Marriage Matters

Marriage: Why the Catholic Church has the right definition

This article was posted on: October 25, 2018

In 2013, I was asked to speak about Sacramental Marriage at the Wisconsin Catholics at the Capitol conference in Madison. The focus of the presentation was to clarify Sacramental as defined by the Catholic Church in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1601 and to explain why this view of marriage brings the most joy and blessing to humanity. Since that time, I have had repeated requests to share parts of this message with audiences across the U.S. and even at the Vatican. Since then our culture has ratified the redefinition of marriage as something far less than what God intended. It seems timely to repost this address.

I would like to begin my comments with the definition of marriage that is found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Paragraph 1601 tells us that “Marriage is a lifelong partnership of the whole of life, of mutual and exclusive fidelity, established by mutual consent between one man and one woman, and ordered towards the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.

This definition is packed full of elements – each deserving of its own deeper explanation and reflection. Without further ado, let’s explore the richness of marriage according to the Catholic Church. As they say – let’s break this open.

The first element that is presented in this definition is that marriage is a Lifelong partnership that spans the whole of life. This element springs from the promise that Christ made to us that he would never leave us. In marriage, permanency allows each spouse to reveal all that they are and all that they are not to the other – if you will the good, the bad and the ugly. Without permanency, each spouse may be constantly concerned that who they are may not be good enough. Without the element of permanence, the temptation would be great to “do” for the other rather than “be” with the other. With permanency, the spouses have permission to “be” for each other – to become a total gift of self. And it is through the giving of one self that one finds oneself. (Gaudiem et Spes #24)

The belief and value of permanency in marriage has diminished within our culture. A short 50 years ago, people went into marriage with cultural and family support that marriage was meant to be forever. Now, it is common to hear people comment just days before their marriage, “well if this doesn’t work out, I can just get a divorce.” Sadly, there is truth in this statement because if one person in a marriage decides that they want to end the marriage they now can, courtesy of no-fault divorce which gives spouses permission to walk away from conflicts, quarrels and misunderstandings that are common in all marriages rather than face the struggles, exercise conflict resolution options and rise to the blessing of resolution.

The second element states that marriage is to be mutually exclusive. The reality of this element is that marriage places limits upon the couple, specifically sexual limits. Living in the married state requires discipline of the sexual desire. Placing limits on the sexual expressions within marriage retains the goodness of sexual intimacy as designed by God. It is only within marriage that sexual activity can contribute to both the good of the spouses and to the common good of society. I must add here that the proper sexual expression of one’s sexuality is not a given within marriage. Spouses must work to master their sexual love so that it becomes more than just a body needing another body. They must strive to unite as persons – body and soul. Just as sexual discipline is needed before marriage – e.g. though abstinence, – sexual discipline is also needed within marriage.

Most people can see the rationale for mutual sexual exclusivity – especially in this day and age where the scourges of sexual freedom are very apparent; unwanted children, sexual diseases, crimes of sexual desire, etc. It is truly sad that the current culture has traded sexual intimacy (tenderness, understanding, closeness, affection) for sexual intensity (passion, power, force, self-absorption).

The next element of marriage is mutual consent. This means that spouses are to enter into marriage freely. The decision to marry must be one’s own so that there is personal buy in and commitment to the promises of the Sacrament.

Less than 50 years ago, people understood that mutual consent meant agreeing to the “mystery of marriage” – the fact that you could not – nor would you want to – know all that was in store for you as a couple. You agreed to the “mystery” of the unknown sacrifices and surprises of marriage. In order to agree to the mystery, the husband and wife had to rely on the Grace of the Sacrament and the mercy of one another. Grace and mercy are necessary to get any spouses through the tough times and subsequently to rise to the blessings. In agreeing to the mystery, spouses knew that they had to rely on God – the transient third – the creator of the institution of marriage.

The cultural understanding of mutual consent has morphed into the belief that when one marries, one need only say “yes” to the benefits and happiness that are currently present – the way that it is now. And, one has the right to end the marriage if those benefits and happiness decline.

In addition – people have become increasingly skittish and skeptical about marriage for this reason; they just don’t know what they can expect. Because they can’t predict the outcome, they don’t want to make a commitment. Because they don’t want to make a commitment, they choose to cohabit. Because they cohabit, they settle for something less then marriage. Because they settle for something less than marriage, they stop valuing marriage all together. This is what Scott Stanley calls sliding. It is the state of keeping all options open that means one never has to make a firm commitment.

One man and one woman – this element of Christian marriage recognizes and values the Creator’s decision to design human persons in two physical forms – male and female – with equal dignity. The embodied differences give rise to human persons being able to pro-create new life and to enjoy a unity of persons that is described as the “one flesh union.” In God’s design, marriage is meant for one man and one woman.

When a person studies the embodiment of human persons as either male or female it is likely that he or she will be absolutely awe struck with what it takes to create a new human person. Anatomical and physiological studies clearly reveal that all human life results from the sexual differences that exist between a man and a woman. In God’s design, He first differentiated the forms of the body and provided each form with a unique hormonal pattern that would allow each form – male or female – to become fertile.

Then God created an action between a man and woman that has two natural ends; a bodily union that has extreme pleasure and the potential to unite the sex gametes which result in the creation of a unique human person.

Let us know overlook that God also created the human person – both male and female – with the ability to discipline the desire for sexual union so as to use it responsibility – which means that even though this action is intuitive – you really don’t have to teach it to anyone – it can be mastered and returned to its original state of purity (the state that resembles the original plan designed by God.) This is when the genital sexual union is elevated to its highest expression of the gift of sexuality.

The sexual differences between males and females are gifts to us from God. They are deserving of recognition and respect because it is the sexual differences that make possible the first commandment from God to our first parents to “be fruitful and multiply”. (Gn 1:28) It is the sexual differences between male and female that give rise to the biblical passage, “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two of them become one body”. The beautiful union of man and woman made possible because of the sexual difference is referenced as a sign of Christ’s love for the Church, as the married state, as the wedding feast of the lamb over 500 times in the bible. Truly, in God’s divine plan, marriage based on the sexual differences between one man and one woman is more than a legal agreement.

Good of the spouses is another element of marriage and it highlights the creator’s desire that spouses should become a better persons though marriage.

This part of the definition of marriage recalls the bible passage, “it is not good for man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him.” (Gn 2:18) This has come to be known as each spouse’s need to be a helpmate to the other. It is the understanding that spouses are meant to be in relationship and that each person – though filled with many gifts and talents – does not have all the possible gifts and talents available from God. By being helpmates, spouses can complement each other and provide what may be lacking in the other.

Despite the reality that original sin has profoundly impacted a spouse’s ability to be helpful and open to assistance from the other, the “helpmate potential” is still present in each of us. And, it can be made more present – more possible – through the Sacramental Grace of Marriage. The bottom-line here is that when a couple marries, they have the ability to be open to sharing their own gifts and talents – becoming a gift of self to the other – and to receiving the gifts and talents of the other rather than allowing personal philosophies like, I can do this myself – don’t tell me what to do – my way is better than your way – enter into their marriage.

Procreation and education of offspring is the final element of marriage and it provides the basis for family life. Marriage is meant to attach children to their parents and parents to their children. It is meant to be the foundation of society and the Church because, as Blessed John Paul II tells us, the future of humanity passes by way of the family. (Familiaris Consortio #86)

The family is the original cell of social life that provides an initiation into life within society. That first society consisting of a man and a woman united in marriage, together with their children, is the normal reference point by which the different forms of family relationship are to be evaluated. The family is the community in which its members learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. The Christian family constitutes a specific revelation and realization of ecclesial communion, and for this reason it can and should be called a domestic church.

Finding a Life-long Spouse: 10 Findings for Youth & Young Adults

By Alice Heinzen
Parents of high school and post-secondary young adults used to guide their offspring towards healthy, life-long marriages and away serious dating that results in a living together conclusion. Sadly, the current dating culture rarely focuses on life-long marriage as the right and best outcome. Rather, it directs young adults towards a life of serial monogamy (one relationship after another). If you are a parent with a late teen or early 20s aged child, know that what you expect can make a huge difference in the type of relationships your child will experience. Here are ten findings that you should read.

1. Marrying as a teenager is the highest known risk factor for divorce.

People who marry in their teens are two to three times more likely to divorce than people who marry in their twenties or older.

2. The most likely way to find a future marriage partner is through an introduction by family, friends, or acquaintances.

Despite the romantic notion that people meet and fall in love through chance or fate, the evidence suggests that social networks are important in bringing together individuals of similar interests and backgrounds, especially when it comes to selecting a marriage partner. According to a large-scale national survey of sexuality, almost sixty percent of married people were introduced by family, friends, co-workers or other acquaintances.

3. The more similar people are in their values, backgrounds and life goals, the more likely they are to have a successful marriage.

Opposites may attract but they may not live together harmoniously as married couples. People who share common backgrounds and similar social networks are better suited as marriage partners than people who are very different in their backgrounds and networks.

4. Women have a significantly better chance of marrying if they do not become single parents before marrying.

Having a child out of wedlock reduces the chances of ever marrying. Despite the growing numbers of potential marriage partners with children, one study noted, “having children is still one of the least desirable characteristics a potential marriage partner can possess.” The only partner characteristic men and women rank as even less desirable than having children is the inability to hold a steady job.

5. Both women and men who are college educated are more likely to marry, and less likely to divorce, than people with lower levels of education.

Despite occasional news stories predicting lifelong singlehood for college-educated women, these predictions have proven false. Though the first generation of college educated women (those who earned baccalaureate degrees in the 1920s) married less frequently than their less well-educated peers, the reverse is true today. College educated women’s chances of marrying are better than less well-educated women. However, the growing gender gap in college education may make it more difficult for college women to find similarly well-educated men in the future. This is already a problem for African-American female college graduates, who greatly outnumber African-American male college graduates.

6. Living together before marriage has not proved useful as a “trial marriage.”

People who have multiple cohabiting relationships before marriage are more likely to experience marital conflict, marital unhappiness and eventual divorce than people who do not cohabit before marriage. Researchers attribute some but not all of these differences to the differing characteristics of people who cohabit, the so-called “selection effect,” rather than to the experience of cohabiting itself. It has been hypothesized that the negative effects of cohabitation on future marital success may diminish as living together becomes a common experience among today’s young adults. However, according to one recent study of couples who were married between 1981 and 1997, the negative effects persist among younger cohorts, supporting the view that the cohabitation experience itself contributes to problems in marriage.

7. Marriage helps people to generate income and wealth.

Compared to those who merely live together, people who marry become economically better off. Men become more productive after marriage; they earn between ten and forty percent more than do single men with similar education and job histories. Marital social norms that encourage healthy, productive behavior and wealth accumulation play a role. Some of the greater wealth of married couples results from their more efficient specialization and pooling of resources, and because they save more. Married people also receive more money from family members than the unmarried (including cohabiting couples), probably because families consider marriage more permanent and more binding than a living-together union.

8. People who are married are more likely to have emotionally and physically satisfying sex lives than single people or those who just live together.

Contrary to the popular belief that married sex is boring and infrequent, married people report higher levels of sexual satisfaction than both sexually active singles and cohabiting couples, according to the most comprehensive and recent survey of sexuality. Forty-two percent of wives said that they found sex extremely emotionally and physically satisfying, compared to just 31 percent of single women who had a sex partner. And 48 percent of husbands said sex was extremely satisfying emotionally, compared to just 37 percent of cohabiting men. The higher level of commitment in marriage is probably the reason for the high level of reported sexual satisfaction; marital commitment contributes to a greater sense of trust and security, less drug and alcohol-infused sex, and more mutual communication between the couple.

9. People who grow up in a family broken by divorce are slightly less likely to marry, and much more likely to divorce when they do marry.

According to one study the divorce risk nearly triples if one marries someone who also comes from a broken home. The increased risk is much lower, however, if the marital partner is someone who grew up in a happy, intact family.

10. For large segments of the population, the risk of divorce is far below fifty percent.

Although the overall divorce rate in America remains close to fifty percent of all marriages, it has been dropping gradually over the past two decades. Also, the risk of divorce is far below fifty percent for educated people going into their first marriage, and lower still for people who wait to marry at least until their mid-twenties, haven’t lived with many different partners prior to marriage, or are strongly religious and marry someone of the same faith.

Research Sources

1. Teenage marriage and divorce

Depending on how the age categories are delineated and the length of the time period covered after marriage, teenage marriages have been found to be from two to three times more likely to end in divorce compared to marriages at older ages. See T. C. Martin and L. Bumpass “Recent Trends in Marital Disruption,” Demography 26 (1989): 37-5. A recent government study found that 59% of marriages for women under age 18 end in divorce or separation within 15 years, compared with 36% of those married at age 20 or older. National Center for Health Statistics, Cohabitation, Marriage, Divorce, and Remarriage in the United States. (Hyattsville, MD: Department of Health and Human Services, 2002),

2. Finding a marriage partner

Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994) pp. 234-5.

3. People of similar backgrounds

Finnegan Alford-Cooper, For Keeps: Marriages that Last a Lifetime (Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 1998); Judith Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee, The Good Marriage (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995); Jeffry H. Larson and Thomas B. Holman, “Premarital Predictors of Marital Quality and Stability,” Family Relations 43 (1994): 228-237; Robert Lauer and Jeanette Lauer, “Factors in Long-Term Marriage,” Journal of Family Issues 7:4 (1986): 382-390.

4. Single parents and marriage

Gayle Kaufman and Frances Goldscheider, “Willingness to Stepparent: Attitudes Toward Partners Who Already Have Children,” paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association, 2003. Available at ( On the situation of African-American men and women, see Orlando Patterson, Rituals of Blood: Consequences of Slavery in Two American Centuries (Washington, DC: Civitas, 1998): 72-76.

5. College education and marriage

Joshua R. Goldstein and Catharine T. Kenney, “Marriage Delayed or Marriage Forgone? New Cohort Forecasts of First Marriage for U. S. Women,” American Sociological Review 66 (2001) 506-519; Elaina Rose, “Education and Hypergamy in Marriage Markets,” (Seattle, WA: Department of Economics, University of Washington, 2004). Available at

6. Cohabitation as trial marriage

See discussion in Claire M. Kamp Dush, Catherine L. Cohan, and Paul R. Amato, “The Relationship between Cohabitation and Marital Quality and Stability: Change Across Cohorts?” Journal of Marriage and the Family 65 (August 2003): 539-49. For a comprehensive review of the research on the relationship between cohabitation and risk of marital disruption, see David Popenoe and Barbara Dafoe Whitehead, Should We Live Together?, 2nd Ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: The National Marriage Project, Rutgers University, 2002). See also William G. Axinn and Jennifer S. Barber, “Living Arrangements and Family Formation Attitudes in Early Adulthood,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 59 (1997): 595-611; William J. Axinn and Arland Thornton, “The Relationship Between Cohabitation and Divorce: Selectivity or Causal Influence,” Demography 29-3 (1992): 357-374; Robert Schoen “First Unions and the Stability of First Marriages,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 54 (1992): 281-84. However, living together with the person one intends to marry does not increase the risk of divorce. For first time cohabiting couples who eventually marry, living together is linked to the engagement process. See, for example, Jay Teachman, “Premarital Sex, Premarital Cohabitation and the Risk of Subsequent Marital Dissolution Among Women,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 65 (May 2003): 444-455; Susan L. Brown and Alan Booth, “Cohabitation versus Marriage: A Comparison of Relationship Quality,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (1996): 668-678.

7. Marriage and wealth

Thomas A. Hirschl, Joyce Altobelli, and Mark R. Rank, “Does Marriage Increase the Odds of Affluence? Exploring the Life Course Probabilities,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 65-4 (2003): 927-938; Lingxin Hao, “Family Structure, Private Transfers, and the Economic Well-Being of Families with Children,” Social Forces 75 (1996): 269-292; Jeffrey S. Gray and Michael J. Vanderhart, “The Determination of Wages: Does Marriage Matter?,” in Linda Waite, et. al. (eds.) The Ties that Bind: Perspectives on Marriage and Cohabitation (New York: Aldine de Gruyter, 2000): 356-367; S. Korenman and D. Neumark, “Does Marriage Really Make Men More Productive?” Journal of Human Resources 26-2 (1991): 282-307; Joseph Lupton and James P. Smith, “Marriage, Assets and Savings,” in Shoshana A. Grossbard-Schectman (ed.) Marriage and the Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003): 129-152; K. Daniel, “The Marriage Premium,” in M. Tomassi and K Ierulli (eds.) The New Economics of Human Behavior (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995) 113-125.

8. Marriage and sex

Linda J. Waite and Kara Joyner, “Emotional and Physical Satisfaction with Sex in Married, Cohabiting, and Dating Sexual Unions: Do Men and Women Differ?,” in E. O. Laumann and R. T. Michael (eds.), Sex, Love and Health in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001): 239-269; Edward O. Laumann, John H. Gagnon, Robert T. Michael, and Stuart Michaels, The Social Organization of Sexuality (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

9. People from broken homes

Jay D. Teachman, “The Childhood Living Arrangements of Children and the Characteristics of Their Marriages,” Journal of Family Issues 25-1 (2004): 86-111. One study found that when the wife alone had experienced a parental divorce, the odds of divorce increased by more than half (59%), but when both spouses experienced parental divorce, the odds of divorce nearly tripled (189%). Paul R. Amato, “Explaining the Intergenerational Transmission of Divorce,” Journal of Marriage and the Family 58 (August, 1996): 628-640. Another study suggests that the main reason people who experience a parental divorce have a higher divorce rate themselves is because they tend to hold a comparatively weak commitment to the norm of lifelong marriage. Paul R. Amato and Danelle D. DeBoer, “The Transmission of Marital Instability Across Generations: Relationship Skills or Commitment to Marriage?” Journal of Marriage and the Family 63 (November, 2001): 1038-1051. Research on mate selection and marital success is reviewed in Jeffry H. Larson and Thomas B. Holman, “Premarital Predictors of Marital Quality and Stability,” Family Relations 43 (1994): 228-237. On the lower marriage rate of the children of divorce, see Nicholas H. Wolfinger, “Parental Divorce and Offspring Marriage: Early or Late?” Social Forces (September, 2003): 337-353.

10. The risk of divorce

Some primary sources for the risk factors associated with divorce and the divorce rate trend are Jay D. Teachman, “Stability Across Cohorts in Divorce Risk Factors,” Demography 39 (2002): 331-351; Tim B. Heaton, “Factors Contributing to Increasing Marital Stability in the United States,” Journal of Family Issues 23-3 (April, 2002): 392-409; For a review of research, see Jeffry H. Larson and Thomas B. Holman, “Premarital Predictors of Marital Quality and Stability,” Family Relations 43 (1994): 228-237.

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