‘Amoris Laetitia’ II: Christian marriage

This is the second in a series of six articles by Archbishop Cordileone on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (the Joy of Love).

In my first reflection on “Amoris Laetitia” (the Joy of Love), I wrote of our Christian understanding of human nature, that we are made for love – to love and be loved – and are not primarily solitary individuals but fundamentally social beings, made for union and communion with others, and ultimately with God in heaven.

God exists as a “union and communion of persons,” says St. John Paul II, and unlike us, is pure spirit. We humans, however, are spirit and matter. We see God’s plan for humanity in the Book of Genesis, where we are told that “God created mankind in his own image … male and female he created them.” Our creation as male and female is not arbitrary; it springs from God’s design at the very beginning of Creation. The man and woman are able to “become one flesh,” and out of that union life-giving love comes forth. In this way, Pope Francis tells us, “The family is the image of God, who is a communion of persons.” There are many forms of love between persons, but only the union of a man and a woman is able to generate new human life.

In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, he says that the “great mystery” of the one-flesh union refers not only to the union of husband and wife, but above all to the union of Christ and his Church. This is what we mean when we speak of marriage as a sacrament. A sacrament is a physical sign which at one and the same time points to a reality greater than and beyond itself, and makes that reality present here and now; it causes to happen that which it represents. Water, for example, represents cleansing and life; when we use it in the sacrament of Baptism, it actually gives spiritual cleansing and new life. Likewise, bread and wine represent physical nourishment; in the Eucharist, the bread and wine are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ in order to give us spiritual nourishment. So it is with sacrament of Holy Matrimony: It is not only a sign of God’s unity with us and love for us, but actually makes that unity and love present to the couple when they live out the sacrament.

Our understanding of Christian marriage, then, is that it is a reflection of the life of the Trinity itself. St. John Paul II even goes so far as to say that it is the conjugal union of husband and wife that most fully expresses and realizes the image and likeness of God in which we were created. Furthermore, it is a means by which God unites the spouses to each other, and unites Himself to His Church (indeed, a great mystery). This is reflected in the marriage vows of husband and wife, of both permanence and exclusivity. Just as Christ’s unity with his Church cannot be broken, a consummated sacramental marriage cannot be “undone” (other than by death).

The third marriage vow, openness to life, is an icon of the new life that comes forth from the Trinity, and the new life Christ brings to his Church. Pope Francis reminds us of this when he says that married couples are to be “generous in bestowing life.” The union of the spouses, when the two “become one flesh,” is intended as a renewal of the wedding vows; the couple does with their bodies what they promised in their wedding vows. And, as we all know, actions speak louder than words. This is why the Church takes sexual union so seriously – it is intended to be sacramental!

We can see that God’s plan – a man and a woman, exclusively united until death, whose conjugal union is open to new life – is reflected in the wedding vows for Christian marriage. As Pope Francis reminds us, truly “marriage is a gift from the Lord.” However, he also speaks of the very real difficulties marriages and families face today. In my next articles, I will address some of these difficulties to which Pope Francis refers.

This column was originally published on September 22, 2016 in Catholic San Francisco.