Commentary on the USCCB Document “Love and Life Abridged Version”

MARRIAGE: LOVE AND LIFE IN THE DIVINE PLAN A Pastoral Letter by the Catholic Bishops of the United States (Abridged Version)

My commentary is found in the footnotes.

What Is Marriage?

Marriage is a natural[1] institution established by God the Creator. It is a permanent, faithful, fruitful partnership[2] between one man and one woman[3], established by their free mutual consent[4]. It has two purposes: the good of the spouses, called the unitive purpose, and the procreation and education of children. [5]

Marriage is not merely a private institution.[6] It is the foundation of the family, where children learn values and virtues that make them good Christians as well as good citizens. Marriage is important for the upbringing of the next generation, and therefore it is important for society.

Men and women are equal as persons. As male and female, they are two different ways of being human. These differences relate them to each other in a total and complementary way.[7] They make possible a unique communion of persons in which spouses give themselves and receive each other in love. This communion of persons has the potential to bring forth human life and thus to produce the family. No other relationship symbolizes life and love as marriage does. [8]

The two purposes of marriage are inseparable;[9] they are two aspects of the same self-giving. The unitive purpose of marriage means that husband and wife participate in God’s own self-giving love. The two become one flesh, giving mutual help and service to each other through their intimate union.

The procreative purpose recognizes that married love is by its nature life-giving.[10] The children who result from this union are the supreme gift of marriage. Some couples experience the tragedy of infertility and may be tempted to think that their union is not complete; however, it remains a distinctive communion of persons.[11]

Challenges to Marriage

Contemporary society poses fundamental challenges to the meaning and purposes of marriage. Four of these challenges are discussed here.

(1) Contraception. Each act of intercourse must be open to procreation, because the whole meaning of marriage is expressed in each marital act. Contraception closes off the possibility of procreation and separates the unitive and procreative meanings of marriage.[12] This is objectively wrong and is essentially opposed to God’s plan for marriage and proper human development. Deliberately separating these two meanings can damage or destroy the marriage and bring many other negative consequences, both personal and social. Natural family planning (NFP) methods enable a couple to plan their family in accord with God’s design.

(2) Same-sex unions.[13] Male-female complementarity is essential to marriage. It makes possible authentic union and the generation of new life. Attempts to make same-sex unions the equivalent of marriage disregard the nature of marriage. Since marriage and same-sex unions are different realities, it is not unjust discrimination to oppose the legal recognition of same-sex unions. These unions pose a serious threat to the fabric of society that affects all people.

(3) Divorce.[14] Marriage is meant to be a lifelong covenantal union, which divorce claims to break. Troubled couples as well as divorced persons are encouraged to rely on God’s help and to use the resources of the Church for support and healing. An annulment is a possibility for some divorced persons. This is a finding by a church tribunal, or court, that no valid marriage bond was formed because the requirements for valid consent were not met at the time of the wedding.

(4) Cohabitation.[15] Many couples live together in a sexual relationship without marriage. This is always wrong and objectively sinful because the complete gift of self can only take place within the public, permanent commitment of marriage. Cohabitation can have negative effects on couples themselves, as well as any children who are part of the relationship.

Marriage as a Christian Sacrament

Although marriage remains a blessing from God, Original Sin has had grave consequences for married life. As a break with God, it ruptured the original communion between man and woman.

Jesus healed this rupture when he raised marriage to the dignity of a sacrament.[16] In marriage a man and woman become one flesh. They love each other as they love themselves and cherish each other’s bodies as their own. This union is an image of Christ’s love for his Church. Spouses are called to give themselves to each other as fully as Christ gave himself to his Church.

When the baptized spouses exchange their promises of loving and permanent fidelity before the Church, their marriage covenant becomes a participation in the unbreakable covenant between Christ and the Church. The Holy Spirit binds the spouses together and enables them to perform acts of self-giving love to the benefit of themselves, their families, and the whole Church. In this way their marriage does more than symbolize Christ’s love; it makes that love present in the world.

In order to imitate Christ’s love for his Church, the relationship between man and woman needs healing. Their relationship is not a one-sided subjection of the wife to the husband, but a mutual subjection of husband and wife, following St. Paul’s charge to “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Eph 5:21).

Marriage and Family: A Communion of Love

The Christian married couple, with their children, form an image of the Trinitarian God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Marriage and family life images the Trinity in two ways. First, like the Trinity, marriage is a communion of love between co-equal persons, beginning with husband and wife and extending to all the members of the family. Second, just as Trinity’s love is life-giving, a married couple’s love conceives and cares for children. [17]

In addition to reflecting the Trinity, the family is a microcosm of the Church. The ancient expression “domestic church” accurately describes the family because it is a small communion of persons that draws its sustenance from the larger Church and reflects its life in unique ways. Within this domestic church, parents have a special responsibility to teach children the faith and help them to grow in virtue. [18]The family matures as a domestic church by participating in the life and worship of the larger Church, especially Sunday Eucharist. In the Eucharist, members of the family are most fully united to Christ, to one another, and to their brothers and sisters throughout the world.

Christian spouses in a mixed marriage (between a Catholic and a baptized person who is not Catholic) witness to the universality of God’s love, even without sharing the Eucharist.[19] They can make an important contribution towards Christian unity. Sometimes, Catholics marry non-Christians. These marriages are not sacramental, although the parties do commit to fidelity, permanence, and openness to children.[20] Both types of unions face particular challenges, especially the religious upbringing of children. The Catholic party needs to take seriously the promise to maintain his or her Catholic faith and to do all in his or her power to have the children baptized and raised Catholic. [21]

Marriage is a vocation, or divine call, as necessary and valuable to the Church as other vocations. Discernment of and preparation for marriage is a process that begins early in life and continues through the engagement period. Because marriage is for the good of the Church and the entire community, the Church and the state have an obligation to help support and sustain marriage. [22]

Growth in Virtue

With God’s grace, couples are called to grow in holiness. A holy marriage is made up of many virtues. Fundamentally, the couple lives out the theological virtues of faith, hope and love. Love is the heart of the vocation of marriage. It calls spouses to imitate Jesus by their willingness to sacrifice themselves in everyday situations for each other and their children. Couples must also grow in the moral virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.

Two virtues that are sometimes overlooked are chastity and gratitude. Marital chastity means that the couple’s love is total, faithful, exclusive and open to life. It protects a great good: the communion of persons and the procreative purpose of marriage.

Marriage is a school of gratitude, in which husband and wife are thankful for the gift of each other. They express their joyous gratitude in giving themselves completely to each other. Their gratitude leads them to be open to children and to be generous towards others.

Growth in virtue is a lifelong journey, in which the spouses become more like Christ so that they can more perfectly love each other as Christ loves his Church. [23]

The Eucharist

In the Eucharist Catholic couples meet Christ, the source of their marriage.[24] This encounter moves them to reach out in love to the broader Church and to the world. The Eucharist nourishes the virtue of marital hospitality and helps the couple to recognize God’s image in others. This hospitality builds up the Church and makes it a stronger witness to Christ’s love in the world.

A marriage that is truly in Christ is a sign of the Kingdom that is coming. At the end of time, at the celebration of the heavenly wedding banquet, the love to which the spouses have been called will find its completion when the entire Church is assumed into the glory of the risen Christ.[25]

[1] As noted immediately in this document, marriage is found solidly in natural law; it is not merely a result of human civil law or human traditions.  It is derived from God the originator of man and of marriage. (cf. Genesis) In two recent encyclicals, Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius XI affirmed that is it is not man that makes marriage.  Take, for example, in Arcanum by Pope Leo XIII.  When referring the Adam and Eve, he states, “God thus, in His most far-reaching foresight, decreed that this husband and wife should be the natural beginning of the human race…And this union of man and woman…even from the beginning manifested chiefly two most excellent properties…unity and perpetuity.” (Arcanum, 5)   Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubbii states, “let it be repeated as an immutable and inviolable fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves.” (CC, 5)  Both of these documents follow well the Code of Canon Law too as will be seen throughout this commentary.  They are both an important place to start since they both teach well what the Code of Canon Law dictates.

[2] Using the lines “permanent, faithful, fruitful partnership” coincides well with the ends of marriage.  Canon 1055 uses the term “partnership of the whole life which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.” The latter half of this is used almost verbatim at the end of this paragraph as well when the authors of this document lay out the two purposes of marriage.  Further, Canons 1096, 1098 and 1099 are relevant as well for they stress these same purposes of marriage and the importance of marriage being known to be ordered towards procreation as necessary for matrimonial consent to occur.  In short, if one were to take out the procreative aspect out of marriage knowingly, the marital consent would be lacking.

[3] “one man and one woman” occurs frequently throughout the Code of Canon law as well as Church teaching on the subject of marriage. (cf. Casti Connubbii) The importance of this complementarity is addressed further on in the document especially in the modern context of so-called same-sex marriages or unions.  Since an end of marriage is procreation and raising of children, natural complementarity of the sexes for conception and raising of children is essential to marriage.

[4] As consistently stressed in Church Tradition and as stressed in the primary text of this course (Killeen), marriage is established by free consent.  Canons 1057, 1069, and 1101 are relevant here.  The first, 1057, notes that “the consent of the parties…makes marriage; no human power is able to supply this consent.” Further, this consent is “an act of the will by which a man and a woman mutually give and accept each other through an irrevocable covenant in order to establish marriage.” (Canon 1057.2) Canon 1069 demonstrates that concealing impediments could restrict full consent and therefore impact the full and complete marital consent necessary.  Canon 1101 is a key Canon especially today.  It states, “The internal consent of the mind is presumed to conform to the words and signs used in celebrating the marriage. If, however, either or both of the parties by a positive act of the will exclude marriage itself, some essential element of marriage, or some essential property of marriage, the part contracts invalidly.”  This is, as I stated, especially important today with widespread divorce in our society.  The form of marriage includes language so as to inform the couple as to marriage is essentially and what they are contracting/entering into a covenant based upon this essence.  When the form is very clear, and when there has been proper catechesis of the couple not only preceding marriage, but throughout their lifelong formation, full consent is more likely.  Since consent is what makes marriage, the form seeks to make clear what the couple is consenting to.  And, since the external form is correct, it is assumed that the internal consent of the person matches their external consent.  Should there be a defect of internal consent, this must be clearly proven prior to a declaration of nullity.

[5] Canon 1055 and 1136 coincide with these line of the document.  Canon 1055 has been previously mentioned. Canon 1136 stresses the gravity of the duty of married persons to take care of their children and to raise them in the faith.  Again, it is important to note that these purposes of marriage are found beyond the Code of Canon law and can be seen in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.  The aforementioned encyclicals speak strongly on these purposes as well as the Angelic Doctor St. Thomas who speaks on these two ends of marriage in Summa Supplement Q41.

[6] Marriage is, by its very nature, a communal covenant.  One cannot enter into a marriage without entering into a communion of persons.  Further, marriage is of the utmost importance to society since it is from the marital act that children and the future of society come forth.  As such, marriage has always held a pivotal place in society.  Aristotle, for example, proposed the family to be the fundamental building block of society and one can see that marriage is the fundamental building block of the family.  Again, Church teaching and even the Code of Canon law affirm this public benefit of marriage in so much as she stresses the duties of married couples to be open to life and to dedicate themselves to educating their children both as citizens and as followers of Christ.

[7] Canon 1135 is relevant to this section. Though the authors of the document do not draw explicitly from this canon, this canon does stress the complementarity of the sexes and their necessity for marriage.  Further, it alludes to the unitive aspect of marriage and the joint sharing of life.

[8] As noted previously, this draws upon the primary end of marriage.

[9] If one were to separate the unitive from the procreative, they would be attempting to sever that which is marriage.  These are both, therefore, essential to marriage.

[10] Canon 1055, which has already been examined, is relevant here.  In addition, Humanae Vitae, is especially relevant to this section as well as Casti Connubbii.  Canon 1137, which examines the legitimacy of children, is relevant here as well. However, such legal examination of children while important, is not the focus of this document, nor is it a common focus in our modern society.

[11] Canon 1084 examines the issue of infertility. In short, while impotence (either relative or absolute) nullifies “marriage by its very nature”, infertility does not nullify marriage.  Specifically, Canon 1084.3 states, “sterility neither prohibits nor nullifies marriage, without prejudice to the prescript of can. 1098.”

[12] Though much of what has been examined leads to this section on contraception, it is still important to reflect upon the message by the USCCB found here.  Drawing from the ends of marriage, the USCCB notes that contraception severs these two ends which are essential to marriage.  Using contraception then is objectively evil which indicates a grave disorder of the will.  Such a disorder, which might be externally limited to closing off the gift of children, indicates a will opposed to full unity with one’s spouse.  The very consent necessary to make a marriage is missing for those who always intended to contracept.  A lack of consent, however, is not to be assumed as the Code of Canon Law states.  The USCCB continues by stressing both the negative personal effects of contraception (one thinks of increased cancer rates, medical issues, lack of fidelity and permanence) and the negative social effects (one thinks of divorce, broken families, children raised without a parent).  And, following in the path of Pope Paul VI in Humanae Vitae and Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubbii, the USCCB rightly acknowledges that children may be spaced through natural means without being opposed to Divine Providence.  Natural Family Planning (NFP) for example, relies on the natural cycles of infertility present to space children for grave reasons.  Further, it is commonly known that on average, a woman’s fertility has a natural spacing of two years or more between children when breastfeeding exclusively.  Using that which God has designed is not objectively evil.  But, should a couple use a NFP in an attempt to never have children, such an act would be against Divine Providence and would be a sin.  It would be not necessarily be an act of contraception since the object of the act is not contraceptive, but is instead avoiding a good as well as the end of marriage.

[13] Marriage must be, by its very essence, between one man and one woman.  This can be seen in the two ends of marriage, unitive and procreative.  A same-sex couple cannot procreate, nor can they unite wholly since they lack sexual complementarity. A sexual act between a same-sex couple is an act of mutual use since it is not in accord with Divine Providence and is not properly ordered.  As the USCCB aptly notes, said unions cause “a serious threat to the fabric of society that affects all people.” This has been seen in the past decade as same-sex “marriage” has spread throughout the western world rapidly.  Children are less likely to be raised by a stable home in which they receive both their father’s and mother’s love and affection.  Marriage itself is viewed by society as being more of a “choice” than a natural covenant or sacrament instituted by God.

[14] Divorce is one of the most talked about subjects in the Church today. This can be seen by the current contention within the Church about reception of the Eucharist of the divorced and remarried.  The Code of Canon Law is outlines what issues arise from divorce as well as from remarriage.  As Canon 1141 states, “A marriage that is ratum et consummatum can be dissolved by no human power and by no cause, except death.” This is the key issue of this contention because, as Christ said, marriage is permanent.  Therefore, one who was indeed married and receives a civil divorce, cannot remarry without committing adultery.  Adultery is objectively evil and therefore always indicates malice in the will.  As a result, those living in an adulterous relationship cannot present themselves for communion without first repenting of their sin and seeking to live a life in accord with Divine Law.  To do otherwise is to “eat and drink condemnation” upon themselves.  Though this seems harsh, especially in the case where one is truly married but one’s spouse is abusive, absent, or likewise, the Church had laws in place to care for her flock.  Canons 1151, 1152, and 1153 examine this area.  Canon 1151 stresses that even separation of spouses is not a light action for “spouses have the duty and right to preserve conjugal living unless a legitimate cause excuses them.” This duty can be seen from the two ends of marriage, especially the raising and educating of children, as well as the societal impact of marriage.  Canons 1152 and 1153 outline these legitimate excuses.  It includes adultery (with limitations) as well as “grave mental or physical danger to the other spouse or to the offspring.”  In modern society where divorce is wide-spread and where people are told to “be happy and ‘true’ to themselves,” the Church’s teaching on this subject is often rejected even by Catholics.  Yet, the Church stands fast for marriage even to the point of stressing that, “in all cases, when the cause for the separation ceases, conjugal living must be restored unless ecclesiastical authority has established otherwise.” (Canon 1153.2) This affirms the Church’s stance of marriage being permanent as well as the importance marriage has to the common good.

[15] It is important to note that cohabitation is objectively evil because the full gift of one’s self is only found in marriage.  Anything less is selfish and use of the other person.

[16] Canon 1134 examines the effects of marriage and confirms this statement of the USCCB.  Canon 1055.2 states “a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament.”  As the USCCB rightly notes, the image Christ uses most of His love for His Church is that of a bride and bridegroom.  Natural marriage does exist between non-baptized persons, but, for baptized persons, marriage is a sacrament.  The Council of Trent affirmed the sacramentality of marriage in Session XXIV in 1563 when it said, “If anyone says that matrimony is not truly and properly one of the seven sacraments of the evangelical Law, instituted by Christ the Lord…let him be anathema.” (Denzinger, 971)  From this sacrament, there is indeed graces which assist in living the married life as well as pursuing holiness within one’s vocation.

[17] This section expounds upon the previous examination of the ends of marriage.  It puts the Canons already addressed into a more “pastoral” message.

[19] For a mixed marriage to occur, Canons 1124 and 1125 must be followed.  These outline a very strict list of requirements prior to the mixed marriage including the affirmation that the Catholic party’s faith will not be affected.  In the USCCB document, this gravity is not present.  The document seems to stress the positive side of mixed marriages without acknowledging the dangers as well.  In our modern society where truth is viewed as relative and indifferentism is very common among Catholics and non-Catholic Christians, this section of the document promotes these false views since it does not lay out the dangers found in mixed marriages like the Code of Canon Law does. At the end of the paragraph, the document does acknowledge Canon 1125, but it would be good to at least mention other Church teachings like those found in Pope Pius IX’s Syllabus of Errors. For example, the following statement was condemned: “Protestantism is nothing more than another form of the same true Christian religion, in which form it is given to please God equally as in the Catholic Church.” (The Popes Against Modern Errors, p.30)  The USCCB document does not pause at all in recommending mixed marriages, which, as just shown, can be a serious issue in regards to the Catholic party’s faith and the raising of the children in the faith.  More emphasis on Canons 1124 and 1125 would have helped mitigate the widespread indifferentism found in modern society.

[20] This is quite interesting as well.  While it is accurate, it offers very little guidance on the subject nor does it seek to teach or protect the flock.  Canon 1086 is most relevant here because it states, “A marriage between two persons, one of whom has been baptized in the Catholic Church or received into it, and the other of who is not baptized, is invalid.”  This can be dispensed according to the guidelines in Canons 1125 and 1126 as discussed in the above section on mixed marriages.  Still, it would seem prudent for the USCCB to again teach and protect their flock about the dangers of such a marriage especially since the faith of one’s children is at stake.

[21] This has been commented on above.  It is the strongest section of this paragraph by the USCCB and it is the part that most clearly follows the Code of Canon Law.

[22] This paragraph very briefly, and arguably inadequately, reflects Canon 1063.  Canon 1063 importantly stresses that pastoral care in regards to marriage prep starts early and is holistic. (cf. 1063.1)  If the flock does not hear the clear teachings of the Church proclaimed about the truths of marriage, about what marriage is, and about what brings marriage into existence, then many will be ill-prepared for marriage even with a “marriage prep” course.  Further, Canon 1063 emphasizes that the support for marriage does not end when a marriage is entered, but continues.  The USCCB document would have done well to include more of Canon 1063 explicitly.

[23] This section of the document, though good, does not seem to draw from any particular section of the Code of Canon Law.  Like mentioned above in note 17, this seems to expound upon the Church teaching found in Canon Law, but does not draw specifically from it.

[24] Canon 1065.2 stresses that even prior to entering a marriage, a reliance upon the Sacraments of Confession and of the Most Holy Eucharist is greatly necessary.  Such a foundation helps better prepare the individuals for the Sacrament of Marriage.  Then, as the USCCB document notes, the Eucharist helps sustain the couple in their marriage.  It would have been good for this document to also acknowledge the great importance of the Sacrament of Confession as well, but it could be assumed (by a well catechized person) that to partake in the Eucharist, one is partaking of the Sacrament of Confession as well.

[25] All in all, this is a very good introductory document to the Sacrament of Marriage.  Since society strongly denies much of what was taught in this document, pastors would do well to share this document with their flock.

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