By Dr. Elizabeth Klein
Associate Professor at the Augustine Institute
For most of human history marriage has been a given, a kind of self-explanatory fact of human society. But with fewer and fewer young people choosing to get married today — let alone getting married in a religious context —we might well ask: what is the point of getting married? And what is the point of getting married in the Church?
The Catholic Church has long summarized the reasons for getting married by talking about the “three goods of marriage;” after all, we do things because they are good, because we identify in them goods worth pursuing. These three goods are: children, fidelity, and the sacramental bond. Perhaps at first glance these don’t sound very exciting (especially the children part, at least for many people today!), but let’s take a look at them one by one to get a sense of these wonderful gifts of marriage.
From a Catholic perspective, the first reason for marriage is children. This outlook is countercultural and it can seem troubling — what if someone does not want children? What if a couple cannot have children? So perhaps the first thing to say in favor of this idea is that marriage, both within the Church and without, is the bedrock of society. It is through marriage that the human race continues and that new little people are raised up to be respectable members of a given local community (city, country, etc.) and of the Church. We can take this fact for granted, but this is a very great good, and one that is in fact being threatened in many developed countries, where the birthrate has dropped below the 2.1 needed to replace the current population. It seems that people have lost faith in family as a source of unity and flourishing in life. But studies on human happiness repeatedly show that marriage and family are leading factors in individual satisfaction. Human beings were made for love — to love one another, and for that love to be open to embracing others. In most families, these others whom we embrace, learn to sacrifice for, etc. are children. A Christian parent, moreover, is called even beyond the natural good of having children and becoming a better person through their care. A Christian parent also experiences the supernatural joy of raising a child of God in the Church, to see his grace at work in their lives. It is through marriage that God brings into existence people that are capable of life in heaven with him.
The second good of marriage is fidelity — also referred to more generally as “conjugal faith” or “the good of the spouses.” In the most basic sense, this means sticking with one other person and being faithful (sexually and otherwise) only to that person for life. This good too, it seems to me, is more needed now than ever, after a period of time where many people have abandoned fidelity. We have seen the effects of this decision, and of a world where virtual “friends” and similar relationships are not filling the void. Our world changes extremely quickly — we are exposed to constant breaking headlines, new technology and rapidly changing economic circumstances. But as human beings we long for stability and reliability, and we want to be assured of our love and worth at all times, despite how the wheel of fortune might turn. To be successfully faithful in marriage is to obtain that great good — a love which cannot be shaken, and on which we can depend even in the hardest times. This good is often what is highlighted in movies that feature a marriage, culminating in the vows: “In sickness and in health, until death do us part.” It satisfies a deep longing of our heart and makes for a happy family.
This second good, however, also goes beyond faithfulness in the barest meaning mentioned above. It also, as Pope Pius XI writes “blooms more freely, more beautifully and more nobly, when it is rooted in that more excellent soil, the love of husband and wife which pervades all the duties of married life and holds pride of place in Christian marriage” (Casti Connubii 23). In other words, it involves the mutual molding of the two spouses as they rely on each other and grow together. It means spousal dependency, love, and friendship.
The Sacramental Bond
Lastly comes a good that belongs only to Christian marriage: the sacramental bond. What does that mean? The Church is not unaware, of course, that people get married, have children, and remain faithful even if they are not Christian and do not have a marriage in the Church. These kinds of marriages outside the Church are what we call “natural marriage,” an institution also invented and founded by God in the garden of Eden. Through Christ’s marriage to the Church on the cross, however, the Lord elevated natural marriage to something supernatural; this is Christian marriage. When a couple is married in the Church, they receive graces from God to be an image of Christ’s love in the world and carry out their mission as husband and wife. Given how difficult marriage is today, we can appreciate that God wishes to help us remain faithful, raise children and so on. But even beyond this help, the sacramental bond — the invisible, spiritual connection gained by a man and woman married in the Church — transfigures married life into a new reality. Just as when the priest says the words of consecration at Mass the bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ, so also when a man and woman profess their vows at the altar, a true transformation takes place in their life. Their relationship is no longer merely one consisting of human goods like affection and care (although these are great things), but it is also one that shows forth in the world the supernatural beauty of Christ’s marriage to the Church.
Just as Christ laid down his life for us, so married couples lay down their lives for one another and in so doing become a source of grace for the world and contribute to its sanctification (its being made more holy, its being made a better place). By being married in the Church, your marriage is empowered by the Holy Spirit, and becomes a powerful sign of God’s love in the world. What a blessing!
-  Low birthrates can cause societal collapse, because there are not enough young people to care for the old and for infrastructure, etc. See for example: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2023/01/americas-population-could-use-a-boom.html and https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/27/opinion/sunday/fertility-population-baby-bust.html
-  See, for example, this 2023 study: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=4508123