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The Second Vatican Council updated the Church's understanding of sacramental marriage. Read about the restoration of the domestic church, the pastoral care of marriage, the changing roles of husbands and wives and the new outlook on mixed marriages, divorce and remarriage.

Vatican 2 Today

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Marriage and
Family Life:
The Domestic Church

by Marie and Brennan Hill

A look at our own parents offers a snapshot of Catholic marriage in the period before the Second Vatican Council. Marcelle and Bill (Marie’s parents) were a traditional Catholic couple. They fell in love very young and were married before the high altar. They were encouraged to have all the children “that the Lord sent,” thus welcoming seven and sending them all to Catholic schools. Harry and Elva (Brennan’s parents) were Protestant and Catholic, respectively, and had what was called a “mixed marriage.” They needed to get special permission to marry, and their ceremony had to be small and private. Harry, a Lutheran, had to promise that he would allow the children to be raised Catholic. The marriage ended in divorce. Elva was not able to get an annulment when she chose to remarry; she was excommunicated.

The Catholic understanding of marriage in those days was largely in terms of its purposes. The primary purpose was the procreation and education of children. The secondary purpose was mutual help and as a remedy for sexual desire. The husband was seen as the head of the family while the woman was the heart. Marriage legitimized a couple’s sexual pleasure.

Prior to Vatican II, there were some efforts to broaden the Church’s understanding of marriage. In 1930, Pope Pius XI wrote that the mutual love of husband and wife should have the prime place in marriage. In Europe some theologians proposed a more personalistic approach to marriage that emphasized human dignity and the centrality of married love. While these ideas did not immediately prevail, they did lay the foundation for the changes that officially came with the Second Vatican Council.

The Church in the world

The bishops of the Council treated the topic of marriage in the central document, the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes). This document was a direct response to Pope John XXIII’s original vision for the Council—that the Church update itself and look to “the signs of the times” in carrying out its gospel mission.

The document opens with the now classic statement: “The joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted, are the joys and hopes, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well” (GS, #1). The Church declared itself in solidarity with the people of the world and resolved to serve their needs, point to God’s presence among us and read “the signs of the times” in the struggle for human dignity. Then the Council turned to the most basic unit of human society, the family, and observed that fostering healthy marriages and families is foundational to personal and social well-being.

The People of God

Perhaps the most influential contribution of the Council was the description of the Church as the “People of God.” Previously the Church had been largely identified with the clergy and men and women religious. Now all members could say, “We are Church!” This was uniquely important for married people, for their state of life was traditionally viewed as being for those who did not have “vocations.” Now, married life was being recognized as a genuine calling in its own right.


The domestic Church

The Council further recognized the dignity of marriage by declaring that families were genuinely “Church.” The Council restored the ancient concept of “domestic church” as it declared: “In what might be regarded as the domestic church, the parents are to be the first preachers of the faith for their children by word and example” (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, #11).

The early Church began in house churches, where families were the heart of the communities and from which ministers were first called to use their personal gifts to serve the needs of the larger community. The family is the most intimate experience of Church, the place where love, forgiveness and trust should first be encountered. This is the family Church, whose members are called to embody Christ in everyday life.

Marriage as sacrament

The Council moved from the older contractual view of the Sacrament of Marriage to one of covenant. God’s covenant of love and fidelity to his people through Christ “now encounters Christian spouses through the Sacrament of Marriage” (GS, #48). This sacrament is uniquely a symbol, not through material things like oil, wine or water, but through two persons joining their lives in love and in faith in Christ. The couple, the true “ministers” of the sacrament, are now a sign of the real presence of Jesus in the world.

The sacramental theology of marriage has continued to deepen, especially now that married people themselves often develop this theology. Marriage is understood more as a dynamic symbol of Christ’s power in marriage, a reality that only begins at the ceremony and then must be nurtured and strengthened throughout the marriage. Marriages develop, deepen and grow or they weaken, wither and even die.

The importance of commitment to the things that really matter is evident. In our busy, materialistic and throwaway era when the permanence and fidelity of marriage are threatened, more couples realize that they must regularly focus attention on the center of it all: their relationship. Couples committed to sacramental marriage realize that if their lives are to be rooted in the Lord, they need a deep spirituality and a commitment to prayer.

The pastoral care of marriage

The deepening theology of marriage has brought about new ministries. Programs are provided by married couples to prepare the engaged for marriage, retreats and evening programs help couples strengthen their marriages, and diocesan offices offer services and counseling to couples and families.

Movements such as Worldwide Marriage Encounter and Retrouvaille (for troubled marriages) have provided inspiration and resources to couples since the Council. Such programs help husbands and wives with their communication skills and suggest ways to strengthen the marriage relationship.


Vatican II’s emphasis on personal dignity and social rights seems to have contributed to more egalitarian models of marriage. In a growing number of marriages today spouses choose to be equal partners, sharing decision-making, lifestyle choices, household tasks and parenting responsibilities.

Since the Council, more women have found their voices both in the Church and in the home. They have become more independent and career-oriented and thus call upon their husbands to do more of the child care and household tasks. This model, of course, requires much more consultation, compromise and flexibility.

Ideally, friendship is also part of the marriage partnership. Many husbands and wives view their mates as their best friend as well as their spouse. This dimension of the relationship usually calls for even deeper levels of intimacy and sharing. Jesus once told his followers that he did not call them servants, but friends (John 15:15). Many Christian couples have reclaimed this aspect of relationship since Vatican II.

Couple power

The Council called all Christians to holiness and ministry. Married couples have responded with a deep spirituality and commitment to service, discovering a new “couple power” in ministry. We have witnessed married couples working in homeless shelters and soup kitchens, demonstrating in peace marches and advocating for the poor at City Hall with unique power and influence. We have met “lifer” couples in El Salvador and Nicaragua, who live with the poor and who give their lives in quiet service. Many couples have uniquely taken to heart the Church’s commitment to solidarity with the poor of the world.

Other churches and religions

Pope John XXIII’s vision for the Second Vatican Council included concern for Christian unity and respect for other religions. The Council acknowledged that God’s plan of salvation includes all who sincerely seek God. The Council also encouraged respectful dialogue with other Churches and religions and developed new procedures for ecumenical and interfaith marriages.

Before the Council, Catholics were strongly discouraged from marrying “outside the Church.” At present, over 50% of Catholics in the U.S. choose to marry someone who is not a Catholic. These marriages now can be held in the sanctuary in the presence of ministers from both faiths. Moreover, the spouse from the other faith is no longer required to promise to allow the children to be raised Catholic. Instead, the Catholic spouse promises to do all in his or her power to raise the children Catholic. In addition, both spouses are encouraged to learn about each other’s religious beliefs and practices.

Divorce and remarriage

For nearly a century, the Church forbade divorce and remarriage, and any Catholic who divorced and remarried in the U.S. was excommunicated. Pope John XXIII’s plea for mercy rather than punishment led to changes in both attitudes and procedures. Grounds for annulment were reexamined in light of the interpersonal dimension of marriage acknowledged by Vatican II. (A declaration of nullity, commonly referred to as an annulment, is the Church’s official ruling that a sacramental marriage never existed and that the persons involved are now free to marry again.) In 1977, the excommunication ruling was lifted at the petition of the U.S. bishops to Pope Paul VI.

Nevertheless, the majority of Catholics who divorce don’t seek annulments. This has created a significant pastoral problem for the Church. Still, the Church has made strides in ministering to its divorced members. In his 1981 apostolic exhortation on The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World (Familiaris Consortio), Pope John Paul II noted that the Church “cannot abandon” Catholics who have divorced and remarried. “I earnestly call upon pastors and the whole community of the faithful to help the divorced, and...make sure that they do not consider themselves as separated from the Church...Let the Church pray for them, encourage them and show herself a merciful mother, and thus sustain them in faith and hope” (#84).

Ongoing issues

Family planning has created a particular dilemma for the Church. The Vatican has taken a firm stand in opposition to artificial birth control, and many Catholic couples find themselves in conflict with the Church’s position.

This and many other questions concerning marriage and family life will no doubt receive serious attention as the Church continues to meet Good Pope John’s challenge to read and respond to “the signs of the times.”

Question Box:

• How do the different marriages you see around you reflect the Church's changing and growing understanding of the Sacrament of Matrimony?

• How well does your parish support marriage and family life? How does it support separated and divorced people? the widowed? singles? What more can be done?

• What are the "signs of the times" telling you to do to strengthen your own marriage or another significant family relationship?


NEXT: Today's Church: A Look in the Mirror by Father William H. Shannon


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