God's hand and presence is evident in all aspects of vocation of marriage
"Among the many blessings that God has showered upon us in Christ is the blessing of marriage, a gift bestowed by the Creator from the creation of the human race. His hand has inscribed the vocation to marriage in the very nature of man and woman."
It is with this beautiful statement of truth that the bishops of the United States have begun our recent pastoral letter titled "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan." This important teaching document presents in a contemporary context the beliefs and teachings of the Catholic Church, informed by human reason and enlightened by Divine Revelation, that summarize and express God's plan for marriage. That plan of God, like the gift of marriage itself, is something we receive, not something we construct or change to better fit our own purposes.
In the context of much discussion of what marriage is and is not, what is wrong with marriage, and whether marriage can be redefined, it is essential for Catholics to be formed by God's own plan for marriage. This plan is expressed in the teachings of our Catholic faith. It can be found articulated in the "Catechism of the Catholic Church," in the documents of the Second Vatican Council and in the writings of recent popes.
The pastoral letter of the U.S. bishops summarizes this teaching in a very readable format. I do encourage you to read it. The vision of marriage offered in our secular culture is often limited and earthbound. God's design has eternal dimensions and is directed heavenward.
From the beginning, marriage has been established by God as a permanent, faithful and fruitful partnership between one man and one woman, sealed by their free and mutual consent. Because man and woman relate to each other in a complementary way, spouses experience a unique communion of persons in which they give themselves and receive each other in love. This communion has the potential to bring forth new human life and to establish a family.
Marriage has two purposes, and the purposes cannot be separated because they are part of the same, self-giving love. The two become one flesh, giving love and support to each other in the intimacy of the marriage covenant. In this way, they participate in and reflect God's own self-giving love. By its nature, married love is life giving. It is open to children who are the fruit of this love and the supreme gift of marriage.
This was God's design from the beginning. However, original sin has had serious consequences for married life, as it has for every aspect of the human experience. The difficulties and hurts experienced in marriage, as well as contemporary confusion about the nature of marriage, is the result of human sinfulness. It is not a problem with God's design.
Jesus heals the lack of life-giving communion in marriage by raising it to the dignity of a sacrament. When a Christian husband and wife become one flesh, open to new life, they also become a sacrament of Christ's love for His Church. They are called to give themselves to each other as fully as Christ gives Himself to His Church. Their sacrificial love is a participation in the Lord's own redemptive sacrifice. By the power of the Holy Spirit, the love of Christ is made present for the life of the world in the love of husband and wife.
Married couples face many challenges. They acknowledge as much as they exchange their vows. The bishops' pastoral letter highlights several particular challenges that are more than the ups and downs of life. They attack the very meaning and purpose of marriage itself. I again encourage you to refer to the complete text of the pastoral letter for a much fuller treatment of what I can only mention briefly here.
Every act of intercourse must be open to procreation, because God has written the whole meaning of marriage into each marital act. Contraception is objectively wrong because it separates the two meanings of marriage. It is not without human and spiritual consequences, as in the case with any deliberate turning away from God's plan. Modern methods of natural family planning (NFP) offer couples a realistic way to deepen their commitment to marriage, conscious of their particular circumstances and responsibilities.
Same-sex unions can never be the equivalent of marriage or an alternative to marriage. The complementarity of the male-female relationship is essential to true marriage. In his teaching on the "Theology of the Body," Pope John Paul II helps us see how God has imprinted His plan for human life and love in our very bodies in a way that we cannot ignore. It is not unjust to oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions because they do not reflect God's design for human life and love. They are not the same reality as marriage. Just laws protect the institution of marriage, whose meaning is received from God, for the good of society and for the welfare of children.
Marriage is meant to be a lifelong union of husband and wife. Divorce claims to break this covenant, but it cannot. We know the reality of divorce in our communities and in our families. Divorced persons and couples in troubled marriages are encouraged to rely on the help of God's grace. They should also be able to find in the community of believers the resources for strength and healing.
In some cases, a Church tribunal may find that what seemed to be a valid marriage was not in fact valid from the beginning. The church desires to help those who wish to seek this determination about their marriage and their freedom to marry.
Many couples today live together in a sexual relationship without marriage. This is wrong, objectively sinful, because the complete gift of self that intercourse is designed by God to signify can only truly take place within the public, permanent commitment of marriage. There is plenty of good social science research that shows that cohabitation seriously affects the ability of the man or woman to later build a stable marriage with each other or with someone else. Children born to unmarried couples are at greater risk in any number of categories.
Married love is a blessing to the couple and to all of us. It prepares them and helps prepare the Church for the life and love of heaven. The Book of Revelation describes heaven as the wedding feast of the Lamb of God. All of us in the Church are grateful for the loving witness of those who live the vocation of marriage. You help us trust in God's faithfulness here, as we long for the communion of heaven. May God bless and sustain you in your holy vocation.