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Posted March 29, 2006

Recently the Secretariat for Family, Laity, Women and Youth under the executive director, Richard McCord has been working on a new document for marriage. Below is one of the working papers for this project. For more on this topic visit our web site at www.usccb.org/npim

“Promoting and Sustaining Marriage
as a Community of Life and Love”

A Colloquium of Social Scientists and Theologians
October 24-25, 2005
Marriage as a Unitive and Procreative Partnership
John S. Grabowski, Ph.D.
The Catholic University of America

Marriage as an institution has fallen upon hard times of late. News articles and scholarly studies alike call our attention to the high rate of failure among marriages, the widespread practice of cohabitation, and the growing number of persons who (for a variety of reasons) choose to never marry.1 These developments have led to the rise of an industry designed to cater to the needs of this new “generation ex” and the expansion of media and products aimed at playing on the uncertainties of a growing number of 20 and 30 some things about the married state.2 The dispirited conclusion which some draw from these developments is that marriage is somehow defunct or reaching the end of its tenure in western civilization.

Yet there are reasons to believe that rumors of marriage’s untimely demise are, in fact, greatly exaggerated. The Judeo-Christian tradition has rich biblical and theological resources which can serve to ground marriage both a conceptualization and praxis of marriage even in the face of such unprecedented challenges. Specifically, this paper will contend that understanding marriage as unitive, as procreative, and as a partnership can serve to ground a compelling vision and a vibrant spirituality of marriage in our present context.3

The paper will proceed by considering each of these concepts in turn. It will first examine marriage as a covenant of love which draws persons together in unity and communion. It will then treat the life-giving character of marriage and the blessing of children. The final section will consider marriage as a partnership and the crucial role of mutuality in the relationship of husband and wife. In each case an effort will be made to locate the biblical basis and some contemporary theological elucidation of these affirmations as well as their implications for the praxis of marriage.

Marriage as Unitive

The term “unitive” as a description of the ends to which marriage is ordered is a relatively recent entry to rich vocabulary of the Church’s tradition, appearing for the first time in Paul VI’s watershed encyclical Humane Vitae in 1968. This prompted some of those critical of its reaffirmation of the prohibition of artificial contraception to complain about the novel status of the document’s terminology in the tradition.4 However, it is fairly clear that this new language is really just a shorthand for what the previous tradition called the “secondary ends” of marriage-- refracted through the personalist lens of 20th century Catholic thought and the teaching of Second Vatican Council.5 Close examination of this concept reveals that it also has biblical foundation as well.

The foundation of a couple’s interpersonal union in biblical thought is the covenant that binds them together. Their mutual promise of unconditional fidelity made before God binds them into a new entity–“one flesh.”6 Their allegiance to their family of origin is now superseded by their unconditional promise to one another–a promise whose surety is their very lives.7 This oath is then sealed in the couple’s bodily gift of self to one another in sexual union. In this act of sexual union they truly are “one flesh” and they engage in a bodily enactment and recollection of their covenant promise to one another.8 Thus the unitive end of marriage is disclosed to us as the meaning and expression of a couple’s covenant with each other.

It is for this reason that the Second Vatican Council in its Pastoral Constitution on the Church Gaudium et spes, in recovering the biblical category of covenant, juxtaposed it with the personalist concept of self-donation: The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws. It is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence, by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other, a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one A couple swearing faith to one another in the covenant of marriage is engaged in an act of self donation, giving themselves and accepting the gift of the other as a person.10 This act of bestowal and acceptance forms the foundation for the couple’s ongoing communion of love. Subsequent acts of self-donation are a recollection of and participation in this original unconditional pledge. This is most evident in the case of the bodily gift of self in sexual intercourse, but it also true of all the acts of generosity and affection which form the fabric of a couple’s relationship woven over a lifetime together.

It is worth recalling, however, the interpersonal communion which the covenant of marriage effects is not a purely human reality. It is ultimately a divine work. This is why the Church has understood marriage as not merely a covenant but also a sacrament–an efficacious sign of grace which serves as a living icon of the bond of love which unites Christ to the Church.11 In their day to day acts of kindness, service, mutual love, service, and forgiveness a couple manifest and share in the love demonstrated on the cross which itself is an outpouring and revelation of the eternal communion of love within the Trinity.

Love, however, is a paradoxical reality in that it can only be received insofar as it is given away. Gaudium et spes teaches that human beings are fulfilled in the development of their capacity for self-gift: “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.”12 To put this in philosophical terms, persons discover themselves as selves–as an “I” precisely in giving themselves to a “Thou” in the dialogue of friendship and love.13 Yet this interpersonal dialogue of love is only fully expressed when it stands in relation to a third term who can be addressed by the couple as a “we.” The unitive nature of a couple’s love has an intrinsic connection to fruitfulness insofar as the couple’s communion is ordered to the community of children.14 This community of I– Thou–We reflects the eternal communion of love within the Godhead where the Holy Spirit is breathed forth as the fruit of the eternal dialogue of love between the Father and Son. For this reason both the family and the Trinity may be called a communio personarum (a “communion of persons”).15

This understanding of the unitive nature of marriage has some important implications which can be touched upon briefly here. Recalling its foundation in the covenant of marriage and its demand for unconditional and life-long commitment confronts us with a fidelity foreign to our own conception of interpersonal relationships. It was on this basis of this teaching that Jesus condemned the practice of divorce and its basis in the Torah (cf. Dt. 24:1-4) as a concession to the hard-heartedness induced by sin and proclaimed that it violated God’s original creative intention for the covenant of marriage (cf. Mk. 10:2-11 and par.).16 This insistence on the indissolubility of marriage offers a critique of and challenge to our current culture of divorce which has devastated countless children and spouses who have been abandoned by individuals searching for “personal fulfillment” outside the bonds of these commitments.17 The fulfillment offered in marital union is found precisely in responding to its invitation to lifelong fidelity and generosity rather than in a flight from these bonds.18 “The sincere gift of self” is lived out in myriad struggles and joys of a couple’s daily life.19

Furthermore, grounding the unitive nature of marriage in the marriage covenant serves as a check to any kind of romantization of the language of “self-donation” or “communion” in understanding the unitive nature of marriage. Some commentators have complained the personalist turn of 20th century Catholic theology and teaching falls prey to just such romanticism.20 In fact, it unwittingly reinforces the privitization of marriage and the reduction of romance to a commodity aggressively marketed by contemporary American consumer culture.21

Spouses are thereby expected to fulfill all of their partner’s emotional and relational needs and failing to do so should not be surprised when they are set aside for a newer model who can deliver greater novelty and excitement. It must be recalled, however, that biblical conception of marriage as a covenant was anything but privitized–it was always located in a larger social matrix, whether that of Ancient Israel (in the Old Testament) or the broader Christian community (in the New Testament). This location within God’s covenant people was the necessary support and context for the couple’s covenantal commitment and communion of love with each other. Among followers of Jesus, marriage was never a private enclave in a hostile world but the smallest and most basic form of Christian community–“the domestic Church.”22 Since spouses cannot provide for all of each other’s emotional and relational needs, it is vital that the couple have other friendships to sustain them and the support of the larger Christian community. This reality of immersion into the Christian community is one of the key elements missing from many programs of marriage preparation and support.

Equally important for marriage preparation in light of its covenantal and sacramental nature is attention to the faith of the spouses. That which unites spouses in the sacrament is precisely the faith, hope, and love that also unite them to God in a life of discipleship. What happens when an individual or a couple has little or no faith?23 It is worth recalling, of course, that in classical sacramental theology faith is not necessary for sacraments to validly conferred (i.e., an unbeliever can baptize) but it is necessary for them to be fruitfully received. The standard western view is that the couple is both the ministers and the recipients of the sacrament– they confer the sacrament on one another in view of their baptismal priesthood.24 Hence one possible theological solution to this dilemma is hold that the couple can be valid ministers of the sacrament apart from conscious faith yet they cannot fruitfully receive the grace conferred by it until the obstacle posed by this lack of faith is removed.25 Pastorally, this problem points to the need for effective evangelization within the context of marriage preparation so that a couple can draw upon the grace of the sacrament from the beginning of their union.

Finally, to understand the interpersonal union and communion of marriage as ordered to children, family, and community also resists some of the most destructive assumptions of our culture. Mutual love is not merely ordered to the interpersonal happiness of the lovers but toward the building up of society and community. The “inseparable connection” between the unitive and procreative meanings of sexuality invoked by Humanae vitae is not the result of ecclesial voluntarism as some of its critics supposed.26 It is based on very profound anthropological and biblical insights into the nature of love.

Marriage as Procreative

For most of its history the Jewish and Christian insistence on the link between marriage and procreation was an uncontroversial one. After all, the link between sex and child-bearing was obvious and in pre-industrial societies children were a tangible economic and political blessing, adding to the economic power and overall security of their families by their mere presence. This led biblical authors to view children as a blessing from God (cf. Gen. 24:60; Ps. 127:3-5; Ps. 128:3-4) and sterility as a curse (cf. 29:31; 30:1-2; 1 Sam. 1:5-6). With concerns about increasing global population and limited resources, and with the growing expense of raising and educating children in an industrial and now informational society such as our own it is not wholly unsurprising that our own culture’s attitudes toward children are much more conflicted.27 Compounding this new socio-economic context is the fact that increased scientific knowledge and the application of technology has made it much easier for many to break the connection between sex and procreation (in a variety of ways) that our predecessors took for granted.

The first creation story of Genesis (1:1-2:4a) describes humanity’s creation in “the image of God.”28 This image is comprised on the one hand of the exercise of dominion over the rest of creation (cf. Gen. 1:26, 28). However, this dominion is not the same as the untrammeled license of domination but rather must be understood as the exercise of royal representation and stewardship.29 Human beings represent the power and authority of a Creator who sustains rather than dominates His creation. They are placed in it to “cultivate and to care for it” it (cf. Gen. 2:15c).30 On the other hand, humanity’s creation in the imago dei involves a second, equally fundamental, signification–that of relationality.31 It is “male and female” together that comprise the divine image (cf. Gen. 1:27c) and this fundamental relation is in turn dependent upon the relation between the Creator and humankind fully realized in the worship of the Sabbath (cf. Gen 2:1-4a). Creation finds its completion in the worship of the One from whose hand it came. Men and women, as the priest- stewards of this creation not only represent God to their fellow creatures but have the awesome privilege of declaring the gratitude and praise of all of creation to its Maker.

But these two dimensions of our creation in the image of God–dominion and relation–are not unrelated. The text of the first creation account draws them together by noting that one way in which men and women exercise the dominion with which they are entrusted over the visible world is to “be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28b). It is precisely (though not exclusively) in the joining of their shared fertility that this exercise of priestly dominion is realized. The term used here for the “blessing” which accompanies procreation (barak) is significant in the Hebrew of the Old Testament as it almost always signifies God’s action of giving life to His creation.32

This is one important reason why the scriptures can parallel sex and worship since both are activities which ratify a covenant.33 Awareness of this parallel can be found in the nuptial imagery for the covenant between Yahweh and Israel in the Old Testament.34 It is also the backdrop for the “great mystery” found in the Christian couple’s participation in the union between Christ and the Church (cf. Eph. 5:21-33). Thus while the scriptures resist the deification of sex or its projection onto the divine found in Ancient Near Eastern and some Greco-Roman religions, this does not stop them from seeing the sexual relationship of spouses as something that involves God and his holiness.

As noted above, the marriage covenant involves the total gift of oneself to one’s spouse and this unconditional gift is sealed in the bodily union of sexual self-donation. Intercourse is therefore a form of communication between the couple. It is, to use John Paul II’s phrase, “a language of the body” in which the couple somatically proclaims both unconditional fidelity and unreserved self-gift.35 Part of this gift is precisely the gift of one’s fertility. This is both because fertility is an integral part of the person as male or female and because the sharing of this gift is an expression and realization of the couple’s creation in the image of God. When a couple’s gift of fertility results in the creation of a new human life the couple become co-creators with God–it is a “renewal of the mystery of creation.”36 To deliberately withhold this dimension of oneself is to undercut the language of total self-gift and therefore deny the dignity of one’s spouse created in the image of God.37 It also is an affront to the Creator who is the author of both love and life.38

This understanding of the procreative nature of marriage also has some important implications. First, it serves as a point of resistance to current cultural attitudes which see children primarily as a threat and an impoverishment to the life of couple and the global community rather than first and foremost as a blessing. It likewise challenges the dominant view of much western society and medicine that human fertility is a disease to be suppressed through medication or surgery.39 That is, it resolutely opposes what some have described as the “contraceptive mentality” or what John Paul II labeled “the culture of death.”40

The recognition that marriage is ordered to the procreation and care of children and that the shared fertility of a couple is a gift challenges the couple to see their relationship in a broader and more truthful perspective. This insight helps them see that they are not merely trying to live “happily ever after” as an isolated couple. It serves as a reminder that sex is not just about pleasure and interpersonal fulfillment but also about concrete relations of blood, family, and kinship whether in or outside of the Christian community.41 Rather it encourages them to build a small Christian community in their household in the way they relate to each other, their children, and their society. This requires attention to the varieties of practices that make up and structure their common life–whether in regard to prayer, mutual communication, social relationships, interaction or isolation in their parish and neighborhood, or patterns of work and consumption.42 It also challenges couples to search for and implement practices that habituate them to respect for the gift of their sexuality and the integral place of fertility within it such as the use of Natural Family Planning to space or achieve pregnancy.43

But if the procreative end of marriage reminds couples of their broader social responsibilities, it also reminds the Church of its responsibility to care for couples and families.44 Families are the basic cell not only of society but of the Church as a whole.45 Therefore the Church has a responsibility to integrate couples and families into the fabric of its life. Unfortunately, frequently this attempt is only made in the context of sacramental preparation–in the preparation of a couple for marriage or their children for the sacraments of initiation. Once this catechesis is complete, the effort to support and catechize families on the part of parishes or dioceses often appears to cease. If families are about giving and receiving life this cannot be the case. Families must be challenged to both receive and give life to the broader Christian and human community. The Church’s sexual ethic has to be intrinsically social in its aim. One key part of this social orientation lies in inculcating mutuality in couples and families.

Marriage as a Partnership

While the language of “partnership” does have distinctively modern overtones, its import is not foreign to concepts found in the biblical tradition. The preceding analysis has already highlighted the fact that the first account of creation in Genesis underscores the creation of male and female in the image of God (cf. 1:26-28)–an idea very different from other creation myths of the ancient world which often located humanity at the bottom of the cosmic ladder and assumed women to be the property of men.46 For Genesis, men and women both represent God to creation and have the capacity to relate directly to Him. Both are acknowledged as the priest stewards of the created world, having a dignity that comes directly from God rather than from their social function or legal standing.47 The second creation story (Gen. 2:4b-3:24) also provides important insights into the equal dignity of the sexes. Following canonically upon the first story of creation, the second account sounds a jarring and discordant note to the careful reader– “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18b).48 The solution to this problem is the creation of an ezer–a term literally rendered as “suitable helper” but perhaps more accurately rendered into English as “suitable partner.”49 This is because in current English usage “helper” has connotations of secondary status and subordination whereas “partner” does not. Biblical research has shown that the term ezer carries no such connotations in the original Hebrew. In fact, the term often is applied to Yahweh as the “helper” of Israel.50 Equally striking is the wordplay in the man’s covenant declaration to the woman in 2:23. He declares her to be ishah (‘woman’) because she has been taken out of ish (‘man’), using for the first time the gender specific terms rather than the generic ’adam (‘mankind’). They are therefore described as being made from the same substance and thus sharing a common nature.51 Finally, it is crucial to notice the reversal of Israelite law and practice hinted at in 2:24: “a man leaves his father and mother and cleaves to his wife” when in the legislation of the OT it was she who left her family to become part of the “house” of her husband.52 The net effect of this language is to provide a strong challenge to the assumption that the subordination of women to men in the law of ancient Israel reflected God’s original intention for the covenant of marriage.53

In the New Testament, Jesus’ repudiation of the Old Testament legislation which allowed men to divorce their wives (cf. Dt. 24:1-4) poses another challenge to the socially presumed control of women by men (cf. 1 Cor. 7:10-11; Mk. 10:1-12; Mt. 5:32, 19:1-12; Lk. 16:18). Commenting on these texts Walter Kasper has correctly observed in regard to the position of a woman:

She is no longer–as the Pharisees question presupposed–at the mercy of a man’s decision. She has security in the decision of God and in his covenant. Jesus’ words about the indissolubility of marriage therefore form the basis of a new understanding of marriage as a partnership, in which neither partner is at the mercy of the other, but both are at God’s mercy in faith.54

When neither spouse has the sole power to end or a continue the marriage relationship it must be regarded as a partnership in some sense. Reinforcing this insistence on mutuality in marriage is the New Testament’s unambiguous repudiation of a double standard of sexual morality for men and women. This can be seen in Jesus’ prophetic deepening of the sixth commandment from a matter of exterior behavior to one of the heart in the Sermon on the Mount (cf. Mt. 5:27-28).55 It can also be seen in the Pauline insistence on the equality of husbands and wives in regard to what the later tradition would call the “debt of marriage.” In his First Letter to the Corinthians Paul insists that husbands and wives have authority over one another’s bodies (cf. 1 Cor. 7: 4) and should therefore make decisions about sexual relations or abstinence together–“by mutual consent” (1 Cor. 7: 5b). Given the assumptions of the Hellenistic culture of the first century A.D. about male sexual prerogatives, this teaching regarding marital reciprocity is nothing short of revolutionary.

Yet in the face of this biblical trajectory of mutuality stretching from the creation stories of Genesis to the New Testament stand some significant obstacles. For not only does much of the legislation of ancient Israel subordinate women to men, but so do key New Testament texts often referred to as the household codes.56 Even though these texts enjoin husbands to love their wives and care for their children, they nonetheless unambiguously insist on the subordination of women to men in marriage. As such, they are often read as part of a literary genre common among Hellenistic authors both Greco-Roman and Jewish57 and as part of a Christian accommodation to the patriarchal Hellenistic family structure.58

However, recent historical and biblical scholarship and theological reflection suggests that there is reason to read these texts differently. There is solid historical and exegetical evidence to suggest that these NT texts are not an example of an existing literary form or topos.59 This in turn suggests that they may not merely reflect a failure of nerve on the part of an originally egalitarian Christianity to the oppressive structures of the male-dominated Hellensistic family.60 In fact, these texts are better read as an attempt to transform this family structure from within by making the sacrificial servant-leadership of Christ the model for male “headship” in the family.61

In this vein it is important to note the reading of texts such as Ephesians 5:21-33 offered by Pope John II. Considering both the literary and grammatical context of “mutual submission out of reverence for Christ” (5:21) as well as broader canonical and theological considerations, the pope taught that the directive of the text “is to be understood and carried out in a new way: as a mutual subjection out of reverence for Christ.”62 The pope was well aware of the novelty of this teaching as compared to previous official formulations but stated that mutual character of the marital authority was part of the “ethos of the Redemption” which, flowing from the newness of the gospel message, takes time to “gradually establish itself in hearts, consciences, behavior, and customs.”63 That is to say, he himself saw this as a development of the Catholic doctrine of marriage and proposed it as such.64

This remarkable development in the Church’s teaching makes it clear that marriage must be understood as a partnership in the fullest sense. Men and women in marriage are not only equal in dignity and in fundamental human rights, they are equal in their exercise of authority. Yet this equality does not necessarily mean that men and women are identical. In this vein Pope John Paul II spoke of the irreducible originality of women and men--not just in their embodiment but in the whole of their personal existence.65 It is worth noting that contemporary theologians such as Lisa Sowle Cahill helpfully point to the distinction between sex specific qualities and men’s and women’s roles, enabling us to perceive the stability of the former and the flexibility of the latter.66 This is crucial for the success of marriages where women choose to (or because of economic necessity are forced to) work outside the home because in these cases there must be a redistribution of traditional household roles so that women are not trapped in “the murderous dual role” of assuming primary responsibility for their families while also pursuing a career.67

This understanding of mutual authority/submission within the marital partnership has a host of theological and practical implications only some of which can be considered here. To hold that men and women exercise equal authority in the marriage relationship requires very careful attention to the communication skills and patterns of decision-making on the part of couples. In order for couples to live this kind of mutuality they must honestly share their views and learn to make decisions together on a host of issues ranging from finances, to scheduling their time, to investing in their spiritual lives, to raising their children. It may well be that because of temperament or personal gifts one spouse may choose to cede an area of responsibility such as managing the household schedule or finances to his or her mate. However, there are also matters of such importance that they cannot be delegated in this way such as raising children who need both a mother and a father.68 Nonetheless, this understanding challenges couples to learn to make decisions together on an array of issues affecting their common life. When disagreements arise, they require deeper communication and mutual discernment on the part of the couple. Occasionally, when couples are deadlocked on an issue confronting them, one spouse may have to defer to the other. If there is genuinely mutual love and good communication between them, it can be presumed that it will not always be the same spouse who gives way.69

Obviously, challenging couples to embrace and grow toward this mutual exercise of authority is not an easy task–especially when individuals come from familial or cultural backgrounds with very different assumptions. Effective preparation for marriage in this regard must begin as early as possible in a person’s life. Ideally, this preparation should occur both in and outside of a person’s family of origin. This requires, among other things, instruction in effective communication skills, an understanding of the psychological differences between men and women as these impact communication, habituation to respect for the dignity of others as persons, an understanding of the importance of conflict resolution and how to achieve it, the cultivation of a life of prayer, and training in methods of discernment. Preparation for the partnership of marriage thus involves effective catechesis of the whole person and is a task of all 69 In this I disagree with William E. May who argues that in times of crisis in particular families need a single decision-maker or principle of authority and that men are better suited for this position. See Marriage: The Rock on which the Family is Built (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1995), 63-64. Such a position cannot be reconciled with the teaching of Mulieris dignitatem or a trinitarian understanding of authority which will be outlined briefly below. of the members of the Christian community.70

Yet mutual submission does not erase the fundamental personal differences between men and women. Rather, it must presuppose them. The case of a couple using some version of Natural Family Planning can be instructive in this regard. Successful use of the method requires the couple to communicate about the size of their family and about their sexual relationship. It also rules out any univocal decisions in this regard–couples must make decisions together or the method is impracticable. But these decisions presuppose all of the differences between them as men and women–physiological, psychological, and sexual. If the initiative for considering sex frequently comes from the male because of his psycho-sexual make-up, it is then submitted to his wife and her fertility, state of mind, and their consensus as to whether they are trying to achieve or avoid the conception of a child at a given point of their relationship. Use of NFP thus demonstrates what the praxis of mutual submission looks like in the day to day life of a couple. The method also habituates a couple to this praxis in the whole of their relationship.71 The ground for this understanding of mutuality in marriage like the ultimate ground for marriage itself is the eternal communion of the Trinity. The revelation of the Trinity in the economy of salvation provides us with the real meaning of “mutual submission.” Numerous NT traditions indicate that the Father’s purpose in creation was to establish a people to glorify his consubstantial Son (cf. Jn. 17:24; Eph. 1:9-10), a glorification most fully effected in the cross and resurrection of Jesus (cf. Lk. 24:26; Jn. 13:31b-32, 17:5; Acts 3:13; 1 Pet. 1:21). The Son, in turn, most particularly in the Johannine corpus seeks not his own glory but that of the Father who sent him (cf. Jn. 8:50; 12:28). John also describes the joint work of the Father and Son as one of mutual glorification (Jn. 13:31b-23; 17:1, 22). In the NT the Holy Spirit is sent to make present the person and work of the Son and thus give him glory (cf. Jn 16:13-14; 2 Cor. 3:18). This ceaseless work of mutual glorification by the Persons of the Trinity in the economy of salvation demonstrates the full meaning and import of mutual submission. Couples united in Christ are called to grow together toward the unity of will which exists in the Godhead ad intra and is displayed ad extra in the economy of salvation. The mutual love of the couple, transformed by grace, joins two free and distinct human subjectivities into a unity of operation such that they no longer make decisions on the basis of self-interest, but for the sake of each other. Marriage as a partnership is thus part of the core of its unitive nature.

If the idea that the authority of marriage is to be exercised as “mutual submission” is indeed a development of doctrine, the ecclesiological implications of this teaching have yet to be considered. Accepting recent magisterial teaching concerning the non-ordination of women as definitive merely tells us what mutual submission in the Church is not. It does not tell us positively how this new perception of the equal dignity of women and men is to be positively expressed in the Church’s life and ministry. An adequate articulation of the ecclesial gifts and ministries in of women relation to those of men remains to be undertaken.


Marriage is indeed facing new and unprecedented challenges in our society as is witnessed by increased rates of cohabitation, divorce, and avoidance of the marital commitment altogether on the part of many. Yet the biblical underpinnings of this covenant and sacrament and the Church’s theological tradition have the resources for an effective theological and pastoral response to this situation. Part of the problem is that marriage has been coopted by a larger consumer culture which emphasizes personal pleasure (sexual and otherwise) and individual autonomy and fulfillment, as the only hallmarks of relational success. Personal relationships are thus marked by their disposable nature and frequently by the struggle for control within them.

The Church’s biblical and theological tradition offers a bracing and full-blooded alternative. For here marriage is understood as a covenant–an unconditional promise of fidelity in which one promises and gives one’s very self to another before God. Yet this is commitment is not merely based on human volition but on God’s gracious reconciliation of the world to himself in Jesus Christ and it is therefore a sign of and participation in the union between Christ and the Church. The oath of marriage is expressed in sexual union in which a couple enacts and subsequently recalls their covenant promise. An integral part of the bodily gift of self on the part of the couple is the gift of their shared fertility so that marriage is ordered to fruitfulness in children, in the Church, and in the broader society. Marital self-donation, however, involves the whole person and the whole of a couple’s history. Hence shared decision-making and mutual deference become vehicles of the couple’s continuing growth and union in love. This understanding of marriage as a unitive and procreative partnership provides a vision which can effectively critique and challenge shallow contemporary views of marriage, commitment, sex, and children. Still more it can point to an array of concrete practices which can enable members of the Christian community to begin to interiorize this alternative which is at one more bracing and beautiful. Marriage is not an institution waiting to expire or in need of some deadening accommodation to current cultural norms and practices; the sacrament remains an efficacious sign of God’s gracious covenant with us fully realized in Jesus Christ.