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.
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.” 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. NFP helps married couples commit to real happiness—the deep happiness of living life according to God’s plan!
 See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, no. 1657.
 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.
 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.
Note: This post is seventh in a series of posts about what we can learn from the Supreme Court’s June 2013 DOMA decision, and how that can help us better promote and defend marriage. This series is based on a July 2013 talk by staff of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
- #1: Background to the Supreme Court cases
- #2: Unspoken assumptions & reframing the debate
- #3: What do you say that marriage is? The need for a comprehensive vision
- #4: The flawed anthropology of “sexual orientation” and the need for a renewed emphasis on anthropology and chastity
- #5: Is defending marriage just about injuring others? No. Marriage matters for everyone.
- #6: What now? Practical ways to promote and defend marriage
PART TWO: Practical ways to promote and defend marriage
Post #7: How to use Marriage: Unique for a Reason
The audience that the bishops have in mind for the Marriage: Unique for a Reason project is Catholic young adults. The bishops reasoned that young adults are most bombarded and most susceptible to faulty messages about marriage, but the materials could certainly be used for older audiences too. The materials do not assume much in the way of prior catechesis, but they are written for a Catholic audience, not a generic or secular one.
The end-goal of the resources is inculcating a renewed understanding and appreciation of what the Church teaches in regards to marriage, and a sense of its reasonableness. The hope is that learning the Church’s timeless teaching can build confidence to promote and defend it.
The videos themselves are meant as a kind of “artistic introduction” to the topic that can spark questions and comments from the viewers. The written guides that accompany the videos can help “train the trainers” to get the right content to be confident in facilitating and answering questions. For example, the comment in Made for Each Other – “It’s not just about biology…” could open the discussion to talking about sexual difference as greater than just anatomy, about the spousal meaning of the body, about the role of science, etc. Or the line in Made for Life – “My husband plays in a way I don’t” – could lead into talking about the unique gifts of fathers and mothers and how sexual difference is more than different “roles.”
There are many settings in which to implement the Marriage: Unique for a Reason resources. Here are a few:
- Host a small-group event where you show one or more of the videos and lead a discussion.
- The videos also work well in a classroom setting, and are something that high school teachers or college professors could use with the same aim in mind. They can be used in RCIA as well.
- In the marriage preparation or enrichment setting, the videos could be used to help the participants gain a better understanding of their own marriage and how sexual difference matters to them. The leader might guide the discussion in that direction.
- The videos could also be helpful when you are training volunteers, for marriage prep or NFP, etc., to help them become more confident in what the Church teaches so that they can best help others.
Fundamentally, the videos and their companion resources are meant to “break open” the questions that need to be asked in the marriage debate: what is marriage? Why does sexual difference matter? What does marriage bring to society? And they aim to do that in a non-confrontational, invitational way.
Other ways you could use the Marriage: Unique for a Reason materials is to include one FAQ from the website in your newsletters or other communications. Or compile several for a simple bulletin insert or handout, and direct people to the website for more information.
The final “tip” we’d like to offer is something that we’ve learned over the past year in our work at the USCCB, and that is the importance of collaboration and the key importance of prayer. Specifically, we’ve helped to develop and promote the Bishops’ Call to Prayer for Life, Marriage, and Religious Liberty, which began in December 2012 and is ongoing. The bishops urge Catholics to pray and fast for the causes of building a culture of life and marriage, and gaining religious protections. In particular, they encourage praying a daily rosary, attending adoration monthly, fasting and abstaining from meat on Fridays, and there are special petitions that can be read at mass, in English and in Spanish. The second annual Fortnight for Freedom (June 21 – July 4, 2013) was the 5th component of the Call to Prayer.
We’ve collaborated with several offices in furthering the Call to Prayer, particularly the pro-life office and religious liberty office. This was important not just because it shared the workload, but because these issues are tied together. Marriage is the “sanctuary of life,” and a pro-life society is a strong marriage society and vice versa. And as we’ve already talked about, marriage and religious liberty are strongly linked together.
We encourage you to reach out to others in your diocese or region who are doing pro-life or religious liberty work and find ways to collaborate together. There is strength in numbers, and it’s so important, for example, to encourage pro-life folks to promote and defend marriage, and vice versa. (This would include your State Catholic Conference, particularly with regard to policy issues and aiding in communicating it to the faithful.) One idea is to host a seminar with the relevant offices – marriage and family life, pro-life, State Catholic Conference, etc. – on how catechesis and policy/advocacy work together.
The Call to Prayer also witnesses to the fact that prayer is key. Fundamentally, the battle is spiritual, and it’s a battle for souls. Prayer and fasting are essential, not optional. That is the vision behind the Call to Prayer – that we do what we can, but it is God who changes hearts and minds. We encourage you to check out the Call to Prayer website: www.usccb.org/life-marriage-liberty. There you can read about the five ways to participate and can sign up to receive weekly reminders to fast on Fridays, along with a different intention and reflection each week. There are also web banners to put up on your own website.
Note: This post is sixth in a series of posts about what we can learn from the Supreme Court’s June 2013 DOMA decision, and how that can help us better promote and defend marriage. This series is based on a July 2013 talk by staff of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage.
- #1: Background to the Supreme Court cases
- #2: Unspoken assumptions & reframing the debate
- #3: What do you say that marriage is? The need for a comprehensive vision
- #4: The flawed anthropology of “sexual orientation” and the need for a renewed emphasis on anthropology and chastity
- #5: Is defending marriage just about injuring others? No. Marriage matters for everyone.
PART TWO: Practical ways to promote and defend marriage
Post #6: Doing your ministry well, and Marriage: Unique for a Reason
The current challenges we face in regards to marriage, as evidenced by the June 2013 Supreme Court decisions on two marriage cases (regarding DOMA and Proposition 8), does not mean that you have to fundamentally shift gears in your ministry or – worse – start several new programs to address these issues! That’s not what we’re suggesting, although we are going to tell you about what resources the USCCB has to offer that you may find helpful.
Instead, we encourage you to think about how the ministry you are doing right now can more effectively combat the growing sense that gender is irrelevant to marriage, and all the faulty anthropology that goes with that.
For example, perhaps a marriage preparation program could more intentionally teach the engaged couples about the distinct gifts of men and women, mothers and fathers. It could help them see the uniqueness of their roles as husbands and wives. Or perhaps in programs for young adults or even high school students, you could integrate more teaching on chastity and Christian anthropology, especially the theology of the body. We know many of you have been doing this yet so much more needs to be done.
We know you are abundantly aware that the people you serve are not coming to you as a “blank slate,” as it were, and have already been heavily influenced by the ideas we spoke about earlier, that the Supreme Court put so clearly for us. Being “neutral” toward marriage redefinition is no longer an option; being proactive is. Defending and promoting marriage go hand in hand, and while not everyone is called to engage in public policy advocacy work, all of us can intentionally promote and defend the uniqueness of marriage and help people see and articulate alternative responses to the dominant cultural messages on marriage.
Marriage: Unique for a Reason
One specific resource that may be of help to you in your ministry is the bishops’ initiative Marriage: Unique for a Reason. I imagine that many of you are somewhat familiar with this resource already, and may have already used it in your ministries.
Marriage: Unique for a Reason has four themes: sexual difference and complementarity, the gift of children and the need for fathers and mothers, marriage and the common good, and marriage and religious liberty. The order is important. The series starts with sexual difference because that is the most fundamental component – and the one most often overlooked – of marriage’s meaning. Starting with sexual difference helps to get at the roots of the issue and address the often unspoken assumptions. It also provides a solid anthropological grounding for the other three themes.
The second theme is about children and the need for fathers and mothers. This theme includes examining what fruitfulness is and why it’s at the heart of marriage. It considers the often overlooked justice issue in the marriage debate: justice for children, to have the best chance at having a mom and a dad. It also addresses the issues of infertility and single parents (see FAQs #3 and #5). The video for this theme is called “Made for Life.” It also comes with a Viewer’s Guide and Resource Booklet.
The third theme, marriage and the common good, relies heavily on Catholic Social Teaching about marriage and the family and their contribution to society (see FAQ #5). It also aims to reframe the debate about equality, rights, and so on, by reinforcing the inherent goodness of marriage for everyone in society (see FAQ #13). The video in this theme is forthcoming, but there are already FAQs available at Marriage Unique for a Reason.org.
The fourth and final theme, marriage and religious liberty, addresses the fact that redefining marriage in the law directly affects religious liberty (see FAQ #3). This video is also forthcoming, but FAQs are available.
And lastly, there is one video in Spanish – to be released later in 2013 – that incorporates all four themes in a longer, dramatic style. It’s called “El Matrimonio: Hecho para el amor y la vida” (Marriage: Made for Love and Life). The final version will be subtitled in English, and the accompanying Study Guide will be bilingual, so these resources will be suitable for mixed-language audiences.
I already mentioned the website: Marriage: Unique for a Reason.org. On that site are many FAQs about marriage, a regularly updated blog, a library of Church teaching, and more. We are in the process of updating the website to be more user-friendly and easy to navigate.
Next: Post #7: How to use Marriage: Unique for a Reason (and the importance of prayer)
Made for Life, Part 5: "We were open to life, whether through…giving birth or through the adoption process."
Background: This is part 5 of the Viewer’s Guide that accompanies the video “Made for Life.” Previous sections include: 1) openness to life; 2) gift of self and gift of life; 3) children as a gift; 4) the call to welcome a child and be a child. In part 5, we’ll look at the witness of infertile couples and of those couples who adopt a child. In that context, we’ll reflect on how openness to life is essential for all marriages, not just those that are blessed with children.
“We were open to life, whether through…giving birth or through the adoption process.”
As Kevin and Brenda witness in the video, openness to life has a meaning more profound than popularly recognized today. In the midst of recent attempts to “redefine” marriage, the objection is sometimes raised that there are many husbands and wives who are unable to have children. What makes them different from a relationship between two persons of the same sex, who also can’t have children of their own?
The truth is, there is an unbridgeable difference between a spousal union (a male-female couple united as husband and wife) and a relationship between two men or two women. This difference is sexual difference. First, conceiving a child requires the joint action of both a man and a woman. This intimate participation in conceiving a child is simply impossible for two persons of the same sex. Two men or two women cannot—ever—have a child together. [i]
Second, sexual union between a husband and wife is the kind of union apt for generation. That is, male-female intimacy is the natural route through which a child comes into the world. There are times when a husband and wife may be unable to conceive a child due to infertility or sterility (for reasons beyond their control) or advanced age. Still, their sexual union remains the kind of union that expresses total self-gift and openness to the gift of the child. [ii] The situation is very different for two persons of the same sex. Even if both are young and perfectly healthy, any sexual behavior between them can never form a true union and will never be able to welcome a new child into the world.
The painful cross of infertility does not mean that a couple’s marriage is not fruitful. As Pope John Paul II taught, “Physical sterility . . . can be for spouses the occasion for other important services to the life of the human person, for example, adoption, various forms of educational work, and assistance to other families and to poor or handicapped children.” [iii] In particular, the Church praises adoption as an expression of “true parental love,” which “is ready to go beyond the bonds of flesh and blood in order to accept children from other families.” [iv]
Adoption, as a response to a tragedy or loss, is never meant to be held up as an “alternative” to the natural family of father, mother, and their children. Instead, adoption “takes its form” from the natural family. There is a difference between generously responding to an abandoned child’s need for a mother and a father, on the one hand, and deliberately depriving a child of a mother and a father by placing him or her in the care of two men or two women.
In sum, openness to life is essential to every marriage. Husbands and wives who are not blessed with children of their own still exemplify the fruitful communion of persons in a way two persons of the same sex never can. This communion, built on the sexual difference between husband and wife, opens the door to adoption and to other generous forms of service while still respecting the beauty of sexual difference, the needs of children, and the indispensable place of mothers and fathers.
Background: The following is an excerpt from the Viewer’s Guide to the video “Made for Life.” Earlier sections include reflections on openness to life, the gift of self and the gift of life, and children as a supreme gift. In this section, we’ll look at the call to welcome a child, the call to be a child, and how children bring hope and joy to the world.
“The idea that we were adding on to our family brought great joy.”
“Since having children, it’s been the best reflection of God’s love that I could ever define or try to describe.”
To welcome a child is to welcome hope. Lashawntra and Kevin both attest to the love, joy, and hope experienced when a husband and wife welcome a child. The child stands as a sign at odds with the doomsdayers, those who turn life into constant worry and fretfulness, and counter to the overly self-assured, those who presume upon their own capacities without trusting and hoping in God. The child points to the higher way of hope, beyond despair and presumption, because the child reminds us, by his or her very existence, that life and love are stronger than death, [i] and that life is worth living.
How does this relate to marriage? Recall the scene in the video where the wife joyfully announces to her husband that a new little baby is on the way. Marriage, as the union of husband and wife, is the only relationship that, by its very nature, is made to welcome the hope that comes with each new human life, and to connect a child with his or her biological father and mother. The call—the vocation—to welcome a child is uniquely built within the essence of marriage. Husbands and wives who stand ready to welcome children are a decisive witness to joyful hope, despite whatever hardships and sufferings come in this life.
Jesus regularly pointed to the child. [ii] He knew that the child reveals to us our deepest identity and calling. This may seem ironic, since a little child is helpless, defenseless, and “non-productive” by worldly standards. Even the disciples had a difficult time understanding this at first. The great temptation over the centuries has been to overlook and dismiss the child. And yet remember Jesus’ words: “‘Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven’” (Mt 18:3-4). All the successes and riches of the world don’t add up to the gift of being a child of God, the fundamental calling that unlocks the meaning of life. We are all called to become children of God (see 1 Jn 3:1), sons and daughters in Jesus, the Son of God (see Gal 4:4-7).
In the presence of an infant, we are reminded that we do not create ourselves, but are given by God, through the help of both our mother and father. The child unlocks for us the beauty of life as a sheer, undeserved, abundant gift from our heavenly Father. Life is meant to be lived in hope and in joy. Marriage, as the total, faithful, and life-giving union of a man and a woman, has the distinctive mission to share this hope and joy with the world.
The U.S. bishops met at their bi-annual plenary assembly in Baltimore this week, November 12-14. On Monday, November 12, Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, chairman of the Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage and Archbishop of San Francisco, gave an oral report to the bishops on the work of the Subcommittee. His address touched on both catechetical initiatives and public policy advocacy work.
Marriage and the New Evangelization
The Archbishop began by referencing Pope Benedict XVI’s homily on October 7, where the Holy Father linked marriage and the New Evangelization. “Matrimony is a gospel in itself, a Good News for the world of today,” the Pope said. “Marriage is linked to faith, but not in a general way…There is a clear link between the crisis in faith and the crisis in marriage…Marriage is called to be not only an object but a subject of the new evangelization.” Archbishop Cordileone commented that Pope Benedict’s words are “sobering but also encouraging.” He added, “To forget the truth of marriage is to forget the truth of the human person and the very truth of God Himself. To rediscover marriage, on the other hand, and to faithfully live it out, hold a key to advancing the New Evangelization and the renewal of our culture.”
Archbishop Cordileone then updated the bishops on the ongoing catechetical work of the Subcommittee. He explained that two video resources have already been released: “Made for Each Other,” about sexual difference and complementarity, and “Made for Life,” about the gift of children and the need for fathers and mothers. He made special mention of the next video to be released, a Spanish-language video called “El Matrimonio: Hecho para el amor y la vida.” (Marriage: Made for Love and Life). This video will be in a “telenovela” dramatic style and, as the Archbishop explained, will include all four themes of the Subcommittee’s messaging: sexual difference, the gift of children, the common good, and religious liberty. The plot is based on a 50th anniversary party and the gentle witness of the long-married grandparents to their grandson and his girlfriend.
The Archbishop also made note that two more English videos are in development, one about marriage and the common good, and one about marriage and religious liberty. Regarding the Marriage: Unique for a Reason website, he thanked those bishops whose archdiocesan or diocesan websites include a Marriage: Unique for a Reason web banner.
Legal and Policy Issues
Remarking on the current legal and policy landscape, Archbishop Cordileone noted that “the urgency around the protection of marriage has grown and is reaching what could be called a critical mass.” He highlighted the referendums held on Election Day, saying that while voters have affirmed the authentic meaning of marriage 32 times in the past, unfortunately on November 6, three states (MD, WA, and ME) voted to redefine marriage in the law, while a fourth (MN) rejected a constitutional amendment that would have added an extra layer of protection to marriage. The Archbishop pointed out that in all four states, “heroic efforts were made in the face of being vastly outspent by those seeking to redefine marriage. . . . We were narrowing the gap and lost by just a small margin in all four states.”
The Archbishop thanked the pertinent bishops in referendum states, saying, “I know how hard you worked. We are in your debt and in debt to all the people who devoted great time, energy, sacrifice, and love in witnessing to the unique meaning of marriage and seeking its protection in your states. . . . This work is not in vain.” He added, “This is not a time to give up, but rather a time to re-double our efforts.”
Moving to the federal level, Archbishop Cordileone said that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which was overwhelmingly passed by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in 1996, faces “sustained attack” in federal courts. He told the bishops that it is likely that the Supreme Court will choose at least one DOMA case to consider, with a decision by June 2013.
A second marriage-related case that could end up in the Supreme Court is California’s Proposition 8 case. (Background: Proposition 8, which defines marriage in the California state constitution as the union of one man and one woman, was approved by voters in 2008 but has been challenged in federal court and found unconstitutional.) The Archbishop pointed out that a negative decision by the Supreme Court in either the DOMA case or the Prop 8 case “would bring serious negative consequences to the institution of marriage, ultimately leading in all likelihood to marriage redefinition nationwide. In other words,” he added, “the ‘Roe‘ decision for marriage,” referencing the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade that legalized abortion throughout the country.
Finally, Archbishop Cordileone highlighted the fact that the executive branch has pursued “considerable erosive activity” regarding the definition of marriage, “and it sadly has shown no signs of letting up.” He concluded by saying, “This is a situation of grave concern that requires our vigilant attention as well as our prayers.”
Spanish-language video trailer
Archbishop Cordileone ended his presentation by sharing with the bishops an extended trailer of the forthcoming Spanish-language video “El Matrimonio: Hecho para el amor y la vida” (Marriage: Made for Love and Life) that is currently in post-production. He explained that the storyline focuses on Hector and Rosa, a husband and wife celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary, and their grandson Miguel, who is cohabiting with his girlfriend Maria. Miguel and Maria spend the night before the anniversary celebration at Hector and Rosa’s house, and their loving and faithful witness to the meaning of marriage challenges the two young people to re-examine their assumptions about marriage. Currently, the trailer can be viewed via the USCCB footage of Archbishop Cordileone’s presentation (fast forward to 1 hour 43 minutes).
In closing, Archbishop Cordileone thanked each of the bishops for their stewardship of the gift of marriage and family. He assured them of the Subcommittee’s assistance and invited their ongoing guidance and feedback.
Background: We’re reading through the Viewer’s Guide that accompanies the video “Made for Life.” We’ve already looked at Part 1 (openness to life) and Part 2 (the gift of self and the gift of life). Today, in part 3, we’ll reflect on what it means that children are a “supreme gift,” how marriage is responsible stewardship of that gift, and what it means that procreation is participation in God’s creative action.
“Children are a gift and a blessing.”
While marriage includes many blessings, the gift of a child is incomparable. Children indeed are the “supreme gift” of marriage. [i] This is witnessed to both by spouses who rejoice at the birth of a son or a daughter, as Tyrone’s words above demonstrate, and by those couples who bear the sadness and pain of infertility or miscarriage. Every child is a gift because every child is a unique, irreplaceable human life. The human person “is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake.” [ii] In conceiving and giving birth to a child, husband and wife have the awesome responsibility of welcoming a new human life into the world: in fact, a person for whom the world was created, a person for whom God became man, a person called to live with God for all eternity. [iii]
Because every child is an unrepeatable gift, no one can claim a “right” to have a child. “A child is not something owed to one, but is a gift. The ‘supreme gift of marriage’ is a human person. A child may not be considered a piece of property, an idea to which an alleged ‘right to a child’ may lead.” [iv] The proper attitude of parents toward a child is joyful receptivity and awe that the Creator would entrust this new life to a mother and father. [v]
Because the child is always a gift, it would make sense that any consideration of marriage’s meaning would take children seriously into account. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Children today are often seen as a “product” to be manufactured or obtained at whatever cost, or discarded at will. [vi] Pop culture icons show off their children as if they were “trophies.” In all of these instances, the child is used as an object, not respected as a gift. The proposal to redefine marriage to include two persons of the same sex is a radical instance of “forgetting” the gift of the child. This proposal in effect subverts the most fundamental pro-child institution into a self-serving relationship defined in reference to the whims and desires of adults, not the needs of a child, the most vulnerable among us.
Marriage protects the gift that every child is. As the union of husband and wife, marriage is the natural and proper context wherein every child ought to be welcomed as a gift. Children deserve to be conceived in love and received into an environment grounded in the unity between a mother and a father. In this way, marriage is uniquely made for stewardship over life, stewardship of the gift of children. Human experience across every human society attests to the singular role of marriage in keeping together a mother and a father in their shared task of parenting, of being stewards of the gift of new life. [vii]
The truth that every child is a gift also reminds us that husband and wife are not the ultimate source of life. Instead, every child traces his or her origin directly back to God and can truly call him “my Father.” In the video, Cora and Ernie share the meaning of their son Matthew’s name, “gift of God”; truly every child is a gift of God. “God ‘willed’ man from the very beginning, and God ‘wills’ him in every act of conception and every human birth.” [viii] Every human soul is “created immediately by God—it is not ‘produced’ by the parents.” [ix] In conceiving and giving birth to new life, a husband and a wife participate in God’s creative action. [x]
This capacity to participate in bringing forth new human life—the capacity to procreate—is inscribed within the personal, bodily reality of the human person, created male and female. Only a man and a woman, as husband and wife, have the capacity to welcome the gift of the child as a unique human life who springs “from the very heart” of their marital self-giving. [xi] As the bishops have explained, “Participating in the creative work of God means participating in the self-emptying or self-giving love of God, the rendering of one’s whole being into a gift.” [xii]
Background: We’re reading through the Viewer’s Guide to “Made for Life,” a video about the gift of children and the need for fathers and mothers. In the last installment, we looked at what openness to life means and why love and life are inseparable. In this section, we’ll reflect on the unique gift of self in marriage and how that gift of self opens to the gift of life.
“You give yourself, then, totally and completely . . . saying ‘I love you so much, I’m going to give myself to you as a gift, and I am open to whatever that brings and whatever God wants.’”
Katie is speaking here about the very foundation of what makes marriage “made for life”: the total gift of self between a man and a woman as husband and wife. We have already mentioned this gift of self in marriage, but it deserves some more attention. Indeed, every person is called to a generous and sincere gift of self. [i] But marriage is a unique instance of self-gift. In marriage, husband and wife give not just part of themselves to each other, but give all—their whole person, body and soul. This gift of self in marriage is not something temporary like a loan; it is meant to last for a lifetime. [ii] It is a total, lifelong gift of husband to wife and wife to husband. [iii]
A husband and a wife’s total gift of self in marriage, with its lifelong permanence, makes their bond absolutely unique and different from any other relationship between two people. Although two persons of the same sex can have an authentic and holy friendship, only a man and a woman can pledge themselves to each other in marriage. Through their sexual difference, only a husband and a wife can speak the “language” of married love—total, faithful, and fruitful self-gift [iv]—not only with their words, but also with their bodies. [v]
The couples in Made for Life all bear witness to the fact that the gift of self in marriage, which begins with the spouses, does not end with them. As Pope Paul VI taught, married love is fruitful because “it is not confined wholly to the communion of husband and wife; it also aims to go beyond this to bring new life into being.” [vi] Precisely because husband and wife are “made for each other,” their bond is “made for life,” made for fruitful love and for the adventure of fatherhood and motherhood by being open to the gift of a child.
[i]. See Gaudium et Spes, no. 24: “Man is the only creature on earth that God has wanted for its own sake . . . [and] can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of himself.”
A few weeks ago, we read through the Viewer’s Guide for the video “Made for Each Other,” which is about sexual difference and complementarity. Now, in this Respect Life month of October, we’re going to read through the Viewer’s Guide for the second video in the Marriage: Unique for a Reason series, “Made for Life.”
“Made for Life” features real-life married couples and parents who share their reflections on what it means to be open to life, why fathers and mothers matter for children, what it means that children are a gift, and so on. Their reflections aim to help viewers understand the life-giving nature of married love and why that matters to what marriage is.
In the first section, we look at what openness to life means and why love and life are inseparable.
“Being open to children is so foundational. When you’re open to children, you’re not just opening yourself to the possibility of the gift of life, but you’re [also] opening yourself up to your spouse.”
Marriage is made for life. It is a singular institution that brings a man and a woman together as husband and wife, who vow themselves into a union directed not only toward themselves but simultaneously to the gift of new life. As Katie relates, this openness to life is part and parcel of married love, and it is deeply personal, that is, it accords with the nature of the human person. Openness to life also accords with the nature of love itself. As the bishops of the United States taught in their pastoral letter on marriage, “It is the nature of love to overflow, to be life-giving.” [i]
Marriage is the natural human context wherein a child is properly conceived and welcomed into life as the “supreme gift of marriage.” [ii] And in this stance of openness and welcoming, meant to mark every aspect of married love, a husband and a wife grow closer to each other. They share themselves fully with each other, inviting deeper trust and the freedom that comes from each spouse making a gift of himself or herself to the other. Being open to one’s spouse and being open to children is one and the same choice and act. As Pope John Paul II taught, “Thus the couple, while giving themselves to one another, give not just themselves but also the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love, a permanent sign of conjugal unity and a living and inseparable synthesis of their being a father and a mother.” [iii]
In other words, in marriage, love and life are inseparable. This is what the Church means when she teaches that the unitive and procreative meanings of married love are inseparable. [iv] In embracing each other, husband and wife embrace their capacity to conceive a child and are called to do nothing deliberate to close part of themselves to the gift of the other. This does not mean that a child will be—or should be—conceived from every act of sexual intimacy. Marriage is not a mechanical factory for the mass production of children. The Church teaches couples in their openness to life to practice responsible parenthood by discerning whether or not they have serious reasons, in keeping with God’s plan for marriage, to postpone becoming a father and a mother here and now. [v]
The inseparable connection of love and life means that husband and wife are called to give everything to each other in their acts of intimacy—including their capacity for fruitfulness. Otherwise, their gift of self would not be total. Being open to each other, open to receiving the gift of the other, and therefore being open to life, is not something optional for marriage. Instead, it is at the core of marriage, and only a man and a woman can make the radical promise that marriage entails: “A man and woman united in marriage as husband and wife serve as a symbol of both life and love in a way that no other relationship of human persons can.” [vi] This is why marriage can only be between a man and a woman. Persons of the same sex lack the sexual difference that is the necessary foundation for a husband and wife’s ability to live both “gifts”—the total gift of self exchanged between them in marriage, which includes their openness to the gift of a child. [vii]
Today the Church celebrates the feast of the Annunciation , the “announcement” given to Mary by the angel Gabriel that she was to be the mother of the Lord:
Then the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name him Jesus.”
. . .
Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1: 30-31, 38).
For Christians, Mary’s “yes” to the angel marks the beginning of our salvation. Jesus Christ is true God and true man. The Son of God became flesh in Mary’s womb. In this way, the Annunciation also draws our attention to the astounding mystery of motherhood and pregnancy, that brief time when the unborn child is present but hidden from view, entirely nourished by his or her mother in an incredibly intimate relationship.
Bl. John Paul II spoke beautifully about motherhood – and the Annunciation – in his 1988 apostolic letter Mulieris Dignitatem:
Motherhood implies from the beginning a special openness to the new person: and this is precisely the woman’s “part”. In this openness, in conceiving and giving birth to a child, the woman “discovers herself through a sincere gift of self”. [Gaudium et Spes, no. 24]
. . .
Mary’s words at the Annunciation – “Let it be to me according to your word” – signify the woman’s readiness for the gift of self and her readiness to accept a new life (no. 18).
For John Paul, then, pregnancy and motherhood are not merely biological facts or processes. Instead, they constitute a very special sharing on the part of the mother – an openness and a welcome to the new child growing in her womb. John Paul goes on to say that this “special communion” with the unborn child “profoundly marks the woman’s personality,” developing her capacity to pay attention and attend to other persons (MD, no. 18).
The father, of course, is present too from the very beginning of a child’s life; it was the mutual gift of husband and wife in marriage that opened the couple to the gift of the child. But the father’s participation in pregnancy is in a real sense “outside” of the woman’s participation. As John Paul says, “in many ways [the father] has to learn his own ‘fatherhood’ from the mother” as he shares in her wonder and openness to the child in the womb (MD, no. 18, emphasis original).
The feast of the Annunciation provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the gift of children and the wonder of pregnancy, of mothering and fathering. We invite you to watch the short film “Made for Life,” which features married couples of various ages reflecting on openness to life, children, and their identities as fathers and mothers. The video is accompanied by a Viewer’s Guide that develops many of the points raised in the film.
 The Annunciation is normally celebrated on March 25, nine months before Christmas, but the fact that March 25, 2012 is a Sunday (the Fifth Sunday of Lent) means that the Annunciation is celebrated instead on March 26.
Today is the fourth day of National Marriage Week. On Tuesday, we reflected on what makes marriage unique, different from any other relationship on earth. Today the topic is more focused: why does sexual difference matter for marriage? In other words, why is marriage the union of one man and one woman?
What is sexual difference?
1) The call to accept one’s sexual identity as a man or as a woman
As we did before, let’s begin with the human person, with an authentic anthropology. Crucial here is the fact that to exist as a human person means to be embodied. (When was the last time you met someone without a body?) Echoing Bl. John Paul II’s terminology, we can say that the body “reveals” man and is “an expression of the person” (TOB, 9.4 and 27.3). In other words, encountering a living human body means at the same time encountering a human person. The body is not just a shell or a conduit for one’s “real” self but is intimately and inseparably united with one’s identity, one’s “I”.
Further, to exist as a human person means to exist as a man or as a woman. The human body is fundamentally a gendered reality, not a gender-less (androgynous) one. And because the body is a deeply personal reality and not just a biological fact, being a man or being a woman is not just a matter of anatomical features or “the shape of my skin.” Instead, one’s sexual identity – as a man or as a woman – affects a person at every level of his or her existence (biologically, psychologically, genetically, and so forth). As the Catechism puts it, “Sexuality affects all aspects of the human person in the unity of his body and soul… Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” (CCC, nos. 2332 and 2333, emphasis in original).
2) An irreducible and dynamic difference
What does sexual identity have to do with sexual difference? Simply this: when we speak of sexual difference, we mean both the existence of two distinct sexual identities (man or woman) and the built-in mutual relationship between them. In other words, sexual difference has to do with the irreducible and dynamic difference of man to woman and woman to man.
Why “irreducible”? Because sexual difference is primordial, basic, and unique. It is fundamental to human experience and reality. Unlike other differences between people, sexual difference undergirds everything that we are as human persons, male or female. Sexual difference cuts across geographic, ethnic, and other differences, being in fact more basic than these other differences.
Why “dynamic”? Because sexual difference distinguishes in order to unite. In fact, sexual difference is precisely what enables communion between man and woman to exist at all. (More on this soon.)
Put another way, sexual difference is a mutually referential kind of difference – we know woman fully only by knowing man, and know man fully only by knowing woman. The differences between them do not just set them apart but hint at something more, at a call to communion between them. This call to communion inscribed in man and woman is part of what Bl. John Paul II had in mind when he wrote the following:
“The person, by the light of reason and the support of virtue, discovers in the body the anticipatory signs, the expression and the promise of the gift of self, in conformity with the wise plan of the Creator” (VS, no. 48).
Sexual difference, then, far from being merely a biological or anatomical fact, communicates a wealth of truth about the human person! If we have the eyes to see, as Bl. John Paul II urges us to, we’ll see in the human person’s identity as man and woman the “anticipatory signs” of the “gift of self,” or, using the language of the Catechism, we’ll see the call to love, which is the “fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (CCC, no. 1604).
Sexual difference and marriage
We are now well-poised to understand what sexual difference has to do with marriage. As a recap of Tuesday’s post, marriage is a unique relationship that has a number of essential characteristics (without which marriage wouldn’t be marriage):
- Marriage is total (gift of self)
- Marriage is faithful and exclusive (a truthful gift)
- Marriage is forever (the gift of one’s future)
- Marriage is life-giving (the gift of one’s fertility)
Sexual difference matters here: it is the ground (the foundation) of the capacity of husband and wife to exchange a mutual, total gift of their entire selves, a gift precisely at the center of what marriage is. Without sexual difference, this gift would not be possible. Put more specifically: the love between husband and wife involves a free, total, and faithful gift of self that not only expresses love but also opens the spouses to receive the gift of a child. No other human interaction on earth is like this!
Sexual difference, then, is not an optional “add-on” to an already existing entity called “marriage” (much like you might choose to add sprinkles to your ice cream – or not). Instead, sexual difference is at the very heart of what marriage is. It’s what capacitates man and woman to give themselves completely to each other as husband and wife. Sexual difference matters for marriage.
Interested in learning more? Check out the DVD “Made for Each Other,” its Viewer’s Guide and Resource Booklet, and all of the Sexual Difference FAQs. Also see the previous blog series on sexual difference.
 Even in circumstances when a person expresses ambiguous genitalia or departs from the XX/XY genetic standard, the anomaly is recognized precisely due to its discordance with healthy, normal presentation as male or female.
Bishops are teachers
From the earliest days of the Church, Christians “devoted themselves to the teaching of the apostles” (Acts 2:42). The bishops, as the successors of the Apostles, are teachers. For an apostle to teach means giving witness to the Truth. To teach the Truth means not only to teach the truth of faith, but also to remind men and women of the intrinsic dignity of reason. Human beings have the natural ability to know things as they really are by the light of reason. It is no wonder that the Catholic Church has maintained schools and universities throughout the world for centuries!
There is collaboration that takes place when one teaches and when one learns; and the bishops in the United States—in communion with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope—join together in a conference to collaborate on the issues that face our country and the Church in the United States.
Marriage is a truth accessible to both faith and reason
Marriage is one such reality that the U.S. Bishops are working to teach—or simply remind—the Church and our nation of its basic meaning and definition. Marriage is not only a teaching of faith, but is also a truth accessible to reason. In other words, we can and should have recourse to natural human reason in defending the truth of the Church’s moral teaching regarding marriage. Marriage is not simply a “religious” question; it’s a reality embedded in nature (the nature of the human person as male and female). The Church does not speak of marriage simply as a “religious” issue. Rather, it is a concern for civil society based on the natural law and the very truth of the human person, created as male and female.
The U.S. Bishop’s initiative, Marriage Unique for a Reason, under the auspices of the USCCB Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage, is one way in which the Catholic Church in the United States is seeking to invite our nation to consider and reclaim the basic truth and beauty of the unchangeable meaning of marriage.
Marriage: Unique for a Reason: Resources for proclaiming the authentic meaning of marriage
The Marriage: Unique for a Reason initiative includes a number of resources, with more on the way.
Completed and ready to use:
- “Made for Each Other” – DVD and companion written materials on sexual difference and complementarity between men and women
- “Made for Life” – DVD and companion written materials on the gift of children and the indispensable need for fathers and mothers
- Marriage: Unique for a Reason website (www.marriageuniqueforareason.org) – FAQs about marriage, Church teaching library, blog and more
- Spanish-language DVD resource – comprehensive treatment of the four topics addressed in the English-language DVDs
- DVD resource about marriage and the common good
- DVD resource about marriage and religious liberty
St. Peter exhorts us, “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Pt 3:15). The bishops’ apostolic mission of teaching helps us all to be ready to explain the meaning of marriage, a sign of great hope for the world.
In honor of a season that directs our attention to a babe in a manger, we’d like to remind you of the resources about marriage and children available through Marriage: Unique for a Reason:
- “Made for Life” DVD: reflections from real married couples on what it means that children are a gift and why fathers and mothers matter
- “Made for Life” Viewer’s Guide: brief reflections on the DVD with discussion questions for groups
- “Made for Life” Resource Booklet: an aid to priests, deacons, catechists and teachers with more developed commentary plus tips for handing on the Church’s teaching
From the DVD: “You give yourself, then, totally and completely…saying ‘I love you so much, I’m going to give myself to you as a gift, and I am open to whatever that brings and whatever God wants.”
“It’s kind of a beautiful miracle, that from our difference comes a brand-new life.”
From the Viewer’s Guide: “If sexual difference is important – necessary, in fact – for conceiving a child, then it makes sense that sexual difference would also be important for raising a child. In other words, the importance of sexual difference does not end at conception” (17).
“Beyond the distinctive talents and gifts of fathers and mothers, there remains a core difference between them. Only a woman can mother; only a man can father. Mothers teach femininity in a distinctive and vital way; fathers teach masculinity in a distinctive and vital way. This is not stereotyping. It is acknowledging and celebrating the unique gifts of women and men” (21).
From the Resource Booklet: “Even husbands and wives who are not blessed with children still form a total communion of persons, and still are called to be fruitful and generously loving” (xi).
“Marriage is the essential pro-child institution, and thus it is the essential pro-life institution. Children are meant to be welcomed into life as the gifts they are, and the loving union of a husband and a wife is the natural context that protects the child as a gift” (12).
You can read the written materials online or download and print them for free. Enjoy!
“The Virgin Mary, being obedient to his word, received from an angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.”
St. Irenaeus of Lyons, Against Heresies (2nd Century); 5:19:1
Today is the feast day of Mary, Mother of God. Following so closely on the feast of the Holy Family, today is a perfect opportunity to reflect on the blessing of mothers. We invite you to watch “Made for Life” and contemplate the unique gift that every mother gives to her children.
Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us
The Marriage: Unique for a Reason website has now been live since mid-November, when it was announced by Bishop Cordileone at the bishops’ General Assembly. For the next few days, we’d like to take you on a “virtual tour” of the website so you are aware of the many resources available here.
First stop: the Four Themes
The website is visually divided in two parts by the large masthead picture (St. Joachim and St. Anne on the main page, for example). Beneath the picture is a series of tabs. The first four tabs each represent a theme identified by the bishops as essential for contemporary catechesis on marriage: Sexual Difference, Children, The Common Good, and Religious Liberty. The final tab features resources for Spanish speakers: La Familia.
Eventually, each theme (plus Spanish) will have its own short film and written materials that explain the topic in depth. To date, two themes have been completed: Sexual Difference (“Made for Each Other”) and Children (“Made for Life”). Each of these tabs have a wealth of information you can access to deepen your knowledge about why sexual difference matters for marriage, what marriage has to do with children, and why mothers and fathers matter.
In addition, each theme page has its own set of FAQs that address common questions raised about that topic. The Common Good FAQs examine marriage’s connection with society and why protecting the meaning of marriage is essential for a just society . The Religious Liberty FAQs reflect on the interconnection between marriage and religious liberty. And the FAQs found under La Familia include all of the FAQs, translated into Spanish.
We encourage you to explore the four themes and learn more about marriage!
Next stop: Church Teachings
Pop quiz: What is the “supreme gift” of marriage?
If you answered “children,” ding ding ding ding! Children are the “supreme gift” of marriage and its “ultimate crown” (Second Vatican Council, Gaudium et Spes, nos. 50, 48). Put another way, the procreation of children is one of the two ends, or purposes, of marriage: (more…)