Each issue carries an imprimatur from
the Archdiocese of Cincinnati. Reprinting prohibited
The Domestic Church
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
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.”
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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