Married Life: A Path to Heaven – What is Marriage?: Part VII

Editor’s Note: This is the seventh and final in a series of articles to explore the American Bishops’ Pastoral Letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Read Part I here, Part II here, Part III here, Part IV here, Part V here, and Part VI here.

“He who loves his wife, loves himself, for no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church” (Eph 4:28-29).

We are continuing our exploration of “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” In previous sections, we have studied the definition, requirements, and challenges for marriage in the present age, but today I want to focus on the sanctifying and salvific aspects of married and family life.

Following the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church of Vatican II, Lumen Gentium, we learn that each and every person is called to holiness. Holiness is not the prerogative of priests or religious, but the call and duty of all Christians. Even though the life of poverty, obedience, and virginity is objectively superior, this does not mean that those in married life cannot attain great holiness and sainthood, which sometimes can and does surpass those in consecrated life. The vast majority of the human race is called to their vocations of holiness within the married state.

One must note then that one of the chief duties for pastors, parents, and communities is to help form young people to enter into good and holy marriages. This requires preparation and education. The friendships of children should be monitored for virtue and goodness; bad friendships should be avoided – and this is easiest early in life. Further, the parent must take their responsibility seriously to help their children to a good and wholesome understanding of sexuality, independent of mass media that saturates us with visions of cheap and dehumanized sexual activity. It is very important to monitor media, choosing good television and movies, and to provide guidance. It is especially important to be vigilant about the Internet, particularly with young boys who are especially drawn to sensory images, which are so easy to obtain over the net. This vigilance must be rooted in virtue and responsibility, rather than in the repression of authentic freedom. The child must be taught to have self-regard, respect for women, and a well-formed conscience. It is helpful if dating, especially dating one-on-one, is postponed until the purpose of dating, which is finding a life-long companion of similar outlook, be clearly understood by the child, usually after high school.

One needs to be particularly vigilant about mixed marriages, especially in the present society. While there have been many examples of happy marriages between Catholics and non-Catholics, and even non-Christians, the religious and cultural difficulties, as well as the effect on children, cannot be forgotten. The Church has always been very wary of mixed marriages, and even today, the permission of the bishop is still required for cases of disparity of cult. For this reason, parents should take an active role in the Church community, cultivating friendships of Catholic friends, and making sure their child receives a Catholic education, especially in high school and college, thus exposing them as much as possible to other young Catholics. It is particularly difficult — as we shall see later — since the communion of spouses is impaired by mixed marriages when spouses are separated from one another at the altar of sacrifice, and sometimes, when a spouse is unbaptized, even separated from the sacramental graces proper to marriage. Mixed marriages should not be entered into lightly, and the Church has been right, from the very beginning, to offer grave caution, and even outright discouragement to such unions.

When two young people have made a commitment to marry, this becomes the period of proximate preparation. Much catechesis is needed at this stage, hopefully supplementing the efforts of Catholic parents, educators, and priests. There needs to be an objective assessment by the Church that the couple has the requisite maturity and consciousness of the duties of the married state. Part of this process is public, for example, the traditional reading of the Banns, and personal contact between catechists, priests, and the couple. Care at this stage can prevent many annulments later. Once again, the representatives of the Church cannot be afraid of the Hard Sayings here. Couples must be admonished about fornication and contraception, as well as about the fundamental orientation of marriage to the procreation of children. They need not only to be reminded about the personal union of marriage, but also about marriage’s relation to the Church and society at large.

So much focus is placed on the marriage and the honeymoon, it is important to catechize the couple on the Church’s doctrine of love. They need to be reminded that neither society’s ideals of romantic love nor its debasement of erotic love form the basis of the uniquely Christian doctrine of agape love, or the love of charity. Love is not an emotion; love is not a movement of the glands or hormones. Rather, true love is rooted in the human will and in the human exercise of freedom. When this freely committed and willed love is exercised in the context of grace, it becomes saving and sacrificial love, it truly becomes charity, and true Christian marriage is one of its best witnesses. This will help them to overcome the cooling of ardor after the honeymoon, and will aid them in the more difficult moments, when emotions and passions have cooled, yet the superior faculty of the will, raised by grace to supernatural action, can allow love and marriage to endure.

Couples need to realize that their married vocations are their paths to heaven. Indeed they need to learn that their spouses are their special concerns, both for their own salvation and the salvation of their spouse. This includes their duties to their families. The job of husband and wife is to create the Domestic Church. It is worth quoting Blessed John Paul II here: “Marriage is an act of will that signifies and involves a mutual gift, which unites the spouses and binds them to their eventual souls, with whom they make up a sole family – a domestic church.”

He goes on to say in his message for the 27th World Day of Peace: “The family, as the fundamental and essential educating community, is the privileged means for transmitting the religious and cultural values which help the person to acquire his or her own identity. Founded on love and open to the gift of life, the family contains in itself the very future of society; its most special task is to contribute effectively to a future of peace.”

And in his Letter to Families: “The history of mankind, the history of salvation, passes by way of the family. The family is placed at the center of the great struggle between good and evil, between life and death, between love and all that is opposed to love.”

Clearly the family lies at the heart of the human drama and at the center of the mystery of human salvation. It is the hearth and heart of every human community, and is one of the primary reasons that the Church asserts the right of all human persons to be born within a stable family household. Within the family, through the parents in their roles as primary educators of their children, we learn how to relate to ourselves and to others, to the Church and to the world. The family is a privileged nursery, where children can grow in love and in faith, to be slowly and painstakingly equipped for their adult responsibilities and to learn in a safe and secure manner to address the difficult situations which may arise in their lives.

Here arises an important corollary to the procreative meaning of Christian marriage. This call is not simply a bare requirement to have children, but is an integral vocation to educate the children as well. This involves, above all, a Catholic education. Parents are responsible for the raising up of their children in the faith. It is a serious obligation. Canon law declares that all children have a right to a Catholic education. This is best accomplished by Catholic schools, diocesan, religious, or home schooling, but can also be accomplished through CCD programs. Conversely all those engaged in Catholic education must make sure to guarantee its quality, and above all, its orthodoxy, at all levels and at all times.

Aside from education, parents are obligated to provide materially for their children, and to integrate the necessities of material life into a thoroughly integral human development, teaching their children to use the material world respectfully, as a means to enjoy the legitimate goods of earth in a good way, to assist neighbors in their needs, and to look upon these material goods as means to the acquisition of holiness and past them to their eternal end. For this reason, the family should have a thoroughly developed prayer life, crowning the week with attendance at Sunday Mass, where the domestic Church finds integration with the Church spread throughout the world. In the home, a strong prayer life should be cultivated, particularly the practice of morning and evening prayers, prayers of thanksgiving before and after meals, and the praying of the Rosary, one of the finest of all family prayers. In addition, parents should strive to cultivate authentic Catholic culture, reading and enjoying the fine works of Catholic music, art, architecture, and books throughout the ages, in addition to celebrating various Catholic feasts with all due solemnity and rightly-ordered enjoyment, all the while practicing common works of penance and mortification such as fasting. In this way, their Catholic development will be integral, uniting culture and spirit. Families should also encourage vocations to the priesthood and religious life, while helping their children to prepare for lifelong evangelization in words and deeds.

The bishops, in their pastoral letter, have also commented on the virtues and vices that especially pertain to the married state. Though Catholics are called to practice all the virtues, there are several that are especially applicable to conjugal and family life. Parents need to be models of the virtues for their children, who will learn the way of right action much better through example coupled with words of encouragement. Loving kindness, rooted in charity, patience, mutual help and gratitude are some of the key building blocks of happy family life. There must be a mutual giving way, in accord with right reason and order. A perfect marriage is one in which persons in their complementarity are respected. If a wife can look at her husband and see Christ who sacrifices everything for her, and if a husband can look at his wife and see the spotless bride of Christ, the holy Church of God, then this is the perfection of marriage. The good effects of such a match will shine before men, allowing the children to grow in safety, peace, and faith, and lighting a lamp for the whole of society. Without marriages like this, society itself cannot last for long.

Two virtues specifically applicable to marriage are drawn forth in the pastoral letter: chastity and gratitude. As to the first, often we think of chastity only in a bare, negative sense, being restraint from sexual activity, but in reality it is a high and positive virtue, that is lived out in its proper form in every state in life. It is the restraint of concupiscence, and the reservation of the sexual act to its proper arena, always subject to the rule of reason. Chastity teaches self-control and self-mastery, and refuses to obey the lower parts of man’s nature. It is a proper subordination of all the powers of the body to their right ordering. Chastity in marriage has a special understanding.  It enables one to approach the conjugal act “in a human manner,” treating the spouse as a subject worthy of dignity and respect, and not an object for the mere use of physical pleasure. For this, chastity helps to regulate the will towards the true unitive and procreative ends of human sexuality. Chastity permits the full gift of self to the beloved, the refusal to hold back the gift of self from the other, and to subordinate the pleasure of the sexual act to reason, appreciating it as a divine gift that accompanies the marital act, and that does not dominate it.

The letter identifies several threats to marital chastity. One is the familiarity that people experience in their everyday lives with members of the opposite sex, which was not the case in previous generations. This requires especially self-control and a respect for the opposite sex and a respect for self. There has to be a real custody of the self, a custody of the eyes, and a custody of the tongue, which are the safeguards of the mind, and also the safeguards of chastity. Further, the saturation of the culture with sexual imagery and ease with which such things are accessed, particularly pornography, can be a real problem – particularly for men. Self-control and self-censorship must accompany a well-formed use of freedom and responsibility when using the tools of the new media. Pornography is often horribly mislabeled as a victimless crime, but this could not be further from the truth. All those who participate in the production and distribution of such material find themselves degraded, the dignity of women is impaired, and they contribute to a society that treats persons as objects to be manipulated for personal pleasure. It damages consumers of pornography in warping their vision of humanity, and it damages spouses and families. It is far from a victimless crime.

Another violation of marriage has been universally condemned by all civilized nations, and finds especially strong condemnation from the Old Testament and from Christ Himself, and this is the terrible sin of adultery. In it one breaks ones vow, one of the most serious things a person can do. Trust is broken and families are torn apart, merely for gratification of lust, or boredom, or lack of self-control. When a person is married, their life is no longer wholly their own, and, in particular, the use of sex becomes exclusive to the partner. One exchanges to one’s spouse the rights over one’s body for the purpose of procreative and unitive acts. Therefore, in adultery, one is giving away what is no longer one’s own. It is an act of theft of the most heinous kind, it is a betrayal of trust and is seriously sinful.

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Gratitude is also an essential virtue for the married couple to cultivate. They must realize that the love given by the spouse is unmerited, deep, and real, and must foster the growth of an attitude of thanksgiving, and indeed of continual wonder at the love of the spouse. This gratitude implies openness to one another, and the tools for this include marital intimacy and, above all, communication. The roots of much marital breakdown result from an initial step of the cessation of spousal communication. The married life is meant to be shared; the difficulties of life are made to be borne together. As Romano Guardini so beautifully says:

Christian marriage is constantly renewed by sacrifice. True, it fulfills and enriches the lives of both partners through fertility and ripening of the personality beyond the limits possible for each individually; not only through the fullness and creativeness of the joint life, but also through the sacrifices necessary to weather the temptations of brute instinct, inconstancy, never-ending disappointments, moral crises, changes in fortune and the general demands of a common life.

Communication is necessary both for the better and for the worse. Joy must be shared no less than trial, and gratitude is the soil in which communication fruitfully germinates. A particular vice that can root up this fruitful communication is the weed of jealously. Jealousy is dangerous because it can begin in total devotion. As Francis de Sales wisely says: “jealousy is a sign of a friendship’s height and bulk but not of its goodness, purity, and perfection. Perfection of friendship presupposes sure trust in the virtue of those we love, while jealousy presupposes doubt of it.” We must strive to root jealousy up, and communication is the best way to do this. A subset of jealously can be found in the relation to children and friends. Spouses must come first, friendship must be subordinated and support the conjugal union, it cannot replace it or supplant it. Similarly the wife or husband cannot give themselves utterly to their children, in such a way as to efface the spousal relationship. Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame once said, “the best thing a Father can do for his children, is to love their mother.” The relation of the spouses to their children, friends, and society at large should be a concentric circle that begins with their deep relationship to one another firmly in the center.

As regards relation to larger society, marriage today, more than ever, is to be a deep witness about the truths of the human person to a society which, in many ways, has forgotten what it means to be human. More than in any other way, society has gone beyond a rejection of religion into a rejection of nature and reason itself. In our Catholic faith, we understand that grace does not destroy nature, but rather perfects it. In rediscovering the natural goods and purposes of marriage, we can lead society as a whole back to rediscover its humanity, and beyond that to the plan that God first formed before all time, established in Eden, and renewed in Christ His Son, and which endures for all time in His Eucharistic heart.

Those who follow the Church’s deep, humanizing, and transforming teaching on marriage are a special type of martyr in its original sense. They are the witnesses of the truth of God and the world He created, sometimes under very difficult conditions. Within the families they create they plant the seeds for future renewal of the face of the earth.

Donald S. Prudlo is Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He is also Associate Professor of Theology and Church History at Christendom. His specialty is Saints and Sainthood in the Christian Tradition, and he is the author of The Martyred Inquisitor: The Life and Cult of Peter of Verona (+1252) (Ashgate, 2008) and has recently edited The Origin, Development, and Refinement of Medieval Religious Mendicancies (Brill, 2011).
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