What is marriage for?
Marriage. It’s a hot topic lately, and lots of hotly-contested definitions are getting tossed around, especially on social media.
Maybe a good place to start would be the cultural definition, which I think goes something like this: two people (is that right, are we still advocating for only 2 names on the registry?) who like having sex with each other and who make each other feel good have an awesome, expensive party or else a brief civil ceremony at the courthouse or something in between and then live happily ever after. Hopefully. Oh, and maybe children as a +1 (or 2).
I think that’s an accurate summary of our current cultural understanding of the institution of marriage. I think that also pretty much nullifies the argument for marriage as an “institution” because those parameters are not the stuff cultural monuments are built upon, amiright?
So on the one hand, we’ve got that popular conception of marriage circulating.
On the other hand, we’ve got Marriage with a big M, the sacramental kind. This is where the Catholic Church and popular society go their version of two roads diverging in a yellow wood so hang with me here: marriage and Marriage, for the purpose of this discussion, are not actually the same thing. So the culture wars and the punditry and the round-and-round of the national discussion we’re all having about the m-word? It’s actually kind of … futile. Not entirely futile, but very nearly.
The Catholic Church (and historically, the rest of Christianity) recognizes marriage as a Sacrament, a physical sign which conveys a spiritual reality. In this case the physical sign would be the married couple, male and female, and the spiritual reality would be Christ’s fruitful and sacrificial love for His Bride, the Church. Marriage as a Sacrament necessitates 2 committed parties of the opposite sex (see: fruitfulness, capacity to create and bring forth new life, etc.) giving themselves entirely and unreservedly to each other, and only to each other, until they are parted by death.
So there’s a big difference there. And it’s not difficult to see how it is that we’re talking past each other on a cultural level, because to some degree yes, we’re all discussing sex and love and commitment, but we’re assigning different meanings to these words.
Once language becomes corrupted it becomes very, very difficult to have an effective discourse on, well, anything…because how can I put this, I don’t think that word means what you think it means.
Catholics recognize marriage as a Sacrament, along with the Eucharist and Baptism, to name a couple, and as such, we recognize in it’s very nature a deeper reality than is visible to the naked eye.
Marriage is about two people who love each other. But it isn’t just that. It’s also about revealing the love of the Creator to the world He created, and cooperating with Him to bring forth new life.
The Church teaches that marriage has a “twofold purpose:” the mutual good and support of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. Laymen’s terms: it exists to help two people who love each other get to Heaven, along with any children created out of their love. And by created we’re talking sexual reproduction here, aka the business necessitating cooperation between a male and female.
So there you have it, in a long-winded nutshell. Marriage is a Sacrament, a lifelong union between a man and a woman, and an image of the life-giving love of the Trinity. So the next time you hear an argument debating the meaning/parameters/accessibility of marriage, keep that in the back of your mind for a helpful reference, because it might be that while we’re all using the same words, we’re not actually speaking the same language.
Good place to start Jenny!! Languages matters SO MUCH in these discussions and yet its still so easy to think you can skip past it!
I’m impressed with how well you covered so much complexity in a short post. Looking forward to more!
Beth (A Mom's Life)
What a perfect jumping off point for this series! You nailed it!
What do Catholics believe about marriages between people who are not Catholic. Is a wedding of Hindus, atheists, Jews, etc. etc. still sacramental? What about if the people didn’t think of their marriage that way? Like, let’s say two people in the US needed health insurance so they got hitched to provide it for the other person, but they explicitly reject, in principle, things that are key to traditional marriage, such as fidelity?
This was great! Always love your posts! Looking forward to the rest of the series.
I know this is 8yrs later, but as a long time lover of your blog (not quite 8yrs, but 5!) and a newly married young wife, it’s pretty remarkable how this still seems like such a needed blog.