when they (attempt to) commit it!
Sin and selfishness are the culprits that weaken and destroy marriages. We are channels of grace to our spouse and they to us. If we are not resisting sin and selfishness and seeking mercy when we fail, we are not only hurting ourselves, but we are blocking some of the grace that God desires to send to our spouse through us. Yes, sin and selfishness are what weakens and destroys marriages, but they need not be the victors. Seeking reconciliation with God and with our spouse when we fail is the key to overcoming sin and selfishness. Practicing virtue is a necessity. Chastity calls for fidelity and purity, Temperance calls for self-control, honor and justice, Charity calls for goodness, generosity and sacrifice, Diligence/Fortitude calls us to persistent effort, continual renewal and decisiveness of action, Patience calls us to mercy, peace, a willingness to suffer, Kindness calls us to compassion, integrity and loyalty and Humility calls for modesty, reverence, courage and honesty. What marriage (or any other relationship for that matter) can be truly happy without some measure of all of these?
Even failed attempts at growing in and practicing these virtues work for the good in marriage. If we find ourselves having difficult or dry periods in our marriages, it is probably best to do a self-assessment on how we’re doing on the practice of these virtues. I know I need to constantly check on these things for myself. Not that I always do, but I need to!
Even if the other is doing a worse job, is creating more discord, it is likely that both, on some level, are contributing the the lack of harmony. The thing about practicing virtue with an effort to build a healthy, holy marriage is that most of the time, it takes just one person stepping out and embracing these virtues with a bit more consistent effort to (begin to) transform the whole. The important thing to realize is that the one who is doing a worse job of positively contributing to the marriage probably needs more mercy and probably is less able to see what needs to be done. So, if your spouse is doing a worse job of it than you are, step out because they probably can’t even see what is really going on right now. Goodness inspires good. Virtue inspires virtue. Grace builds upon grace.
Of course, when dealing with the indissolubility of marriage, I must address annulments. Annulments are not Catholic divorces. They do not “prove” that the Church doesn’t really believe in the indissolubility of marriage. They are not guaranteed to those who petition the Church for them and they are not “just for the rich”. Annulments are simply a decision by the Tribunal that the evidence presented was sufficient to determine that a true Christian marriage, in all of its meaning, purposes, and requirements was not properly and actually entered into. The couple attempted to enter marriage, but there was some defect in their understanding, their formation or their character that prevented them from fully entering into a true Christian marriage. Divorce means to break apart something that exists. A declaration of nullity determines that no Christian marriage existed in the first place. You can’t break apart something that never was. Divorce for Catholics is only a civil, legal proceeding having nothing at all to do with a real, valid Christian marriage. In other words, someone can be legally divorced but still be in a valid Christian marriage and not free to enter another union.
I must also address annulment and children. Annulments do not make children from the (apparent/civil) marriage illegitimate. Annulment says nothing of children at all. It is a decision regarding the couple, not the children. Both the civil marriage (that was valid in its own legal, civil right) and the attempt to enter a Christian marriage makes children legitimate. The defects and inabilities of the parents to enter Christian marriage has nothing to do with the children. AT ALL.
The Church is strong and bold in its defense of marriage ~and its true definition~ because the institution of marriage is greater than any urge or sexual attraction, it is greater than the sin of man, and it has a unique, beautiful purpose which can only be properly fulfilled by following God’s design, as it was in the beginning, just as He designed it.
*It is a sad and painful reality that a number of couples suffer under the cross of infertility in one or more of its many forms. This does not negate the marriage or their conjugal life or its meaning. CCC 1654 says it best: “Spouses to whom God has not granted children can nevertheless have a conjugal life full of meaning, in both human and Christian terms. Their marriage can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality, and of sacrifice.”