What Is Marriage? Part I

It is clear, based on our culture’s rampant rates of sexual promiscuity, divorce, cohabitation, out of wed-lock births, and the ease with which the homosexual agenda is taking hold that our nation is in desperate need of re-education in the nature, meaning, and purpose of marriage . What is marriage? This article is the first of a three-part series in which we will explore this crucial question.

What happens to a society when it fails to understand what marriage is? Songs often pop into my head when I’m trying to make a point, and right now I’m hearing R.E.M.: “It’s the end of the world as we know it …” (together, everyone shout: “Leonard Bernstein!”).

Okay, I’ve returned from my 80’s flashback. In all seriousness, redefine marriage and you redefine civilization at its root. What is the root of civilization? Pope John Paul II put it this way: “[The] shared life of men and women … makes up the pure and simple guiding thread of existence. Human life is by its nature ‘co-educational’ and its dignity as well as its balance depend at every moment of history and in every place of geographical longitude and latitude on ‘who’ she shall be for him and he for her” (TOB 43:7).

The sexual relationship — and by that I mean the relationship of man to woman and woman to man, the relationship between the sexes — is the foundation stone of life itself. All human relationships are the fruit of this root. This is why John Paul wrote elsewhere that it’s “an illusion to think we can build a true culture of human life if we do not … accept and experience sexuality and love and the whole of life according to their true meaning and their close inter-connection” (Gospel of Life 97).

Let’s try to bring this into sharper focus. To put it more bluntly, at the root of civilization is the civilize-ation of the sexual urge. The sexual urge is one of the most potent forces on the planet. When properly oriented, it builds up and edifies. When disoriented, it tears down and destroys. In other words, when this root is “civilized,” the fruit is “civilization” — well ordered human relationships working together for the common good. But when this root (the sexual urge) is not properly civilized, well … I’m hearing R.E.M. again in my head.

What does it mean to “civilize” the sexual urge? Among other definitions of the word, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition) says that one is civil who shows “high-minded and self-sacrificing behavior.” One is civil who shows “courteous attentiveness, especially to women.” And — I’m not making this up — one is civil who observes “the forms required by good breeding.”

Throughout the ages, in virtually every culture known to man, the relationship that results from the proper civilize-ation of the sexual urge has been called marriage. So, when we ask the question “What is marriage?” we should ask ourselves: What form of human relationship most civil-izes the sexual urge? In other words, what kind of sexually active relationships show “high-minded and self-sacrificing behavior”? What kind of sexually active relationships show “courteous attentiveness, especially to women”? What kind of sexually active relationships observe “the forms required by good breeding”?

The following questions are not “politically correct,” but with society’s incessant push for the acceptance of homosexuality as a “normal” lifestyle, they must be asked. Does sodomy civilize the sexual urge? Does it build up or destroy? Does it serve the common good? Can a man marry a man? Can a woman marry a woman?

We must also ask: Can a man simultaneously marry several women, or a woman several men? Can a man simultaneously marry several men, or a woman several women? Can a man marry his sister or his mother? His brother or his father? Can a woman marry her brother or father? Her sister or mother? Can humans marry animals?

All of these questions are now on the table in our culture. They cannot be properly answered unless we first know what marriage is. As Catholics, we have an incredibly rich body of teaching to draw from in order to understand the nature, meaning, and purpose of marriage. We’ll begin unfolding that teaching in the next article.

Christopher West is a research fellow and faculty member of the Theology of the Body Institute near Philadelphia. He is the presenter and author of the newly released: An Introduction to the Theology of the Body. This 8-part series, and its follow-up, Into the Heart (16-part series) are brand new studies designed to give you the tools you need to integrate the Theology of the Body into your daily life. To learn more, click here.


Christopher West


Christopher West is a Catholic author and speaker, best known for his work on Pope John Paul II’s series of audience addresses entitled the Theology of the Body.

Subscribe to CE
(It's free)

Go to Catholic Exchange homepage

  • steve p


    I think you onto something here. “Back in the day,” when the Packers lost focus and a game, Vince Lombardi started the following Monday’s locker room meeting by holding aloft the pigskin and reminding his players that “This is a football,”
    just in case they may have gotten it confused with some other ball being sold at the local sport store.

    Back to fundamentals.