Interestingly, in our sacramental theology, we hold that a sacrament has two parts: the form, or prayer part of the sacrament; and the matter, the physical and action part of the sacrament. For instance, in performing a baptism, the matter of the sacrament is the priest pouring water over the head of the person or immersing the person in water three times; at the same time, the priest prays the form of the sacrament, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." In marriage, the couple are the ministers of the sacrament; the priest is the official witness of the Church, who also imparts God’s blessing. The form of the sacrament of marriage is the exchange of vows; the matter of the sacrament is the consummation of the marriage, when the two people enact those vows in that physical expression of love. Therefore the Church teaches, "The acts of marriage by which the intimate and chaste union of the spouses takes place are noble and honorable; the truly human performance of these acts fosters the self-giving they signify and enriches the spouses in joy and gratitude" ("Gaudium et Spes," No. 49).
Pope Paul VI in his encyclical "Humanae Vitae" (No. 9), offered a beautiful reflection on this conjugal love of marriage. The Holy Father said that marital love is a genuinely human love, because it embraces the good of the whole person and is rooted in a freely willed giving of one spouse to the other. This love endures through joy and pain, success and failure, happiness and sorrow, united the couple in both body and soul. This love is also total — free of restriction, hesitation or condition. This love is faithful and exclusive to both partners. In all, this love must be a mutually respectful action, a genuine expression of love. Unlike what is so often portrayed by the various media today, marital love is not some erotic action, rooted in selfishness, fleeting pleasure or dominance. No, marital love is a sacred action which unites a couple with each other and God. The spirit of this teaching reflects what Jesus said at the Last Supper, "There is no greater love than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends" (Jn 15:13).
Moreover, the act of marital love also participates in God’s creative love. The couple who has become a new creation by becoming husband and wife, one flesh, may also bring about the creation of new life in accord with God’s will. Vatican II asserted, "by its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory" ("Gaudium et Spes," No. 48, cf. No. 50). The Council acknowledged that while not diminishing the importance of sacramental union symbolized in marital love, "it must be said that true married love and the whole structure of family life which results from it is directed to disposing the spouses to cooperate valiantly with the love of the creator and Savior, who through them will increase and enrich His family from day to day" ("Gaudium et Spes," No. 50).
Most recently, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, in his encyclical "Evangelium Vitae," reflected that God’s own image and likeness is transmitted through the creation of an immortal soul directly by Him. Moreover, a child is really the personification of the love of husband and wife in union with the Creator. Therefore, "it is precisely in their role as co-workers with God who transmits His image to the new creature that we see the greatness of couples who are ready ‘to cooperate with the love of the Creator and the Savior, who through them will enlarge and enrich His own family day by day’" ("Evangelium Vitae," No. 43, quoting also "Gaudium et Spes," No. 50).
Throughout sacred Scripture, we find the birth of children as a blessing from God and a sign of the living covenant between God and husband and wife. For example, Moses delivered the law of the covenant, declaring: "As your reward for heeding these decrees and observing them carefully, the Lord, your God, will keep with you the merciful covenant which He promised on oath to your fathers. He will love and bless and multiply you; He will bless the fruit of your womb and the produce of your soil, your grain and wine and oil, the issue of your herds and young of your flocks in the land which He swore to your fathers He would give you. You will be blessed above all peoples; no man or woman among you shall be childless nor shall your livestock be barren" (Dt 7:12-14). Clearly, life, fruitfulness and fertility were cherished as goods granted by God.
Because of this decree and the understanding that the procreative aspect of marital love is a sacred gift, "barrenness" or infertility was a true cross for a couple to bear. For example, in the old Testament, in the story of Hannah, wife of Elkanah, we read how she grieved at not being able to have a child although she had a beautiful loving marriage. Sacred Scripture reads, "Hannah rose…, and presented herself before the Lord; at the time, Eli, the priest was sitting on a chair near the doorpost of the Lord’s temple. In her bitterness, she prayed to the Lord, weeping copiously, and she made a vow, promising, ‘Oh Lord of hosts, if you look with pity on the misery of your handmaid, if you remember me and do not forget me, if you give your handmaid a male child, I will give him to the Lord for as long as he lives; neither wine nor liquor shall he drink, and no razor shall ever touch his head" (1 Sm 1:9-11). The Lord heard the plea of Hannah, and she conceived and bore a son, Samuel.
In the New Testament, we read the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah, who were "just in the eyes of God" and "upheld the commandments of the Lord." However, in their old age, they remained childless. By God’s will, they conceived a child, John the Baptist. Elizabeth said, "In these days the Lord is acting on my behalf; He has seen fit to remove my reproach among me." (Cf. Lk 1:5-25). Following this line of thought, Vatican II asserted, "Indeed children are the supreme gift of marriage and greatly contribute to the good of the parents themselves" ("Gaudium et Spes," No. 50).
Therefore, we must not separate the unitive dimension of marital love from the procreative. Both dimensions are intrinsically good. Both dimensions are inherent in the act of marriage. Even if a couple is infertile, the act of marriage still retains the character of being a communion of life and love. We must constantly keep in focus the covenant of life and love a couple shares with each other in union with God.
Saunders, Rev. William. “The Marriage Covenant.” Arlington Catholic Herald.
Reprinted with permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald.
Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.
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