What is Marriage?
One reason we struggle to understand the Church’s teaching on marital sex is that the culture we live in no longer understands marriage as divine institution. We’ve come to see marriage as the union of two people seeking a relationship of mutual self-fulfillment. But Jesus’ plan for marriage as a vocation and a sacrament goes much deeper than a relationship of mutual pleasure and companionship.
Marriage as a vocation is (to borrow a phrase from Pope Saint John Paul II) a “school of love.” While our culture tends to celebrate marriage as “love found,” the Church sees marriage as the beginning of a mission to learn to love as Jesus loves. When a man and a woman take their vows before God, they are promising not just to “stick with it” in order to maintain the status quo, but to work every day toward a greater degree of self-sacrificing love. The Church also assumes that the self-sacrificing love that grows between a husband and a wife will grow to include a family. That’s why couples are called to generosity in welcoming new life into their marriage.
Marriage as a sacrament makes God’s love for His Church a reality. A sacrament is a “sacred sign instituted by Christ that gives grace.” A sacred sign not only symbolizes something, but (through grace) actually brings that thing about. Marriage as a sacrament is a sign of God’s love for His Church. This symbolism is seen all over the place in Sacred Scripture. Marriage makes this sacred sign a reality as married couples work to bring each other to holiness, and especially as married couples cooperate with God to create new life, bring that life into the loving environment of the family, and through family love bring children into the Kingdom of God through the Sacraments.
What is the purpose of the sexual act within marriage?
Many people assume that the language of the sexual act is simply, “I love you.” That’s why they can justify extra-marital sex where “at least we love each other.” But like marriage, the full understanding of sex goes much deeper.