I once spoke to a teen that wanted to convert to Catholicism. I began by asking her a question, “What does it mean to be Catholic?” Thinking I was the wise teacher and eager to guide her in the faith, I was surprised that her answer would ultimately be a source of learning for myself. She responded, “What it means to be Catholic means to be more and more who we are, who we are called to be, and to be more human.” I wonder what it would mean to the girl if I asked what it means to be married? I surmise her answer might be, “To be married means to become more and more who they were created to be, namely, to be love.”
This is the mission of the married couple. Their mission is rooted and grounded in love, the love of God for them ultimately expressed through the sacrifice of Christ. This love that is given to them through their mere creation is expressed to the world through their mutual, total, life-giving love. They are to be a reflection of Christ’s love for His Church. “And since in God’s plan it has been established as an ‘intimate community of life and love,’ the family has the mission to become more and more what it is, that is to say, a community of life and love in an effort that will find fulfillment, as will everything created and redeemed, in the kingdom of God.”
Sexual intercourse between a husband and wife is a holy expression of the sacrament itself and a reflection of the love of Christ for His Church. It is where the contract is transformed into a covenant. Sex is a renewal of their wedding vows and is a physical expression of the mystery of the two becoming one flesh. “Sexual intercourse in marriage should likewise be a renewal of the covenant the couple first made as they exchanged their promises to be faithful to each other under all circumstances. When they commune with each other in this way they can once again renew their pledge, their covenant, to take each other completely, regardless of the consequences.” Sex is the martial embrace where “the words of the weddings vows become flesh.” At their wedding they take vows of fidelity, indissolubility, and openness to children, then on their wedding night they perfect, complete, and renew these vows with their bodies as they consummate their marriage.
In discerning a vocation to either the married life or to the priesthood it is often counseled to do whatever vocation one thinks will lead to greater holiness. Holiness is the goal of both. Married life can and should lead one to greater virtue and a life dedicated to and a reflection of Christ Himself and a life that trusts in God to bring this to fruition. Pope Saint John Paul II reaffirms this call to holiness of a husband and wife saying, “In God’s plan, all husbands and wives are called in marriage to holiness, and this lofty vocation is fulfilled to the extent that the human person is able to respond to God’s command with serene confidence in God’s grace and in His or her own will.”
The Catholic Church stands in direct contrast to contemporary culture on their belief in the indissolubility of marriage. While divorce is on the rise both in and out of the Church faithful, the Church is the voice in the desert arguing for the permanence of marriage, the importance of commitment and fidelity, and opposed to divorce. “[T]he marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never by dissolved.” Marriage is grounded not in the emotionalism of the couple, not in romantic love, but rather in a conscious decision and consent at the wedding ceremony. Marriage is once and for all. The Churches teaching come directly from the words of Christ. Jesus was asked whether it was lawful to divorce for any reason. He replied:
Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator ‘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 flesh? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, no human being must separate…. I say to you, whoever divorces His wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery. (Matthew 19: 4-10)
The Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Catholic life and it is the “very source of Christian marriage…to which Christian marriage is intimately connected.”  Sacrifice is central to both. “This is my body which is given up for you.” (Luke 22:19). Christ gave His life up for the salvation of the world. To be wed to His bride, He had to sacrifice His life, and ultimately give His bride His body in the Blessed Eucharist so that we may be one with Him. When His bride receives Him into herself the Bridegroom (Christ) and the Bride (you and me) became one in communion.
Holy Matrimony also requires sacrifice as described by Paul in Ephesians 5. A man and a woman are called to sacrifice not merely “in its common connotation of enduring difficulty or of giving up something,” but rather “in its etymological meaning of making holy.” In marriage the man and the women must sacrifice themselves in order to be one with their spouse. Like Christ in the Eucharist, the couple sacrifices their bodies in sexual intercourse. Here, the bride receives the bridegroom and the two become one. John Kippley says, “It is, then, this sacramental offering of self to each other, this true sacrificial offering, that makes morally good and humanly meaningful their subsequent communion in sexual intercourse.”
In the book of Hosea, the prophet Hosea describes an off and on relationship between God and Israel. Israel is compared to an unfaithful harlot and God the faithful spouse who does not give up on the marital covenant, but rather chooses to “allure” his bride, Israel back. Hosea uses the marriage motif to describe God and his people. The love between a husband and wife is a reflection of God’s love for his people as John Paul II emphasizes, “Their bond of love becomes the image and the symbol of the covenant which unites God and his people.”
Jeremiah uses the same motif in chapter three of the book of the same name calling Israel “a harlot with many lovers”. He compares the unfaithfulness of Israel to the unfaithfulness of a wife to her husband, “And I saw that for all the adulteries of faithless Israel, I had sent her away and given her a writ of divorce, yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear; but she went and was a harlot also.” The love of God for his people finds its fulfillment in Christ. God ultimately courts his spouse back through offering himself in total, life-giving love. John Paul II says that, “The communion between God and His people find its definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ, the bridegroom who loves and gives himself as the savior of humanity, uniting it to himself as His body.”
Marriage is the “conjugal love freely and consciously chosen, whereby man and women accept the intimate community of life and love willed by God himself, which only in this light manifests its true meaning.” Christ Himself raised marriage to a Sacrament at the wedding of Cana. Christ is present at a wedding in a town called Cana. It is here at this feast that he does His first public miracle. “He performed His first miracle during the nuptial celebration at Cana at Galilee, indicting—according to the judgment of many—by that action His unique interest in and blessing upon marriage.” It is Cana that it is often cited that Christ instituted the sacrament of matrimony or at least raised it to a Sacrament. Others disagree. Theologian Francis Fiorenza argues, “One could not simply affirm that Christ instituted the sacrament of marriage, since marriage existed before Christ, indeed was present even in paradise.” Theologians during the medieval age thus argued that Christ had to confirm the sacrament rather than institute it. St. Thomas acknowledges such in the Summa Theologiae when he argues for three stages of the sacrament of matrimony: “the natural orientation before the fall, the healing institution in the Law of Moses after the fall, and finally, the institution of the New Law as a sign of the union between Christ and the Church.” St. Bonaventure argues that the Sacrament of Marriage is a part of the wisdom of nature and is common to both Old and New Testaments. It is merely confirmed by Christ and not instituted per se.
John Paul II writes in His Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio that, “The future of humanity passes by way of the family.” In reflecting upon these words I have reached the conclusion that if we want to build a better world, then we must have a network of nations committed to the principles and values of God. And, if we want to build a nation committed to the values of God, then we must work on the creation of states focused on His ways of truth and love. In order to create these states, to build a nation, to change a world, we must first have a community willing to serve their Creator and most especially their Savior. To have such a community who will engage with like-minded communities, to form loving states, that build nations committed to God, in order to effectively change our world, we must first and foremost have better families that are centered on Christ. To have such families that properly formed will change a world, it is imperative that we have better marriages that are indwelt with Christ and of which Christ radiates from. The council of Vatican II says as much, “The well-being of the person and the human and Christian society is intimately connected with the healthy state of the community of marriage and the family.” The evangelization of the world that the Church is entrusted with and commanded (Matthew 28) to do, must have the promotion of the “domestic church” as its top priority. To accomplish these goals the couples have to both be focused on Christ. They will get closer and closer to each other as they get closer and closer to Christ. But more than each running their own race towards Christ and marriage being thought of as a trio (husband, wife, Christ), it is rather as St. Augustine says, “One Christ loving Himself.”
Almost 15 years ago, before I was Catholic, I sat across a table and asked my Protestant pastor a question that would forever change my life, “What in God’s eyes defines two people as married?” Dating at the time, I wondered why one had to be married in a church, wear a ring, and say vows? Why couldn’t one be married in private between God and the couple apart from churches, pastors, friends, and witnesses? Where in the Bible did it say marriage needed to be done in such a way? My pastor’s answer astounded me. “It doesn’t.” He simply had no idea of what defined a marriage in the eyes of God. I then asked why we as Protestants do such and then I answered my own question, “It’s tradition.” Tradition! But, we don’t have tradition, we only believe what the Bible says to be true and no where does it talk about rings, vows, churches, white dresses, best men, etc. I filed this away at the time thinking I had found an inconsistency within the Protestant worldview not realizing that I had discovered a Sacrament, the Sacrament of Matrimony.
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In my working with couples preparing to be married I have discovered that while many of them know that the Church is “against” birth control, pre-maritial sex, and cohabitation, they have no idea why. They hear the Church saying, “No, no, no” but are not taught what the Church is for and what the Church is saying, “Yes, yes, yes” to. The couples seem to believe the Church is out of touch and out to lunch on these issues. And they certainly have never heard that within marriage there is an alternative that embraces the openness to life, and allows the couple to be a discerning, co-creator with God. This alternative is called Natural Family Planning (NFP).
However, one of the many reasons I give, as a male working with couples, is that Natural Family Planning is pro-women. It respects the femininity of the female and does not ask her to be something she is not. In articulating my point, I have changed the name from “Natural Family Planning” to “Organic Family Planning.” I even joke that my wife and I are “Organic Certified” and I have thoughts of producing t-shirts to wear to that effect.