February 7 through 14 is National Marriage Week, a collaborative effort to strengthen marriages and emphasize the benefits of marriage to husbands, wives, children, and society. It’s an appropriate time to think again about what makes marriage unique. What sets it apart from any other relationship on earth? In an age when many of us have experienced the wounds that come from broken marriages and families, and when unfortunate confusion about the meaning of marriage abounds, we are called to witness to a truth and a hope much deeper and much more real than we often see on TV or hear on the news. One way to assist us in this witness is to return to the basics and reflect once more on the unique, irreplaceable beauty of marriage.
Men and Women Matter: Let’s Start with the Human Person
Anthropology – the study of the human person – is an indispensable starting point for thinking about marriage. After all, marriage has to do with persons; it is a personal relationship. We must ask, “What does it mean to be a human person, as a man or as a woman?” Fundamentally, three points are important:
- Imago Dei: Human persons, male and female, are created in the image and likeness of God; every human person has inviolable dignity and worth.
- Vocation to love: Because “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8), human persons, as male and female created in God’s image, are given the vocation, and the responsibility, to love (see CCC, no. 1604 and FC, no. 11).
- Male and female: The body (masculine or feminine) is not an afterthought but is essential to the identity of the human person created in the image of God.
Where does marriage fit into this? Well, the Catechism tells us that “the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, no. 1603). In other words, marriage comes into existence at the same moment that man and woman are created. Marriage is a particularly significant way that men and women can live out their vocation to love (see FC, no. 11).
Gift and Promise: Essential characteristics of marriage
Keeping in mind the nature of the human person – created male and female and called to the vocation of love – let’s now talk about the essential characteristics of marriage. As with any work of defining terms, it’s important to identify those things that make marriage unique, different from any other type of relationship. Yes, there are characteristics marriage shares in common with other relationships between people (for example, affection, longevity, shared interests, and so on). But marriage is a unique bond. If we were to explain to a visitor from Mars what makes marriage different from other relationships, what would we say?
The following list identifies those properties without which marriage wouldn’t be marriage – just like without peanuts, peanut butter wouldn’t be the same thing. We’re talking about essential characteristics – those things that are part of marriage’s very essence.
Marriage is total (gift of self)
Pope Paul VI describes beautifully what is meant by the totality of marriage in Humanae Vitae:
“It is a love which is total – that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself” (HV, no. 9).
The totality of marriage, then, refers to the immensity of the gift husband and wife give to each other – a gift not just of time, or money, or possessions, but a gift of their very selves. This gift is total because husband and wife hold absolutely nothing back from each other. As we’ll see, the “totality of the gift” helps illuminate the other characteristics of marriage.
Marriage is faithful and exclusive (a truthful gift)
Precisely because the gift of one’s self exchanged in marriage is total, it can only be given to one person at a time! (Picture the parody of a man saying to woman after woman, “I’m all yours!” “And yours!” “And yours!”) The totality of the gift demands exclusivity.
As the Catechism puts it,
“By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. This is the consequences of the gift of themselves which they make to each other. Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice’” (CCC, no. 1647).
Marriage is forever (the gift of one’s future)
Contained within the gift of self that one gives in marriage is the gift of one’s future—the promise. Again, how could the gift be total if a time limit were placed on it? As Bl. Pope John Paul II said, a total self-gift must include “the temporal dimension”:
“If the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally” (FC, no. 11).
But how can anyone promise their future to another person…today? Here we see the awesome beauty of a vow: in one moment, on one day, husband and wife promise each other every moment, every day that is to come. The vow they exchange on their wedding day “takes up” every future moment, freeing husband and wife to know that they are entirely given to each other – forever.
Marriage is life-giving (the gift of one’s fertility)
We read in the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children” (GS, no. 50). One way to understand this is to think that in giving themselves completely and unreservedly to each other in marriage, husband and wife give each other the gift of their fertility. In fact, the capacity to procreate new life is inscribed in the very nature of man and woman and in their coming together as “one flesh.”
As Bl. John Paul II explains, “the conjugal act ‘means’ not only love, but also potential fruitfulness” (TOB, no. 123.6). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that a child will – or should – be conceived in every marital act. What it does mean is that the love expressed by husband and wife is of its very nature both unitive and procreative: “one as well as the other [meaning] belong to the innermost truth of the conjugal act” (TOB, no. 123.6). To pledge everything to one’s spouse includes pledging the possibility of becoming a mother or a father together.
Next: What are the bishops doing to promote and protect marriage?