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What is Sacramental Marriage?

Posted Jan. 17, 2020 by DOM 2 comments

Sacramental Marriage

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.[1] 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).[2] 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.”[3] 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.

[1] See  “Why is Marriage a Natural Institution?”

[2] All references to the Catechism taken from: Catechism of the Catholic Church, Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops–Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.

[3] 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.

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.

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What is a Natural Institution? Why is Marriage One?

Posted Dec. 18, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

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). [1] 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.”[2] 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. [3] 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[4] 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…[5]

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.[6] 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!

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1603. Washington, DC: United States Conference of Catholic Bishops–Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2000.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Part One; Part Two; Part Three

[4] Politics I.1.1253a30.

[5] ST Suppl., 41, Ad.1, Co.

[6] 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)

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.

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Nature Part 4

Posted Nov. 12, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Intro to Nature: Part Four

Today, we are going to finish our introduction to nature by applying what we have learned to a moral dilemma. Recall our friend from the first post, who likened using contraception to treating an illness. This is his thought process: “Well, it’s natural to get sick, but we take precautions to prevent illness all the time. Similarly, getting pregnant is a natural process. Why can’t we take precautions to stop this natural process? If contraception is unnatural, then I guess preventing an illness is unnatural, too!” Let’s unpack this.

The first assumption that our friend makes is that getting sick is a natural process. Is this true? Remember our beaver example, which demonstrated that certain things can be natural or unnatural in different respects (i.e. eating potato chips). Well, getting sick is natural insofar as all living things are prone to it. If it has life, it can also fall ill, become infected, die, and decay.  But we must consider not only what happens to living things, but also the nature of living things. Just because it happens doesn’t mean it’s natural.

Living things possess an innate principle of motion and rest– they are animate; they move. So, when animation is compromised, take a person in a coma for example, then that compromises the living thing’s very nature. It is not “being what it is” at that moment. You don’t look at a person in a coma and think, “That person is living her best life.”  To get sick is, in fact, unnatural for the living thing. We all kind of know that through common sense.

So contrary to our friend’s idea, preventing illness is more natural to the human being, in the way we are talking about, than getting sick. That is because preventing illness is the application of reason (proper to humanity) to a problem (illness). According to St. Thomas Aquinas, there is a law that governs all living things, and its precepts are: do good and avoid evil, preserve one’s life, and preserve the life of one’s species.[1] Violating these precepts would be unnatural. Since illness is a threat to one’s life, it is actually natural for animals (human beings included) to seek out remedies that prevent or reverse illness; to do this is natural insofar as it restores nature to its proper order. So no—Christians aren’t against medicine!

Now, we are going to contrast the above with contraception.

Having sex is an activity which, by its nature, intends the procreation of children.[2] This is evident by biology: the reproductive organs have no function except generation, and they don’t “work” on their own but only with each other (one male, one female). If the sexual organs “do their job” to the peak of their powers—if they fulfill their nature as reproductive organs—a baby is conceived. By contrast, there is no organ in the body that exists in order to nurture disease. Rather, there are all sorts of defense mechanisms in the body to fight disease! So just like it would be unnatural to thwart the functioning of the stomach (say, by inducing vomit), to have sex with the intention of thwarting the natural purpose of the sexual organs is unnatural. When we consider the Natural Law applied to the human person, we must consider how having sex without being open to life affects human dignity and flourishing. (Alas, more for a future post!)

In conclusion, we must not treat the “natural process” as a univocal thing; we must always consider the subject which undergoes the process. It is clear that some processes are natural in one respect, but not in another. To ask whether something is natural or unnatural is really to ask. “Is this good for this thing?” If it prevents the living out of a thing’s nature, it is bad (unnatural). If it helps the thing function and flourish, it is good (natural).

[1] ST I-II, Q.94, Art. 1 & 2

[2] We are assuming this for now but stay tuned for another post on the ends of procreation.

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.

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Made for Love Ep 31: The Joy of Pets

Posted Feb. 1, 2019 by DOM No comments yet

Pets can make a huge positive difference in the life of a family. They can bring out different sides of family members, provide an opportunity to learn responsibility, and provide surprises and entertainment. On this episode, we’ll hear from Bishop Vann (Orange), who is a dog-lover, Sarah Hinds, who grew up with horses and other pets, Fr. Brian Mahoney, who writes about his cats in his parish bulletin, and a few kids with pets!

Here’s a reflection by participant Sarah Coffey on her blog about how pets can be good for your soul!

 

or

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Made for Love Ep 25: Catholics and Pornography

Posted Nov. 19, 2018 by DOM No comments yet

“Porn Kills Love.” This slogan from “Fight the New Drug” resonates with Catholic teaching about pornography. This episode is about Catholics dealing with addiction to pornography. It includes DJ Hueneman, Jeff and Annette Kohn, Kevin and Krista Burridge, Patty Breen, and Perry West.

Soundcloud:

Or Podbean:

The 2005 USCCB statement “Create in Me a Clean Heart” (Also in Spanish) addresses the crisis of pornography in today’s world. There’s an abridged version if you are pressed for time! The conference also publishes pamphlets to help particular groups:

The USCCB’s For Your Marriage website also has resources and help for people dealing with pornography.

The journal Humanum has a beautiful witness story: The Cleansing of the Temple: Casting Pornography Out of Marriage

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Adult Children of Divorce

Posted Jun. 30, 2017 by DOM No comments yet

The conversation about divorce often discusses its impact on children in various ways, but doesn’t always take up the question of how divorce affects those children when they become adults.

Since many adults today are facing struggles and difficulties because their parents divorced, it may be time to face the fact that divorce is not a one-time event. It comes up at every holiday, every family celebration, every family tragedy.

In Amoris Laetitia, quoting the Relatio from the 2015 Synod, Pope Francis offers a kind of examination of conscience for people who have divorced: “how did they act towards their children when the conjugal union entered into crisis; whether or not they made attempts at reconciliation; what has become of the abandoned party; what consequences the new relationship has on the rest of the family and the community of the faithful; and what example is being set for young people who are preparing for marriage.”

This last point is perhaps the biggest question for those adult children whose parents have separated. How do they learn to trust that love will not “fail,” in their case? Knowing that they have a higher chance of divorce because of this family history,[1] how do they face the future with hope?

How can the Church do more to reach out to adult children of divorce and help them to heal from this experience?

[1] Here is a link to one study that shows this, though there are many that corroborate it: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2704052/

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WMOF Catechesis Chapter 10: Choosing Life

Posted Aug. 19, 2015 by DOM 1 comment

World Meeting of Families Catechesis Series
The USCCB is excited about the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) being held in Philadelphia in September 2015.  We are presenting a series of short articles focused on the WMOF Catechesis Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive and its implications for our daily lives. We will follow the timing suggested by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by exploring one theme each month leading up to the World Meeting.

Chapter Ten: Choosing Life
Dr. Theresa Notare
Secretariat for Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth

Happiness in life requires courage and work. Happiness comes at a price. Want to play the guitar like a rock star? You will have to take music lessons and practice for hours daily. Want to have a strong, lean body? You will have to eat healthy food and exercise regularly. The list is endless. Hard work and sacrifice are a prerequisite to true, mature happiness.

As people of faith, we know that happiness arises from living a life that is in harmony with God’s will and leads us to fulfill our purpose. Chapter Ten of the catechism for the World Meeting of Families highlights this when it says that: “God made us for a reason… to love as He does” (no. 189). When we “understand that love is our mission,” this truth will “shape many other areas of life” (Ibid.). This can be clearly seen in marriage and family which, when founded on Christ, is a school of love.[1]

The vows in a Catholic marriage speak of the self-gift that the husband and wife make to each other in Christ. This requires “dying to self” as the two put aside “I” to become “we.” Married love, including its sexual expression, is holy. When lived in accord with God’s plan, conjugal love should “reverence God’s vision of human sexuality.”[2] This requires that the couple trust in God’s plan for their marriage, including whether and/or when they are able to have children. It may also ask for courage since Catholic couples will have to reject contraception which does harm to God’s design.

Many married Catholics do not realize the deep happiness that they can have in their marriages when God is at the center of everything. They can express God’s love for one another while they also honor His design, including their sexual lives. Sexual intercourse, as willed by God, is a holy time for husband and wife. It fortifies their union and is the worthy place for receiving new life. Honoring God’s will does not mean that couples can’t regulate the number of children in their families. When they need to postpone or avoid pregnancy, they may continue to honor God’s design by practicing one of the methods of Natural Family Planning (NFP).

NFP methods respect God’s gift of fertility by learning about it in a thoughtful way.  No drugs or devices are introduced into the conjugal act; rather, the bodies of both man and woman are fully respected in their life-giving potential, and “listened” to. If a couple needs to avoid a pregnancy they refrain from sex when they are fertile. When they realize that God may be calling them to have a child, because of their knowledge of NFP they would also know the best time to attempt a pregnancy. This, of course, takes study

and practice (most NFP methods require charting the signs of fertility). All NFP methods also require self-discipline since periodic sexual abstinence is the NFP means to avoid pregnancy. This can be very difficult, but it is doable with the help of grace and the habit of self-discipline which is common to all virtues.

When couples persevere in learning and using NFP, they reap many benefits. All NFP methods are effective for both attempting to achieve or avoid pregnancy. They are also good for the body since no devices or drugs are used. In fact, NFP methods are the “organic” way to live with human fertility—they do not pollute the environment. Most importantly, NFP methods teach married couples to understand their bodies and to communicate with each other about their fertility and their relationship. These conversations can foster deeper couple communication that can improve their relationships. NFP research confirms this benefit showing that NFP couples feel respected by their spouses.[3] NFP helps married couples commit to real happiness—the deep happiness of living life according to God’s plan!

[1] See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1657.
[2] Committee for Pro-Life Activities, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, “Human Sexuality from God’s Perspective, Humanae vitae 25 Years Later,” (1993); available at: http://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/marriage-and-family/natural-family-planning/catholic-teaching/upload/Human-Sexuality-from-God-s-Perspective-Humanae-Vitae-25-Years-Later.pdf.
[3] L. VandeVusse, L. Hanson, R. J. Fehring, A. Newman, J. Fox, “Couples’ views of the effects of natural family planning on marital dynamics,” Journal of Nursing Scholarship 35, no. 2 (2003):171-176.

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Chapter 9- Mother, Teacher, Family: The Nature and Role of the Church

Posted Jul. 22, 2015 by DOM 1 comment

World Meeting of Families Catechesis Series

The USCCB is excited about the World Meeting of Families (WMOF) being held in Philadelphia in September 2015.  We are presenting a series of short articles focused on the WMOF Catechesis Love is our Mission: The Family Fully Alive and its implications for our daily lives. We will follow the timing suggested by the Archdiocese of Philadelphia by exploring one theme each month leading up to the World Meeting.

Chapter Nine: Mother, Teacher, Family: The Nature and Role of the Church
Dr. Andrew Lichtenwalner
Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth

What’s in an Image?

The ninth chapter of the World Meeting of Families preparatory catechesis, “Mother, Teacher, Family: The Nature and Role of the Church,” begins in the following way: The Church has institutional forms because she must work in the world. But that does not exhaust her essence. The Church is the Bride of Christ, a “she,” not an “it.”

What do we think of when we hear the Church described as “Bride” and “Mother”? What’s our first impression? Does it have anything to do with us?

My mom and dad raised me in the Catholic faith and encouraged a love for the Church from my earliest years. I don’t recall them speaking about the Church as “Mother” at home the way they talked of God as “Father,” but I think they conveyed that sense to me very naturally and practically in the way they lived the faith—love for Christ and love for the Church go together.

I remember during grad school coming across the work of Henri de Lubac, a French Jesuit theologian who was later made a Cardinal by Pope St. John Paul II. De Lubac had a great love for the image of the Church as Mother. In seeking to perceive and grasp the nature of the Church, his personal experience led him to describe in a simple, childlike way  “the first of all words: the Church is my mother.” He said that the two words “Mother Church” (Ecclesia mater) express “the very reality of Christian life.”

How can the very reality of Christian life be conveyed by calling the Church our Mother? Because the Christian life is conceived and generated by her and lived in and through her. There is no Christian life without the Church.

To call the Church our Mother, which Pope Francis himself has done on many occasions, is not a mere pious expression or sentimentality. Christian discipleship hinges on the Church being our Mother, and the Church is only Mother because she is first the Bride of Christ. Encountering and following Jesus depends first and always on grace, which we receive from the Lord through the Church. The Church can only be fruitful in discipleship and truly a Mother if she is united to Christ, close to Him as His Bride. Without Him, we can do nothing.

The Church was loved into existence by Christ. The Fathers of the Church saw the Church being formed like the New Eve, drawn out of the pierced side of Christ on the Cross. The Church is not a haphazard byproduct or afterthought of the saving work of Christ but the intended fruit of Christ’s mission of redemption manifest with the Descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The world was created for the Church, the Bride of Christ, who as Mother would be the place of re-creation and regeneration in the Spirit.

In other words, Christ and the Church are inseparable. A Christian artist has expressed it well, saying that in Christ’s words: “You cannot care for Me, with no regard for her. If you love Me, you will love the Church.”

The image of the Church as the Bride of Christ, in addition to the image of the Church as the Body of Christ, powerfully conveys the mystery of the intimate union between Christ and the Church. The image of the Church as Mother conveys the fruitfulness that comes from being united in and with Christ. These images not only concern us but are about us. We are the Church in a real way. We are called to bear Christ to the world. As St. Augustine said to encourage Christians to live up to their identity: Be the bride.

As sinners, we know that we are in need of grace and do not always live up to the gift of holiness which marks the Church. The images of the Church as Bride of Christ and Mother encourage us to “press towards the mark” and to understand Christian discipleship as inseparable from loving the Church.

Even if we haven’t given the images of the Church as Bride of Christ and Mother much thought before, if we love the Church as Christ does, we are already living those images.