The Institution of Marriage and the Common Good, Part 1

[This is a Pastoral Letter of the Virginia Catholic Bishops. Due to its length, it is in two parts. The second part will run on Tuesday, October 3, 2006. Part Two is available here.]

Dear Friends in Christ:

On November 7, Virginia voters will have an opportunity to decide whether to adopt a state constitutional amendment that would affirm marriage as "a union between one man and one woman" and draw a clear distinction between the public institution of marriage and other voluntary relationships. This ballot question has profound significance for the future of the family, the most fundamental social structure of our society. In light of this important opportunity, we wish to share with you, the faithful in our two dioceses, our Church's teaching on the nature of marriage, especially as it relates to our laws and our responsibilities as faithful citizens.

Marriage, properly understood, was built into our nature right from the beginning. In fact, our understanding of marriage is bound up in our understanding of creation itself. In the Book of Genesis, we learn that God created men and women as equal and complementary (see Gn 1:27, 2:23), enabled male and female to become "one flesh" and thereby reflect His inner unity by their complementarity (see Gn 2:24), and told the first man and woman to "be fertile and multiply" (Gn 1:28), thus making them participants in His work of creation. Hence, man and woman are predisposed to form, in the words of Pope John Paul II, a "communion of spouses," which in turn "gives rise to the community of the family" (Letter to Families, no. 7).

In our ever-changing and increasingly complex society, the Genesis story brings us "back to the basics" by reminding us that marriage had a design and purpose long before any nation, religion, or law was established. Even before Christ elevated marriage between the baptized to the dignity of a sacrament, it existed as the human and social institution upon which civilization is structured. The Catechism of the Catholic Church captures the essence of this natural order: "The marriage covenant, by which a man and a woman form with each other an intimate communion of life and love, has been founded and endowed with its own special laws by the Creator" (no. 1660). In other words, the founder and author of marriage is none other than God Himself! Though regulated by civil laws and church laws, marriage did not originate from either church or state, but from God. The only authentic understanding of marriage, therefore, is the one that God inscribed in our human nature.

No religion, government, or individual has the right or the legitimate authority to alter the basic meaning and structure of marriage that has existed ever since the first man and woman were created. Because God designed the marital union as part of our intrinsic nature and established it as the foundation of our civilization, the proper role of both church and state is one of stewardship, to preserve our Creator's great gift of marriage from one generation to the next. With regard to government's responsibility in this matter, the Second Vatican Council affirmed, "All those…who exercise influence over communities and social groups should work efficiently for the welfare of marriage and the family. Public authority should regard it as a sacred duty to recognize, protect and promote their authentic nature, to shield public morality and to favor the prosperity of home life" (Gaudium et Spes, no. 52).

Because marriage is properly understood as a gift from God for the common good of humanity, this essential social institution naturally possesses certain qualities that are of unique and irreplaceable benefit to society. God, after all, gives us only what is genuinely good for us. By weaving the design of marriage into the fabric of our being, He made it the structure upon which families " the basic communities of civilization " are built. Indeed, the marital bond is very different than any other voluntary relationship because of its stability, the environment it provides for the development of families, and the protection it accords spouses and children. Through marriage, two equal but sexually different persons give themselves and their complementarity to each other for a lifetime, for the benefit of each other and their family; by their pledge of lifelong fidelity, they provide the most stable conditions for bringing children into the world and raising them; by their sexual difference, they provide their children the full range of human nurturing that comes by being raised by a mother and a father.

Bishop Paul S. Loverde


Bp. Paul S. Loverde is the bishop of the Diocese of Arlington in Virginia.

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