I did a search on “marriage” recently and was blessed with more than 700 million results. It didn’t surprise me that Wikipedia was on top with this definition: “a social union or legal contract between people called spouses that creates kinship.”
I thought that was vague enough to please just about everybody. The Catechism’s definition is a little more specific:
The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament. (CCC 1601)
A covenant, a sacrament—the Church not only has her own definition of marriage, she has her own language. The mainstream media doesn’t understand that language so we don’t see it in the paper, on TV or on news websites.
With this and the next few posts, I’m going to get into that language to try and discover what the Church actually teaches about marriage. I’m looking for answers in scripture and Church documents. Anywhere along the way, I’d like to know what you think–if these posts are helpful, if you have insights to share or if you have constructive criticism.
In the Beginning
After laying out the Church’s definition of marriage, my next question is, where does she say that it came from? Marriage is believed to predate recorded history in cultures around the world. Among other places, tribes in the Western Hemisphere practiced it before Europeans arrived.
In Judeo-Christian traditions, the book of Genesis records that God established marriage when He created Adam and Eve. (Gen. 1:27-28; 2:18-24 RSV) While some skeptics claim the Genesis creation story is taken from a pre-scientific Babylonian myth, I am basing these posts on my belief that it is the Word of God and therefore truth.
Evidence of God’s work in instituting marriage appears in Genesis 1: “God created man is his own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen. 1:27-28)
Genesis 2 provides more detail:
Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him … and the rib which the Lord God had taken from the man He made into a woman and brought her to the man … Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (Gen. 2:18, 22, 24)
Jesus affirms the creation story when Pharisees ask Him about the lawfulness of divorce:
Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. (Matt.19:4-6)
The story of “the beginning” that Jesus describes differs from how many tribes in pre-Columbian America would tell it. Still, they understood God’s plan for marriage because it was part of the natural law, the foundation of many of our laws, which is known to all people. The natural law by which those outside the Church reach this conclusion is the basis of the Church’s teaching on the institution and laws of marriage, as Pope Pius XI presents in his encyclical on Christian marriage, Casti Connubii:
… let it be repeated as an immutable and inviolable fundamental doctrine that matrimony was not instituted or restored by man but by God; not by man were the laws made to strengthen and confirm and elevate it but by God, the Author of nature, and by Christ Our Lord by Whom nature was redeemed, and hence these laws cannot be subject to any human decrees or to any contrary pact even of the spouses themselves.
This language of the Church is strong, affirming that her teaching on marriage, as established by God, is truth which doesn’t evolve. God’s law might seem inflexible but in reading the Genesis story again, I see His care for the newly created humanity. The last verse, Genesis 2:24, shows that human beings, created as man and woman, were created for unity and through this unity they became one flesh, which from the beginning has a character of union, according to Catholic Encyclopedia.
In looking at the origin of marriage, St. Augustine sees this bond as kinship, which might be the strongest part of Wikipedia’s definition.
Forasmuch as each man is a part of the human race, and human nature is something social, and has for a great and natural good, the power also of friendship; on this account God willed to create all men out of one, in order that they might be held in their society not only by likeness of kind, but also by bond of kindred. Therefore the first natural bond of human society is man and wife. Nor did God create these each by himself, and join them together as alien by birth: but He created the one out of the other, setting a sign also of the power of the union in the side, whence she was drawn, was formed.