Marriage is the seed of the most important of human institutions − namely, the family. Happy, healthy marriages lead to happy, healthy families. Happy, healthy families lead to a happy, healthy society. Clearly marriage matters; and the topic of matrimony is at the forefront of our today’s societal dialogue (right where it should be). But what exactly is a marriage? For until this question is answered, productive dialogue on the topic will not be possible.
Marriage is a comprehensive union of persons; that is, a total union of whole persons uniting both the physical and the spiritual. Marriage therefore naturally results in spouses “putting their heads together” as well as their bodies. Like the organs of the human body, a husband and wife work together as one organic unit. An eyeball does not make sense by itself. But when connected with the optic nerve, neuronal ganglia, brain, blood vessels, and other anatomical members, the eye serves a great purpose. It is not good for an eyeball to be alone; neither for man. This brings us back to the comprehensive nature of the nuptial union of man and woman. By virtue of such a union the husband and wife work as one organic unit to think, choose and act towards common purposes: the foremost of which is the building of a family. For it is, first and foremost, the function of a family to shape its children; and this is not a light matter. For a society goes as its children go.
The union between spouses (comprehensive) is unique from all other two-person unions (non-comprehensive) because it includes total bodily union. This union of bodies – fertility and all – can result in a completely new and separate human being. No other type of personal union can accomplish this. Thus the ultimate purpose of sex is Life: new life conceived in the womb and new life conceived in the relationship between husband and wife; or as Dr. Janet Smith says, babies and bonding. Marriage between one man and one woman is by its nature life-giving, ordered towards the raising of children and the good of the spouses.
Marriage is also exclusive, and therefore, must involve two people. You cannot give all of your money to Jim, and at the same time give all of your money to John. You must choose one person. The same principle applies to marriage. Thus total self-gift is only possible in a two-person marriage.
Finally marriage is permanent. G.K. Chesterton remarked that “marriage is a duel to the death which no man of honour should decline.” Marriage a duel? And to the death? Yes and yes! Marriage is hard because we are often more interested in doing “my will” rather than “thy will”, or worse, “Thy will”. Thus husband and wife fight for love – and to the death. This permanent, covenantal component of true marriage makes divorce impossible for only death can break a covenant, that is, a family bond. This is why the wife (traditionally) took the name of her husband: a sign of a new family bond and lifeline only to be severed by death. Though civil divorce is possible and sometimes even morally permissible, it does not end a true marriage. When a real sacramental marriage exists, divorce is impossible. This is why Jesus taught that one who (civilly) divorces and remarries into a second marriage while their original spouse is alive commits adultery – because one who is “divorced and remarried” is not actually divorced at all; nor are they remarried.
Thus we have described what marriage is: a comprehensive, exclusive, life-giving and permanent union of one man and one woman naturally ordered towards the procreation and education of children, and the good of the spouses. It’s nothing new. As the richly intelligent Girgis-Anderson-George trio (the vast majority of my insights in this article ought to be attributed to them) have illustrated in their indispensable work, What Is Marriage?: Man And Woman: A Defense, such an understanding of marriage stretches back even thousands of years to ancient non-Christians like Xenophanes, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch and other thinkers of antiquity. Furthermore, marriage as described has persisted apart from any particular religious view, being affirmed for millennia by a variety of civilizations, world views and religious perspectives. Yet many of today’s opponents to Christianity just don’t know or understand our position.
We have before us a call to mercy: to understand, to comfort, to listen, to advise and to explain: and most of all to love. As missionary-hearted Christians we are obliged to know and defend what marriage is, for our whole Story begins with a marriage and ends – and as St. John Paul II has taught us – with an eternal Marriage foreshadowed by the marriages of today. Yes, it is true that for the moment we live in a “choose-your-own-marriage” society where many false definitions of marriage continue to be offered on a silver platter; but it is also true that from the beginning it was not so. And it is ultimately the way things were in “The Beginning” that we are labouring by grace to restore.