Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
Before a candlelit altar, a young groom takes the
hand of his bride and vows: "Today I commit my body and spirit
to you. I promise to try always to make our relationship grow
through openness in communication; through trust in your willingness
to work toward our mutual good; through faith in our love for
each other even when that love seems hidden for the moment.
"Today I promise you the freedom to grow and develop
your talents and capabilities. I promise to rejoice in your personal
growth and to work out with you any problems this growth entails.
"Today I pledge to join with you in a union that
is meant to be fruitful. I promise to join with you in establishing
a household that is open to the needs of others, where we can,
so far as we are able, provide a place of warmth and belonging
to those who have none."
As this example shows, many Catholic brides and grooms
today write their own marriage vows. The vow presented above covers
three important areas for union and growth in the Sacrament of
Marriage: mutual commitment, personal freedom and fruitfulness.
We will explore these elements further as we probe more deeply
into the nature of Christian marriage.
What is Christian Marriage?
Traditionally people have thought of
marriage as a legal contract. On one level, it is that, but there
are some essential differences. Unlike other legal contracts, the
marriage contract is based on love. Marriage is not, as the German
theologian Father Bernard Haring reminds us, a business contract
for the purpose of getting a job done.
Marriage differs from a legal contract
in that it is an open-ended contract, "for better, for worse." A
legal contract attempts to spell out all possible conditions which
might arise in the given situation. A decade or so ago, some couples
attempted to write just such contracts for marriage. Most married
people laughed. In marriage you make an unconditional promise, not
knowing where the promise will lead, what the promise will entail.
The unconditional promise is the essence of Christian marriage.
Unlike trial marriage partners who hedge
their bets and say "maybe," Christian marriage partners take a great
risk and give an unconditional, resounding "yes!"
Who can make such a total, unconditional
promise, not knowing what the future will bring? Christians do,
and Father James Burtchaell, theologian at the University of Notre
Dame, suggests that Christians must therefore be considered a little
bit crazy. Who can make such a promise? Only those people who were
crazy enough to make another unconditional promiseto commit
themselves to Jesus Christ in faith, again not knowing what faith
will demand or where faith will lead. For in their relationship
with each other, they are likewise daring to trust in the power
of Christ's love shared in and through the Christian community.
Formerly Catholics often thought of
the Sacrament of Marriage as a one-time blessing given at the wedding.
Indeed the sacrament has a special significance on the wedding day
itself but the sacrament and its power continue. Today there is
more emphasis on the lifelong graces of marriage and on the couple's
response to those graces. Sacramental marriage is not a one-time
magic shot to see couples through life. Rather it is a lifelong
blessing available to those couples who pledge themselves to fidelity,
growth and service. As they continually reaffirm their "yes" to
each other, they acknowledge, draw upon and witness to the power
and presence of Christ in their lives.
The permanent, open-ended unconditional
pledge is frequently misunderstood. Isn't the Church old-fashioned?
Why insist on permanence? The promise "for better, for worse" is
not made by the Church. The promise is made by the bride and groom,
who believe in Christ's word and in the kind of love he reveals.
The Church witnesses and affirms their promise, and takes it literallyassuming
people mean what they say.
What is Christian marriage, then? The
Church's understanding of marriage, after reflection on God's word,
can be summed up in this way:
Marriage, as a Christian sacrament,
is a lifelong and faithful union of a man and a woman mutually committed
to sharing their life and love together. Modeled after and strengthened
by God's own love for his people, it's an intimate partnership in
which each person gives the other freedom to grow and which is directed
toward bearing fruit.
Now let us take a closer look at the
three important aspects of marriage mentioned earlier and incorporated
into this definition.
Mutual Commitment and Growth
The total pledge of Christian marriage is a promise
of faithfulness in body and spirit. Faithfulness does not mean
a complacent "settling in," a resigned sense that now we are stuck
with each other whatever we become. Rather, faithfulness is commitment
to grow as a couple in mutual support and affection.
Mutual growth demands a concentrated effort
to develop communication skills. Good communication
is neither a matter of luck nor a natural endowment. It
is a skill that can be learned. When partners share goodwill,
mutual trust and the desire to communicate, they develop
these skills by practicing them in their life together.
When communication is difficult or becomes blocked, they
might turn to one of the many books on communication such
as The Intimate Enemy: How to Fight Fair in Love and
Marriage by George Back and Peter Wyderi (Avon paperback
books). Partners in a Christian marriage are committed to
try throughout life to improve communication.
Openness is an essential part of communication.
Many marriage differences are so trivial that partners are
ashamed to face their own pettiness. She plans a busy weekend
when he would prefer to sleep late and relax. He leaves
clothes, towels and newspapers lying around while she struggles
for neatness and order. When faced with such differences,
some people flare up in anger, others withdraw into pouting
or silence. Neither action promotes understanding. Mutual
growth demands the open expression of feelings precisely
at the times when openness seems most difficult and withdrawal
seems most attractive.
Mutual growth demands a delicate balance between
assertiveness and surrender. Each partner must learn
when to assert his or her own needs and wants and when to
yield graciously to the wants and needs of the other. In
that delicate balance, perhaps more than anywhere else,
lies the secret of living together in lasting love.
Mutual growth demands a positive outlook.
On the wedding day, the bride or groom is seen as the best
possible choice for a lifetime partner. No matter how many
differences arise, no matter how many negative qualities
appear, people retain good qualities.
For example, a methodical, highly organized woman
chooses a partner whose spontaneity and impulsiveness charm
her. Later, when his impulsive decisions frighten and irritate
her, she may want to attack him for his decisions. If she
is wise, she will recognize that she chose this man and
continues to need him precisely because his personality
balances her own. In a marriage committed to mutual growth,
partners do well to keep their sights firmly focused on
the positive and lovable qualities in each other.
Mutual growth demands renewal. Marriage
enrichment programs recognize a couple's need to get away
together, to examine and renew their love. A special date
with a spouse, a late dinner together, a weekend getaway
for two all renew and deepen the affection which makes marriage
not a business contract, but a union based on love.
Mutual growth demands trust in
the love a couple shares, even when that love seems to wane.
All marriages face dry spells. Pressures from the outside
world intrude. One becomes preoccupied, the other is away
from home a lot. Weariness dulls the homecoming. The energy
necessary to renew the marriage is just not available. Sometimes
both can face the problem squarely and begin to plan positive
alternatives. Sometimes they have only trust, the simple,
quiet conviction that they will weather this dry spell and
continue to grow because they took each other "for better,
for worse," and meant it.
Paradoxically, the permanent, unconditional pledge
of Christian marriage makes possible a personal freedom
unknown in other unions. Christian marriage says two people are
committed to each other, not merely under certain circumstances,
but totally. They are partners and helpmates.
Sometimes people view marriage as the end of personal
growth, something to "settle into" after they have developed their
personal talents and achieved their personal goals. On the contrary,
in a vital marriage each partner continues to develop individual
gifts and to discover new abilities.
Total commitment enables Christian marriage partners
to say to each other: "You will grow and change, and so will I.
We know that; we expect it. Growth arid change are not things
to fear but are part of the adventure that is our life together.
If growth leads you to success in paths I cannot follow, I will
rejoice in your victory. If change means loss of health or disappointment,
I will still be there. If change brings differences between us,
we shall work them out. You do not have to be afraid to grow.
You do not have to fear what growth will do to our marriage. Before
all else, we are committed to working out our life together."
'Directed Toward Fruitfulness'
In Marriage in the Modern World, Father Bernard
Haring tells us that marriage is a union based on love "directed
toward fruitfulness." In that rich phrase lies sufficient challenge
to make a marriage vital for a lifetime. Lovers about to be married
often see only themselves in the marriage commitment. Marriage
seems to involve just two, the cozy cottage, lovin' all the time.
However, love does not work that way. Love expands
outwards. Mature lovers also love the world. That love for the
world and everything in it is not merely a good feeling. It is
part and parcel of the marriage commitment. Christian married
love is necessarily directed outside itself toward others. Married
couples live not only for personal growth, not only for mutual
growth, but for something which is greater than themselves.
Raising children is the usual and natural expression
of fruitfulness in marriage. Too often legalism has clouded our
whole attitude toward children. Catholics have to have children,
don't they, while non-Catholics do not? The more children you
have the better Catholic you are, because, after all, you sacrifice
everything else for the sake of children.
The Church has a consistently positive view on the
bearing and raising of children because Christian marriage is
directed toward fruitfulness. Married love expands to embrace
others. Never has the Church set numerical quotas on children,
nor has the Church ever claimed parents of large families were
already canonized. There can be loving large families, loving
small families, and loving childless couples. But never can Christian
marriage be loving and at the same time unfruitful.
Father James Burtchaell affirms that it is not the
number of children people bear but a generous attitude toward
life and sharing and fruitfulness that marks Christian marriage.
Outdated as it may sound to some, it is still very Christian to
desire children, provided that desire is a generous expression
of love made fruitful.
Most couples today will not have all the children
biologically possible. In a truly fruitful union, their choice
will not reflect relief at being spared this burden, but rather,
regret that human finiteness prevents an unlimited expansion of
A Larger Fruitfulness
Children are not the only expression of fruitfulness
in Christian marriage. The couple that does not yet have children,
the couple that will never have children, and the couple whose
children are raised are all still called to fruitfulness. For
Christians, marriage leads to family and family leads to household.
A household involves more than a single set of parents and children;
a household welcomes and shares with others on a temporary or
Formerly people turned to family throughout life
to meet their basic needs. There they sought food and shelter
and love. There they were born, educated, nursed when ill, cared
for when old and buried at life's end. Today institutions have
taken over almost all of these functions. Theologian and writer
Rosemary Haughton suggests that families need to involve themselves
anew in these traditional functions because institutional care
is inadequate. Our systems of education, health care, care of
the aged, welfare and prisons are not meeting all personal needs.
Family is the one institution that provides its members
with a sense of belonging, of feeling related and having a heritage.
Today, many people are cut off by distance or family breakdown
from their family of origin. They have nowhere to turn for a sense
of belonging. Christian couples and families therefore face the
tremendous challenge of becoming households: to furnish a place
of belongingness for the homeless child, the cast-off elderly
person, the pilgrim seeking a way back to the world after a stay
in a prison or a mental hospital, the teen who needs a breathing
spell away from his or her own family.
For some families fruitfulness will mean permanent
commitments to some people over a lifetime. For others fruitfulness
will mean making room briefly and occasionally. For still others
fruitfulness will mean a home perpetually marked by openness,
hospitality and sensitivity to the needs of others.
A commitment to fruitfulness stretches a couple's
embrace to many people. Commitment to others makes permanence
in marriage not only an ideal but a practical necessity. On the
practical level, if marriage involved only two people, and they
discovered significant incompatibilities between themselves, their
going separate ways might seem sensible. The scars incurred would
only disfigure two. But when two people promise themselves to
the world beyond their private lives, a network of interdependence
is formed. Each needs and is needed by many others. The breakup
of a couple is truly regrettable. The breakup of a household,
however, is an upheaval which affects the very existence of all
Because their marriage and the household they create
are so vital, committed lovers learn to work out individual differences
with each other, to weather dry spells, to subordinate their own
needs to those of others. They are more than individuals, more
than sharers in love. They are partners in an essential common
task. In reaching out to others they can create a beautiful oasis
and do the job which family does best: establishing a place of
belonging, relatedness, stability and love in an unstable, lonely
Accepting the Challenge
Faithfulness to a shared relationship,
freedom to develop as a person, fruitfulness through giving themselves
to otherswhile these three areas for growth exist throughout
marriage, their distribution is frequently uneven. Balancing the
various aspects may be a problem. A person, occupied with several
preschoolers, a seriously sick child, an aged, helpless parent or
a teen who is a living challenge on every front, may wonder what
ever happened to self-development.
At other times personal development
seems to crowd out mutual affection and growth. He becomes president
of the Jaycees. She takes up art classes when the youngest child
enters school. He prepares to run a marathon. She becomes absorbed
in a part-time job. While their lives are full, they have no time
for each other.
The demands of a common task, while
satisfying, may stretch both partners and lead more to fatigue and
irritation than to deepening love.
Marriage is an open-ended commitment.
No one knows where faithfulness to another, freedom for self-development
and commitment to the outside world will lead. The one certainty
is that both partners will change as time passes. If they accept
challenges in all three areas, they may have arguments, they may
grow tired and sometimes be overwhelmed, but they will never be
bored with marriage or with each other.
Moreover, they will know that the grace
of the sacrament, which is the presence of Christ himself, will
remain with them and lead their faithful love to greater and greater