By Rose Leigh
Since Adam and Eve, the sexual relationship between men and women has been stained by Original Sin. In particular, many people today feel that “till death do us part” is a difficult vow to keep, as evidenced by current high divorce rates and a growing number of couples who decide not to get married.
Instead of expecting marriages to last, our culture has grown in the past century to tolerate and even expect divorce. Since all of us are sinful and imperfect, how can we confidently make a lifetime commitment to another flawed person in marriage?
Before and during his papacy, Pope St. John Paul II recognized the need to address important issues surrounding the human body and sexuality for the Church in the twentieth century. He wrote a book titled Love and Responsibility and gave 129 “Theology of the Body” lectures that examine this subject in detail.
The Church places great importance on marriage because God wants to call us to a deeper form of love. The Sacrament of Matrimony exists to aid married couples in this commitment, despite their human failings and all the difficulties of life. But what does that look like?
In this article, I’ve specifically drawn from the Catechism’s teachings on marriage and Called to Love by Carl Anderson and José Granados, which explores and discusses John Paul II’s work.
Building a Foundation in Virtuous Love
It’s natural that relationships often begin with some form of attraction. He notices how beautiful she is. She notices how charming he is. They enjoy talking about their common interests. But once a couple marries and the honeymoon is over, real life sets in.
As in the parable of the man who builds his house on sand, emotions are quick to wash away in the face of hardships, human failings, sickness, and old age. The foundation of a lasting marriage has to be something stronger.
There’s another problem with building a relationship on feelings. Our culture approves of any sexual activity as long as it passes the ‘consenting adults’ test. But that attitude can easily lead to selfishly using the other person for personal pleasure, instead of loving the other person for who they are.
Called to Love explains, “The attraction to another person based on feelings needs to mature into a yes to the value of the person him- or herself” (p. 53). Animals procreate solely according to their biological urges. But human beings are persons with rational souls and free will, and so can enter into a deeper, personal commitment with a spouse through the marital act. They also have a right and a natural desire to be treated with dignity.
Married couples therefore have a call to virtuous, sacrificial love that “will[s] the good of the other” (St. Thomas Aquinas, qtd. CCC 1766). True love is not something you feel; it is an act of the will. We can always choose to seek another person’s good, despite our emotions. Ultimately, that good is to love and serve God.
We will never be satisfied until we reach heaven and see God face to face. But it is our calling here on earth to demonstrate and live God’s love as perfectly as we can. Married couples must “become a living sign of the love between Christ and the Church” (Called to Love p. 172).
Christ is the Cornerstone of All Love
Is sacrificial love on this level even possible? Imitating Christ’s love is a tall order.
But as Called to Love observes, “Man is made in God’s image and likeness, and this truth can never be totally obscured” (p. 124). With God it is possible to overcome Original Sin and our faults, because we were created to love as a way of sharing in and returning God’s love for us, and because we have been redeemed.
Spouses cannot love each other perfectly. But they can draw from the “inexhaustible treasury of strength” that is “Christ’s self-gift on the Cross (which is his wedding with the Church)” (Called to Love p. 180). After receiving the sacrament of matrimony, the husband and wife will still be sinners. But Called to Love further explains, “Rooted in Christ, the spouses never need despair of being able to love each other with his love, no matter what happens” (p. 181).
Recently, I heard a deacon explain that when he goes through marriage prep with couples, he always asks why they want to get married. They usually respond, “Because we love each other!” But that’s not a good enough answer. The response should be, Deacon said, “Because God wants us to. Because it’s our vocation.”
This is why marriage is a sacrament: God wants to give couples these graces and for them to start the marriage by dedicating it to Him.
All couples must personally put in work if their marriage is to last. But now they do so united to God, and united with each other in one purpose: imitating Christ and His love.
Below are a few major works by John Paul II and a few other books that explore the topic of love, marriage, and sexuality.
Works by John Paul II/Karol Wojtyla:
- Love and Responsibility, a book by Karol Wojtyla
- “The Theology of the Body” series of lectures by Pope John Paul II—available online and as a printed book
- The Jeweler’s Shop, a play by Karol Wojtyla about the spiritual mystery of love
Other books on marriage:
- Called to Love by Carl Anderson and José Granados
- Men, Women, and the Mystery of Love by Edward Sri
- Three to Get Married by Fulton J. Sheen
Rose has been drawing and writing since she could hold a pencil, creating worlds of giants, fairies, and adventurers from her imagination. She works as a graphic designer and loves discussing the good and creative aspects of literature, art, and film.