Marriage is unique because when a man and a woman form a marital union they truly become “one flesh.” The cry of Adam upon seeing Eve that this one “at last, is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh” (Gn. 2:23) is an ancient confirmation of the truth and goodness of God’s will that the two should become one flesh. Of course, as mentioned above, all people are called to form communions of persons because it is everyone’s vocation to love like God. In marriage, however, this call reaches a unique fullness precisely because it brings together a man with a woman. When they exchange consent, husband and wife give themselves thoroughly one to the other in a gift of self that unites them with all their unique gifts as persons and as male and female, as the U.S. bishops wrote in "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan" (p. 11).
On this last point, it is important to remember that maleness and femaleness are essential to marriage. The Lord God created humanity in two different sexes — “Male and female He created them.” (Gn. 1:27). With regard to God’s image and likeness, this does not mean that God is divided into two different sexes. It does mean, as Pope St. John Paul II explained, that “man and woman constitute two different ways of the human ‘being a body’ in the unity of … [God’s] image.” Masculinity shows a unique image of God and femininity shows a unique image of God. Marriage is the reality of the two different but equal and complementary sexes forming a unique union. ("Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," p. 10) Without going down the road to a heady conversation about research on significant differences between the sexes, we do need to take a quick look at sexual difference with regard to reproduction and why it’s essential to marriage.
The gift of human fertility is linked to one of the key goods of marriage — procreation. We all know that human love can be fruitful in a variety of ways. For married men and women however, their spousal love can enable them to participate in God’s creation of new life. Since God is the Creator, it is an awe-inspiring act of generosity for God to ask men and women to share in His acts of creating a new human life. That is why the Church has often spoken of procreation being a “primary good” of marriage. It is the invitation by the Lord God to share in the sacred task of creating new people. Children indeed are the supreme gift of marriage, and husbands and wives who are blessed with children are called to receive them as gifts.
The marital communion is unique because it embraces the unity of the male and the female with the procreative potential of both husband and wife. ("Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," p. 11) I know one theologian (a married man) who once said that a man and a woman become a type of timeless reference to the future when married. By virtue of their different but complementary sexes, husband and wife remind us of the possibility of new life. This remains true even if a couple is infertile. The significance of the male and the female and their role in bringing new life and nurturing that life in the world is that strong!
In their conjugal love husband and wife are called to a way of life that nurtures them as individuals and builds the family. As they pour out their love for each other, it spreads to their children, their extended family, neighbors, friends and wider community. This is what the Church means when it says “The future of humanity passes by way of the family” (“Familiaris Consortio,” no. 86; see also “Gaudium et Spes,” no. 47).
Marriage is the unique way in which husband and wife reveal God’s image in the world!
Theresa Notare, PhD, is assistant director of the Natural Family Planning Program, Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
- The quote is: “You have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you” (St. Augustine’s “Confessions”).
- Stephen E. Rhoads’ “Taking Sex Differences Seriously” (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2005) details research demonstrating differences between men and women.