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Spiritual Reading: The USCCB on Marriage

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Nov 20, 2009

I’ll admit that the major documents issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops have seldom impressed me. Too often they’ve read like they were drafted by a committee striving for the lowest common denominator. Sometimes this has vitiated not only their organization and readability but their moral clarity. If you share my opinion, you might think you’d be justified in ignoring the USCCB’s new pastoral letter, Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan. But you’d be wrong.

Truly Pastoral

This is a remarkable document, a truly pastoral document in the best sense of the word. It is written to be read and understood by ordinary Catholics, to inspire in them a deeper understanding not only of marriage in general but of their own marriages, which are rooted in nature, Christ and the Church.

The early news reports of a 60-page document threw me off at first. What ordinary Catholic would read 60 dense pages on marriage? But the document is 60 pages only because it is laid out in an attractive booklet with a great deal of white space. It is divided up into very manageable sections, each of which adds another facet to the jewel of understanding. The writing style is clear, clean and non-technical. The text unfolds in a comfortably logical progression, yet it remains firmly grounded in the blessings of the marriage liturgy. This is a document you can read for both spiritual enrichment and spiritual enjoyment.

It’s also a document that you should read. Marriage is under attack on every side not only in our larger culture, but in our own humdrum little lives. While it is true that we are all influenced in our attitudes toward both marriage and spouse by movies, television, the Internet and prevailing cultural attitudes toward sex and personal fulfillment, it is also true that even those who pay little attention to glamour, glitter, pornography and self can take too much for granted, slip into bad habits, and forget to mine those deep spiritual riches of marriage which alone enable us to ascend from mere romance to deepest love.

Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan is at once a refresher course, an inspired homily, a deeper exploration of marriage than you’ve ever seen in one place, and a call to turn away from false contemporary views in order to reinvigorate our culture through the vocation of marriage. It succeeds admirably on all counts. It should be required reading not only for marriage preparation but for all married couples, no matter how long their marriages have so far endured.

Marriage in the Order of Creation

The pastoral letter begins with the idea that the Creator’s “hand has inscribed the vocation to marriage in the very nature of man and woman.” From this fundamental insight it sets forth an understanding of marriage in two main sections, under the headings of the natural order (“Marriage in the Order of Creation: The Natural Institution of Marriage”) and the order of grace (“Marriage in the Order of the New Creation: The Sacrament of Matrimony”). Part One—the natural part—covers what marriage is, why male-female complementarity is essential to it, the unitive and procreative ends of marriage and their inter-relationship, and today’s fundamental challenges to marriage.

“The Church has taught through the ages,” begins Part One, “that marriage is an exclusive relationship between one man and one woman. This union, once validly entered and consummated, gives rise to a bond that cannot be dissolved by the will of the spouses. Marriage thus created is a faithful, privileged sphere of intimacy between the spouses that lasts until death.” While I could summarize the entire text, I don’t want to, because the excellence of the document (in contrast, for example, with Pope Benedict’s recent social encyclical) consists not only in what is expressed, but in the way in which it is expressed.

Instead, let me highlight just a few things that I personally had never thought of before. For example, in the discussion of male-female complementarity, the document points out that when God said “it is not good for the man to be alone” and that he should have a “helpmate” or “suitable partner”, the word used in Scripture is ezer. This word, the text informs us, is “reserved in the Bible not for inferiors but most often for God himself, who is Israel’s ‘helper’.” For me this speaks meditational volumes about the role my wife plays in our own marriage. The document also notes that “while man and woman are different, their differences serve to relate them to each other. They are not different in a parallel way, as two lines that never meet. Man and woman do not have separate destinies. They are related to each other precisely in their differences.”

In the section on the relationship between the two ends of marriage (the procreative and the unitive ends), the text says they are inseparable and that “this inseparability arises from the very nature of conjugal love, a love that ‘stands under the twofold obligation of fidelity and fecundity’.” And also, “the unitive meaning is distorted if the procreative meaning is deliberately disavowed. Conjugal love is then diminished. This love is, by its nature, faithful, exclusive, and intended to be fecund.” Later in Part Two we shall encounter the insight of St. Thomas Aquinas that the essential fecundity of marital love is an imitation of God, making man superior (in this respect) even to the angels.

Let me also note, this time by way of summary, that the fundamental challenges to marriage covered in the final section of Part One are contraception, same-sex unions, divorce, and living together without marriage. All are superbly handled.

Marriage in the Order of the New Creation

Moving on to Part Two, we find sections on the affect of original sin on married life, the restoration of marriage in Christ, marriage as a sacrament, its reflection of the life of the Trinity, the domestic Church, the marital vocation, growth in Christian marriage, growth in virtue (particularly chastity and gratitude), growth toward perfection, marriage and the Eucharist, and the fulfillment of marriage in the Kingdom of God. As in Part One, each section is just two or three pages long, and one can see clearly that they would make easy meditative steps in a program of spiritual reading—a point to which I'll return.

Stressed throughout this section is the awesome fact that marriage is a sign and a reflection of the relationship of Christ to the Church. In fact, “marriage, then, is nothing less than a participation in the covenant between Christ and the Church.” Indeed, quoting Vatican II, “fulfilling their conjugal and family role by virtue of this sacrament, spouses are penetrated with the spirit of Christ and their whole life is suffused by faith, hope and charity; thus they increasingly further their own perfection and their mutual sanctification, and together they render glory to God.”

Let me note again, for Part Two, a few points of particular interest to myself, which will serve well enough as delightful samples. Thus the subjection of the wife to the husband is properly and wonderfully explained by interpreting St. Paul at once in a cultural and a super-cultural way, connecting it to his teaching in the same passage that we must “be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.” These insights are drawn straight from John Paul II. In another sample, the document notes that to be created in the image and likeness of God means that “human beings reflect not the life of a solitary deity, but the communal life of the Trinity”, which has deep meaning for marriage and family.

I was also struck by the more practical exposition of remote, proximate, and immediate preparation for marriage (in my ignorance, I had never seen this outlined before). This places due emphasis on what children absorb early in life from the example of their parents (remote preparation) and on the virtues they form starting in adolescence as they learn to lead a fully sacramental life and begin to understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy relationships (proximate preparation).

Your Assignment

As I said above, this document makes extraordinary spiritual reading. I believe it is nothing short of spiritual dynamite. You can purchase this booklet from the USCCB or download it from their web site: Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan. Once you get it, if I might make so bold, your assignment is to spend 23 days in the course of a month reading its 23 subsections, one per day, reflecting on and praying over each section in order. The average reading will be a comfortable 2.6 pages per session. Fifteen minutes each time will work fine.

If you don’t wish to do this, of course, you should still read Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan, and you should make it your own. Moroever, if you are married, you have no legitimate choice but to take it to heart.

 


Here is my outline for using the document as spiritual reading:

  1. Introduction: The Blessing and Gift of Marriage
  2. I. What is Marriage
  3. I. Male-Female Complementarity Is Essential to Marriage
  4. I. The Two Ends or Purposes of Marriage: Unitive
  5. I. The Two Ends or Purposes of Marriage: Procreative
  6. I. How Are the Two Ends of Marriage Related?
  7. I. Fundamental Challenges to the Nature and Purpose of Marriage: 1. Contraception
  8. I. Fundamental Challenges: 2. Same-Sex Unions
  9. I. Fundamental Challenges: 3. Divorce
  10. I. Fundamental Challenges: 4. Living Together Without Marriage
  11. II. Married Life Affected by Original Sin
  12. II. Marriage Restored in Christ
  13. II. Christian Marriage as a Sacrament
  14. II. Marriage as a Reflection of the Life of the Trinity
  15. II. The Family as Domestic Church
  16. II. Marriage as a Vocation
  17. II. Growth in Christian Marriage
  18. II. Growth in Virtue (introductory section)
  19. II. Growth in Virtue: Chastity
  20. II. Growth in Virtue: Gratitude
  21. II. Growth toward Perfection
  22. II. Marriage and the Eucharist
  23. II. Marriage Fulfilled in the Kingdom of God

Note that the afterword entitled “A Commitment to Ministry” has nothing to do with the text of the document itself, but simply outlines the bishops’ goals and commitments with respect to promoting a proper understanding of marriage.

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  • Posted by: tmsharel5764 - Nov. 21, 2009 11:51 AM ET USA

    I read the document and am glad that many find it helpful. I was not pleased with the direction it went discussing divorce. The Church's first obligation is to save marriages, not direct people to tribunals for annulments, and this document, unfortunately, does that as if the Vatican has not called the situation "scandalous" in America. Divorced people are urged to reconcile: canons 1152.1, 1153.2, 1155, 1446.2, 1676, and 1695. That's reconciliation of spouses, not looking for new spouses.

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