"How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow."
Two years ago Pope Francis published Amoris Laetitia, an apostolic exhortation addressing the need for increased pastoral care of families. A just-published book by the popular radio host of EWTN’s Called to Communion, Dr. David Anders, is an answer to Francis’ call to show how Catholic teaching strengthens marriage.
The Catholic Church Saved My Marriage: Discovering Hidden Grace in the Sacrament of Matrimony — part conversion-testimonial and part doctrinal-catechism — proves that Catholic teaching can indeed transform our families.
Three such examples from Anders’ book — which all correlate with Amoris Laetitia — are: the proper “end” of marriage, a fulsome understanding of human sexuality, and the power of the sacraments.
Marriage needs a purpose
Right before my wedding, one of my groomsmen told me that the goal of marriage was to help my wife get to heaven. I was the struck with the simplicity and sublimity of those words. As Pope Francis reminds us, marriage is an encounter that “reflects God’s own love,” becoming “an image for understanding and describing the mystery of God himself.” When married couples have children, they must lovingly teach them the faith, so that the family becomes “a communion of persons” modeling the union of the Trinity, and a “temple in which the Spirit dwells.”
Anders recounts how he and his wife Jill — who married as evangelicals — were almost entirely ignorant of the telos of marriage. His marriage “broke down” because “neither of us had any clear notion of what marriage was for.”
This is true even for many who profess faith in Christ — they are swept up into marriage based largely on emotions, shared interests, and sexual passion. Without that deeper vision, tensions, and eventually open conflicts, became the centerpiece of Anders’ marriage. Only when he and Jill understood that marriage was about “growing in holiness together” did the dynamic change.
Sexuality that gives, rather than takes
Amoris Laetitia recounts the challenges faced by the modern family, many of them tied to sexuality. Some are uninterested in sexual monogamy; others “manipulate the reproductive act, making it independent of the sexual relationship between a man and a woman”; others capitulate to the “flood of pornography.” At the heart of this is a consumerist sexuality that uses others, even spouses, to satisfy one’s carnal desires.
As a Protestant, Anders was taught that once married, “anything goes.” Yet Catholicism showed him that this mentality is exploitative and disrespectful to the dignity of the human person.
He writes, “The Catholic Church sees the human person not as a quivering bundle of corrupt sexual impulses, but as a transcendent moral agent called to divine life.” A contraceptive default, for example, “undeniably alters the meaning of marital sexuality,” by eliminating its procreative aspect while undermining its unitive one. Sex must ultimately be “life-giving and life-affirming,” rejecting the objectification of our spouse in favor of authentic love and self-gift.
The sacraments change us
Pope Francis notes that the “grace that helps [families] face the challenges of marriage and the family” is present in “sacramental Reconciliation and in the Eucharist.” He urges Church leaders to “encourage families to grow in faith,” including “encouraging frequent confession.” Sacramental grace not only enables husbands and wives to live the faith — the sacraments also inculcate virtues of humility, honesty, and forgiveness, and teach us the value of suffering.
This is certainly the case with the Anders family. Dr. Anders writes: “Jill’s experience in the confessional … marked the turning point in our marriage … In the confessional, Jill received forgiveness, peace of conscience, encouragement, and hope for the future.” Part of the reason for this, he argues, is that the confessional helps us to accept the reality of suffering, rather than vainly seeking to eliminate it from our lives. Moreover, in the Catholic faith, suffering is redemptive, as St. Paul explains: “In my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (1 Colossians 1:24). Through the grace-filled suffering assisted by the sacraments, even the most painful trials can acquire salvific value.
A greater vision of marriage
Our culture often views marriage as the locus of romantic passion and relational satisfaction. If that is our goal, Dr. Anders tells us, we will likely fail under the weight of trials, temptations, and our own fickle passions. Yet a marriage obedient to the Church is a “treasure buried in a field,” a gift from God that blesses our lives and leads us to heaven. This has always been the Church’s teaching, as third-century Church Father Tertullian declares:
How beautiful, then, the marriage of two Christians, two who are one in hope, one in desire, one in the way of life they follow, one in the religion they practice … Nothing divides them, either in flesh or in spirit. They are, in very truth, two in one flesh; and where there is but one flesh there is also but one spirit. They pray together, they worship together, they fast together; instructing one another, encouraging one another, strengthening one another … side by side they face difficulties and persecution, share their consolations.
Through a right understanding of marriage’s purpose, a commitment to Church teaching, and the power of the sacraments, we can make Tertullian’s vision a reality in our lives.