It’s National Natural Family Planning (NFP) Awareness Week! In this post, we continue to discuss what it means to be “open to life.” Last time, we discussed a fertility “treatment” that is contrary to the good of the spouses and the good of human life: In vitro fertilization. This month, we’re going to switch gears and talk about Natural Family Planning, the only authentic way of family planning that respects God’s design for married love. We will explore what makes Natural Family Planning “natural” and why it is oriented towards the good of the spouses and their children.
What is NFP? NFP is a term that encompasses certain methods of family planning that can be used to achieve or avoid conception naturally. NFP methods are based on observing the naturally occurring signs and symptoms of the fertile and infertile phases of a woman’s menstrual cycle. This is one sense in which NFP is “natural”: NFP does not rely on drugs, devices, or surgical procedures to plan or prevent pregnancy. In another sense, NFP is natural because it complements and supports God’s design for human nature and God’s design for marriage, which is written into human nature itself.
Let’s take a closer look at the nature of marriage and God’s design for married love. Marriage is both a natural and a supernatural reality.  This means that marriage is written into God’s creation, “in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, 1603) , and that this natural relationship has been elevated by Jesus Christ to a sacrament. Marriage is a sign of God’s love for His Bride, the Church, and it is a source of sanctifying grace.
The marriage bond is a lifelong and indissoluble commitment. In marriage, man and woman are united as one flesh, one heart, and one soul. At the heart of the one-flesh union is the sexual embrace. The spouses integrate God’s gift of human sexuality into their relationship by giving themselves to one another entirely. This entails that the married couple be open to children. The married couple recognizes that sexual intercourse is “ordered … toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children” (CIC, c. 1055 §1) . The good of the spouses is called the “unitive” end of sexual intercourse, while the “procreation and education of children” is called the “procreative end.” It is crucial that these two ends or purposes are not severed or separated from each other.
How does NFP work in harmony with God’s design for marriage? NFP acknowledges that the human body reflects both the unitive and procreative ends of marriage. Man and woman’s bodies are complementary; only a man and a woman, through their distinctive otherness that is ordered to each other, can fully unite in the conjugal embrace. NFP also affirms that our reproductive systems were designed for a distinct end or purpose: procreation. NFP is designed to support this reality, and its methods do nothing to interfere with the purposes of our reproductive organs. To prevent or postpone a pregnancy, a couple that practices NFP will abstain from sexual intercourse during the wife’s fertile window. By contrast, a couple that uses contraceptives prevent pregnancy by deliberately inhibiting the proper purpose of their sexual organs.
Deliberately inhibiting conception is different from consciously limiting intercourse to one’s infertile window. A couple that practices NFP may decide that now is not the right time to have another child but still want to experience the unity and intimacy of sexual intercourse. This is a good thing! Limiting sexual intercourse to the times when conception is unlikely does not mean that they have rejected the procreative nature of sexual intercourse. Because the couple has consciously accepted that God’s design for marriage entails the procreation and education of children, the NFP-practicing couple effectively say to themselves, “We are not trying to have a baby right now, but if we were to conceive we are open to that life!” By contrast, a couple that uses contraceptives (so that they can have sex at any time) separates the unitive and procreative ends of the marital act as if to say, “I only want the pleasure and intimacy of intercourse right now, and an openness to children is not part of this experience.”
NFP educates the married couple to consider not only their own relationship and personal desires, but also those of their children! This is called responsible parenthood. Planning one’s family responsibly does not simply mean avoiding pregnancies; rather, it is about encouraging couples to make decisions about the size of their families in ways that benefit the spousal relationship and the spouses’ relationship with their children.
NFP also helps the married couple to strengthen their sacramental marriage bond, and it strengthens their receptivity to the special graces that they receive. The Church teaches that “Christian spouses have a special sacrament by which they are fortified and receive a kind of consecration in the duties and dignity of their state” (GS, no. 48) . NFP requires communication and cooperation between husband and wife. By practicing NFP together, the married couple grows in intimacy, communication, and perseverance while learning about God’s design for both the human body and for married love. NFP is designed to help the married couple fully integrate into their lives God’s design for marriage.
During this year’s NFP Awareness Week, let us continue to celebrate the truth and beauty of God’s plan for married love! To learn more, read the NFP FAQ’s, the USCCB’s “What We Believe” on Love and Sexuality, check out the Made for Love Podcast, or visit the FAQ’s on the Marriage: Unique for a Reason website.
About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
In our last post, we discussed the difference between infertility and impotence, stressing that infertility is not an impediment to marriage and that infertile couples can still be fruitful and open to life. We ended our last discussion by considering the fact that some methods of treating infertility may be perfectly acceptable and even praiseworthy, while others are seriously immoral. In this post, we will consider one such treatment: In vitro fertilization (IVF). While it has become a commonplace treatment for infertility, IVF is not compatible with the ends of marriage nor the human good as such.
So, what is IVF? In vitro fertilization is the process by which several human eggs are aspirated from a woman’s ovary, mingled with her partner’s (or someone else’s) sperm, and then grown in a petri dish (in vitro is Latin for “in glass”). When conception takes place, the embryos are then implanted in the woman’s womb in the hope that at least one of the embryos will survive. This process is gravely immoral for several reasons.
First, IVF bypasses the conjugal act between husband and wife. The embryo is not “generated” through an act of love; instead, it is “generated” through a highly controlled laboratory procedure. The doctors and lab technicians are the agents of conception, while the husband and wife merely supply the sperm and egg, the necessary “ingredients.” The husband and wife watch the conception of their child “from a distance,” so to speak, and the act of conception thereby becomes a thoroughly un-intimate and impersonal process.
Secondly, the means by which the “ingredients” for IVF are obtained are gravely immoral. The sperm is often collected by masturbation, which is in itself a serious abuse of the reproductive organs and an act of unchastity. It is not uncommon that clinics provide pornographic materials to those providing sperm samples. In this way, pornography and masturbation become normalized, viewed as a part of a medical procedure. Furthermore, if the man who provides the sperm is the woman’s husband, masturbating (especially with the aid of pornography) is also an act of adultery.
Thirdly, because the doctor aspirates multiple eggs from the woman’s womb, multiple embryos – each a human life – are grown in the petri dish. The doctors and technicians generate multiple embryos because they know that most if not all of the embryos will die inside the womb. Many women also freeze extra embryos, which are often disposed of later. These extra embryos exist as “insurance” in the event of embryonic failure, but they are not valued in themselves; they are not seen and cared for as the individual human lives that they are. Because the conception of a human life is the goal of IVF, participants may feel that they view human life as extraordinarily valuable. In reality, however, IVF is radically anti-life. When multiple embryos are generated, the participants are full of hope and value each embryo as a “potential human being.” When an embryo dies, however, it becomes “useless,” and the participants suddenly cease to view the embryo as valuable. After the process is complete, they may convince themselves that only the successful embryo was a human being all along. There are also cases in which multiple embryos are successful, but the husband and wife only want one child. This is called “selective reduction.” In this case, the participants may choose which of the babies they want, and the doctor then kills the “extra” or “undesired” babies.
The participants of IVF essentially deem some embryos human beings and not others; they only care about the successful embryo, but they do not effectively value human life as such. And if more than one embryo is successful, some participants may also arbitrarily decide which baby is worth keeping. In both cases, the participants think their personal discretion is what determines whether the embryos or fetuses are human beings.
In a word, IVF reduces the procreative end of marriage to a technical process whereby many human lives are discarded. Rather than elevating or helping the natural process of conception, IVF eliminates it. The husband and wife’s desire for children, while natural and praiseworthy, does not justify the immoral means by which they achieve this end. With this being said, we cannot understate the inherent dignity and value of children conceived through IVF. All children, regardless of how they were conceived, are made in the image and likeness of God. However, the means by which a child is conceived may not always respect the child’s right to be born of a loving marital act of a husband and wife.
 Check out this Church document for a more detailed discussion of this point. “The child has the right to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up within marriage: it is through the secure and recognized relationship to his own parents that the child can discover his own identity and achieve his own proper human development. The parents find in their child a confirmation and completion of their reciprocal self-giving: the child is the living image of their love, the permanent sign of their conjugal union, the living and indissoluble concrete expression of their paternity and maternity.” Also check out this list of resources from the USCCB on reproductive technology.
 Check out Life-Giving Love in an Age of Technology, esp. 13-14.
About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
I’ll admit it: at one point, I was confused about the Catholic sexual ethics of infertility. On one occasion, I was having coffee with a secular friend who asked me all kinds of questions about what married couples could and could not do, Josephite marriages, the difference between infertility and impotency, and even bizarre hypotheticals like “what if one of the spouses developed a disease that made having sex fatal for six months?!” While I can’t promise that this post will answer that last question, hopefully it will make the Church’s teachings on impotence and infertility a bit clearer.
The Catholic Church teaches that those who are impotent—that is, those who are incapable of having sexual intercourse—cannot marry. (I know, to the modern ear, like my friend, this might sound odd and even harsh). Because procreation and unity are the two natural ends of marriage, and because both of these ends are fulfilled in the sexual embrace, it follows that the sexually impotent cannot marry. As per the Code of Canon Law No. 1084, §1: “Antecedent and perpetual impotence to have intercourse, whether on the part of the man or the woman, whether absolute or relative, nullifies marriage by its very nature.” By “antecedent” and “perpetual,” it is meant that one cannot be impotent either before marriage (antecedent) or permanently during marriage (perpetual); this means that one is considered impotent if they cannot have intercourse at all or if they cannot have intercourse specifically with his or her spouse.
It is important, however, to clarify what being impotent does not mean. Impotence is not infertility. While impotence means the inability to have sex, infertility means the inability to conceive children. Thus, impotence and sterility/infertility are not the same. The Church does not consider infertility as an impediment to marriage, and married couples who suffer from infertility have marriages just as natural and valid as those who are able to conceive children.
But one might object: how can an infertile couple fulfill the procreative end of marriage if they cannot conceive children? In answer to this question, the Church maintains that a couple can be infertile but nonetheless remain open to life. How can this be, knowing that their marital embrace will not result in conceiving a child? If we remember back to our earliest posts on the meaning of nature, we established that human beings possess a distinct human nature, one impulse of which is an inclination to procreate. Like all mammals, human beings are endowed with the complimentary sex organs in order to carry out this task. These sex organs have an end or a purpose: to facilitate procreation.
Sometimes, there is a defect in the sex organs that makes the fulfilling of this end impossible: if the sex organs are constructed such that a man and a woman cannot properly unite, then this would be a case of impotence. However, sometimes the impediment is not due to the functionality of the sex organs, but due to other factors that make conception impossible. In other words, if a couple is capable of having intercourse, then they are still capable of using their sex organs for their natural purpose, even if they know that the procreative end of the sex organs cannot be achieved.
We encounter these kinds of scenarios in our day-to-day lives all the time. For instance, it does not betray the natural end of the digestive organs to eat one when is not hungry. I can enjoy a piece of cake even if I know it won’t nourish me because eating in general is the natural function of my digestive system. The fact that my body is not nourished by the cake does not mean I have done something wrong. However, imagine now that I eat an inordinately large portion of cake for the express purpose of purging it later. This would be an abuse of my digestive organs, if I intentionally used my organs for a purpose contrary to their nature.
In this way, couples who affirm the natural end of the sex organs while struggling with infertility are nonetheless open to life despite for some reason not being able to have children. They do nothing to make intercourse sterile but give themselves to each other as they are. By having intercourse, the couple affirms the natural end of procreation in itself. They affirm that the sexual embrace between husband and wife is naturally designed for the procreation of children. We can think about it this way: an infertile couple may know with almost complete certainty that they will not conceive a child. But the infertile couple is still open to life in the sense that if, against all odds, sexual intercourse did lead to conception, the married couple would be open to this new life. Why? Because this is what sexual intercourse was designed to do.
This is also the same logic behind Natural Family Planning. Unlike the couple suffering with infertility, a married couple may decide that a certain time is not practical for conceiving a child, so they reserve intercourse to the infertile time when conception is unlikely. However, the married couple is still open to life in the sense that if they were to conceive a child during this time, they would nonetheless be open to children. They do nothing to sterilize an act of intercourse by abstaining from sex at that time.
Again, couples that struggle with infertility are no less open to life than couples who have no problem conceiving, and their marriages are no less valid or fruitful. As St. Pope John Paul II said in a message to infertile couples in a 1982 homily, “You are no less loved by God; your love for each other is complete and fruitful when it is open to others, to the needs of the apostolate, to the needs of the poor, to the needs of orphans, to the needs of the world.”
In our next post, we will continue to discuss infertility and the licit methods for treating it. We will see that some methods of treating infertility, even certain technological ones, are perfectly licit, while others are gravely immoral.
 By the way, this comment is merely a logical distinction. It in no way affirms that people ought to have sexual intercourse before/outside of marriage.
 The same logic is behind Josephite marriages (an extremely rare example). If a married couple decides (together!) that they are called to abstain from intercourse, this does not render their marriage invalid, since they are still capable of having intercourse and are thus open to life. The Josephite couple recognizes and affirms the natural end of the sexual embrace, and it is still an integral part of their marriage even if they are not actively trying to conceive children
 Pope John Paul II, “Homily at the Mass for Families During the Apostolic Pilgrimage to Nigeria, Benin, Gabon and Equatorial Guinea” (Rome, 13 February 1982) http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/homilies/1982/documents/hf_jp-ii_hom_19820213_onitsha-nigeria.html
About the Author: Bridget Groff is an M.A./Ph.D. student in the School of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America. She currently works part-time at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops as an intern for the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
What is chastity? Some think that to be chaste means simply to abstain from sex or sexual behavior. This misunderstanding perhaps stems from the fact that we most often hear about chastity vis-à-vis our dating relationships, wherein practicing chastity means to restrain our sexual desires out of respect for our partner and out of respect for the gift of sexuality itself. Or, we might even have been led to be believe that sex in itself is wrong and dirty. However, while chastity certainly involves bodily restraint, chastity is much more than just bodily restraint, and chastity in no way supposes that sex is bad.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Chastity is “the successful integration of sexuality within the person and thus the inner unity of man in his bodily and spiritual being” (CCC, 2337). The Catechism explains that chastity protects the powers of love and life (see CCC, 2338). In other words, the virtue of chastity helps us protect ourselves and others since it frees us to live our sexuality according to our state in life.
All people, whether they are single, dating, married, or consecrated (lay or religious), are called to a life of chastity. Married couples integrate their sexuality first by respecting themselves and God’s design for marriage. They live their individual gifts of sexuality by generously giving of themselves to each other as they vowed—faithfully, permanently, and open to life. Spouses protect the unitive and procreative nature of the conjugal embrace by keeping it whole and holy. That means that they reject contraception, sterilization, and abortion. When needed, chaste married couples use Natural Family Planning (NFP) to attempt to either achieve a pregnancy or postpone one. The chaste married couple mutually grows in their respect for each other, cherishes their gifts of sexuality and fertility, and never violate each other, their marriage, or God’s gifts. Chaste married couples reject anything that would harm these gifts adultery, contraception, abuse of any kind, including pornography.
Clearly, then, the virtue of chastity is not merely a prohibition against sex, or else married people would be called to a life of abstinence! Rather, chastity is the right ordering of our inherently sexual nature and the proper expression of sexuality in our everyday lives. But you might be thinking: What about unmarried people? What does it mean for single people to integrate their sexuality in life without engaging in sexual acts? Indeed, one might object that to integrate sexuality into one’s life without engaging in sexual acts presupposes the very definition of chastity that we are rejecting: if “integration” for single people just means “not being sexual,” then to be chaste must mean, simply, to abstain from sex.
However, this objection assumes that the terms “sexuality” and “sexual acts,” have the same meaning, limiting the scope of sexuality to mere genital expression. As Dr. Theresa Notare, the assistant director of the bishops’ NFP Program notes,
“Today’s culture insists that genital activity is the most important aspect of human sexuality. This view holds that people have a need to be satisfied genitally in whatever manner makes them happy….This utilitarian view of human sexuality and sexual relations sees human sexuality as limited to the genital and treats the sexual partner as nothing more than an object to be used. It offers a greatly diminished understanding of human nature.”
Put differently, we must not assume that to be sexual means to engage in sexual activity. All people belong to one sex or the other; all people are born male or female. To be a man or to be a woman is to live one’s sexuality. If we grant that our sex influences the way that we think, act, and relate to other people, then our biological sex is integral to the way we behave in our daily lives. If we consider that human beings are by nature social creatures that seek community with others, then we see that there is an inextricable link between how we fulfill this aspect of human nature with the fact that human beings are essentially gendered. In the context of our social nature, the biological reality of sex and procreation takes on a deeper meaning. Notare is helpful again on this point: “Within the context of human nature, pro-creation also speaks of our need to be in relation to each other–to build family, to have community. If we hope to live in a sexually mature way, our basic challenge in life is to integrate our sexual feelings with all other aspects of being human.”
This emphasis on the interpersonal aspect of human sexuality is what Karol Wojtyla deemed a personalistic approach rather than a sexological approach to sexual ethics. By personalistic sexuality, Wojtyla means that sexuality is, primarily, a term for the relation between the sexes; the conjugal act itself is understood in context of the former. By contrast, the sexological approach to sexual ethics places the conjugal act at the heart and center: we understand human nature in terms of sex, not sex in terms of human nature. This personalistic expression of our sexuality is especially clear if we remember that the virtue of chastity should be understood in relation to theological virtue of charity or love. Love is not merely a sensual or psychological phenomenon whereby we desire another person insofar as they give us pleasure. Rather, love is willing the good of another and seeing them as a whole person in themselves, not as an object for us.
By understanding sexuality as, primarily, a social relation between people of the opposite sex, we can see how the single person’s sexuality is no less than the married person’s. It is tempting to think of marriage as the fulfillment or culmination of sexuality, that everyone’s sexuality is incomplete or lacking until it finds expression in the conjugal act. This is not true. It is especially important for the single person to realize that their sexuality is not diminished because they cannot have sex. The single person’s sexuality is not merely a diminished or immature form of married sexuality. Rather, the single person’s sexuality is good in itself because it is an expression of the more fundamental reality of sexuality: the interpersonal relation between men and women. Without downplaying the significance of the marital union, getting married and having sex is just one way of expressing this interpersonal relation.
For the single person, every time you treat someone of the opposite sex with kindness and respect—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality. Every time you express your unique, God-given strengths and gifts (especially in a way that benefits your community)—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality. Every time you thank God for your sex and revere the different but complementary aspects of men and women—that is a chaste expression of your sexuality.
 By “unmarried,” I mean dating or even engaged couples, as well as lay or religious people who have taken vows of celibacy. While the vow of celibacy is a unique way of expressing the call to chastity (in effect, one consecrates his/her life to a nuptial relationship with God), and while the celibate person practices chastity in an importantly different way from the single person who hopes to marry, the broader question with which I am concerned is: what does it mean to be a sexual person while abstaining from sex?
 Theresa Notare, “Sex and the Single Person,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, April 3, 1998, http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/human-life-and-dignity/abortion/sex-and-the-single-person.cfm)
 Karol Wojtyla, “The Problem of Catholic Sexual Ethics,” in Person and Community: Selected Essays, vol. 4 (Peter Lang, 1993), 282.
In the last post, we discussed marriage as a natural institution. We explained how marriage is rooted in human nature—meaning that marriage is not a purely conventional, political, or social institution, but a natural one; one that human beings are made for. In today’s post, we are going to build upon our discussion of natural marriage, looking specifically at the Catholic Church’s teachings on both natural marriage and sacramental marriage—marriage between two baptized Christians, elevated by Christ to the level of a Sacrament.
Recall from our last post that marriage is a natural institution because it is a practice instituted by nature itself. If we believe that God is the author of nature, then it is God who created the human being to be the kind of being that procreates sexually and whose offspring require parental involvement for their entire lives. Therefore, by creating man and woman in this way, it is God who instituted marriage. Marriage is written into His plan for creation, “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, 1603). Further, the Catholic Church teaches that God created the natural institution of marriage to be permanent. This is simply an acknowledgment of what love means—we do not say “I love you until the end of the month,” but rather “I love you forever.” This is why the Catholic Church recognizes even the marriages of non-baptized men and women as valid, lifelong, and binding, as long as certain basic elements are present. Why must all valid marriages be regarded as lifelong and binding? The natural impulse to marry is inextricably linked to the procreation and education of children. Children have the natural right to know their parents. So, it follows that a lack of permanence in marriage would do harm to the children.
It is in virtue of marriage’s natural permanence that the Catholic Church rejects the practice of divorce. The Church follows what Jesus Christ says about marriage in the gospels. In response to the Pharisees, who ask him whether a man is ever permitted to divorce his wife, Jesus says, “from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and … the two shall become one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let not man put asunder” (Mk 10:5-9; cf. Mt 19:4-9; Lk 16:18). Here, Jesus tells us (1) that divorce goes against the natural order of creation and God’s plan for mankind, and (2) that marriage is permanent, in accordance with the natural law— “what God has separated let not man put asunder.” Of course, divorce is a complicated topic that deserves a more detailed discussion than this post allows, but don’t worry: we will re-visit it in another post!
Now, Catholics not only believe that God instituted natural marriage, but also that Christ elevated the natural institution of marriage to a sacrament, into a sign of His love for His Bride, the Church, and a source of sanctifying grace. Through the sacraments we receive in our soul the supernatural life of Christ and are helped on our journey to heaven. Now, the graces conferred in each Sacrament differ with respect to the ends of the Sacrament received. As such, the sacrament of marriage infuses the spouses with graces that are “intended to perfect the couple’s love and to strengthen their indissoluble unity” (CCC, 1641). Jesus makes marriage a vehicle for grace, and “the grace of the sacrament thus perfects the human love of the spouses, strengthens their indissoluble unity, and sanctifies them on the way to eternal life” (CCC, 1661). A quality willed by God from the beginning (permanence) takes on a new meaning—pointing to the union of Christ and the Church. As Cardinal Müller explains, “Through the sacrament, the indissolubility of marriage acquires a new and deeper sense: it becomes the image of God’s enduring love for his people and of Christ’s irrevocable fidelity to his Church.” In other words, the marital relationship is modeled on the relationship between Christ and his Church, and the love of the spouses reflects the love that God has for us. It is no mere reflection, however. The marital relationship, enriched by its special gifts and graces, is “merged with the divine” and uniquely manifests and participates in God’s divine love.
While not diminishing the importance and beauty of the spousal relationship in itself, we must remember that this intimate spousal relationship is essentially ordered to the procreation of children. The husband and wife unite totally in the conjugal relationship, body and soul. This is another way that the marital relationship is “merged with the divine”: to be open to life is to participate in God’s own love and creative work. The spouses’ openness to children is an expression of their love for each other and of their cooperation in God’s design. In this way, we see that the natural purposes of marriage, the good of the spouses and the begetting of offspring, take on new meanings when elevated to the level of a sacrament; aided by grace, the married couple, by loving and giving themselves to each other, participate in the love of God himself.
 All references to the Catechism taken from: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops–Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.
 Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller . Testimony to the Power of Grace: On the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Debate Concerning the Civilly Remarried and the Sacraments. Vatican: the Holy See. Rome, 23 Oct. 1965. Web.
Why is Marriage a Natural Institution?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, marriage is “written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, 1603).  If this is true; if marriage is written in the nature of the human being, then despite the many variations that the institution has undergone throughout history, “These differences should not cause us to forget its common and permanent characteristics.” Marriage’s basis is not in history, then, but in our God-given human nature. That means that marriage cannot be a purely conventional, political, or social institution, but a natural one. In this post, we are going to examine what it means for something to be a natural institution and why marriage is one.
Recall from our last three posts that the word “nature” is said in different ways.  We can talk about the whole world of nature and all the natural things that make it up. In this sense, we contrast natural things with artificial ones. Or, we can talk about the inherent natures of living things and the behaviors or activities that derive from and fulfill a thing’s nature. When considering whether a behavior or activity is natural, we must always look to the nature of the thing engaging in that activity. Remember our potato-chip eating beaver? With this refresher, we are now going to see how an institution can be natural.
The word institution has two different senses. Sometimes, it means an establishment such as a school or a financial organization. But it also means a practice or custom that has become thoroughly integrated into society. For example, the annual televised reveal of Punxsutawney Phil on Groundhog Day is considered by many to be a “national institution.” If someone were to try to cancel this event, there would be widespread objection. These two senses of “institution” mean that something has been established or put in place, and that we consider it to be important.
Now, both the financial organization and Groundhog Day are what we could call conventional institutions; a human being (or many human beings) started them and put them in place. On the other hand, to call something a natural institution implies that the institution was established or put in place by nature, not people. Now, remember that when considering if a behavior or activity is natural, we must consider the nature of the subject which undergoes the activity. An institution likewise is evaluated according to its subjects. The subject of marriage is, of course, the human being; I argue here that marriage is a practice that is rooted in and also fulfills human nature. This is why we say marriage is a natural institution.
Aristotle explains in his Politics why the impulse to marry is a natural one. Men and women, like all other animals, desire sexual union with one another. This desire goes hand-in-hand with the fact that men and women in partnerships take care of each other and look out for one another. Each bring different strengths to their relationship that make their individual lives better. They help each other to live a good life. Of course, when a man and a woman become one in the sexual union, they have the potential to create new life. To nurture, protect, and educate their offspring is another natural impulse of the male-female relationship. This impulse is, of course, present not only in men and women, but also in most animals to various degrees. So, insofar as human beings are animals, they are inclined to sexual union and inclined to care for their offspring.
At this point one might object: but what do these things have to do with marriage? No other animal declares its love before a priest or a judge! And what about things like marriage licenses, wedding rings, and wedding ceremonies? It seems like people had to make a conscious decision to institute these practices, so they can’t be natural. St. Thomas is helpful in answering this question. He says:
…the begetting of offspring is common to all animals. Yet nature does not incline thereto in the same way in all animals; since there are animals whose offspring are able to seek food immediately after birth, or are sufficiently fed by their mother; and in these there is no tie between male and female…; In man, however, since the child needs the parents’ care for a long time, there is a very great tie between male and female, to which tie even the generic nature inclines…
The institution of marriage arose in men and women in virtue of the complex and long-lasting needs of human children. Human beings are born in an incredible state of vulnerability; They cannot even walk on their own two feet for almost a year. Their demands are intense and constant. It does not take a highly developed intelligence to discern that human children need their parents. Penguin mates do not get married, but neither do their children expect to move back in with them after college. Further, while it is true that people created and instituted certain marriage customs, we might say that these customs are actually just the expression or manifestation of a much more basic and foundational reality: the impulse to marry rooted in human nature. The customs surrounding a wedding are accidental to the essence of marriage. So, while the institution of matrimony and its various customs does not simply arise through nature, it is because of the human being’s rational and free nature that the institution exists.
Can you think of other examples of natural institutions? Stay tuned for our next post on the sacrament of matrimony!
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1603. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops–Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.
 Politics I.1.1253a30.
 ST Suppl., 41, Ad.1, Co.
 Children raised in intact married families are more likely to attend college, are physically and emotionally healthier, are less likely to be physically or sexually abused, less likely to use drugs or alcohol and to commit delinquent behaviors, have a decreased risk of divorcing when they get married, are less likely to become pregnant/impregnate someone as a teenager, and are less likely to be raised in poverty. (“Why Marriage Matters: 26 Conclusions from the Social Sciences,” Bradford Wilcox, Institute for American Values, www.americanvalues.org/html/r-wmm.html)
Intro to Nature: Part Three
Today, we are going to address some ambiguities with regard to the way we often use the word “nature,” building on the last posts. Last time, we finished discussing Fr. Wallace’s two-fold conception of nature, breaking it down into (1) natural things and (2) their activities. When combined, natural things and their behaviors make up the whole world of nature. We emphasized strongly in our last post the importance of inherent natures, which are both the source of and that in virtue of which natural things live-out their particular behaviors and activities. In today’s post, we are going to talk in more detail about specific natures and why distinguishing them is so important for deciding what is natural and unnatural.
It is a mistake to use the word “nature” univocally, which means to treat all senses of a word as if they were the same. We often fail to distinguish “nature” in a general sense—the sense which characterizes the whole world of nature—from substances which have specific natures and activities which derive from those natures. We often do not realize that when we call something “natural” or “unnatural,” we actually mean that it’s either natural or unnatural in a certain way or a certain respect. Remember the example in our last post about the dog wearing a Halloween costume? For dogs to wear clothing is unnatural – it doesn’t belong to a dog’s nature to wear clothes. But we can still say that it is natural for human beings to wear clothing (we’ll discuss this in more detail later).
To make matters more complicated (or more fun depending how you look at it!) the same activity could be considered either natural or unnatural for a subject, depending on which way you look at it. For instance, it is “natural” for beavers to eat potato chips when they are offered them, insofar as they are animals, and animals need to eat to survive. If you starve a beaver and then offer it Doritos, it will eat them. But potato chips are not a typical food for a beaver. A beaver does not seek and find potato chips in its natural habitat; in fact, we would find it odd and “unnatural” for a beaver to seek out, eat, or crave potato chips. We know what a beaver is, and a potato-chip-eater is not what comes to mind. So in this case, it is the specific nature of the beaver that makes the eating of potato chips unnatural. Eating potato chips is both natural and unnatural for a beaver, depending on how you look at it.
Now, humans are defined as rational animals. Our rational nature is what sets us apart from other animals, and we engage in particular activities in virtue of our rationality. When we use our reason to deliberate and make decisions, when we use our free-will to act on our choices, this is natural for us. Recall what we said about how it is natural for human beings to wear clothing. St. Thomas makes this helpful distinction in the Summa (while discussing marriage, no less!):
A thing is said to be natural in two ways. First, as resulting of necessity from the principles of nature; thus upward movement is natural to fire. In this way matrimony is not natural, nor are any of those things that come to pass at the intervention or motion of the free-will. Secondly, that is said to be natural to which nature inclines although it comes to pass through the intervention of the free-will; thus acts of virtue and the virtues themselves are called natural; and in this way matrimony is natural, because natural reason inclines thereto in two ways.
What St. Thomas explains here is that interventions on the part of our free will are unnatural in one sense, and natural in another. Using matrimony as an example, he explains that some things that humans do are not natural in the sense that they “just happen” according to the world of nature, e.g., the way that fire tending upwards “just happens.” However, some things that arise from intervention or force can be natural insofar as the impulse for them comes from our nature. So, we don’t just somehow “become married” by natural forces; We choose to marry. However, we do so because we naturally seek union with someone of the opposite sex in order to help rear, educate, love our children. It is reasonable. Likewise, human beings wear clothing not only because it protects us from the elements, but also to adorn ourselves and to safeguard modesty. To wear clothing therefore follows from our nature, as it is a reasonable thing to do.
In our next and last post, we are going to wrap up our discussion on nature by using what we have learned to tackle a moral dilemma. Remember our friend from Part One, who argued that contraception is no different than any other “natural” process? Well, next we are going to show how this position falls into the very trap that we have been discussing today, and then we are going to formulate our response. Stay tuned!
 ST Suppl., Q. 41, Art. 1
Intro to Nature: Part Two
Today we are going to talk more about the 2nd way of conceptualizing nature as mentioned in the first post and see how it is related to the 1st way. 
Last time, we began by talking about Fr. William Wallace’s two-fold conception of nature: (1) What is free from human intervention and contamination and (2) activities or behaviors that originate from within an agent. Then, we took a closer look at the first conception and clarified the distinction between what is natural and what is artificial. Now, we are going to go into Fr. Wallace’s second conception.
In our first post, we talked about how Fr. Wallace’s first sense of the natural is to be contrasted with the artificial. In this post, we will see that his second sense of nature also gives way to an important contrast: natural activities are to be contrasted with activities that result from force and coercion. In order to make this contrast more apparent, let’s start by talking about activities and their agents. An activity is something done by an agent, and an agent is who or what does an activity. Let’s give a few examples of some activities and their agents: Human beings play sports, eat, watch television. Birds fly; dogs bark; beavers build dams. Notice that all of these agents are things that we identified as “natural” according to our first conception of nature. That is, none of these agents are artificial. It is, in fact, impossible for artificial things to be agents of activity. We see this clearly if we contrast the activities of a natural thing with those “activities” of an artificial thing, such as a kitchen appliance.
A natural thing, like an animal, has a body that self-maintains; it eats, it moves around, it builds itself a shelter, etc., and all of these activities it does “spontaneously”  and from within. The animal doesn’t need to be told or convinced to do these things; it just does. This is because the animal has its own “source” of motion or activity—itself; its nature. This is, in fact, the definition of nature laid down by Aristotle in his Physics, “a natural principle of motion or rest in the thing to which it belongs primarily and in virtue of that thing, but not accidentally.” Aristotle is saying that natural things, those things which come into being and function on their own, have an internal principle—something they possess— which accounts for this coming into being and functioning. For example, the beaver has a “beaver nature,” which accounts for what it is and what it does. In virtue of this nature, it builds dams. Building dams is one way that a beaver lives out its nature. Now, we can see that a nature, a “source” of activity, is much more than just what prompts an activity or sets an activity in motion. A thing’s nature is also that for the sake of which it performs all of its activities. In other words, a nature “dictates” the kinds of activities that promote and maintain the flourishing of the thing and its nature. Everything that a beaver does is done in virtue of its beaver nature and for its beaver nature; e.g., beaver nature dictates that the beaver build dams, and the building of dams in turn allows the beaver to flourish in accord with its very nature. This is what prompts our intuition that natural things, like animals, “do what comes naturally.” We know and anticipate that things will act according to the kind of thing that they are. For example, if a beaver grabbed a bag of chips in its paws and sat down next to us on the couch to watch Friends, we would be surprised.
Now that we understand the way in which natural things are agents of their activities, we are in a place to see how artificial things can never be agents of activity. A kitchen appliance, like a toaster, is an artificial thing. Human beings designed and fashioned it for the purpose of toasting—we decided what its function would be. We decided how it would work as well. Because everything that the toaster does is pre-determined by the way we designed and built it, nothing that the toaster does can be said to originate from “within” the toaster itself in the way that actions arise from “within” natural agents. As we discussed above, for an action to arise “from within” an agent means both that the action is a result of the agent’s nature and that the action is done for the sake of the agent’s nature. The toaster, however, does not have its own source of activity, its own nature by which and for the sake of which it performs its functions. On the contrary: everything the toaster “does” is for the sake of the person using it. Toasters are actually for the sake of human nature. For this reason, nothing that a toaster does arises from “within.”
This is why activities that artificial things appear to do on their own are actually things that we have done to it. For example, we don’t physically heat up the coils of the toaster or make the toast pop up ourselves. It appears that these actions really do originate from “within” the toaster. However, the fact that we don’t do these things immediately or directly doesn’t mean that they therefore originate “from within” the toaster, that the toaster itself “does them.” Even though we do not heat the toaster ourselves, we nonetheless put in place the mechanisms that make it do so. In this way, everything that the toaster “does” is really just a by-product, so to speak, of the way we have designed the toaster to function for our ends, our sake, our nature.
Now that we have Aristotle’s account of nature, it is easy to explain why Fr. Wallace contrasts natural activities with those that arise from force or coercion. Sometimes, force or coercion is called “violence.” These terms—force, coercion, violence—have a negative connotation in our language, often meaning something that is intentionally mean or malicious. In this specific context, however, these terms don’t have any such implications. To act from force or coercion means that a thing is acted upon externally so that it does something opposed to its natural inclination. For example, rocks by their nature tend downward. If I pick up a rock and throw it in the air, I have just done violence to the rock. This motion is, therefore, unnatural for the rock. When Fr. Wallace says that natural behaviors are those which arise from within an agent and thus arise without force or coercion, he is emphasizing the fact that certain activities follow necessarily from the natures of things, and any activity done to a thing which is contrary to its nature is unnatural.
We now understand both senses of nature that Fr. Wallace distinguishes and how they are related. Sometimes, we talk about natural things, and sometimes we talk about natural activities or behaviors. However, these two senses of the natural are interdependent. Natural things possess natures that account for what they are and what they do; natural activities are rooted in and depend upon the natures of their agents. Thus it is only by combining natural things and their distinctive activities that we have a full picture of the natural world:
“Combining the two senses, we may characterize the world of nature as what is capable of coming into existence apart from human influence and as made up of things that have within themselves natures or internal sources of their distinctive activities. Nature is thus populated by plants and animals of various kinds, by chemical elements and compounds, by hosts of elementary particles. by galaxies, stars, and planets…” 
We now have also a better sense of the way we use the words “natural” and “unnatural.” Sometimes, we say “that’s unnatural” unqualifiedly when referring to an object, the thought being “this thing does not belong to the world of nature.” For example, we say that a plastic water bottle is unqualifiedly unnatural because it only exists because of human technology; it’s not a product of nature but of man. Sometimes, we say “that’s unnatural” when referring to the behavior of a specific, natural thing if we know that it has been done out of force or coercion. For instance, someone might see a dog dressed up for Halloween and say, “that’s unnatural.” What they are really saying is “it is unnatural for a dog to get dressed in a Halloween costume.” It is important not to conflate these two senses of the word “natural.” That is, it is important to consider that some things are not unnatural unqualifiedly but may be unnatural for a certain thing and in a certain respect. In our next post, we are going to talk more about the difficulties that arise if these two senses fail to be distinguished. Stay tuned!
 William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Catholic University of America Press: 1996), 4
 Aristotle, Physics 2.1, 192b20–23.
 Wallace, 4.
Intro to Nature: Part One
In his book, The Modeling of Nature, Fr. William Wallace, O.P. states the problem that we agreed to tackle in our last post: “though it is easy to form a general idea of nature and the natural, it is difficult to define nature precisely and to differentiate things and processes that are natural from those that are not.” In this post and the posts to come, with the help of Fr. Wallace and others, we are going to nail down what the word “natural” means.
Fr. Wallace distinguishes two ways to conceptualize nature: (1) What is free from human intervention and contamination. So, natural versus artificial. Contrast, for instance, Lake Michigan and the man-made ponds in city parks. In this sense, natural things exist on their own, indifferent to mankind’s needs or desires. We did not “have a say” about whether Lake Michigan exists, but we did create various ponds for our own enjoyment. (2) Activities or behaviors that originate from within an agent without force or coercion. For example, no one must remind beavers to build dams or ask bees to make honey. They just do. This sense of nature is what we mean when we say that things “do what comes naturally.”
Now, let’s take a closer look at the first sense of nature that Fr. Wallace distinguishes: that which is free from human influence (or: that which is opposed to the artificial). Think of all the things that we consider natural: plants, animals, bodies of water, rocks and rock formations, the planets, chemicals and compounds. We could even include natural phenomena like storms, natural disasters, or the water cycle. Now, what makes all of these things natural as opposed to artificial? The distinction that Fr. Wallace makes is that natural things exist or come into being on their own. Why does this make something natural? Well, if something comes to exist on its own, it means that it does so regardless of mankind’s needs, wishes, or desires. Recall our contrast between Lake Michigan and our man-made ponds. While we may use and enjoy Lake Michigan—use it for swimming, fishing, sailing, etc.—we did not create it for this express purpose. The man-made lakes, however, were designed by someone and deliberately placed in the park for us to use and enjoy.
Someone might object that the man-made ponds are still made out of natural things like rocks, water, and plants, and they might be populated by animals like fish or ducks. So, why can’t we consider them natural, like Lake Michigan? While it is true that the man-made ponds are made out of “natural stuff,” this still doesn’t change the fact that these natural things were arranged, configured, put there by someone else.
In fact, there are many examples of artificial things that are made from natural parts. For example, wooden furniture is “natural” insofar as it is carved from naturally-occurring wood. Cotton clothing is natural insofar as it is made from the cotton plant, and granite counter tops are natural insofar as they’re cut from slabs of naturally-occurring granite. Notice that all of these things are harvested, altered, and designed specifically for human purposes. That fact is what makes them artificial rather than natural. Imagine how out of place a wooden kitchen chair would look amidst a forest of redwood trees!
Now that we have this first sense of the natural squared-away… stay tuned for part two! In part two, we will discuss the second sense of nature that Fr. Wallace distinguishes and how it is both related to and different from the first.
 William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis (Catholic University of America Press: 1996), 3.
A few years ago, I was discussing the Church’s position on contraception with a friend of mine. He said, “Well, getting sick is natural, and we take medicine to stop the process of becoming ill. Why is taking birth control to stop the process of becoming pregnant any different?” I must admit, I was a little stumped. I knew that the two cases—becoming ill and becoming pregnant—were different, but I couldn’t quite parse out how. I had an intuition that it had something to do with the way my friend was using the word “natural.” Surely, I thought, getting sick and getting pregnant are two different kinds of natural processes. But how?
We all have a general—perhaps a vague—idea of what “natural” means. Such is obvious by the fact that we assume the existence of nature in our everyday language. When two dogs struggle against their leashes to sniff and inspect one another, we say, “Well, they’re just doing what comes naturally!” We say things like, “I hadn’t eaten breakfast or lunch, so naturally, I was starving come dinnertime.” Not only do we talk about the natural, but we also have an intuition that what is natural is good. For instance, many of us favor natural remedies as opposed to prescriptions. Many of us gravitate toward brands that include the word “natural” in the name, brands that promise products free of chemicals and food free of additives and preservatives.
As Catholics, we have an especially rich understanding of the natural as good. We take human nature to be the grounding for certain truths about the human person: that mankind was created male and female, that the human being is ordered toward procreation and family life, that the human being is by nature a social creature. All these things we regard as good insofar as they are integral aspects of human nature, and to live out these aspects of human nature is what enables the human being to flourish. When we recognize a common human nature and recognize this nature as good, we therefore know also that it is good for everyone to flourish. In other words, we recognize that to flourish is a right, so to speak, of each and every person. To recognize this fact gives way to the concept of human dignity, which means to respect and, indeed, to help our fellow human beings flourish and live-out their human nature. We cannot, therefore, truly know what it means to say that human beings have worth and dignity, what is good for mankind, without a concrete notion of human nature.
In 1993, St. Pope John Paul II published his encyclical Veritatis Splendor in view of widespread confusion and disagreement in the areas of ethics and moral theology. The mission of the encyclical was to recall and restate the fundamental truths of Catholic doctrine as it pertains to the Church’s moral teaching. The overarching theme of Veritatis Splendor is to affirm the natural and eternal law, to affirm and defend a real and immutable human nature, and to affirm the fact that “the power to decide good and evil does not belong to man, but to God alone.” (VS, no. 32) In other words, St. John Paul II teaches us in Veritatis Splendor that to know human nature and to know it as good and created by God are essential to understanding the Church’s moral teaching.
Taking for its inspiration St. John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor, this blog series will answer questions about the Church’s teaching in the areas of human sexuality, marriage, and the family— with an eye toward human nature and natural law. For example: What does it mean to say that marriage is a natural institution? In what sense is marriage natural? Why are unity and procreation marriage’s natural ends?
In the blog entries to come, I hope to provide some clarity and insight into the nature behind Church teaching and to answer some of these tricky questions that sometimes leave us stumped. These are questions that Catholics and non-Catholics alike struggle with and, if left unanswered, can be a source of confusion, frustration, and anxiety. It is more important than ever to understand and promote the true nature of the human person and the true nature of marriage. It is more important now than ever to remember that nothing in God’s creation is arbitrary, that (in the words of Aristotle) “nature does nothing in vain”—to remember that not only is marriage unique, it is unique for a reason.
In the field of psychology, which I have studied a bit, there is a theory about human behavior called “script theory” which postulates that many of our behaviors fall into certain predictable patterns—as though we were acting them out from a script. Within a family, the members take on different “roles” and may act according to previous behavior patterns. When the “scripts” of the family members are affirming and peaceful, they promote healthy family relationships. For example, a habit of greeting family members as they return home from work or school and asking about their day, listening attentively, promotes emotional intimacy.
However, because our behavioral scripts are, in some way, inherited through our experiences, someone who has not witnessed certain positive interactions in childhood may not have a script for those positive interactions later in life. Now, of course that doesn’t mean that we can’t develop new scripts after childhood, although learning them early helps tremendously. While parents indirectly train their children to disagree respectfully and work out a difference of opinion peacefully, they also offer others who witness the interaction a new script for handling disagreements. By witnessing, internalizing, and utilizing a respectful script, the person who was a witness, no matter how old they are, can begin to heal their own relationships.
I’ve found this to be true in my own life, and a source of tremendous hope. Spending time with other families, particularly those from my home parish, has given me a number of new scripts that I might not have gained otherwise. I can see how a mom handles a toddler’s emotional outburst, how a sibling consoles his brother in pain, how a couple subtly shows tender affection, or how they communicate frustration in a way that leads to a solution instead of blame. Simply by living everyday moments faithfully, they witness Christ to me and give me new “scripts” that reflect the Word of God. As Pope Francis said, “The Christian family is missionary: it announces the love of God to the world,” (Twitter, Dec. 28, 2014)
Additionally, counselors and therapists can use this theory to help people develop scripts even beyond what they have personally witnessed. A client whose behavior patterns are not helping to improve their relationships and situations can be encouraged to think creatively about what different behavioral choices they can make. Likewise, when we are open to him, the Holy Spirit can inspire and move us spontaneously to love more generously and selflessly. In practicing virtue, we develop scripts for ourselves that tend toward the good. In prayer we can call on the Lord to help us recognize those scripts that don’t reflect His Word and ask for the grace to receive new ones so that we can love as He loves us.
Many of my friends who grew up in nominally Catholic households have lamented to me that their family home lacked the richness of the faith that they later came to know through their own practice and study. They went to Mass and Sunday school as kids, maybe said grace before meals or a little bedtime prayer, but otherwise their families didn’t live in a distinctively Catholic way. In hindsight, these young adults consider themselves impoverished by an upbringing that was essentially secular, and they intend for their own marriages and families to have a deeply Catholic character. They prioritize the sacraments, strong catechesis, spiritual and corporal works of mercy, awareness of the liturgical calendar, balancing penance and celebration, and hospitality. Living those things out seems like a daunting task because they are not inheriting a tradition from their families so much as trying to create a new one in the wake of a cultural shift that undermines their efforts.
In the ninth chapter of Amoris Laetitia, Pope Francis offers us some ideas about what Catholic family life can look like. He cites Vatican II, saying that lay spirituality “will take its particular character from the circumstances of… married and family life,” (313). He says, “The spirituality of family love is made up of thousands of small but real gestures,” (315). Through the next several paragraphs he specifically mentions family prayer, supporting one another, caring for one another, showing mercy, giving complete attention to others, and welcoming those outside the family with hospitality. These suggestions are not simply lifestyle choices, take ‘em or leave ‘em. Rather, these concrete actions reflect the life of Christ himself who is present in the family through the grace given to every baptized person and especially through the real graces of the sacrament of marriage.
With all this talk about marriage and family, it might be tempting for those of us who are unmarried to ignore the Church’s advice because it seems irrelevant to this moment in our lives. However, even as a single person, the Pope’s words about marriage are meaningful because they help me to prepare my heart for the marriage the Lord wants for me, instead of the woefully inadequate “Hollywood” version that has been so culturally ingrained. It is tempting to imagine that finding a spouse will tie up all the loose ends in my life and, like the movies, the credits will roll and we’ll live happily ever after. But the Pope warns us all that spouses need “a certain ‘disillusionment’ with regard to one another,” (320) and I think the same can be said of those who are looking for a spouse. I can’t expect another person to fulfill me completely. I am taking to heart his note about “spiritual realism” and the warning that “one spouse not presume that the other can completely satisfy his or her needs,” (320) which is a message that is desperately needed by those of us immersed in popular culture. Additionally, the “small but real gestures” that characterize the spirituality of the family can be practiced by anyone anywhere. For example, we are all called to practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, but “feed the hungry” takes on a new urgency when “the hungry” is a distraught 2-year-old tugging on your shirt. Likewise, to “bear wrongs patiently” is practically a heroic virtue when you have to bear the wrong of a sibling who has no remorse and will likely wrong you again. Within our families we have abundant opportunities to practice the virtues that sanctify us and open us to deeper union with the Lord.
When my friends describe what they hope to give their families they usually have specific ideas about praying the rosary as a family or being involved in ongoing community service and the like. However, they usually find a way to express that what they mean when they describe various devotions and practices is that they want their whole lives to be ordered toward the mystery of God’s love. The specific actions are expressions of a real desire to know, love, and serve the Lord. Pope Francis says that “spirituality becomes incarnate in the communion of the family,” (316). As Jesus’ day-to-day life was ordered to the will of the Father, so too the family is called to live their daily lives for Him.
Growing up with three brothers, I remember a lot of forced apologies being exchanged back and forth between us. My parents would make us say the words before we were actually ready to apologize for (or forgive) whatever nastiness was inflicted that day. But however hurt or angry we were at the moment, there was never a question in our minds about whether we loved one another. We belonged to each other and wouldn’t have had it any other way. Being family and loving one another went hand-in-hand.
Love sees beyond what is broken, rude, selfish, or mean in the other person’s action and reaches out a hand to heal the relationship. By making my brothers and me practice forgiveness in the everyday offenses of life, my parents were leading us to understand mercy: it makes things right between us.
Throughout the Old Testament we see a cycle of betrayal and mercy played out between Israel and the Lord. Over and over, Israel abandons God for their own desires, but the Lord continually draws her back to himself because he chose her and he is faithful to the covenant he made. In the book of Hosea in particular, the relationship of a married couple is used to reveal the steadfastness of God’s love for Israel. No matter what she does, He remains faithful.
A sacramental marriage helps those who witness it to understand God’s fidelity to his people. Indissolubility is a gift of mercy, because it makes the relationship of the couple true to what love is: a complete gift of oneself that can’t be taken back. A person in love does not promise their beloved the next three years; they promise forever! “The gift of indissolubility means that despite the vicissitudes and suffering that come with human failure and sin, the sacramental marriage bond remains an abiding source of mercy, forgiveness, and healing.” To deny the indissolubility of marriage would be an affront against the sacrament of marriage because it would deny the reality of grace and its power to heal and perfect a person.
I came across a beautiful reflection about marriage recently on a blog site. A woman was reflecting on her experience of learning to have mercy on her husband who was struggling with clinical depression. She said, “Through mercy, God taught me to love my husband as we all deserve to be loved—with a love devoid of self, thinking only of the good of the other person.” While her husband was sick, she, “picked up his cross for him, as Jesus does for us, and bore his malaise and withdrawal in loving silence.” By showing mercy rather than demanding justice, the couple was able to maintain peace and goodwill during his illness. Mercy itself is not a cure for depression, but it helped this couple to preserve their relationship in a difficult time. The wife realized that she needed to be kind and selfless, and not seek justice but rather have mercy, and finally when she did that she found, “I no longer cared about justice.”
It can be said of the practice of reconciliation that it “washes away small offenses, but it also protects from great offenses. Pardon confers a habitus of communion.” Mercy towards siblings, in my case, and a husband in the case of the blog contributor is an expression of a disposition toward communion. It is a desire to be united to the other person, even after they have hurt you. A married couple that frequently seeks and offers mercy reinforces their “togetherness” or communion so that when serious trials arise they have already practiced drawing towards one another. The indissoluble bond of marriage not only calls a couple to be merciful toward each other, but indissolubility also reveals God’s own mercy, because when he binds two people together in the sacrament, he gives them the graces they need to live it out.
 There is a new concept about marriage out there these days called a “wed-lease,” which turns marriage into something more like a business contract: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/a-high-divorce-rate-means-its-time-to-try-wedleases/2013/08/04/f2221c1c-f89e-11e2-b018-5b8251f0c56e_story.html. This is not true to what love is.
 “Ode to Feminine Genius: A Merciful Woman.” Catholic Sistas. Aug. 28, 2014. http://www.catholicsistas.com/2014/08/ode-feminine-genius-merciful-woman/
 Laffitte, J.(2015). The Choice of the Family. New York: Image, p. 143.
Written by the Spring Intern in the Promotion and Defense of Marriage Secretariat.