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.
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.