Marriage and Family in Gaudium et Spes and Today

Editor’s Note: This is an important series that provides one of the clearest summaries on Biblical and Church teaching on marriage in the light of Vatican II and the teachings of St. Pope John Paul II. It will provide you with an important and deeper understanding of the theology and Church teaching on which the Marriage Reality Movement draws to help people reveal the reality of marriage to our family and the culture using non-religious language. Marriage as the foundation of the family is not only God’s plan to follow, but reveals something of the nature of God and in turn the nature of man — marriage is an icon of the Trinity. Therefore, when the reality of marriage is recognized, an institution in the image of the Trinity becomes apparent that specifically unites man and woman with each other and with any children born from their union. It is the circle of irreplaceability that begins with following God’s plan and the free choice to marry in preparation for receiving children as a gift.

Homily delivered to Pope Francis and his associates by Father Cantalamessa

By Raniero Cantalamessa, OFM Cap.

I am devoting this meditation to a spiritual reflection on Gaudium et spes, the pastoral constitution on the Church in the world. Of the various social problems treated in this document — culture, economy, social justice, peace — the most relevant and problematic one concerns marriage and family. The Church devoted the last two synods of bishops to it. The majority of us present here do not live in that state of life, but we all need to know its problems to understand and help the vast majority of God’s people who do live in the marital state, especially today now that it is at the center of attacks and threats from all sides.

Gaudium et spes treats the family at great length in the Second Part (nos. 46-53). There is no need to quote statements from it because it repeats the traditional Catholic doctrine that everyone knows, except for a new emphasis on the mutual love between the spouses that is openly recognized now as a primary good in marriage alongside procreation.

In regard to marriage and family, Gaudium et spes, in its well-known way of proceeding, focuses first on the positive achievements in the modern world (“the joys and the hopes”) and only secondly on the problems and dangers (“the griefs and anxieties”).[1] I plan to follow that same method, taking into account, however, the dramatic changes that have occurred in this area in the last half century since then. I will briefly recall God’s plan for marriage and family since, as believers, we always need to start from that point, and then see what biblical revelation can offer us as a solution to current problems in this area. I am intentionally refraining from commenting on some of the specific problems discussed in the Synod of Bishops regarding which only the pope now has the right to say the last word.

1. Marriage and family in the divine plan and in the gospel of Christ

The book of Genesis has two distinct accounts of the creation of the first human couple that go back to two different traditions: the Yahwist tradition (10th century BC) and the later one called “Priestly” (6th century BC). In the Priestly tradition (see Gen 1:26-28), the man and the woman are created simultaneously and not one from the other; male and female beings are linked to the image of God: “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:27). The primary purpose for the union of the man and woman is seen as being fruitful and filling the earth.

In the Yahwist tradition, which is the most ancient (see Gen 2:18-25), the woman is taken out of the man. The creation of the two sexes is seen as a remedy for the loneliness of the man: “It is not good that the man should be alone: I will make him a helper fit for him” (Gen 2:18). The unitive factor is emphasized here more than the procreative factor: “A man … clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). They are free and open about their own sexuality and that of the other: “The man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25).

I found the most convincing explanation for this divine “invention” of the distinction between the sexes in a poet, Paul Claudel:

Man is so proud! There was no other way [except inventing the sexes] to get him to understand his neighbor, to pound it into him. There was no other way to get him to understand the dependence, the necessity, and the need of another besides himself except through the existence of this being [woman] who is different from him by the very fact of her separate existence.[2]

To open oneself to the opposite sex is the first step in opening oneself to the other who is a neighbor until we reach the Other, with a capital letter, God. Marriage begins with a mark of humility: it is the recognition of dependency and thus of one’s own condition as a creature. To fall in love with a woman or a man is to make the most radical act of humility. It is to make oneself a beggar and say to the other, “I am not enough in myself; I need you too.” If, as Friedrich Schleiermacher believed, the essence of religion consists in the sentiment of dependence on God (Abhängigkeitsgefühl), [3] then we can say that human sexuality is the first school of religion.

Up to this point I have described God’s plan. The rest of the Bible cannot, however, be understood if, along with the creation story, we do not take into account the fall, especially what is said to the woman: “I will greatly multiply your pain in child-bearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you” (Gen 3:16). The dominance of the man over the woman is part of the consequence of man’s sin, not part of God’s plan. With these words to Eve, God was announcing her predicament in advance, not endorsing it.

The Bible is a divine-human book not only because its authors are God and men but also because it describes the intertwining of the faithfulness of God with the unfaithfulness of human beings. This is clear especially when we compare God’s plan for marriage and family with its practical outworking in the history of the chosen people. Continuing in the book of Genesis, we see that the son of Cain, Lamech, violates the law of monogamy by taking two wives. Noah and his family appear to be an exception in the midst of the widespread corruption of his time. The patriarchs Abraham and Jacob have children by many wives. Moses sanctions the practice of divorce; David and Solomon maintain actual harems of women.

Beyond these examples of individual transgressions, the departure from the original ideal is visible in the basic concept that Israel had of marriage. Deviation from the ideal involves two pivotal points. The first is that marriage becomes a means and not an end. The Old Testament, on the whole, considers marriage a structure of patriarchal authority oriented primarily to the perpetuation of the clan. It is in this context that the institutions of levirate marriage (see Deut 25:5-10), of concubinage (see Gen 16), and of provisional polygamy can be understood. The ideal of a shared life between a man and a woman based on a personal and reciprocal relationship is not forgotten, but it moves into second place after the good of offspring. The second serious deviation from the ideal concerns the status of the woman: from being a companion for the man endowed with the same dignity, she appears increasingly more subordinate to the man and existing for his sake.

An important role in keeping God’s original plan for marriage alive is played by the prophets — in particular Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah — and by the Song of Songs. Adopting the union of man and woman as a symbol or reflection of the covenant between God and his people, they restore to first place the value of mutual love, faithfulness, and indissolubility that characterize God’s attitude toward Israel.

Jesus, come to “sum up” human history in himself, accomplishes this recapitulation in regard to marriage as well.

And the Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female [Gen 1:27] and said ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one’? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Matt 19:3-6)

His adversaries were operating in the narrow sphere of hypothetical casuistry (asking if it were lawful to repudiate the wife for any reason or if there needed to be a specific and serious reason). Jesus answered them by going to the heart of the issue and returning to the beginning. In his citations, Jesus refers to both accounts of the institution of marriage, taking elements from each of them, but, as we see, he emphasizes above all the communion of persons.

What comes next in Matthew’s text, the issue of divorce, also follows along the same line: he reaffirms faithfulness and the indissolubility of the marriage bond even above the good of offspring, which people had used in the past to justify polygamy, levirate marriage, and divorce.

They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:7-9)

The parallel text in Mark shows that even in the case of divorce men and women, according to Jesus, are placed on a level of absolute equality: “‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’” (Mk 10:11-12).

With the words “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder,” Jesus affirms that there is divine intervention by God in every matrimonial union. The elevation of marriage to the status of a “sacrament,” that is, a sign of God’s action, does not then need to be founded only on the weak argument of Jesus’ presence at the wedding at Cana and on the text in Ephesians that speaks of marriage as a reflection of the union of Christ and the Church (see Eph 5:32). It begins explicitly with Jesus’ teaching during his earthly ministry and is also part of his reference to how things were from the beginning. John Paul II was correct when he defined marriage as “the primordial sacrament.”[4]

To be continued … “What the Biblical Teaching Says to Us Today”


[1] Gaudium et spes, n.1. Quotations from Church and papal documents are from the Vatican website.

[2] Paul Claudel, The Satin Slipper, Act 3, sc. 8; see Le soulier de satin: Édition critique, ed. Antoinette Weber-Caflisch (Besançon: Presses Universitaires de Franche-Compté, 1987), p. 227.

[3] Friedrich Schleiermacher, The Christian Faith, vol. 1, trans. H. R. MacKintosh and James S. Stewart (New York: T & T Clark, 1999), p. 12ff.

[4] See John Paul II, Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body, trans. Michael M. Waldstein (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 2006), pp. 503-507.