What is marriage? A Catholic perspective on the definition of marriage

Rev. James Thompson, O.P.Associate Pastor & Campus Minister, St. Catherine of Siena Newman Center

Marriage as a human institution transcends the biological drive to perpetuate the species. On the basis of the teachings of Jesus, the Catholic tradition adds that this most intimate of human relationships is also the closest human analogy to the relationship of the human soul to God, or of the Church to Christ.

This perspective is much more countercultural than it used to be.

The anthropology implicit in historical orthodox Christianity views each human person as a direct creation of God. Though you came about through sexual union, the unique person that is you was created out of nothing, as it were, like the universe (Gen. 1:1), and so you did not pre-exist. However, once in existence, your personal individuality is not exclusively identical with your body, but continues in some form after physical life has ended.

This traditional anthropology is counter to the prevailing view among a majority of Utahns, where many believe that the human soul is pre-existent, and furthermore that a marriage can be contracted for time and eternity. Catholics believe that Jesus-taught marriage only occurs in this life. When opponents who did not believe in an afterlife tried to make him contradict himself, Jesus said, “For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven” (Matt. 22:30 NRSV).

Catholics further maintain that God intended lifelong monogamous marriage between man and woman “at the beginning” (Matt. 19:4).

Whether you historicize the mythic language of the Adam and Eve story, or take Jesus’ words to mean the Platonic Ideal in the mind of God, Catholicism teaches that in the Christian dispensation, divorce and remarriage are not, in general, allowed (Matt. 19:3-9).

Both polygamy and divorce are seen as departures from the divine purpose for what authentically human living is intended to be.

Contrary to the cultural shift that would equate same-sex sexual partnerships with marriage between a man and woman, Catholicism falls on the side of those who maintain that “marriage” is only an exclusive sexual union between a man and woman. On the other hand, Catholics could certainly see broadening the definition of “household” for purposes of equity in workers’ benefits as a sound development in light of that cultural shift, but not at the expense of re-defining marriage as such.

One could hardly be more countercultural than to embrace lifelong celibacy. Yet that is exactly what members of the traditional Catholic religious orders and Catholic priests do. We do not see this as a contradiction to marriage. Marriage is seen as one of the seven sacraments of the church, those ritual actions that enact the very thing symbolized.

In the case of marriage, the consent of a man and woman to the exclusive and lifelong matrimonial commitment witnessed by the church itself creates the Christian marriage. Ideally, Christian married life is a visible image of the invisible life-giving love of God for human beings, and of Christ for the church.

Celibacy, on the other hand, is not a sacrament. This strongly symbolic commitment frees up a person for ministry and concentrates loving devotion to God. We believe that Jesus referred to religious celibates in the same passage where he discusses divorce. In a metaphorical use of the word “eunuch,” Jesus says “there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven; let anyone accept this who can” (Matt. 19:12).

Marriage, from the Catholic perspective then, is of both human and divine origin-a human image in this world of fulfillment in God in the next.

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