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Marriage: it’s time to clear away the fog

Christopher West says that Catholics need a firm understanding of marriage if they are to resist attempts to alter its meaning

By on Wednesday, 7 March 2012

A Russian bride walks through the mist on her wedding day. The Church has an ‘incredibly rich body of teaching’ on marriage

A Russian bride walks through the mist on her wedding day. The Church has an ‘incredibly rich body of teaching’ on marriage

Can a man marry a man? Can a woman marry a woman? Can a man simultaneously marry several women, or a woman several men? Can a man simultaneously marry several men, or a woman several women? Can a man marry his sister or his mother? His brother or his father? Can a woman marry her brother or father? Her sister or mother?

All of these questions are now on the table in our culture. They cannot be properly answered unless we know what marriage is. As Catholics, we have an incredibly rich body of teaching to draw from in order to understand the meaning and purpose of marriage. Let’s begin with a basic definition drawn from Canon Law and the Second Vatican Council. Then we’ll look at each of its parts.

Marriage is the intimate, exclusive, indissoluble communion of life and love entered by man and woman at the design of the Creator for the purpose of their own good and the procreation and education of children; this covenant between baptised persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.

Intimate communion of life and love: Marriage is the closest and most intimate of human friendships. It involves the sharing of the whole of a person’s life with his/her spouse. Marriage calls for a mutual self-surrender so intimate and complete that spouses – without losing their individuality – become “one”, not only in body, but in soul.

Exclusive communion of life and love: As a mutual gift of two persons to each other, this intimate union excludes such union with anyone else. It demands the total fidelity of the spouses. This exclusivity is essential for the good of the couple’s children as well.

Indissoluble communion of life and love: Husband and wife are not joined by passing emotion or mere erotic inclination which, selfishly pursued, fades quickly away. They are joined in authentic conjugal love by the firm and irrevocable act of their own will. Once their mutual consent has been consummated by genital intercourse, an unbreakable bond is established between the spouses. For the baptised, this bond is sealed by the Holy Spirit and becomes absolutely indissoluble. Thus, the Church does not so much teach that divorce is wrong, but that divorce is impossible, regardless of its civil implications.

Entered by man and woman: The complementarity of the sexes is essential to marriage. It’s not that two men (or two women) could marry, but the Church won’t “let them”. If we understand what marriage is, we will see very clearly that it is impossible for members of the same sex to marry.

At the design of the Creator: God is the author of marriage. He inscribed the call to marriage in our very being by creating us as male and female. We, therefore, are not able to change the nature and purposes of marriage.

For the purpose of their own good: “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Gen 2:18). Conversely, it’s for their own good, for their benefit, enrichment, and ultimately their salvation, that a man and woman join their lives in marriage.

Procreation and education of children: Children are not added on to marriage and conjugal love, but spring from the very heart of the spouses mutual self-giving, as its fruit and fulfilment. Intentional exclusion of children, then, contradicts the very nature and purpose of marriage.

Covenant: While marriage involves a legal contract, a covenant goes beyond the minimum rights and responsibilities guaranteed by a contract. A covenant calls the spouses to share in the free total, faithful, and fruitful love of God. For it is God who, in the image of his own Covenant with his people, joins the spouses in a more binding and sacred way than any human contract.

The dignity of a sacrament: Marriage between baptised persons is an efficacious sign of the union between Christ and the Church, and, as such, is a means of grace. That is, marriage – in as much as the union of man and woman truly symbolises Christ’s love for the Church – really communicates Christ’s love to the spouses and, through them, to the whole world.

We must find ways to respond charitably and forthrightly to the challenges posed by the modern move to redefine marriage.

Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute in Exton, Pennsylvania and founder of the Cor Project. His latest book is called At the Heart of the Gospel: Reclaiming the Body for the New Evangelisation (Image, £9.57). For more information, visit

  • Anonymous

    That’s all very good Christopher. An excellent reminder of Catholic teaching on marriage. Would you please tell us when you are going to insist that it be translated and applied in the legal systems of China, Thailand, and Botswana?… What’s that? … You’re not? Of course not. These places and cultures define marriage a bit differently don’t they? Just like many of our non-Catholic brothers and sisters define marriage differently than you. The nice thing about the secular State is that it allows these various definitions to coexist. So when Catholics attempt to impose their definition as ‘the’ definitive, historically immutable, culturally neutral, naturally correct, definition of marriage it is likely to get many folk jumpy. Since your view is not their view I suggest that the best course of action is to ensure a good religious education while leaving the politicians free to make secular legislation appropriate to a secular State. Does that sound reasonable?

  • Paul Halsall

    So, do you deny polygamous marriage is indeed marriage?

    That would put you in direct contradiction to the Bible.

  • Lazarus

    You’re missing the point. The Catholic understanding of marriage is based on a correct understanding of the nature of human beings. If other places and times have misunderstood that nature, so much the worse for them. We have no reason to join them.

  • Lazarus

    Where does the Bible say that polygamy is part of the natural law? (Remember that the Bible reports many things that the Church does not endorse.)

  • Anonymous

    Lazarus, you make point splendidly. Thank for expressing your confident fideism with such concision. It is what made the British Empire great. I can understand why you would like it back.

  • Bananaface9

    The Church put the Bibile together… If it’s not endorsed, then it is misinterpreted by the people. Plain and simple. There are 5 ways to read the Bible. Look them up.

  • Lazarus

    Fideism is reliance on blind faith rather than reasoning. The Catholic understanding of marriage is based on reasoning. Care to try it?

    (No idea what you’re rambling on about regarding the British Empire.)

  • Jack McFall

    This article is excellent and beautifully set out, so much so that I have ordered the book. It is very applicable to Catholics, but it’s tenets are unlikely to influence non-Catholics, and that is a big problem for the Catholic Church. When I grew up in Ireland, the Catholic church ruled everyone and everything including the government and they had the power to generate and enforce the law on everything, but those days are gone forever. In Ireland we were forbidden to mix with protestants therefore, our minds were never contaminated with any other teaching be that of Roman Catholicism. However, that not so today and young catholic children aged ten or thereabouts question the reasonableness of what they are taught in school. The big question is; Is what the Catholic Church teaches reasonable? If so, who says so? Why do all people not agree with Catholic teaching?My neighbour and good friend believes in the teachings of David Icke. I have read Mr Icke’s books I think his teachings are unreasonable, but my friend thinks that Catholic teaching is nonsense. When dealing with abstract and phenomenological matters such as religion there is no proof and it is only a matter of opinion, or overwhelming faith. The reasonable person (uses to be referred to as a reasonable man) is that part of common law the that represents an objective standard against which any individual’s understanding or conduct can be measured., sometimes called the common good. Most of the laws law’s are based on this precept. The law of contract and tort etc are based on what is thought to be reasonable. The law of marriage was based on the common good and what is thought best for most the people.An old Capuchin priest who lectured us who had been a barrister prior to becoming a priest told us. The case law is based on what is reasonable and what is in the common good, and in most cases the people will accept the law as being in their interest.Regarding same sex marriage, the government would not propose a change in the law on marriage if they thought the people would not agree. There have been large scale surveys of public opinion about same sex marriage and the result showed that most reasonable people felt complete indifference as to whether homosexual person got married or not. The question to be asked is: what harm can it do for two people of the same sex celebrate marriage? The answer is; in the minds of most reasonable people, none whatsoever?Unlike Ireland of 50 years ago, the Catholic Church has no power, even in Parliament to change of enforce anything so all the protests are meaningless.

  • Anonymous

    Jack McFall writes: “it is very applicable to Catholics”

    Certainly not to all Catholics. Many Catholics are married to divorced people, for example, and many others live with partners for years before they are married.

    I suppose such people might be described by some as “nominal” or “liberal” Catholics and by others as grave sinners, not Catholics at all, who will go to Hell and suffer eternal damnation and ever-lasting pain and torment..

    Traditional Catholics believe that God is a Catholic (mostly without realising that they do) and that, when the Church speaks, it is God speaking through it. They are scared out of their wits about going to hell if they do not follow the Church’s instructions. This is instilled into them by Catholic schools when they are very young. This is surely brainwashing: these children would literally believe anything pumped into them in this way.
    Traditional Catholics are in effect automatons. They must not think ‘out of the box’ (that could easily be a mortal sin) – thought crime, with God in your head watching and listening, is so easy to fall into.

    Will Catholics be one day released from their torment by laws, passed to outlaw dreadful threats of damnation made to little children, whereby people are made to toe the Church’s line about marriage and a host of other matters?

  • Matt

    So, if you are a Christian, or more likely,  you are not – Once again, ad nauseam, repeatedly, over and over again, like teaching a group of third graders, we Christians have to point out, it is the New Testament, and what Jesus said, that is our core belief.  Jesus made it clear that the ancient practices of polygamy, and the quick divorce of a wife, are no longer valid, as well as many other older laws, such as dietary restrictions. 

  • savia


    Polls are subjective not objective. I am sure you have heard about the “appeal to popularity” argument. Right and wrong are not based on numbers in Catholicism.

    Post Vatican 2 theology is very much rooted in personalism and the natural law. I would also recommend you read “Love and Responsibility”. It’s a book that explains things objectively without theological jargon, and then come join the conversation at the personalist project.

  • savia

    Traditional catholics today are the among the few people who actually think outside the box, whereas as most people just go with what’s popular.

  • Jack McFall

    Not for the first time you are suggesting other people what they should read without giving your own discourse on the subject. It is so easy to deal in second hand information and give the impression that you are some sort of academic. If you have something to proffer, then please do in straightforward manner. The stuff you mention, we did in our first year at university, so to whom are you appealing?

  • Dave Corrigan

    Says who? If this is so then please show how and why this is the case. It is pointless for you to spin your “homespun” yarns. Be specific, or be quiet.

  • Paul Halsall

    The Bible does not espouse, despite certain phrases used by St. Paul, any single moral theory.  When it does so, it is usually the Divine Command theory.

  • Mark

    Wait, who is spinning yarns, Savia or little_nose?  From where I stand, it is little_nose who is spreading misconceptions and prejudice, while savia’s short rejoinder is entirely true.  

    To give just one example, look at this contentious issue of sexual morality.  My experience is that most non-Catholics blanch at the idea of employing reasoning on this issue, or are simply unable to do so.  

    The Church’s philosophy in this matter is both extremely deep and quite diverse; it stands as a testimony of thought against the “do (and legislate) what feels good” type of thought which permeates our society.  The philosophy itself is a rejoinder to little_nose’s comment, as it is the most complete musing on the subject of sexuality available to man.  Gay agenda slogans are empty and terribly bankrupt by comparison.

    So to be Catholic is to reason and think and discuss, rather than go with the flow.  That our conclusions ruffle the fur of some happy sheep is not something that concerns us, as this is by design.

  • johnnewbery485

    Think of it this way: so far as we know man has yet to find a way to gain dispensation from the laws of physics or chemistry or biology. Dr Dawkins reminds us that biology is driven by selfishness – the urge to promulgate one’s genes. This is done for humans by a man and a woman. Having achieved procreation it makes sense to protect the offspring. Hence from these biological truths we have a small step towards saying that marriage between a man and a woman is part of the natural law, and therefore attempts to go against this biologically driven contract will be doomed. This is based on clear evolutionary principles which apply to humans as much as to Galapagos finches.

  • Anonymous

    Jesus said nothing at all about polygamy, so it is silly to say that he made his teaching about it clear. If we can get discount teaching that only occurs in the Old Testament then why on earth do people still bother with the Ten Commandments?They are never mentioned in the New Testament.

  • Matt

    Since you and Paul make it clear that you dislike Christianity, why is it that you present yourselves as experts on the Bible?  Clearly, you are ignorant of the Bible and the Christian interpretation of the Bible.  And another point – the Old Testament Bible is a History of the Jewish people as they encounter God.  As a history, it relates how the Jews on many occasions, displeased God by their poor treatment of aliens, widows, and children, and by worshipping idols, and were subsequently punished for their evil. Therefore, it is not correct to take polygamy, (as an example), out of context, and present it as if the Bible were in favor of polygamy.  No, it is not.  Nor is it in favor of infanticide.  Nor is it in favor of any of the evils done by Jews over their long history.  The Old Testament relates these evils as a historic fact, and so, just “because it is mentioned in the Bible”, it is NOT correct to state that the Bible approves this behavior.  (And please, this is not a criticism of Jews – as Christians we point out that mankind is fatally flawed, and every civilization commits evil acts)
    So, please! Stop this “I’m quoting the Bible here!”  No you aren’t.  You are  ignorant of the Bible, and you are decidedly not a Biblical authority, and should refrain from comments of this nature. 

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  • J Norton

    Being a Catholic is a both free and liberating and as GK Chesterton said it is the only thing that stops you from being a slave of the age.  

  • Bellthecat

    This is totally idiotic. Polygamy and incest are certainly NOT on the table. Preposterous

  • little_nose

    It’s all bloody idiotic!