Pastoral Letter on Marriage from Maine's Bishop Malone
Bishop Richard Malone of Portland, Maine wrote a pastoral letter on marriage on the occasion of World Marriage Day, this past February 12, 2012: “Marriage: Yesterday – Today – Always.” The letter clearly reflects the bishop’s role as teacher (see CCC, nos. 888-892): it lays out the foundations for the Church’s teaching on marriage as found in sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition, and the natural law. It responds to the contemporary challenge of the proposal to redefine marriage but does so in the context of an expansive vision of marriage’s timeless beauty and essential place in society. In sum, Bishop Malone’s letter serves as a timely “mini catechesis” on marriage and a firm but gentle reminder of what society stands to lose if marriage is redefined in the law.
Part One: Introduction
- Goal: “to reflect with you…upon the greatness and the beauty of marriage – as an original gift of the Lord’s creation and, consequently, as a vocation and as the foundational institution of family and society” (p. 1)
- All are called to the vocation of holiness. Within this universal vocation is the call to holy orders, consecrated virginity, and marriage. (p. 2)
- Challenges to marriage: cohabitation, divorce, contraception, and marriage redefinition that rejects the essential place of sexual difference (p. 3-4; see USCCB, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan , pp. 17-27).
- Maine law currently defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman, a union it describes as “of inestimable value to society” (p. 5).
Part Two: What is Marriage?
- A basic definition: “Marriage is the lifelong exclusive union of one man and one woman – a font of unitive life and love as well as the foundation of a stable family and society” (p. 6).
- Marriage is rooted in creation: “God created marriage in the very same breath as He created the human person” (p. 8).
- Every heart longs for communion; marriage is a unique kind of communion where man and woman “truly become one” (p. 9).
- Sexual difference matters to parenting, that is, to fathering and mothering: “The mother and the father, each in her/his own way, provide a loving space for the child, one by accenting union, the other by accenting distinction” (p. 10).
- “A child is meant to have a mother and a father. Children long for this and it is their right” (p. 10).
- Infertility does not diminish the goodness of a marriage: “The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive and complementary communion of persons. An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute” (p. 12; see Love and Life, p. 14).
- Children are a gift and not something that spouses have a “right” to (p. 12).
Part Three: Marriage and the Natural Law
- Going to the roots: “Even the Church’s teaching about marriage is rooted in something far older and more fundamental than religious doctrine: it is the law of nature which furthers the order of creation and establishes the activities of all creatures” (p. 13).
- About natural law: Natural law is our participation in God’s eternal law (p. 12); natural law shows us what conforms to our human nature (good actions) and what is at variance with our nature (bad actions) (p. 13-14); natural law is immutable, enduring and unchangeable (p. 14); and natural law is “the source from which both civil law and Church law emerge” (p. 15).
- Natural law guides civil law to properly respect and foster the common good; marriage plays a key role in furthering the common good for all people (p. 17-18).
Part Four: Marriage: A Unique Relationship
- “Marriage is a unique union, a relationship different from all others. It is the permanent bond between one man and one woman whose two-in-one-flesh communion of persons is an indispensable good at the heart of every family and every society” (p. 18).
- Marriage is not… “the appearance of a union”… “a partial commitment”… “simply friendship” (p. 19).
- Marriage is… “more than just a loving relationship”… “more than just a committed relationship”… “more than just about access to certain state-sponsored benefits” (p. 20).
- What about benefits for unmarried persons? “The state has various legal means at its disposal to facilitate people’s ability to care for and support each other. We do not need to redefine marriage to accomplish this” (p. 20).
- The place of justice in the marriage debate: “To promote and protect marriage as the union of one man and one woman is itself a matter of justice” (p. 21).
Part Five: Marriage and the Good of Society
- For the good of children: “When we recognize true marriage and support it, we ensure that as many children as possible know and are known by, love and are loved by, the mother and father in the exclusive marital embrace” (p. 22).
- For all of society: “Everyone has a stake in a stable, flourishing, and loving society created and sustained in no small part by marriage between a man and a woman” (p. 22).
A Final Word
- “As your bishop, whose primary responsibility is that of teacher, it is my hope that this document will challenge everyone who reads it to embrace anew the truth, beauty and goodness of marriage as it has always been and always will be” (p. 23).
Read Bishop Malone’s pastoral letter, “Marriage: Yesterday – Today – Always“
National Marriage Week: Closing Remarks from Bishop Cordileone
Today marks the end of National Marriage Week USA. It is no accident that its culmination falls on Valentine’s Day, which has long been regarded as a day to celebrate love. Indeed, love is a great gift; even more, love is “the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (Catechism, no. 1604). Every man and woman, created in the image of a God who is Love, is called to the vocation of love.
Reflecting on the gift of love moves us to reflect on the gift of marriage, which is a unique and privileged instance of love. As our Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est (God is Love), among the many meanings given to the word “love” today, “one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness. This would seem to be the very epitome of love” (no. 2).
Marriage is indeed a great gift, and a great witness to the beauty of love. The lifelong, life-giving bond formed between husband and wife is a great good not only for them, but also for any children who come from their union, and for all of society. As National Marriage Week USA draws to a close, I encourage each of you to continue praying that all in our nation would recognize and protect the unique beauty of marriage.
May the Lord bless you abundantly,
Most Reverend Salvatore J. Cordileone
Bishop of Oakland
Chairman, Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage
National Marriage Week: Returning to the Sources
“I want to explain the Church’s teaching on marriage when it comes up in conversation…but I just don’t know how!”
Has this thought ever crossed your mind? If so, you’re not alone! Articulating what the Catholic Church believes and teaches about marriage can be difficult, especially in a cultural climate where many of its main tenets are rejected.
One strategy is to return to the sources. That is, become knowledgeable about the Church’s authoritative teaching on marriage, as found in major papal and episcopal documents and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Frequent consultation of these main sources helps us to become ever more fluent in the “language” of the Church when she speaks about marriage. And when difficult questions come up in conversation or surface in the media, it’s helpful to know where to turn for solid answers.
But where to begin? Below, we offer an introduction to a few of the many important documents about marriage. We encourage you to become acquainted (or perhaps re-acquainted) with the Church’s beautiful and timeless teaching on marriage.
*Note: the following is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Additional sources will be highlighted in future posts.
1. USCCB, Pastoral Letter Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan (2009)
- Why it matters: It’s the most recent document on marriage from the entire body of U.S. bishops, approved in 2009.
- Mini-book, 58 pages long
- Part One: Marriage in the Order of Creation (The Natural Institution of Marriage)
- Part Two: Marriage in the Order of the New Creation (The Sacrament of Matrimony)
- Identifies four “fundamental challenges” to marriage: contraception, same-sex unions, divorce, and cohabitation (pp. 17-27).
- Reflects on marriage as a vocation and offers advice to married couples seeking to grow in virtue (pp. 43-45).
- “For all who seek to find meaning in their marriage will do so when they are open to accepting the transcendent meaning of marriage according to God’s plan” (p. 4).
- “Male and female are distinct bodily ways of being human, of being open to God and to one another – two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love” (p. 10).
- “The marital vocation is not a private or merely personal affair. Yes, marriage is a deeply personal union and relationship, but it is also for the good of the Church and the entire community” (p. 44).
- Additional Resources:
- Abridged version
- Study version with glossary
- Leader’s guide (excellent for facilitating reflection and discussion)
- Suggested bulletin inserts
2. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (1997)
- Why it matters: The Catechism conveys the essential content of the Catholic faith (including its teaching on marriage) in a complete and summary way. Divided into easy-to-digest paragraphs, the Catechism also provides numerous footnotes for further study.
- Structure and key sections:
- 904 pages, divided into four parts and 2,865 paragraphs
- The sacrament of matrimony: nos. 1601-1606
- See especially “The goods and requirements of conjugal love” – nos. 1643-1654
- Sexual difference: nos. 369-373 and 2331-2336
- The love of husband and wife: nos. 2360-2379
- Offenses against the dignity of marriage: nos. 2380-2391
- “God created man and woman together and willed each for the other” (no. 371).
- “The vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (no. 1603).
- “Everyone, man and woman, should acknowledge and accept his sexual identity” (no. 2333).
- “Fecundity is a gift, an end of marriage, for conjugal love naturally tends to be fruitful” (no. 2366).
- Additional Resources:
3. Bl. John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981)
- English title: On the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World
- Why it matters: Promulgated in response to the 1980 Synod of Bishops, Familiaris Consortio reads like a “little summa” of the theology of marriage and the family. Its pastoral advice, which touches on a diverse range of topics from women and society to responsible parenthood to mixed marriages to divorce, is grounded on a robust anthropology of the human person and theology of marriage and the family. It calls the family to a simple but profound mission: “Family, become what you are!”
- 86 sections
- Part One: Bright Spots and Shadows for the Family Today
- Part Two: The Plan of God for Marriage and the Family
- Part Three: The Role of the Christian Family
- 1) Forming a Community of Persons
- 2) Serving Life
- 3) Participating in the Development of Society
- 4) Sharing in the Life and Mission of the Church
- Part Four: Pastoral Care of the Family: Stages, Structures, Agents and Situations
- “Love is therefore the fundamental and innate vocation of every human being” (no. 11).
- “Every act of true love toward a human being bears witness to and perfects the spiritual fecundity of the family, since it is an act of obedience to the deep inner dynamism of love as self-giving to others” (no. 41).
- “The future of the world and of the church passes through the family” (no. 75).
- Additional Resources
- Commentary by Dr. Joseph Atkinson, associate professor of Sacred Scripture at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and the Family: “A Family Manifesto – How to Read Familiaris Consortio” (originally appeared in Crisis Magazine, Dec. 2001)
4. Bl. John Paul II, Letter to Families (1994)
- Why it matters: Promulgated during the Year of the Family, John Paul II addressed this letter “not to families ‘in the abstract’ but to every particular family in every part of the world” (no. 4). A perfect complement to the longer Familiaris Consortio, Letter to Families invites families to reflect on their identity (especially its likeness to the Triune God) and their mission (building a civilization of love).
- 23 sections
- Part One: The Civilization of Love
- Includes: marital covenant and communion, sincere gift of self, and responsible parenthood
- Part Two: The Bridegroom is with You
- Includes: reflections on the wedding at Cana, the sacrament of marriage, and Mary
- “When a man and woman in marriage mutually give and receive each other in the unity of ‘one flesh,’ the logic of the sincere gift of self becomes a part of their life” (no. 11).
- “Freedom cannot be understood as a license to do absolutely anything: it means a gift of self. Even more: it means an interior discipline of the gift” (no. 14).
- “Families are meant to contribute to the transformation of the earth and the renewal of the world, of creation and of all humanity” (no. 18).
National Marriage Week: What does sexual difference have to do with marriage?
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.
National Marriage Week: An example of faithful love, enduring unto death (Bl. Elizabeth Canori Mora)
- Born November 21, 1774, in Rome
- Died February 5, 1825, in Rome
- Married January 10, 1796
- Mother of two daughters
- Beatified April 24, 1994, by Pope John Paul II
A holy card of Blessed Elizabeth.
In Blessed Elizabeth Canori Mora, we have a stunning example of married love that endures “unto death,” even in the midst of profound suffering. Born into a wealthy Roman family in 1774, Elizabeth spent much of her childhood in the care of Augustinian nuns in the countryside of Cascia. In her happy years there, her love for Jesus blossomed, and many thought that she might have a religious vocation.
However, in her teen years, Elizabeth developed tuberculosis and returned to her parents’ home to recuperate. Away from the convent, her desire for religious profession faded just as her interest in a certain young law student, Cristoforo Mora, grew. Discerning that God was calling her to the married state, Elizabeth exchanged marriage vows with Cristofero in 1796.
The first few months of their married life were sweet and joyful. Cristoforo delighted in showing off his young, beautiful bride. However, his affections started to become overshadowed by jealousy, and he began to restrict Elizabeth’s correspondences, wanting to have his wife “all to himself.” Jealously eventually degenerated into disinterest, and disinterest into rejection, and so yet within a few short years, Cristoforo grew cold toward his wife, and began what would be a long chain of infidelities.
A young mother now with two daughters, Elizabeth bore the cruelty and rejection of her husband bravely, offering all of her sufferings for his repentance and conversion. As Cristoforo spent his time philandering and squandering their resources, Elizabeth patiently struggled to make ends meet and ensure that their daughters, Marianna and Lucina, were properly cared for and educated. Even as friends and advisors urged Elizabeth to leave her unfaithful husband, she clung to the vows she had made and the grace of God that she trusted to sustain her.
Drawing her strength from prayer, mass, and her devotion to the Holy Trinity, Elizabeth never ceased loving Cristoforo and praying for him. She encouraged her daughters to do the same, never permitting rancor or anger to be directed at her husband and their father. Faithful until the last, Elizabeth offered her dying words for her husband’s conversion. And finally, after witnessing his holy wife’s holy death, Cristoforo experienced profound remorse for the anguish he had caused his family. Repenting of his sins, he amended his life, and in a turn of events that was due in no small measure to his wife’s intercession, Cristoforo lived the remaining years of his life as a Franciscan priest.
At Elizabeth’s beatification on April 24, 1994 (during the Year of the Family), John Paul II said this about the saintly wife and mother:
“For her part Elizabeth Canori Mora, amidst a great many marital difficulties, showed total fidelity to the commitment she had made in the sacrament of marriage, and to the responsibility stemming from it. Constant in prayer and in her heroic dedication to her family, she was able to rear her children as Christians and succeeded in converting her husband” (original source, in Italian).
And during the recitation of the Regina Caeli on Elizabeth’s beatification day, the Holy Father pointed to Elizabeth as a reminder to all that “love is stern as death” (Song of Songs 8:6) (original source available in Italian or Spanish).
A prayer: Blessed Elizabeth Canori Mora, we entrust to you all struggling marriages, and especially spouses who have been abandoned. May they know that their witness to marital fidelity is a treasure for the world and a sign of God’s never-failing love for his beloved children. Bring faithless spouses back to their families, and heal all of the wounds of sin and betrayal.
Blessed Elizabeth, pray for us!
**Note Bene: The heroic life of Blessed Elizabeth Canori Mora should not be taken as a suggestion of a course of action or a model for any given woman in a situation of domestic abuse, except in her perseverance in charity. In the time in which she lived, Blessed Elizabeth had little choice in terms of domestic arrangement, but she was able to cope with her suffering in an extraordinary way. The Bishops’ document “When I Call for Help” has advice for women today who experience domestic violence. Violence in a relationship is never healthy, as detailed at the For Your Marriage website, and thankfully women today can receive the help they deserve both for themselves and for their children to be safe.
National Marriage Week: How Are the Bishops Promoting and Protecting Marriage…and Why?
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.
National Marriage Week: Celebrating the Unique Beauty and Promise of Marriage
February 7 through 14 is National Marriage Week, a collaborative effort to strengthen marriages and emphasize the benefits of marriage to husbands, wives, children, and society. It’s an appropriate time to think again about what makes marriage unique. What sets it apart from any other relationship on earth? In an age when many of us have experienced the wounds that come from broken marriages and families, and when unfortunate confusion about the meaning of marriage abounds, we are called to witness to a truth and a hope much deeper and much more real than we often see on TV or hear on the news. One way to assist us in this witness is to return to the basics and reflect once more on the unique, irreplaceable beauty of marriage.
Men and Women Matter: Let’s Start with the Human Person
Anthropology – the study of the human person – is an indispensable starting point for thinking about marriage. After all, marriage has to do with persons; it is a personal relationship. We must ask, “What does it mean to be a human person, as a man or as a woman?” Fundamentally, three points are important:
- Imago Dei: Human persons, male and female, are created in the image and likeness of God; every human person has inviolable dignity and worth.
- Vocation to love: Because “God is love” (see 1 John 4:8), human persons, as male and female created in God’s image, are given the vocation, and the responsibility, to love (see CCC, no. 1604 and FC, no. 11).
- Male and female: The body (masculine or feminine) is not an afterthought but is essential to the identity of the human person created in the image of God.
Where does marriage fit into this? Well, the Catechism tells us that “the vocation to marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator” (CCC, no. 1603). In other words, marriage comes into existence at the same moment that man and woman are created. Marriage is a particularly significant way that men and women can live out their vocation to love (see FC, no. 11).
Gift and Promise: Essential characteristics of marriage
Keeping in mind the nature of the human person – created male and female and called to the vocation of love – let’s now talk about the essential characteristics of marriage. As with any work of defining terms, it’s important to identify those things that make marriage unique, different from any other type of relationship. Yes, there are characteristics marriage shares in common with other relationships between people (for example, affection, longevity, shared interests, and so on). But marriage is a unique bond. If we were to explain to a visitor from Mars what makes marriage different from other relationships, what would we say?
The following list identifies those properties without which marriage wouldn’t be marriage – just like without peanuts, peanut butter wouldn’t be the same thing. We’re talking about essential characteristics – those things that are part of marriage’s very essence.
Marriage is total (gift of self)
Pope Paul VI describes beautifully what is meant by the totality of marriage in Humanae Vitae:
“It is a love which is total – that very special form of personal friendship in which husband and wife generously share everything, allowing no unreasonable exceptions and not thinking solely of their own convenience. Whoever really loves his partner loves not only for what he receives, but loves that partner for the partner’s own sake, content to be able to enrich the other with the gift of himself” (HV, no. 9).
The totality of marriage, then, refers to the immensity of the gift husband and wife give to each other – a gift not just of time, or money, or possessions, but a gift of their very selves. This gift is total because husband and wife hold absolutely nothing back from each other. As we’ll see, the “totality of the gift” helps illuminate the other characteristics of marriage.
Marriage is faithful and exclusive (a truthful gift)
Precisely because the gift of one’s self exchanged in marriage is total, it can only be given to one person at a time! (Picture the parody of a man saying to woman after woman, “I’m all yours!” “And yours!” “And yours!”) The totality of the gift demands exclusivity.
As the Catechism puts it,
“By its very nature conjugal love requires the inviolable fidelity of the spouses. This is the consequences of the gift of themselves which they make to each other. Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice’” (CCC, no. 1647).
Marriage is forever (the gift of one’s future)
Contained within the gift of self that one gives in marriage is the gift of one’s future—the promise. Again, how could the gift be total if a time limit were placed on it? As Bl. Pope John Paul II said, a total self-gift must include “the temporal dimension”:
“If the person were to withhold something or reserve the possibility of deciding otherwise in the future, by this very fact he or she would not be giving totally” (FC, no. 11).
But how can anyone promise their future to another person…today? Here we see the awesome beauty of a vow: in one moment, on one day, husband and wife promise each other every moment, every day that is to come. The vow they exchange on their wedding day “takes up” every future moment, freeing husband and wife to know that they are entirely given to each other – forever.
Marriage is life-giving (the gift of one’s fertility)
We read in the Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes, “Marriage and conjugal love are by their nature ordained toward the begetting and educating of children” (GS, no. 50). One way to understand this is to think that in giving themselves completely and unreservedly to each other in marriage, husband and wife give each other the gift of their fertility. In fact, the capacity to procreate new life is inscribed in the very nature of man and woman and in their coming together as “one flesh.”
As Bl. John Paul II explains, “the conjugal act ‘means’ not only love, but also potential fruitfulness” (TOB, no. 123.6). To be clear, this doesn’t mean that a child will – or should – be conceived in every marital act. What it does mean is that the love expressed by husband and wife is of its very nature both unitive and procreative: “one as well as the other [meaning] belong to the innermost truth of the conjugal act” (TOB, no. 123.6). To pledge everything to one’s spouse includes pledging the possibility of becoming a mother or a father together.
Next: What are the bishops doing to promote and protect marriage?