In the lives of men and women, few situations create more “drama” than the preparation for and the actual living out of loving relationships. Over the years, I have discovered that the true unity of men and women in sacramental marriage has taken a decided turn for a less than sacred or God-centered union. As a young priest, I enjoyed talking to young men and women who were actively coming to their parish church preparing, not just for a romantic social event, but for a passageway to a life together in this world leading up to its fullness in eternity.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church points us to the teachings of St. John Chrysostom for an idea about marriage in this traditional way. “St. John Chrysostom suggests that young husbands should say to their wives: I have taken you in my arms, and I love you, and I prefer you to my life itself. For the present life is nothing, and my most ardent dream is to spend it with you in such a way that we may be assured of not being separated in the life reserved for us … I place your love above all things, and nothing would be more bitter or painful to me than to be of a different mind than you.” (Homily on Ephesians 20:8; CCC #2365)
In the current day, we are socially trapped in a secular and relativistic “fairy tale” of romantic love that sees the marriage ceremony as a social event expressed in extravagance of all sorts, performed at many different kinds of venues, using many different rituals, found in many different scenarios from “rom-coms” to gothic romance novels.
Authentic teaching about the Catholic understanding of the sacrament of marriage is confused, along with so many elements of genuine practice of the Faith and understanding what it means in today’s world.
Chief among the elements of the sacrament that are confusing for many Catholics is the entire area of sexuality. The catechism teaches that “[s]exuality is ordered to the conjugal love of man and woman. In marriage the physical intimacy of the spouses becomes a sign and pledge of spiritual communion. Marriage bonds between baptized persons are sanctified by the sacrament.” (CCC #2360)
The purpose of marriage, then, is, as the Church teaches: the sanctification of the spouses and the procreation and education of children. With that being said, we find ourselves at loggerheads with the ways of the world and even with some Catholics who believe the world is right; namely, that contraception, artificial birth control, sterilization, and abortion are acceptable means of regulating the family. THIS IS NOT TRUE, AND IT IS A VIOLATION OF THE CHURCH’S TEACHING IN THESE MATTERS.
Fidelity is the faithfulness of the husband and wife to each other until death, and fecundity is the conjugal love of husband and wife tending to be fruitful. In marriage, the Church teaches that the married couple forms “the intimate partnership of life and love established by the Creator and governed by His laws; it is rooted in the conjugal covenant that is expressed in their irrevocable personal consent (marriage vows).” (Gaudium et Spes #48, p.1) Both spouses give themselves definitively and totally to one another. They are no longer two; they are one flesh.
The secondary purpose of marriage, then, calls us to consider procreation of children. When such thoughts are brought to our minds, we are confronted with many “worldly” ideas and solutions. The Church, in Her wisdom, takes “regulation of births” into consideration, as well. For the purposes of information and brevity in this article, we can call upon Natural Family Planning (NFP) as a means of understanding the Church’s method for regulation and planning sizes of families. By considering the exalted vocation of parenthood, the Church calls upon spouses to remember the aspects of the unitive and procreative elements of the conjugal act as proper responses to their expressions of their mutual love. Children are gifts from God. “Periodic continence, that is methods of birth regulation based on self-observation and the use of infertile periods, is in conformity with objective criteria of morality (NFP).” (Humanae Vitae 16)
These methods respect the bodies of the spouses, encourage tenderness between them, and favor the education of an authentic freedom. Contrary actions that frustrate and render procreation impossible are morally wrong and intrinsically evil. (Humanae Vitae 14)Marriage preparation programs continue to foster further and deeper education in the vocation of marriage. By supporting and praying for couples as they make their way through the marriage preparation and enrichment programs, we continue to strengthen the work of our own Marriage and Family Life program in the Diocese of La Crosse.
Most Reverend William Patrick Callahan Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of La Crosse
Published in the July/August 2022 issue of Catholic Life magazine