The Nature of Marriage and The Family

Father Roberto Cano, FSSP 

And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them. Lk. II, 51

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen.            

bouguereau_song_of_the_angels.jpgOn this the octave day of the Epiphany, Holy Mother Church honors this day by focusing on the Holy Family of Nazareth.  For it was in the divine plan not only that the Son of God become man, but also that He grow and be nurtured by the loving care of parents, namely, under the care of St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  Due to their exalted mission as the parents of the Redeemer, St. Joseph and particularly Our Lady enjoyed great personal sanctity, and therefore serve as primary examples for both spouses and parents.  How then on such a great feast can we fail to speak about marriage and the family?

      God created marriage as we are told in the book of Genesis, “It is not good for man to be alone: let us make him a help like unto himself…Wherefore a man shall leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they shall be two in one flesh” (Gen. II, 18, 24).  Thus, in creating marriage, God created it with a certain nature/end and with specific properties.  When God creates, He creates with a divine plan and not arbitrarily.  Any attempts by individuals or secular governments to change or distort the nature of marriage are done in vain for the very author of marriage is God Himself Who does not change.              

      In essence, marriage whether we are speaking about a Christian marriage or a natural marriage, is a contract between two parties, namely, a man and a woman from which a perpetual bond is formed.  What occurs in the marriage contract can be gleaned from the following definition: “in the marriage contract a man and a woman give and accept an exclusive and perpetual right for acts which of themselves are suitable for the generation of children.”  This is true for all marriages, and therefore if any one of the parties withholds their intention to fulfill the terms of the contract, then the contract is null and void and therefore there is no marriage.  This point is fundamental to understand particularly in our day when so many couples attempt to enter into wedlock while having the intention to not generate children from their union.  What this obviously means is that these couples were never truly married, but rather were living in a state of concubinage.  And here we see the great evil that contraception and sterilization has had on marriage and the family.  Both contraception and sterilization seek to usurp the authority of God who has established the marital act solely within the confines of marriage which by definition seeks to procreate and bring forth new life.  These artificial means, however, only serve to frustrate the end of the marital act and allow the couple to take pleasure in the act itself.  Thus, making the means, that is, the marital act an end unto itself.             

     Now Christian marriage, that is marriage between the baptized, differs from natural marriage in so far that it is more than a contract, for it has been elevated to the dignity of a sacrament and therefore is an efficacious sign of grace.  The great doctor of the Church, St. Augustine, tells us that the three blessings of Christian marriage are: children, conjugal faith and the sacrament.  Upholding the traditional doctrine Pope Pius XI, in his encyclical on Christian marriage, Casti Connubii, tells us:

Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place.  And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wished to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: ‘Increase and multiply, and fill the earth’ (CC, 11).  

It should be clear then that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children.  Children are brought into this world not only to populate the world and to continue the existence of the human race, but more importantly to be worshippers of the One, True God.  In order for them to do so, however, they must be baptized to receive the gift of faith and to become members of the Mystical Body of Christ, the Catholic Church.  We know from the life of St. Joseph that to be a father simply does not mean to engage in the conjugal act and bring about new life, but rather to provide, educate and form the child that is entrusted into one’s care.  It goes without saying, that those marriages which are barren of children are no less a marriage than one which may enjoy an abundance of children.  Children are a gift from Almighty God, and it is according to His Will that He bestows the gift of life to the different couples.             

      The second blessing which St. Augustine speaks about is conjugal faith and this refers to mutual fidelity between the spouses concerning the marital act.  Since “the two become one flesh” as Sacred Scripture tells us it is impossible for the marriage contract to allow for other partners aside from one’s spouse.  In essence, we are talking about the property of marriage which we call unity.  In sacramental marriage not only are the bodies of the spouses united, but even more importantly their souls are united.  Here we see the great evil of divorce which basically condones the practice of successive polygamy and polyandry, that is, the practice of having more than one wife or husband.  Since marriage is of divine institution, it is clear that no government or civil magistrate has the power to dissolve the bond which is formed so that the interested party can form another.  Married persons have to be always vigilant of maintaining their conjugal fidelity for even a willful thought or desire can betray their marriage vows.  As Christ said, “But I say to you, that whosoever shall look on a woman to lust after her hath already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matt. V, 28).  The key, however, to remaining faithful in conjugal relations is the love one has for the other spouse.  This love must be holy and pure, not that passion filled love of lust and infatuation, but rather that love of which St. Paul speaks about, “Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the Church…So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies.  He that loveth his wife, loveth himself.  For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church” (Eph. V, 25, 28-29).  Since the love of Christ for His Bride the Church is without limits as proven by His Supreme Sacrifice on the Cross, so too must the love of a husband for his wife be without limits even unto the point of his very life.  Is it not true, dear brethren, that those moments in which conjugal fidelity is most tested are in those moments when the love of one’s spouse has lessened or become extinct?             

     The final blessing of which St. Augustine speaks about is the sacrament.  By this St. Augustine refers to that second property of marriage of indissolubility and the elevating of the marriage contract to a sacrament and therefore a source of sanctifying grace.  It is clear that marriage once validly contracted enjoys a perpetual bond that cannot be dissolved except by the death of one of the spouses.  For Christ has said, “What therefore God hath joined together, let no man put asunder…Whosever shall put away his wife and marry another, committeth adultery against her.  And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she committeth adultery” (Mk. X, 9, 11-12).  Indeed, the marriage union of the baptized recalls the perfect union which exists between Christ and the Church.  Archbishop Fulton Sheen would remind couples preparing for marriage that it takes “three to get married.”  How true this is particularly of Christian marriage where God must be at the center!  Although, marriage does not confer a character like baptism, confirmation and holy orders, it does confer sacramental graces continuously to the married couple.  These graces are granted so that the spouses can better fulfill their duties of state.  In the words of Pius XI:

The faithful once joined by marriage ties can never be deprived of the help and the binding force of the sacrament…the grace of matrimony will remain for the most part an unused talent hidden in the field unless the parties exercise these supernatural powers and cultivate and develop the seeds of grace they have received.  If, however, doing all that lies within their power, they cooperate diligently, they will be able with ease to bear the burdens of their state and to fulfill their duties (CC, 41). 

All too often Catholic married couples with the passing of the years forget that their marriage is a sacramental marriage.  They forget that God is at the center and willing to assist them in their duties if they seek His assistance.  Instead, they live their marriage as two persons who at one point in their lives fell in love.  They should then hear the counsel of St. Raphael to Tobias, “Hear me, and I will show thee who they are, over whom the devil can prevail.  For they who in such manner receive matrimony, as to shut out God from themselves, and from their mind, and to give themselves to their lust, as the horse and mule, which have not understanding, over them the devil hath power” (Tob. VI, 16-17).  A Christian marriage without God is a contradiction of terms and is destined to fail.  Is it any wonder then that in such marriages the devil has already triumphed?            

      This lengthy discussion on marriage brings us to our last point which is the family.  The family is built upon the indissoluble bond of marriage and is the foundation for every culture and nation.  The Fathers of the Church when speaking about the family often called it the “domestic church.”  This is because of the similarities between the two divinely constituted institutions.  Just as the Church has a hierarchical structure with the different members fulfilling specific offices, so does the family have a hierarchical structure with different offices.  Today, however, this reality is often hidden or denied as a result of the emasculation of the male gender and the subsequent loss of authentic femininity in the female gender.  What am I speaking about?  I am speaking about the current crisis in many families where the father and the mother have reversed roles.  Although there are several factors that have caused this crisis, a large part of the problem is the great deception of our modern culture which states that there is no difference between the genders.  But this is completely absurd!  On a physical, emotional and psychological level men and women are different and in fact it is these differences which the other gender compliments.  The sacred text is clear, “male and female he created them” (Gen. I, 27).  Thus, we should realize that the family has been created by God with a certain structure in which the father is to fulfill certain specific duties that are in accord with his nature and likewise with the mother.  The father is the head and it is his principal duty to provide and protect his family.  The mother for her part is subject to her husband not as a slave or servant, but at his loving companion and it is her duty to nurture the children and tend to the upkeep of the home.  Now there may be some among the congregation who might be tempted to scoff and say, “Father that might be true for some families, but in mine it simply isn’t the case because of…”  While there might be legitimate reasons for both parents to work and aid one another in their specific roles, nevertheless, the structure of the family does not change regardless of the circumstances.  The father is the father and the mother is the mother!  And lest we forget the role of children, the children are to follow the example of Our Blessed Lord who was subject to both St. Joseph and the Blessed Virgin.  They should recognize that in their obedience to their parents they are obeying the Will of God in their lives.  For all paternity on earth is a share in the paternity of the God the Father and therefore to obey one’s father is to obey one’s Heavenly Father.             

     We return once again to the Holy Family and see that the great secret of their sanctity was living their ordinary lives in an extraordinary manner.  We cannot fail to forget that Christ chose to spend the majority of His life hidden as the son of the carpenter, but even then He remained the Redeemer of the world.  By this example He shows us that we are called to live our Catholic faith in our different states of life and that there is not a task so menial or trivial that escapes the sight of God.  “Everything is grace” to put it in the words of St. Therese of the Child Jesus and so we cannot overlook our duties as an obstacle to our sanctification, but rather the means to our sanctification.  So often in our day we complain about the lack of peace in the world, but do we realize that peace begins in the home.  Peace, as St. Augustine, tells us is the tranquility of order.  The question which remains is: Do we follow the order God has established in our marriages and our families?  If the answer is no, then is there any wonder why there is unrest in the hearts of the spouses and the children?  As a priest I cannot fail to exhort the families of the parish to pray and to pray together.  You have certainly heard it said, “The family that prays together, stays together.”  For when a family is praying together then not only is it obeying the command of the Lord, but also petitioning for the help the family needs to support the weaknesses of its members.  Dear brethren, if we are praying in our families and seeking to follow the order which God has established in our families then we will be like that wise man in the Gospel who built his house upon the rock so that when the rains and floods came it did not fall.  But if we are failing to pray and follow the divine order established by God then we will be like the foolish man who built his house upon sand.  As the Scripture says, “the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and they beat upon that house, and it fell, and great was the fall thereof” (Mt. VII,. 27)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost Amen.

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