Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

The Nature of Marriage

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 05, 2009

Many people can no longer see why marriage should be defined as an exclusive union of a man and a woman. Have you ever wondered why?

It’s because in the post-Christian west we don’t take our bodies seriously. Perhaps that sounds a bit odd considering how much we pamper our bodies and how much we strive for pleasure through our bodies. But the fact remains that, in our culture, the body is treated primarily as an instrument, not as an essential part of who we are.

In objective reality (as confirmed by the Judeo-Christian tradition), the human person is a composite being, made up of both body and soul. Thus the body is a constitutive part of who we are; indeed, it is one of two critical factors in shaping our fundamental identity. For many moderns, in contrast, the body is an instrument to be enhanced or altered as necessary, and to be used as a source of pleasure for the “real me”, who is somehow distinct from the body, who controls the body as a worker controls a machine.

This attitude goes a long way toward explaining the growing interest in such things as sex change operations, or even the insistence on the part of some that they be taken for the gender they say they “are” without reference to their physiognomy. Moreover, this same attitude toward the body as an instrument lies at the root of the separation between sex and procreation. In the modern view of recreational sex, the body is thoroughly instrumentalized. It has no meaning beyond the pleasure it gives to the participants in various sexual acts.

In reality, however, the joining of the male and female persons through the marital act is a union of both body and soul which enables the couple to more fully image God (who “created man in his own image”, “male and female he created them”). This imaging is further evidenced in the creative power of the sexual act by which the married couple, having become “two in one flesh”, is open to the creation of a new person who actually takes his own identity from the equal bodily gifts of both the father and the mother.

In this understanding of the human person as a composite of body and soul, we see clearly how ridiculous it is to talk of “marriage” between persons of the same sex. The very concept is a betrayal of what it means to be human, for it denies to the human person both his true identity and his self-understanding.

Though the problem is philosophical at root, other features of our culture tend to drive us toward this philosophical error. For example, one of the dangers of a technocratic society—which thrives on the manipulation of matter—is that it tends to get us thinking about all matter in a purely instrumental way. Our question is not, “What does this reveal?” but “How can this be manipulated to get it to do what I want it to do?” Paradoxically, instrumental control often increases at the expense of genuine understanding, at the expense of our grasp of meaning. We may know something's properties without understanding its nature. Eventually, this ignorance of the meaning of things causes things to spiral out of control later, and on an even larger scale.

A purely instrumental exploitation of the environment is another example of the same process, and may help some to see the point. In any case, the point is this: To recover a proper understanding of marriage, we must begin again to see the human person whole, to accept the entirety of our being, and to know ourselves.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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