Reflections on Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan A (Part 1)
Pastoral Letter of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops

William E. May
© 2010 Culture of Life Foundation
Reproduced with Permission
Culture of Life Foundation

This Pastoral Letter of November, 2009, presents Church teaching on marriage and family life in light of the documents of Vatican Council II, the encyclicals, apostolic exhortations, and other writings of Pope John Paul II, in particular in his celebrated Wednesday "catecheses" on the "theology of the body," and the writings of Pope Benedict XVI.

The Pastoral has two major parts. Part One, Marriage in the Order of Creation: The Natural Institution of Marriage considers the nature of marriage, male-female complementarity as essential to marriage, the ends or purposes of marriage and their interrelationship, and fundamental challenges to marriage today.

The Nature of Marriage

God is the author of marriage who has endowed it with its essential properties, including the "bond" that the spouses, once they have given themselves to one another in marriage and consummated their marital union, cannot dissolve by their own will. We could say that husband and wife cannot, by their own choice,"unspouse themselves," just as fathers and mothers cannot, by their own choices, "unfather" or "unmother" themselves. There is no such thing as an "ex-wife," as Jesus made clear (cf. Mark 10:11ff and parallels).

The Pastoral maintains that "Conjugal love, the love proper to marriage, is present in the commitment to the complete and total gift of self between husband andwife." This love, as several theologians (e.g., Ramn Garca de Haro, Francisco Gil Hellin, and others) have shown in their analyses of Gaudium et Spes, no. 49 to which the Bishops refer, is the "life-giving principle of marriage" and abides in the marriage as an obligation and a possibility (that can bemade, with God's never failing help, a reality), even if such love may not be felt.

Male-Female Complementarity Is Essential to Marriage

This section is rooted in Pope John Paul II's catecheses on the accounts of creation found in Genesis 1 and 2 in his audiences on the "theology of the body." Genesis 1 stresses the fundamental dignity and equality of man and woman as created in the image and likeness of God, while Genesis 2 emphasizes that the woman God fashioned from the rib of Adam was indeed the only creature who could truly be his "helpmate." The Pastoral says:

Adam and Eve were literally made for each other….to come together in the union of marriage…."That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body [flesh] (Gn 2:24)." Marriage, this clinging together of husband and wife as one flesh, is…[possible because] man and woman are both different and the same. They are different as male and female, but the same as human persons who are uniquely suited to be partners or helpmates for each other…. The differences between male and female are complementary. Male and female are distinct bodily ways of being human, of being open to God and to one another - two distinct yet harmonizing ways of responding to the vocation to love. While human persons are more than biological organisms, the roots of marriage can be seen in the biological fact that a man and a woman can come together as male and female in a union that has the potential for bringing forth another human person. This kind of union fills the need for the continuation of the human race…this union has further personal and spiritual dimensions. Marriage does not exist solely for the reproduction of another member of the species, but for the creation of a communion of persons (emphasis added).

This passage shows that the "bodies" of male and female persons reveal differences rooted in their being as man and woman, as masculine and feminine, and that these bodily differences enable them to unite in a bodily act, and the only bodily act, apt for the "begetting"of new human life. This is true even if, for causes beyond their control (e.g.,the temporary or permanent sterility of one or the other spouse), generation of new human life will not take place - e.g., when the woman is going through that part of her cycle when she is infertile and cannot therefore conceive. This is far different from the situation when the spouses have made themselves sterile by using pills or having tubal ligations or vasectomies precisely to prevent conception. It shows, finally, that marriage, rooted in the reciprocal "giving" and "receiving" of the man and the woman, is "consummated" by the spousal or marital act.

The Two Ends or Purposes of Marriage

As noted, the Bishops identify the "good of the spouses" and "procreation of offspring" as the two ends or purposes of marriage but they do not try to describe what the "good of the spouses" consists in but go on to say immediately: "Thus, the Church teaches that marriage is both unitive and procreative, and that it is inseparably both." It is unfortunate that they did not seek to unpack the meaning of the "good of the spouses" and how it relates to the procreation of offspring.


This section is inspired by Pope John Paul's teaching in his "theology of the body"that the human body has a "spousal meaning," that is, that the body of the male person shows that he, by reason of his very masculinity, is meant to be a"gift" he gives for others and in a unique and exclusive way for his wife, and that her body, by reason of its very femininity, is meant as a "gift" for others and in a unique and exclusive way for her husband. The Bishops explicitly invoke this teaching: "Pope John Paul IIes theology of the body speaks of the human body as having a spousal significance. This means that the human body by its very nature signifies that we humans are directed to relationship - that we are to seek union with others. For it is only in relationship that we achieve a true wholeness as a communion of persons."


The Bishops teach that love is expansive and life-giving. Marriage is both love-giving and life-giving, and children, as Gaudium et Spes declared, "are the supreme gift of marriage." True married love and the family resulting from it mean that spouses are called to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior in enriching his family with children. The Bishops note that many spouses who ardently desire to share life and love with children cannot do so because of infertility even though they can engage in the "natural act by which procreation takes place." When this happens it can be a source of disappointment and suffering for spouses who are then called to bear this cross and to love one another more deeply. The Bishops teach that spouses, after their child-rearing years have passed, ought to stay involved with their children and especially with their grandchildren for whom they can be "spiritual mentors, teachers, and wisdom figures," and they can also nurture the needy, the disabled, and the abandoned with works of justice and charity.

How Are the Two Ends Related?

These ends are inseparably related through "conjugal love," which expresses the unitive dimension of marriage "in such a way as to show how this meaning is ordered toward the equally obvious procreative meaning."

Fundamental Challenges to Marriage Today


Contraception is wrong because it violates the meaning of the marital act as one of unreserved personal gift. As John Paul II, whom the Bishops follow, said, contraception is in truth a lie because it distorts the "language of the body." The marital act is meant to speak that language, one of self-gift in a personal communion open to the gift of human life; by contracepting they make it speak a different and contrary language, one of a refusal to "give" oneself to one's spouse in that kind of personal gift.

Same-Sex Unions

While clearly teaching that homosexually inclined individuals are first and foremost human persons whose inviolable rights (e.g., not to be intentionally harmed or killed) that must be fully respected by others and by society, they unequivocally affirm that homosexual acts (sodomy etc.) are intrinsically immoral insofar as they "are contrary to the natural law…and close the sexual act to the gift of life… [nor do they] proceed from a genuine affective and sexual complementarity." The bishops teach that all persons, no matter what their sexual orientation, are required to practice the virtue of chastity.


Since God, as Jesus clearly taught, is the author of marriage and its indissolubility, divorce is simply not possible; any attempt to "remarry" once one has irrevocably consented to be a faithful spouse simply cannot dissolve the union. At times a civil divorce might be necessary for the well-being of an abused spouse and her/his children; at other times there may be good reasons for seeking a declaration of nullity. The Bishops "offer encouragement to those who have divorced and remarried civilly. Although the Church cannot recognize such subsequent unions as valid marriages, she hopes that people in this situation will participate in parish life and attend the Sunday Eucharist, even without receiving the Sacrament."

Living Together Without Marriage

The Pastoral stresses that doing this (fornicating) is a serious sin. It is not a good preparation for marriage - couples who do are more frequently divorced than those who live chastely prior to marriage, nor is it good for any children who may be born as many studies show. It is rooted in a failure to make a permanent, public commitment.


The Bishops end Part One of the Pastoral with a beautiful citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church: "The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society" (no. 2207).

Part 2: Click Here