Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Christian Marriage: a Covenant of Love and Life

by Cardinal Bernard Law


Pastoral Letter by Cardinal Law, Archbishop of Boston, on marriage, issued on March 25, 1998.

Publisher & Date

Daughters of St. Paul, 1998

Christian Marriage

A Covenant of Love and Life



A. The Sacrament of Matrimony in the One Communion of the Church

B. A New Emphasis on Marriage and Family

C. Our Present Circumstances

D. What Does the Church Teach about Marriage


A. Pastoral Care before Marriage
1. Remote Preparation
2. Proximate Preparation
3. Immediate Preparation

B. Pastoral Care after Marriage
1. Supporting Families
2. Supporting Parents in Their Responsibilities

C. Pastoral Care in Difficult Situations
1. Supporting the Marital Bond during Difficulties
2. Separation
3. Divorce
4. Civil Remarriage



The several vocations to holiness that flourish within the Church of Christ together form one communion of charity. Because the office of bishop entails teaching and governing, it is incumbent on the pastor of the particular Church to offer guidance about the means of sanctification to the many men and women who pursue the call to holiness within the communion of persons that is marriage as well as to the ordained, the consecrated men and women, and the single persons who reside in his diocese. This pastoral letter, then, is addressed to every baptized person and catechumen in the Archdiocese, but especially to those who are joined in marriage. On Christ's own authority, the Church confesses that the bond of marriage constitutes an authentic sacrament of the New Covenant between the baptized husband and wife.

The Second Vatican Council reminded us that "the well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life."[1] Since it reveals both the plan and design of the Creator for the development of the human race, marriage affects everyone. So that the common good, which includes citizens of whatever religious affiliation or none, might flourish, the Church desires that everyone discover the full truth about marriage. For this reason, it remains my hope that this pastoral letter will also interest those who, though outside the Catholic Church, still share her convictions concerning the dignity and importance of the institution of marriage. The Catholic Church recognizes the legitimate unions of baptized non-Catholics as sacramental marriages, and of non-baptized persons as valid natural marriages. The Church then joins with all persons of good will to defend the full and proper implications that derive from the great truth of human life that man and woman were created for one another.

A. The Sacrament of Matrimony in the One Communion of the Church

"This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church" (Eph 5:32). Each time I return to this passage from the Letter to the Ephesians, the profound simplicity of what the Church professes concerning the "great" sacrament of Matrimony moves me. How can one not be struck by the fact that the New Testament compares what transpires between husband and wife to the love that unites Christ himself to the Church? The indivisible unity of conjugal communion—"and the two shall become one" (Eph 5:31)—and its proper expression in married love represent in an incarnate way the worldwide ecclesial communion of Christ with his Body in this life. At the same time, marriage points the Church toward her final goal, that of an ultimate communion of love with God in heaven—the wedding feast of the Lamb (cf. Rev 19:6-8). The liturgical prayers used in the wedding ceremony make it plain that married love, like consecrated virginity or celibacy, foretells the heavenly marriage of Christ with the Church: "Father, to reveal the plan of your love, you made the union of husband and wife an image of the covenant between you and your people. In the fulfillment of this sacrament, the marriage of Christian man and woman is a sign of the marriage between Christ and the Church."[2]

My Pastoral Letter to the People of the Archdiocese of Boston in 1994 treated the unity of Christ and the Church as the basis for Christian witness. All the baptized are called to pursue holiness, to follow Christ as disciples. We know that, because of our baptism, we are united already with the One whom we love and seek. Now as we approach the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, I want to bring before you the substance of the Church's teaching on the sacrament of Matrimony. At this juncture in the Church's mission, many circumstances of American culture, not all of them happy ones, compel me to address you further on this "special sacrament" of Matrimony.[3] It remains my strongest desire that every Christian enter confidently into the spirit of the millennial celebration. As we prepare together for the Great Jubilee, let this prayer spring up in our hearts: "Holy Spirit, Spirit of truth, lead each member of the Archdiocese into a new experience of Christian faith, so that all of us might love God more." Each of us, then, should embrace more fully the mystery to which St. Paul pointed when he wrote to the faithful at Philippi: "To live is Christ" (Phil 1:21).

Because the majority of Christ's faithful members live out their vocation to holiness as married persons, the Church is committed to providing special pastoral care for those in the married state. The Church's profound solicitude for married persons arises not simply because most Catholics are called to the married state, but flows from the very nature of Christian marriage. In speaking with married couples and especially with young persons preparing for marriage, it is helpful to remind them of this phrase from the Second Vatican Council: "Authentic married love is caught up into divine love."[4] Because she wants to ensure that every man and woman, created by God, might serve him without fear, and live with him in holiness and righteousness all the days of their life (cf. Lk 1:74-75), the Church has always displayed a marked attentiveness to the sacrament of Matrimony. Indeed, she must do so, for this sacrament remains the sign of her living unity with the Lord.

The Church watches over the sacrament of Matrimony for another reason. It concerns the fact that Christian marriages ground the well-being of the whole Church. Marriage of course establishes a community of persons: the family. When sound instruction on Christian marriage and proper esteem for conjugal love no longer inform a society, then the other vocations in the Church suffer a decline in their spiritual vigor and, consequently, also in their numbers. In other words, in order that the Church might daily manifest herself through many different human expressions of God's own love, the whole ecclesial community depends on Christian marriage.

The Church cannot exist without ordained priests, without men and women who follow Christ in institutes of consecrated life, or without married persons. Still, my purpose in pointing out the relationship between marriage and the other vocations is not simply a pragmatic one. The Church embodies a culture of grace, not an office of management, and a bishop's primary interest remains the sanctification of his people, not ecclesiastical administration. We know, moreover, from the New Testament, that true holiness of life comes only from living in union with God. Jesus himself teaches us that his Father invites everyone to dwell with the Persons of the Blessed Trinity in a true friendship of grace. Because of the reciprocity that any form of friendship necessarily entails, each vocation in the Church exhibits its own distinctive form of spousal love. As the New Testament makes plain, Christ is the Bridegroom who invites every member of the Church to join his "marriage supper" (Rev 19:9). We prepare ourselves for this banquet, which here below is celebrated in the Eucharist, by a constant life of love lived in accordance with divine truth.

Marriage of course reveals the form of spousal love in a particularly tangible way. From the very beginning, the Church has celebrated the graced friendship that makes spousal love between a man and woman unique. The Christian writer Tertullian wrote to the third-century Church in North Africa: "How wonderful the bond between two believers, now one in hope, one in desire, one in discipline, one in the same service!"[5] We learn, then, that married persons teach others in the Church how to fulfill the great commandment of love. In fact, we discover among Christian spouses the first realization of what spousal love requires inasmuch as the love of husband and wife discloses what every member of the Church aims to attain in his or her relationship with God. No human being can love God just a little; rather each one of us is bound by divine command to love him with our whole heart, soul, mind and with all our strength (cf. Lk 10:27).

There is still something else that needs to be said about the relationship of marriage to the other vocations that make up the life of the Church. The Catholic tradition has always affirmed that human sexuality is good. It is a great gift given by the Creator. Because of this very goodness, Christ calls some women and men to a renunciation of married love for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. We are blessed in the Archdiocese of Boston with the presence of many kinds of consecrated persons—consecrated virgins, cloistered nuns, religious sisters and brothers, and members of secular institutes—whose lives keep the transfigured Christ present among us, insofar as they "deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it" (I Cor 7:31). Their individual and corporate witness through poverty, chastity and obedience makes us more aware of the mystery of marriage, since each member of Christ's Body also awaits the day of the Lord, when Christ will come again in glory and make all things new. The celibate dedication and chaste lives of our priests also contribute to this Gospel witness. In this Archdiocese and throughout the world, priests and bishops, by their commitment to chaste celibacy, daily announce not only with their lips but also through their lives that, as the Eucharistic liturgy reminds us, "Christ will come again." Like chaste conjugal love, chaste celibacy is a sign that God wants to increase holiness among his people.

B. A New Emphasis on Marriage and Family

The Second Vatican Council spoke insistently about the Church's duty to promote the dignity of marriage and the family.[6] More recently, the post-conciliar Magisterium of Pope John Paul II has richly interpreted the Council's teaching, reminding us that the conjugal love of a man and a woman proclaims the same saving message that we hear each Sunday at Mass: "God loves his people."[7] For my own part, I remain deeply grateful for the constant references to marriage and the family in the Magisterium of Pope John Paul II, and I pray that each spouse, consecrated person and priest will come to realize the tremendous urgency attached to the Pope's instructions on married love. As pastor of the universal Church, the Holy Father has taught us about the special virtues that distinguish each vocation to holiness, but his detailed instruction on "conjugal chastity" will be celebrated as one of the great achievements of this Pontificate.[8] The practice of "conjugal chastity" requires husband and wife to ensure that their expressions of married love always respect the full truth about marriage. The Holy Father is bold enough to say that when spouses observe the requirements of chaste love, their conjugal union becomes an icon of the Blessed Trinity.

It is helpful to recall these words of Pope John Paul II which aptly summarize his and the Church's understanding of Matrimony as a sacrament of salvation: "The spouses participate in [marriage] as spouses, together, as a couple, so that the first and immediate effect of marriage (res et sacramentum) is not supernatural grace itself, but the Christian conjugal bond, a typically Christian communion of two persons because it represents the mystery of Christ's Incarnation and the mystery of his covenant. The content of participation in Christ's life is also specific: conjugal love involves a totality, in which all the elements of the person enter— appeal of the body and instinct, power of feeling and affectivity, aspiration of the spirit and of will. It aims at a deeply personal unity, the unity that, beyond union in one flesh, leads to forming one heart and soul; it demands indissolubility and faithfulness in definitive mutual giving; and is open to fertility (cf. Humanae Vitae, 9), In a word, it is a question of the normal characteristics of all natural conjugal love, but with a new significance which not only purifies and strengthens them, but raises them to the extent of making them the expression of specifically Christian values."[9] We should not be surprised that the chaste love practiced by husband and wife is so intimately connected with the word of salvation that God addresses to his people. Our communion with God finds its definitive fulfillment in Jesus Christ. By the Incarnation of his Son, God has so sanctified all creation that nothing authentically human can be estranged from the power of God's transforming love.

Last year, the Holy Father enrolled St. Therese of the Child Jesus among the recognized Doctors of the Church, thereby placing her spiritual doctrine on a par with the great Catholic teachers of antiquity. Therese's Gospel-inspired doctrine of spiritual childhood, her "Little Way," reminds us that by coming into the world as a man God has sanctified the ordinary, everyday events of human life. What is more, the Little Flower of Lisieux exhorts each one of us to embrace with love the divine Child who was born in Bethlehem almost two thousand years ago, and to find in him the source of our spiritual equilibrium. We should not forget that the Son of God chose to enter our human history as a child. He became part of a true family, the family established by Mary and Joseph in Nazareth, and so consecrated "one of the greatest goods belonging to the human race."[10]

Therese's "Little Way" invites everyone to practice contemplative prayer. All Christians, then, but especially married couples along with their families, should set aside time to contemplate the mystery of the Holy Family. Through contemplative prayer, we come to a renewed appreciation of the divine providence that makes a human project like marriage a place of deep and sanctifying grace. Pope John Paul II attaches the highest importance to this contemplation. "The family," he said during his 1995 visit to New York, "is at the center of the mission of the Church and of its solicitude for humanity."[11]

C. Our Present Circumstances

The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council taught that the health and well-being of marriage and the family profoundly affect not only the flourishing of human society but also the unfolding of the Church's mission of salvation.[12] These words have taken on a prophetic meaning during the past thirty years. Many of us have observed, sadly, an increasing number of irregular situations with respect to marriage.[13] These include so-called trial marriages, free unions that are recognized neither by the Church nor the state, Catholics in civil marriages, and divorced persons who have civilly remarried. To every person in these circumstances, as well as to Catholics who are separated or divorced, but who have not remarried, I reach out with a shepherd's heart, and pledge the spiritual resources of the Archdiocese of Boston to help you find your place in the Church and to meet the responsibilities that your present state in life requires.

News about some annulments has prompted widespread public discussion on the Church's process for making a judgment that something essential was lacking in the initial constitution of a marriage. It is, however, my firm conviction that what really is at issue in these exchanges is the Church's profession of faith, based on Christ's own teaching (cf. Mk 10:11-12), that sacramental marriages are indissoluble.[14] The disheartening fact is that many persons no longer believe that it is possible to construct a civilization of love, and so they fall into a practical despair that constantly urges them to seek compromises and accommodations instead of relying on the help of the Lord. Like the culture of death that threatens the good of human life, the widespread acceptance of the culture of divorce aggressively undermines love as a principle and power of communion, and threatens the right of married persons to pursue happiness with one another.

Because God has entrusted to the Church responsibility for the well-being of marriage, it is incumbent on the pastors of the Church to teach the full truth about marriage. Again, my office as bishop obliges me to "state to everyone the plan of God for marriage and family in order to safeguard its full vigor and advancement both in a human and a Christian sense."[15] My pastoral responsibility for the Church of Boston further obliges me to ensure that the full truth about marriage informs all those who contribute in so many important ways to helping married couples fulfill their vocation. The Church first of all exhorts priests, who are established as co-workers of the episcopal order, to provide pastoral care for married persons and their families. This feature of our priestly ministry forms an essential dimension of the New Evangelization, the Church-wide effort launched by Pope John Paul II to convert secular culture. The presence of the Church's ordained minister at the wedding ceremony not only meets a juridical requirement, but it also gives liturgical expression to the truth that when Christian believers marry, the risen Christ enters into their lives in a distinctive way.

D. What Does the Church Teach about Marriage?

The short definition found in the Code of Canon Law expresses well what the Catholic Church teaches about marriage: "The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament."[16] It is important to consider the principal elements of this official text.

First, the matrimonial covenant. What effectively binds husband and wife together are the sacred promises that they have exchanged. By these promises, the man and woman express before witnesses that they give themselves freely to each other, and the Church considers that this consent makes the marriage. The subject of consent brings us to a crucial element of the Church's teaching on matrimony: once made, if they are duly made, the promises constitute a mutual personal commitment that remains independent of subsequent changes in subjective feelings about it. Any suggestion that the Church could change what Christ himself teaches about the indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage—what we call the sacramentality of marriage—and accept the judgment of civil divorce fails to appreciate the intention of the Creator that marriage forms a life-long covenant.[17] This disposition of divine wisdom for the marriage bond proclaims and consecrates the value of fidelity in human life. When spouses remain faithful to each other, they fulfill both the vocation and the commandment embodied in the sacrament of marriage, and demonstrate a generous obedience to the Lord's holy will: "What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder" (Mt 19:6).

Second, the good of spouses. "It is not good that the man should be alone" (Gen 2:18). The indissolubility of marriage is not simply a matter of Church discipline, but is required by the very nature of conjugal love. The Church blesses the love of the spouses. This means that a most human way of living, grounded in the biological and emotional structure of male and female, entered into when the partners commit themselves to one another, is accepted in its complex existential reality as sacramental. Pope John Paul II speaks about the nuptial meaning of the body. This phrase brilliantly suggests that the plan of the Creator, not to mention his actual design, commits the affective union of the spouses, by which they constitute a communion of persons, to the service of procreation. God ordained that sexual pleasure should knit together no other kind of friendship than the chaste love that unites husband and wife.

Third, the procreation and education of children. "Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves."[18] Christian marriage brings a sense of being fully human, which is consummated in a special way in parenthood. Children, moreover, are experienced as a gift, since the partners in marriage cannot account for this superabundance of life as coming from themselves. This means that parents are cooperators in God's very own creative power. Only God can create a human person, one who is destined to live with him forever. This gift comes from the Spirit of life, the creator God who can shape human history because he called the universe and all those who dwell in it out of nothing. Whatever good happens in the Church flows from the working of the Holy Spirit, and married couples receive an outpouring of his sevenfold gifts, so that their hearts remain pure and full of love.

Contraceptive practices, which effectively serve to sterilize the act of sexual union, disfigure the love between husband and wife because their inherent unchastity corrupts the human good of the married couple, lessening their ability to practice conjugal charity and the other virtues indispensable for leading a happy married life. Still, the Church encourages the practice of responsible parenthood. I want to commend in a special way the many persons in the Archdiocese who offer help to married people, especially all those who assist couples to learn the appropriate methods for natural family planning. Many married couples have expressed their profound gratitude for instruction about natural family planning, and have offered personal testimony to the benefits that its practice has brought to their mutual love. Our Archdiocesan health care, social, and pastoral services, especially the Office of Family Life, aid married couples in the work proper to their vocation, namely, the bearing and rearing of children, and so provide an indispensable contribution to the Church's mission to promote Christian parenthood. We also aim to extend loving support to unwed mothers who require assistance in bringing new life into the world.[19] In all these areas, the Church points the way toward strengthening the civilization of love against whatever may threaten it.

Because the conjugal union is itself sacramental, the theological tradition of the Western Church considers the partners themselves to be the celebrants of Matrimony. This explains why the Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about the bride and groom as "the ministers of the sacrament of Matrimony."[20] When two baptized members of Christ enter into the married way of life, a way that reveals Christ's saving power active at the very sources of human life, then we behold a striking example of the Church as a sacrament of the Blessed Trinity. The communion of persons that flourishes in marriage reminds us of the broader communion that unites the whole Church. For this reason, the Church encourages us to think of the family as a "domestic church," the church of the home.

The Church affirms that marriage offers in some outstanding way the possibility for grace, and this offer constitutes something specific within the universal call to holiness that every Catholic enjoys. Just as marriage provides a special context for the practice of Christian love, so also does it establish a specific environment for prayer. Every Christian vocation flourishes only when the believer unites heart and mind to God in prayer. In the case of married Christians, their prayer together strengthens not only each partner's relationship with God, but also their union with one another. One practice that the experience of many married persons shows to be particularly beneficial is the custom of saying the family rosary. Prayerful reading together of the Sacred Scriptures also helps to unite couples and families with the saving mysteries of the life, death and resurrection of Christ.

The prayer of a married couple opens their hearts to God and his gifts. There is a grace that is proper to the sacrament of Matrimony. This grace comes as a freely bestowed gift from God that helps married couples even, and indeed especially, when a man and wife are called to embrace hardships and sufferings. The witness of many married couples reveals, moreover, that marriage and family life offer many opportunities to practice the virtues of patience, constancy and long-suffering. Put otherwise, married persons possess unique opportunities to embrace the cross of Christ. To the extent that human possibilities and dilemmas, not only the married couple's joys but also their reverses, remain subordinated to the promise of fidelity, then the conjugal union, the "one flesh" of marriage, serves as a source of sanctifying grace. Like every grace, the grace of Matrimony brings the married couple, together with their children, to greater maturity in the Lord. Christ's redemptive work restores marriage to its pristine ideal, making the original unity between man and woman once more available in a world that is marked but not dominated by sin. To the extent that husband and wife embrace Christ, their Christian virtues perfect, without opposing, the normal course of human development.

The Church defends the indissolubility of marriage. Faithful to the Lord's own command (cf. Mt 19:6), she does not allow human authority to sunder what God has joined. Why? God promises to remain faithful to the alliance that his Son has sanctified by the blood of his cross. In a beautiful passage, the Catechism of the Catholic Church concludes that the "...grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life."[21] Christ himself commits us to the indissolubility of marriage. Christ also makes the sacrament an abiding source of strength and grace for both husband and wife. This sustaining grace is given through the power of the Holy Spirit, the invisible Guest of souls, who initiates and upholds every form of fruitfulness in the Church.

Each Sunday throughout the Archdiocese, we confess that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. Now during the present year of 1998, the Church turns with special devotion to the Person of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete or Counselor, who instructs us about the things of God. We move one step further in our spiritual preparation for the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. The Holy Father tells us that the Jubilee is meant to celebrate a singular moment of forgiveness and reconciliation in the Church. With an eye toward the Jubilee, I want to remind everyone that the Church offers pastoral care to each one of her members. In imitation of the Good Shepherd who leaves the ninety-nine in order to seek out what is lost, the Church shows special solicitude for those who find themselves in difficult situations. No person, then, should ever assume that he or she stands beyond the embrace of Christ's love.


A. Pastoral Care before Marriage

The Church's concern about sound marriage preparation flows from her care for those who have been called by God to live out the sacrament of Matrimony. The horizons of marriage preparation have broadened over the past century. This has been occasioned by developments in theology concerning marriage, as well as cultural factors that have led to an escalation of divorce rates around the world.[22] In addition to satisfying the canonical issues regarding an individual's freedom to marry, this preparation is meant to instill in the engaged couple a deeper knowledge of the mystery of Christ and the Church. It is an opportunity to educate the couple in the responsibilities of Christian marriage and to prepare them for a proper celebration of the marriage ritual. Marriage preparation programs have as their principal objective the future marital happiness of engaged couples.

An essential objective of marriage preparation is a clear instruction on Church doctrine on marriage. Instructors emphasize the theology of marriage, the spousal and parental responsibilities flowing from the sacrament, and moral norms regarding Christian parenthood. Marriage preparation's ultimate goal is to prepare the couple in an informed manner regarding the nature of marriage, as well as to instill in them a desire to enter actively into the community of Catholic faith as married persons.

The Church is concerned with promoting the matrimonial state within the total life of the Church. She achieves this promotion through the proper education of children, youth and adults, those about to be married and those already married. Marriage preparation is an integral dimension of evangelization, catechesis and pastoral action, that is both a gradual and continuous process.[23] It is customary to distinguish three stages: remote, proximate and immediate preparation.[24]

/. Remote Preparation

First, remote marriage preparation begins even in early childhood. Unfortunately the many negative influences present in our culture, propagated especially through the communication media, make proper education in Catholic morality a difficult challenge. Since parents are especially influential at this stage, it falls to fathers and mothers to take an active role in forming the moral conscience of their children. They aid their children in the development of self-awareness and facilitate the skills necessary for future interpersonal relationships. Parents are to be especially concerned for a child's spiritual and catechetical formation, as it is the basis from which a child will choose a vocation in life. It is above all through the Catholic witness of their parents that children learn and experience the value of genuine marital love.

2. Proximate Preparation

Proximate marriage preparation involves a specific preparation for the sacrament. This type of preparation concerns all young people, and so commences even before there is a serious intention of marriage. It involves parents as well as those in the parish responsible for catechetical instruction. For this preparation to succeed, it is crucial that the Church provide both parents and their teenage children with adequate catechesis which includes proper instruction about marriage.

The Church views the proximate preparation for marriage as a continuation of a child's initial catechetical instruction. During this period, young people should gain an awareness that an interpersonal relationship between a man and a woman continually develops throughout marriage. This preparation also includes education in essential biological knowledge, conjugal sexuality and responsible parent-hood. Preparation of this sort should introduce individuals to the basic requisites for a well-ordered family life, specifically, "stable work, sufficient financial resources, sensible administration, notions of housekeeping."[25] Clearly, then, the basics of marriage preparation cannot be left to the time when a firm commitment to marriage already has been made and wedding arrangements occupy the attention of the couple.

It is a source of edification that so many individuals in the Archdiocese have agreed to shoulder responsibility for this proximate preparation. Whether at home, school, or in parish religious education programs, the dedicated efforts of teachers nurture a young person's Catholic appreciation of marriage. Over time, their educational commitment will foster the future growth of strong families.

3. Immediate Preparation

There is also the immediate preparation for the sacrament. This is to take place in the months prior to the celebration of the wedding. In this Archdiocese, priests and deacons are instructed to begin this form of preparation at least six months prior to the wedding. The canonical investigation regarding each individual's freedom to marry must be completed. Immediate preparation affords an opportunity to educate the couple in the responsibilities of Christian marriage and to prepare them for a proper celebration of the marriage ritual. It is meant to instill in the engaged couple a deeper knowledge of how marriage reflects the mystery of Christ and the Church, as described in the first part of this letter.

The essential objective of this preparation is to ensure the engaged couple's understanding and acceptance of the Church's teaching on marriage. Specifically, this includes the theology of marriage, the meaning of the wedding ceremony, and the spousal and parental responsibilities inherent in the sacrament. Instruction about natural family planning should form an indispensable part of this stage. The ultimate goal of immediate preparation is to instruct the couple, as the ministers of the sacrament, regarding the nature of marriage. This preparation is also meant to instill in them a desire to enter into the apostolic works of the local Church. They are reminded to live out actively their vocation in the parish. Engaged couples should be helped to understand that Archdiocesan requirements for marriage preparation have been instituted to help ensure happy and lasting marriages.

It is incumbent upon the engaged couple to avail themselves of marriage preparation. The seriousness of the marital commitment requires the fulfillment of this moral obligation. Again, we should remember that the bride and the groom are considered the ministers of the sacrament. As such, they should do all in their power to prepare for a sacramental life of marital love. To enter into marriage without availing themselves of all that the community offers to them would be careless and imprudent. To act in such a way constitutes a kind of injustice to themselves, their future children, and the integrity of the sacrament.

What responsibility does the Archdiocese have to ensure that couples are adequately prepared to live the sacrament to its fullest? In the pastoral reflection, To Live in Christ Jesus, the bishops of the United States addressed this question when they wrote: "Since the following of Christ calls for so much dedication and sacrifice in the face of strong, contrary social pressures, Christ's Church has a serious obligation to help his followers live up to the challenge. In worship, pastoral care, education, and counseling we must assist husbands and wives who are striving to realize the ideal of Christ's love in their lives together and with their children."[26] We fulfill this responsibility in the Archdiocese on the parish level through the dedicated work of married persons, parish priests, deacons and all those who contribute time and experience to parochial marriage preparation efforts. Furthermore, the Archdiocesan Family Life Office supports the preparation of many couples from all the parishes with Marriage Preparation and Engaged Couples Workshops. Their generous labors help strengthen the bonds of ecclesial life in the Archdiocese of Boston.

B. Pastoral Care after Marriage

7. Supporting Families

After a wedding has taken place each member of the Church is called to assist a married couple in living out their vocation. Support must focus on the holiness of family life as a sign of God's grace given to the couple by virtue of the sacrament. Marital love embodies a witness of divine love to the Church.[27] The obligations of the community to assist the couple do not cease on the wedding day. Since the family, the Church in miniature, forms the foundation of the Church at large, every member of the Church is to lend support to married persons. The Archdiocese assists in this by offering support through parishes and its central administration, which can supply information on such programs as Marriage Encounter, Retrouvaille, and World Marriage Day. In addition, we can point to the countless quiet examples of Christian faithful, including single persons, widows and widowers, who express their love for Christ by assisting families in good times and bad.

2. Supporting Parents in Their Responsibilities

The Church always pays special attention to the needs of parents and children. Above all, the Church reminds the world that children are a gift from God. Because the dignity of each human person is bestowed by God alone, no one enjoys the authority to manipulate human procreation. Concern for what one might call "human ecology" is the foundation for and so takes precedence over all other forms of ecological interests. Procreation and education are linked by reason of the specific nature of the human child, who requires not only physical care but also moral instruction. All parents are ultimately responsible to provide for the education of their children. This includes a child's physical, moral, intellectual and religious upbringing. Catholic parents participate in the teaching office of the Church. They have the primary right and responsibility to ensure the Christian education of their children.[28] This education begins in the home through the word and example of parents.[29]

As children move out of the home and into school, teachers come to the assistance of parents, helping to ensure their proper Catholic education.[30] In the Archdiocese of Boston, we have made Catholic education a priority. We know that only an intellectual formation grounded in the truth about God readies a child to fulfill both his or her vocation in the Church and role as a citizen. For many parents, the cost of providing Catholic education constitutes a burden and so requires sacrifices that otherwise would not be required of them. Equity urges that our political leaders work together to provide relief for those taxpayers of the Commonwealth who want to fulfill their obligations as both citizens and Catholics. The right of parents to educate their children in accord with their moral and religious principles is commanded by the natural law and has been recognized as part of the history of our institutions. Granted the need to provide for all the citizens of the Commonwealth, I urge our civil authorities to enact legislation that will favor, not impinge upon, the exercise of this natural right. It is evident that all the needs of our citizens can be provided for under a system of tuition vouchers. These, moreover, should not be construed as government support of religion, but as providing direct relief for parents to meet their solemn obligations in providing for the education of their children.

Even when proper instruction is provided for their children, parents still enjoy the primary right and responsibility to ensure the catechetical instruction and sacramental preparation of their children. Since they have taken responsibility to have their children baptized, they are also responsible for introducing them to the liturgical prayer life of the Church. The parents' role in the sacramental lives of their children is pivotal, particularly in regard to a child's preparation for Penance, Eucharist and Confirmation. To cite only the most obvious examples, parents must accompany children to Sunday Mass, instruct them in the proper manner of participation in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and remind them, both by word and example, of the importance of the sacrament of Penance for their spiritual growth. As the sacrament of Christian maturity, Confirmation marks a special moment for both parents and their children, a moment when the young adult joins his or her parents as fully public members of the Catholic communion. When the responsibility for instructing children in the faith is borne by only one parent, the parish community should be especially alert to the needs of this father or mother.

The Archdiocese supports parents in the fulfillment of these parental responsibilities through the Office of Religious Education, the Catholic School Office, and the Office of Family Life. These offices assist those who provide services at the parish level. Because the total well-being of our children depends on the quality of their religious instruction, no task is more urgent nowadays than the promotion of complete catechetical programs. The Catechism of the Catholic Church is the norm against which every form of catechetical instruction should be evaluated, and ensures that all the baptized are instructed in what belongs to the full deposit of faith.

C. Pastoral Care in Difficult Situations

The fundamental and innate vocation of every person is to love God above all things, and our neighbor as our self. The mutual love of husband and wife is to mirror, in human terms, the unfailing love that God bestows on us. At the same time, because it belongs to the order of creation, marriage is also affected by sin. In fact, the first sin resulted in the rupture of the original communion between the first man and woman,[31] To this day the marital union may be "...threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation."[32] These sins, which flourish in a culture of self-indulgence, lead to marital difficulties, separation, divorce and civil remarriage. Against every disordered preference in favor of the individual, the Church holds up the example of Christ who came to offer his life in sacrifice so that all God's children might be gathered into one family.

1. Supporting the Marital Bond during Difficulties

All families at times may be troubled with difficulties. In some cases, these may be severe, such as when drug or alcohol abuse or physical violence occurs within families. Some families may be left homeless due to economic circumstances. Marital discord may emerge between spouses, or conflicts between parents and children. In these circumstances and others the Church reaches out in prayer and charity.[33] In some instances resources are available at the parish level, such as parish support groups or individual pastoral care, whereas in other cases Archdiocesan agencies, such as Catholic Charities, Caritas Christi, and the Family Life Office, offer assistance with further professional services.

In all circumstances the Church stands ready to respond to the needs of families in crisis. Because the Church reveres families as "domestic churches," all in the Archdiocese who assist couples when marital difficulties arise should regard their work as true participation in the love that Christ has for the Church. Above all, those in such situations should not, as sometimes happens, suffer intolerably in secret with a sense of guilt or shame. Seek the counsel and support of others, and know the love that God has for you, that love whose name is Divine Mercy.

2. Separation

In some extraordinary instances spouses may have legitimate cause to separate from one another while still maintaining the marital bond.[34] Actions of a spouse that are seriously disruptive of married life may be legitimate reasons to separate. In certain circumstances, adultery may be a reason to separate; a spouse may also find a just cause to end common life when the other party constitutes a danger to her or him, or the children.

A separation does not affect the indissolubility of the marital bond. Although the parties live apart, temporarily or permanently, neither is free to enter a new marriage. On the contrary, spouses who separate for a just cause should always be open to a reconciliation that is rooted in both prudence and forgiveness. Furthermore, during separation every effort is to be made by both parents to ensure the provisions necessary for the total well-being of the children.[35]

Sadly, in some instances, such as desertion by one of the parties, a reconciliation may never be possible. Therefore some separations may lead to civil divorce. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church instructs, a civil divorce can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense if it affords "...the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance."[36] However, the indissolubility of the marriage bond remains.

There are other instances when civil divorce is immoral because its reasons are illegitimate. Some persons avail themselves of civil divorce simply as a means of walking away from a covenant commitment to their spouse and children. A civil divorce merely for the sake of supposed personal fulfillment is immoral, for it claims to break the lifelong contract to which the parties freely consented.[37]

3. Divorce

In the words of Our Lord from the Scriptures it is clear that the Creator willed marriage to be indissoluble.[38] Divorce is an offense against the dignity of marriage for it brings disorder into the family and society.[39] It implies that the state can dissolve what is in essence indissoluble. Since marriage and the family build up society, divorce weakens the foundation of human culture. The consequences of divorce are indeed tragic. In many cases an innocent spouse is deserted and children are torn between their parents. It is the children who all too often become the final victims of divorce.

The implication of civil divorce for the Church entails the realization that the spouses are no longer living together. Common life between the parties has been ruptured. Nonetheless, because the Church believes in the triumph of divine grace over every sinful falling away, she asks even civilly divorced persons to recognize that they still remain bound to the marriage they entered.

4. Civil Remarriage

Divorce is a civil reality. It has no impact on an individual's marital standing in the Church. A divorced person in the state of grace is free to approach the sacraments of Penance and Eucharist; though they of course are not free to marry again. Any new union alters the gravity of the divorce rupture.[40] Civil remarriage publicly offends the dignity of a Christian marriage. Furthermore, it affronts the innocent party to whom a person made a lifelong commitment, frequently places children in more difficult circumstances, and further weakens society's fabric.

Any new civil union after divorce is sinful, since such a union establishes the conditions for adulterous behavior. For this reason, such a union precludes the reception of the sacraments. A person publicly bound in marriage to one individual is not properly disposed to receive the sacraments while living with another.[41] As important as this moral truth is, our Holy Father has recently stressed: "Let these men and women know that the Church loves them, that she is not far from them and suffers because of their situation. The divorced and remarried are and remain her members, because they have received Baptism and retain their Christian faith."[42] The Holy Father particularly encourages priests to offer special pastoral care for those who have suffered the consequences of divorce, to encourage divorced persons to participate as they are able in the worship of God, and to provide especially for the children of divorced parents. Pastoral charity urges Christ's priests to extend these signs of his love. For Our Blessed Savior himself assures us that it is not his heavenly Father's will "that one of these little ones should perish" (Mt 18:14).


St. Paul reminds us that marital love reflects the infinite love of Christ for the Church, the body of believers. I thank God for the thousands of couples whose love has touched my life and helped me to understand better the love that God has for each of us. The love that bound my mother and father was a first and abiding grace. I have also known many devout Christian believers who chose to remain at home in order to care for elderly parents, and so freed family members to pursue their respective vocations in the Church. These single men and women achieve holiness as they imitate in a distinctive way the self-sacrificial love of the Lord who came not to be served but to serve.

As priest and as bishop, I have been privileged to witness marriages, to join in the celebration of wedding anniversaries, and to be profoundly moved by the lesson of faithful love as one spouse dealt with the sickness and death of the other. These stories of enduring married love do not make headlines, but they are nonetheless very real and noteworthy. The old marriage ritual referred in these words to the sacrifice which married life entails: "Sacrifice is usually difficult and irksome. Only love can make it easy; and perfect love can make it a joy."[43] It is that "perfect love" which is reflected again and again in the marriages faithfully lived until death. I give thanks to God for all those whose married lives reflect the sacrificial love of Christ for us, a love which finds its fullest expression in his cross.

How beautiful it is that the Lord chose a wedding feast as the place of his first miracle. May the words spoken at Cana by Mary, Christ's Blessed Mother and ours, reverberate in the hearts of all engaged couples as well as all husbands and wives: "Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5). Priests and deacons should realize that the instruction and guidance they are to give to married couples come from God through the Church. Marriage counselors and others who assist married persons to live out their vocation should likewise heed the full truth about marriage, for in matters that pertain to the well-being of the human person there can be no contradiction between what faith holds and what reason discovers. I plead especially with lawmakers in the Commonwealth and those who represent us in the United States Congress to support the institution of marriage without which no human society can long flourish.

May God, our heavenly Father, send upon us the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of divine love, so that the sacrament of Matrimony may be more faithfully lived and supported in the Archdiocese of Boston.

Bernard Cardinal Law
Archbishop of Boston

Feast of the Annunciation of the Lord
March 25,1998


1. Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World Gaudium et Spes, 47 § 1, as cited in the Catechism of the Catholic Church [hereafter CCC], 1603.

2. From the Nuptial Blessing of the Wedding Mass, Form B.

3. Gaudium et Spes, 48, § 2.

4. Gaudium et Spes, 48, §2 as cited in CCC, 1639.

5. Tertullian, Ad Uxorem 2, 8, 6-7 cited in CCC, 1642.

6. See Gaudium et Spes, 47-52 as cited in Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 28. The implementation of the Council has occasioned both address to specific questions related to marriage, such as Pope Paul VI's teaching on marital chastity contained in the 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae, and the elaboration of a more general theology of marriage, especially in Pope John Paul II's 1981 Post-Synodal Exhortation Familiaris Consortio.

7. Familiaris Consortio, 9.

8. Familiaris Consortio, 13.

9. The text comes from an address that the Holy Father gave to the delegates of the Centre de Liaison des equipes de Recherche on November 3, 1979, and is repeated in Familiaris Consortio, 13.

10. Familiaris Consortio, 1.

11. "Remarks at the Rosary Recitation," October 4, 1995.

12. Gaudium et Spes, 47.

13. Familiaris Consortio, 79.

14. The Council of Trent solemnly defined that marriage is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ (DS 1806), and anathematized those who held that the marriage bond can be dissolved because of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or because of the willful desertion of one of the spouses (DS 1812).

15. Familiaris Consortio, 3.

16. Canon 1055, § 1, which is cited in CCC. 1601, reflects the conciliar teaching of Lumen Gentium and Gaudium et Spes.

17. See CCC, 1601-1605.

18. Gaudium et Spes, 50, §

19. The Archdiocesan Pro-Life Office can provide information about Pregnancy Help and The Cardinal's Fund for the Unborn.

20. CCC, 1623.

21. CCC, 1615.

22. This concern expressed by Pope Pius XI in Casti Connubii was taken up by the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et Spes, 47, § 2 and 3: 52) and has been repeated in subsequent papal and other official Church teaching.

23. Gaudium el Spes, 47 and 52.

24. Familiaris Consortio, 66.

25. Ibid.

26. National Conference of Catholic Bishops, To Live in Christ Jesus (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 1976), p. 16.

27. Familiaris Consortio, 69.

28. Gravissimum Educationis, 3, §1 and 6, §1.

29. Lumen Gentium, 11, § 2, Gaudium et Spes, 48, § 3.

30. Gravissimum Educationis, 7 and 8.

31. CCC, 1603-1608.

32. CCC, 1606.

33. Familiaris Consortio, 77.

34. CCC, 2383 and canons 1151-1155.

35. Canon 1154.

36. CCC, 2383.

37. CCC, 2384.

38. Mt 5:31-32; 19:3-9: Mk 10:9: Lk 16:18; I Cor 7:10-11.

39. CCC, 2384-2385.

40. CCC, 2384.

41. Canon 915.

42. Address to the Pontifical Council for the Family, January 24, 1997, n. 2; L'Osservatore Romano, English edition, February 5, 1997, p. 4.

43. Rite for the Sacrament of Matrimony, Instruction before Marriage (1954).

©Roman Catholic Archbishop of Boston


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