Marriage is a vocation; it is the vocation to which the vast majority of people are called. It has two clear purposes or, as the Catechism says, a “twofold end…: the good of the spouses themselves and the transmission of life” (n. 2363). It is a call both to faithful love and to fruitful love.
1. The first purpose is that spouses grow together in goodness, and in that openness to goodness which prepares them for heaven. This means specifically that they are meant to grow in loving God (the first commandment) by means of growing in love for each other throughout their lifetime.
2. The second purpose is that they carry on God’s loving work of creation. In other words that, as co-creators with God, they bring children into the world and rear them in the setting of family love, so as to prepare them for a life that can lead to Heaven.
These essentially linked purposes are clearly indicated in the scriptural accounts of the creation of the sexes and of the institution of marriage.
The First Purpose of Marriage
The first purpose of marriage is established in Genesis 2:18: “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him”. The “good” that God seeks for husband and wife is that their marriage takes each one out of self-centredness, teaches them to love (for love must be learnt) and so leads them to holiness.
Marriage is presented in the Bible as a covenant that shares in the very love of God: “The covenant between the spouses is integrated into God’s covenant with man” (CCC 1639). A covenant is a specially firm expression of faithful love.
Just as God’s covenant of love with his people is unbreakable, so too God has designed the covenanted love of man and woman in marriage to be indissoluble (cf. Compendium, 340). So he declared in Matthew 19:5-6: “A man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.”
It is easy – it should be easy – to understand his reasons. In the first place, so that the spouses learn to love. Marriage is not a haven of love, but a school of love. Indissolubility keeps the spouses at the life-business of learning to love each other – “with their defects”, as St. Josemaria Escriva constantly put it.
Enduring commitment to what is worthwhile, loyalty to others, generosity in self-forgetfulness, service to some real ideal: there lies the witness the world needs from Christians today and especially from spouses. Lack of generosity, fear of commitment, lack of faithfulness are the scourges of modern society. Each putting self first, and not ready to be bound by any real ties of commitment to others, however noble. Come out of myself? Commit myself in a definitive fashion? No way! And so each one remains stuck in self, centred on self, imprisoned in self. Such an attitude, if it becomes definitive, is Hell.
To come out of self-love is not easy, and yet it is essential. If I retreat from the generous dedication demanded by a permanent and worthwhile commitment, I am falling back into that false self-love which always wants to put self – one’s comfort or preference or sterile independence – at the centre of one’s concerns. That is the lot not only of those who divorce but also, even if to a lesser extent, of those spouses who remain together but have given up on the effort to love.
The Second Purpose
The other end of marriage is no less evidently established in Genesis 1:27-28: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply…”
It was for this purpose also that God created man and woman: to multiply his image in the children born of their marital union. This means that he gave them a mission, an extraordinary and privileged mission, to carry on the work of creation. To be co-creators with Him; for while husband and wife together give rise to the body, each soul has to be created and infused by God.
To be amazed at this human power to procreate is not only supernatural, it is natural. What greater thing can someone do than to create life? We see scientists today, with quasi-divine pretensions, endeavouring to do this artificially. But spouses can already do it in a natural way.
And yet how little this sharing in the divine plan and power is appreciated today. Here there has been a submerging or silencing of some fundamental truths that need urgently to be recalled and reproclaimed. On the one hand, motherhood, along with virginity, is what has most inspired men with respect for women. On the other, women in general have always seen motherhood, despite what it demands of them, as the most fulfilling element of their lives. In the measure in which, over a few decades of radical and ever-more frustrated feminism, many women have lost the sense of the greatness and privilege of motherhood, they have lost the natural respect of men.