Sacred Scripture grounds our understanding of Matrimony
JOHN S. GRABOWSKI
EDITOR’S NOTE: It is recommended that you read Genesis 1–3 as a preparation for this catechesis.
Taken in the context of the creation accounts as a whole (i.e., Genesis. 1–3), the words of God in Genesis 2:18b — “It is not good for the man to be alone” — seem out of place. The repeated refrain of the first story of creation (Genesis 1:1–2:4) that preceded this one was that everything God made was “good” or “very good.” God’s solution to the existential problem of his creature’s solitude is to create a “helper suited” (‘êzer kəneḡdōw) to him (Genesis 2:20). Lest we assume that this “helper” is an afterthought, or somehow less than ’āḏām who preceded her, it is worth noting that God is often named the “helper” of Israel elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures (see Exodus 18:4; Deuteronomy 33:7, 26, 29; Psalms 20:2; and Hosea 13:9). The woman God creates “helps” the man to discover his vocation as human and as specifically “man,” as he helps her to realize her own calling as human and “woman” (see CCC, 1605, 2333).
The creation of woman which follows that of the animals in Genesis 2 is filled with covenant language and imagery, though the specific word for covenant (bərîṯ) does not appear. Later biblical texts such as Proverbs 2:17 and Malachi 2:14 will use this term directly for marriage. The Lord’s solution to the problem of his creature’s solitary state is to cast a “deep sleep” upon him. The same term (tardêmāh) is used in Genesis 15:12 prior to Abram’s covenant with God. The man’s reaction on seeing her — “This is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Genesis 2:23) — is simultaneously an outburst of joy and a declaration of allegiance. Bones in the Bible are symbols of power (see Proverbs 3:8), while flesh often connotes weakness (see Isaiah 40:6). So the man declares himself to be one with her in “strength” and “weakness.” We might say in “health” and in “sickness.” The effect of this covenant declaration is immediately recorded in the text — they are now “man” and “wife” (see Genesis 2:24). This expression of consent is ordered to and completed by the bodily gift of self — they are naked without shame (see Genesis 2:25). Consent to marry is ordered to and completed by sexual consummation (see CCC, 1627).
God’s plan of unity for man and woman
Simply on the basis of the opening chapters of Genesis, we can note the goodness of marriage as part of the Creator’s plan for our lives (see CCC, 2331). The sexually differentiated bodies of men and women are good and the basis of their coming together within the covenant of marriage. Marriage is ordered to the communion of love or “unity” of the couple. Genesis 2:24 describes this as their being “one flesh.” This union in turn capacitates the couple to receive the gift of children. The first commandment given to humanity — “be fertile and multiply” (Genesis 1:28c) — is given in the context of a blessing (see Genesis 1:28a; CCC, 1604). The consistent witness of Scripture is that fertility and children are a blessing (see Psalms 127:3; CCC, 2373) and not a burden, as some people in our day have come to view them. Finally, as a covenant, marriage is meant to be unbreakable or indissoluble and thus can serve as a symbol and reflection of God’s unbreakable covenant love for his people in the teaching of prophets such as Hosea, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
This institution is ordered to the good of the spouses and to children who are the fruit of their union.
It is worth noting that marriage exists prior to and outside of the Church. As a natural reality, marriage is found in virtually every human culture and is usually celebrated in a religious context (see CCC, 1603). As in the case of the union recorded in the opening chapters of Genesis, natural marriage comes into being through a free decision of the will on the part of a man and a woman to bind themselves irrevocably to another, promising fidelity and openness to the gift of children before God and (typically) before human witnesses. Even natural marriages are characterized by unity and indissolubility. This institution is ordered to the good of the spouses and to children who are the fruit of their union (see CCC, 1601).
Wounded by the Fall
But marriage, like the whole of human life, has been wounded by the Fall. The second part of the second creation account (see Genesis 3) chronicles the disaster that sin unleashes in creation and records specific wounds dealt to the relationship of men and women in marriage (see CCC, 1607). While the man had promised fidelity to his wife in strength and weakness (see Genesis 2:23), when confronted with his own sin, he blames her rather than take responsibility for his actions (see Genesis 3:12). This lack of fidelity prefigures the covenant infidelity of which the People of Israel will be guilty through committing sexual sin in and outside of marriage and in “adulterating” their covenant with Yahweh through the worship of idols. (Find examples of Israel’s mistakes and infidelities in these chapters in the Bible: Hosea 1–4; Jeremiah 2, 3, 30, 31; Ezekiel 16, 23). Further, the unity of men and women who are together in the image of God (see Genesis 1:27) and therefore equal in dignity (see CCC, 2334) is now threatened by the domination and oppression of women by men (see Genesis 3:16) in marriage and in the wider society. Finally, sexuality itself is wounded by sin. After their sin, the couple can no longer be naked without shame and thus need to cover themselves (see Genesis 3:7, 10). Because of the propensity of fallen men and women to objectify others — whether sexually or emotionally — the body makes one vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.
Christ redeems marriage
“East of Eden” (see Genesis 4:16) is where marriage is lived after the Fall. There marriage is a wounded reality, the basic purposes of which are under threat. Yet God does not leave this most basic of human relationships in this damaged state, but instead raises it up to be a channel of his saving grace and an instrument of healing. Christ, in redeeming us, also redeems marriage, enabling it to fulfill God’s plan for it from “the beginning” (see CCC, 1608). It is not accidental that the first “sign” of Jesus’ public ministry recorded in John’s Gospel that reveals the glory which will be fully manifested in the Cross occurs at a wedding (see John 2:1-12; CCC, 1613).
Between Christians, marriage is “a great mystery” (Ephesians 5:32), a sign and participation in the union between Christ the Bridegroom and the Church (see CCC, 1616). Marriage cannot exist between two baptized persons except as a sacrament (see the Code of Canon Law, canon 1055 §2). That is, it is impossible to have a merely natural marriage between two baptized persons. In the understanding of the Latin Church, it is the couple’s baptismal priesthood that enables them to confer the sacrament on one another (see CCC, 1623). The presence of a bishop, priest, or deacon is necessary to have as an official witness on behalf of the Church, but it does not supplant the couple’s role as ministers of the sacrament. When a couple exchanges valid consent that is properly witnessed and sexually consummates their marriage in a human manner (i.e., a manner apt for the generation of children), it creates a bond which is absolutely indissoluble. No human power — ecclesial or governmental — can dissolve or nullify it (see CIC, canon 1141).
Marriage as a source of grace
The effect of this bond is that it serves as a source of grace in the life of the couple. It is not merely a onetime infusion of grace, but an ongoing wellspring of divine life. In his mature teaching on the sacraments, St. Thomas Aquinas held that each sacrament gives grace to achieve the end for which it is given (see Summa Theologiae, III, q. 62, a.2). Applied to marriage (which St. Thomas did not fully do because the Summa remained unfinished), this would mean that it is an ongoing source of strength for the couple in being faithful to one another and in caring for their spouse and children. Pope Francis captures this idea well. The sacrament of marriage, he tells us, is not merely some “thing” or an impersonal “power.” Drawing on the Catechism, he continues: “In it Christ himself now encounters Christian spouses … He dwells with them, gives them the strength to take up their crosses and so follow him, to rise again after they have fallen, to forgive one another, to bear one another’s burdens” (Amoris Laetitia, 73, citing CCC, 1642).
The idea of “bearing one another’s burdens” in marriage suggests that we can consider marriage as a sacrament of healing. Normally, we think of Penance and Reconciliation and Anointing of the Sick as the primary instruments of ongoing healing in the lives of Christians. But marriage, too, has healing effects. Quoting the Second Vatican Council, St. John Paul II taught in Familiaris Consortio (FC): “The sacrament of marriage is the specific source and original means of sanctification for Christian married couples and families. It takes up again and makes specific the sanctifying grace of Baptism …’ This love the Lord has judged worthy of special gifts, healing, perfecting and exalting gifts of grace and of charity’” (FC, 56, quoting Gaudium et spes, 49).
The idea of “bearing one another’s burdens” in marriage suggests that we can consider marriage as a sacrament of healing.
What are these healing effects? The grace of the sacrament is targeted precisely to the wounds opened in the covenant of marriage by sin. The faithlessness and hard-heartedness which plagued the people of God is overcome by Jesus who, as the New Moses, makes possible the indissolubility of marriage (see Matthew 5:31-32) — not as a legal burden, but as a gift of grace (see CCC, 1615). The domination and exploitation of women by men is overcome by the same healing grace that enables Christian marriage to be lived by spouses as a mutual subordination “to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21; see CCC, 1642). And the “adultery in the heart” (Matthew 5:27-28), committed by fallen men and women when they objectify others through lust, is overcome through the interior “apprenticeship in self-mastery” (CCC, 2339) worked by chastity, which enables one to make a gift of oneself in love in ways appropriate to his or her state in life. In the case of conjugal chastity, married couples are able to give themselves freely, tenderly, and faithfully to one another in their sexual relationship and to welcome children (through birth or adoption) as the fruit and sign of this self-gift (see CCC, 2363-2367).
But the grace of the sacrament of marriage is not just given for the healing and perfecting of the couple within the walls of their home. This same healing and sanctifying grace empower and equip the couple in their mission as parents to form their children in the faith and their mission outside of their home in the New Evangelization. Pope Francis has repeatedly described the Church as a “field hospital” and has called the Christian family “the nearest hospital” (see Amoris Laetitia, 321). By ministering to other families and persons outside of themselves, Christian families can themselves be “the principle agents of the family apostolate” of the Church, inviting others to encounter the healing touch of Christ the Great Physician (see Amoris Laetitia, 200). The active apostolate of families who live as “missionary disciples” and indeed of all of the baptized is surely part of what is “new” in the New Evangelization (see Evangelii Gaudium, 120). In the Church’s vision, marriage is thus a profoundly social institution, the well-being of which is integral to the flourishing of women, children, men, the Church, and the whole of society.
JOHN S. GRABOWSKI, PhD, is a Professor of Moral Theology/Ethics at the Catholic University of America. He and his wife, Claire, are authors of One Body: A Program of Marriage Preparation and Enrichment for the New Evangelization (Emmaus Road, 2018) and Raising Catholic Kids for Their Vocations (TAN, 2019).
PHOTO: STEPHEN COBURN/SHUTTERSTOCK
This article was originally published in Catechist, March 2020.