Text & Audio: “What is Marriage?” by Rev. Joseph Illo

Thomas Aquinas College Chaplain Rev. Joseph Illo delivered the following address at the second 2013 Summer Seminar weekend on July 20, 2013:


What Is Marriage?

The question before us is, in the words of Robert George, “What is marriage?” It seems such an obvious question, and really we wonder why we have to spell it out. Permanent, monogamous bonding is just natural to the human species, as natural as breathing, because our bodies and our souls are made that way. If we don’t breathe, the individual dies, and if we don’t marry and have children, the race dies. Our Lord defined it simply in Matthew 19, quoting Genesis: “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” But the simplest things in life are often the hardest to define. St. Augustine famously said in the 11th chapter of his Confessions, “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know: if I wish to explain it to one that asks, I know not.”

We have been pushed by the cataclysmic social revolutions of our time to define marriage for those who seek to redefine it. On Thursday night the College showed a classic movie to the students, Casablanca. It has been some years since I watched the 1942 film, and it struck me how clearly the concept of marriage was assumed in that movie. Ingrid Bergman (the Norwegian beauty “Ilsa”) is in love with two men, but only one of them is her husband. She had been told he perished in a concentration camp when she fell in love with Rick in Paris. When she finds her husband still alive, she leaves Rick so as to be faithful to her vows. When she and her husband find themselves in Rick’s Casablanca nightclub some years later, she realizes she does not have the strength to leave him a second time. “You will have to think for all three of us,” she pleads of Rick. Deeply in love with her, Rick thinks correctly, respects her marriage vows, and arranges safe transport for Ilsa and her husband to America. He is left quite alone in German-occupied Africa, but one gets the sense at the end of the movie that Rick will find happiness because he has done the right thing.

The year is 2013, and people no longer assume that respecting marriage vows is the right thing. It has been some years since vows took precedence over “falling in love,” and feelings now trump promises. The responsibility to think through, articulate, and defend Marriage falls squarely on the shoulders of each person here. If we Christians do not render this vital service for the common good, I can’t imagine who will have the tools or the motivation to do so. I wish to summarize Robert George’s natural law arguments for traditional marriage, and then Bl. John Paul II’s theological definitions of marriage as a sacrament in Familiaris Consortio. I will present some conclusions, and then we will have a half hour for open discussion.

Babies and Bonding or Fun and Games

What is marriage, according to human reason and cultural experience? Robert George et al. have given us many clear and cogent distinctions in their book. I might summarize them, though, in the words of the Archbishop of San Francisco, Salvatore Cordileone. Archbishop Cordileone has been a longtime friend of the College, preaching at both our Convocation Mass in 2008 and again at our chapel Dedication Weekend Mass in 2009. Apart from his duties as Archbishop of San Francisco, he currently serves as chairman of the USCCB’s Subcommittee for the Promotion and Defense of Marriage. Last month he spoke to all of his priests on the subject: “To put it succinctly,” he said, “sex is either for babies and bonding, or it is for fun and games.”

The two views are mutually exclusive. Either sex is essentially sacred, or sex is essentially profane. It’s possible to posit aspects of sexuality in both terms, but it’s not possible to posit the essential purpose, the final end, of sex in both terms. A minority understands sexuality as essentially salvific (that would be us, hopefully), and a minority understands sexuality as essentially recreational, but the vast middle hasn’t thought through the question enough to have any clear ideas about it. Most folks, I would bet, think of sexuality vaguely as something fun and important and a little sacred, but mostly kind of what you make of it. Hence the confusion of our time. We have not so much rejected as forgotten the essentially sacred nature of marriage and sexuality. We have forgotten its final end as a sacrament of divine love, a means to lead us to heaven.

What is marriage? No one in the more affluent, more highly educated parts of the world seems able to figure this out. You may know that President Obama was rebuked in Africa a few weeks ago for promoting so-called homosexual “marriage” on that continent. John Nagenda, one of Uganda’s top policy advisors, rejected the American government’s agenda in these words: “This idea of Clinton’s, of Obama’s, is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of.” It seems the most educated people are making the most contradictory and fallacious statements in this regard. For example, as George points out, if the State grants a same-sex couple a marriage license, it has no rational basis to refuse a marriage license to an asexual arrangement such as two brothers sharing the same house, or to a polygamous relationship.

Revisionists fall into self-contradictions because they fail to make essential distinctions. For example, marriage is distinct from other relationships in its fundamental orientation toward offspring. Any other arrangement may be personally beneficial, but is not ordered to the procreation and education of children, on which a peaceful social order is based.

Three Distinctions

Robert George helps us make these necessary distinctions. Let us look a bit more closely at the essential distinction about sex as compared to every other type of human activity. That which distinguishes coitus from any other form of friendship and from recreation in particular is that sex is ordered to the generation of human life. To quote Archbishop Cordileone again: “Maggie Gallagher’s recently proclaimed a startling discovery: Newsflash! Sex makes babies! I don’t know what could be more obvious than the fact that, in the act of coitus, a man and a woman join themselves in a one-flesh bodily union in the only act by which babies naturally come into the world. The formula is quite simple and clear: healthy societies are built on healthy, united families; healthy, united families are based on healthy, happy, harmonious marriages; and at the heart of marriage is the spiritual-sexual relationship between husband and wife. It all really comes down to that.”

From the time of the Greeks and the Romans and Egyptians, mankind has tried to separate sex from babies, but they had sense enough to recognize the distinction of marriage. Of course, the ancients didn’t have very effective contraceptive technologies, and so recognizing the link between marriage and children was to a large degree a biological necessity. Whatever the cause, however, sex has been understood in reference to procreation in every culture until our own time. The development of the hormonal pill in the 1950s has enabled us to progressively remove the child from marriage, so that the sexual act itself has lost much of its essential meaning. Sex has come to mean any act that produces orgasm. In that definition, a man can have sex with another man, or with himself, or with an animal, or with an inanimate object. But surely this concept of sex cannot serve as a foundation for “marriage.” If that were true, I could “marry” another man, or an animal, or myself, or anything that gives me sexual pleasure. What distinguishes marriage from any other relationship?

George posits three elements that distinguish marriage from any other human relationship: sexual union properly understood, natural procreation, and permanence. Thus he follows St. Augustine who, in 401A.D., wrote in De bono coniugale:

“The good of marriage in every nation and for all mankind lies in the purpose of procreation and in chaste fidelity; but for the people of God, it lies also in the holiness of the sacrament, by reason of which it is forbidden for a woman, for so long as her husband lives, to marry another, even if she has been put away by her husband, and not even in order to have children.... These, therefore, are the goods that make marriage good — offspring, fidelity, sacrament.”

First, sexual union. It has an objective bodily dimension, what we call coitus, the joining of complementary sexual organs. But sexuality is broader than mere genital contact — it involves the total person as male or female. Every cell in a man’s body is male, and every cell in a woman’s body is female. In the sexual confusion of our time, some undergo what they call “sex change operations.” This plastic surgery, however, only fabricates non-functional imitations of male or female genitalia. It does not change a person’s sexual identity. You would have to replace every cell male cell in a person’s body with a female cell to do that. George Burou, a Casablancan physician who has operated on over 700 American men, explained, “I don’t change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s mind.” Sexual union is a matter of body and soul, since the human person is a body-soul composite. Sexual union does not mean merely achieving orgasm; it means the union of bodies and souls that are capable of being so united.

This sexual union is inherently, naturally, ordered to the second distinguishing factor of marriage, the generation and education of offspring. What makes the sexual union unique among all human interactions is its orientation toward procreation. It naturally, although not always, results in conception of new life. Sex and babies fit together, as we see in all of nature. Only human beings, in their unnatural desire to control nature, have artificially separated sex and babies. Have you ever seen a lion or an elephant or a goldfish engaging in contraceptive sexual activity? Just because we can contracept does not mean it is good for us. Marriage is distinguished by the generation and rearing of children, and no other institution can replace it with equal efficacy.

And finally, the fact that sexual union is naturally ordered to procreation brings about the third distinguishing factor of marriage, permanence and exclusivity. As John Paul said in his Theology of the Body papal audiences, the body speaks its own language in the marital act. It says “I will always be there for you, my spouse, my children.” Individuals need a lot of support, particularly during our childhood. Life is difficult and tenuous. We are not sure we are lovable. In order to flourish, children especially need the constant and dedicated love of a mother and a father. It is quite hard to be faithful to another person until death; in fact, it is humanly impossible to persevere in permanence and exclusivity. So God gives us the grace of a sacrament. Sexual union between a man and woman that is further enriched by the loving self-gift of each is sacramental: it portrays the self-giving love of God for humanity. Conversely, Christians believe that God blesses our attempts to love in this way by affording us the grace of the sacrament.

Sacrament: Revelation and Effect

And so we turn to our second text, Familiaris Consortio, issued in 1981 following the Fifth General Synod of Bishops in October 1980, on the “Rights and Duties of the Family.” It is John Paul’s most in-depth catechesis on the family as the expression of the matrimonial sacrament.

First, let us recall St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of sacrament in his Third Part of the Summa Theologica. In question 60, Thomas defines a sacrament as a “kind of sign.” “A sacrament is defined as being the sign of a holy thing in so far as it makes men holy.” In words with which we are more familiar, “Sacraments are outward signs instituted by Christ to give grace.” The Catechism adds, “celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify.” Certainly, for example, a baptism or a wedding looks holy and points us to God. But unlike a mere painting of Christ or a song about God, or even the Bible itself, the seven sacraments actually make us holy, if we receive them in faith. The Most Blessed Sacrament, the Mass, from which all the other sacraments flow, does this by reliving the great events of Christ’s life, and propelling us forward to the life of the world to come. In the words of Charles Cardinal Journet, the sacramental liturgy is “full of memories, but these memories are promises. If it communicates the past, it is in order to hasten the future.” The Eucharist, most obviously, communicates the grace of the Last Supper and the Sacrifice of Calvary 2,000 years ago. It hastens the future kingdom of heaven, when myriads upon myriads of saints will acclaim the Lamb of God at his Wedding Feast.

In the sacrament of marriage, though, what is this “past” the sacrament communicates, and what is this “future” the sacrament promises? Marriage not only recalls the joyful harmony of Adam and Eve in the Garden, but it also grants a foretaste of that place where “men will be like angels.” (“For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” [Matt 22.30].) Not only perfect marriages do this, but the sacrament per se has this divine potential at every moment. One does not need a perfect or even good marriage to receive the saving effects of the sacrament.

Pope John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio 13 puts it like this: “By virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church.” We call this ex opere operato in sacramental theology, meaning the grace happens simply by virtue of living the sacrament, even if we don’t receive it very well.

Or in the words of G.K. Chesterton: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” We should stay with our marriages, even in difficult periods, because the sacrament sanctifies us despite our best efforts to contravene it. My parents celebrate their 60th anniversary next Saturday. It’s not been a perfect marriage, but it is a marriage. It is an objective reality and an objective good beyond my parents’ abilities and will. My parents, and their children, have a chance at heaven because these spouses have been faithful, in good times and in bad times, to the reality of their marriage, of which God is the author.
A sacrament, then, reveals and effects God’s love, His perfect plan, his ardent desire for our happiness. When we see peace between husband and wife, when we see them making the effort to love one another, when we see the fruit of their love especially in their beloved children, we see God’s will for our happiness (as is somewhat dramatically but nonetheless truly portrayed in phrases like Jane Austen heroines who contemplate their future marriages and exclaim: “O Elizabeth, I am the happiest girl in the world!”). God wants us all to be the happiest boys and girls in the world, and even if we are not married, the very image of a godly marriage makes us smile with happiness.

Here below, happiness generally comes by way of the cross. So John Paul writes in Familiaris Consortio 13: “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. Of this salvation event marriage, like every sacrament, is a memorial, actuation and prophecy.”

Marriage does not have to be pleasant to be effective for our salvation. Pleasure, the absence of strife and pain, is not the essence of happiness, at least here below. Since the Fall of Adam, apparently the only way we can learn to love God, to prefer His will to ours, is by the sweat of our faces and by the pain of childbirth. But there will come a day when we will have won the crown by His grace, and marriage, like the other seven sacraments, moves us along the path to that glory. The mentality of easy divorce, of easy sex, of easy marriage, is after all predicated upon a mistaken notion of happiness. Happiness, above all else, is to do the will of God, to be faithful to the natural order. This usually takes a long time for us slow learners. Sacramental marriage teaches us how to love the Father’s will, over many long and sometimes wearisome, but always rewarding, years.

Sacrament: Matter and Form

St. Thomas goes on to note that sacraments are composed of matter and form in Question 60, article 6. “It is part of man’s nature to acquire knowledge of the intelligible from the sensible…. Since the sacred things which are signified by the sacraments are spiritual and intelligible, it follows that the sacramental signs consist in sensible things.” The “matter” of a sacrament is something perceivable to the senses, like bread or water or oil; the “form” of a sacrament are words which indicate our desire to do what Jesus did, such as “This is my body” in the Eucharist, or “I, Joseph, take you Mary, to be my wife” in Matrimony.

What is the material “matter,” the material element, of matrimony? It is not water and oil, as in baptism, nor bread and wine as in the Eucharist. It is precisely the human body, the sacred temple of the Holy Spirit. Our flesh is sacred because it becomes the very matter through which the sacrament is confected. Every day a husband spends his body working long hours to support wife and family; every moment a wife gives her body over to the washing, the cooking, the cleaning, she confects the sacramental grace. And surely the gift of one’s self culminates and is perfected in the marital act, the complete gift of self in the loving, one-flesh union.

And what is the form, that is, the words that confect matrimony? Of course these are the vows spouses make to God and each other on their wedding day. They must be renewed every day in words and deeds, and every act of conjugal union renews those vows. “I take you,” I accept the gift of your self to me, from God, and I promise to be true to you, to give you myself totally, freely, fruitfully, and forever. The vows indicate our decisive act of will to do what Christ did for us: to give Himself to us absolutely. Wedding vows must imitate Christ’s vow to us: “No man hath greater love for his friends than to lay down his life for them, and I lay down my life freely. No one takes it from me.”

Necessary for Salvation

Some may say that the Catholic Church is too “biological,” obsessed with sex, excessively focused on bodily experiences. Why do we need to eat at Mass? Indeed, its entire worship — its sacraments — revolves around eating, drinking, oiling our bodies, and sexual expression. Surely “rational beings” have evolved beyond the primitive signs and symbols of an elemental religious practices. Couldn’t we be just keep worship at the healthy level of discussion rather than corporeal ingestion? Indeed, the Protestant “reformation” did away with the sacraments and ritual worship.

Are the sacraments necessary for our salvation? Is marriage really necessary for our happiness, here and hereafter? St. Thomas asks and answers this question in the Summa, counseling humility: Man “is humbled, through confessing that he is subject to corporeal things, seeing that he receives assistance through them,” he writes in Q. 61, art. 1. “Human nature has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible.… the healing remedy should be given to a man so as to reach the part affected by the disease.” We need simple bread and wine, we need to feel the olive oil on our skin, we need to confess to a living, breathing, imperfect priest when we sin, and we even need sexual expression to know that we are forgiven and loved.

The messy, bodily, imperfectly received and imperfectly expressed sacraments are man’s normal way to God. “The Church affirms” (in the Catechism, 1129) “that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.” We need to be baptized, we need to receive the Eucharist every Sunday, we need the sacrament of matrimony if we are going to live together. “Narrow is the gate, and straighten the way, that leadeth unto life, and few be they that find it,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:14.

Marriage is hard, but we need “hard” to reach eternal life. We need a life project to sink our teeth into, to work up a sweat over, to drive us to surrender to the will of God. Spouses and children, driving our selfishness from us year by year, do this admirably. The Catechism spells this out in 1609: “In his mercy, God has not forsaken sinful man … ‘pain in childbearing’ and the toil ‘in the sweat of your brow’ embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin. After the fall, marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of ones’ own pleasure, and to open oneself f to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving.”

Life is hard, and marriage is a slice of life: a big, fat slice of life. Marriage can be either a slice of heaven or a slice of hell. When God began the human race with a marriage between Adam and Eve; when Jesus elevated marriage to the level of a sacrament with perhaps the hardest words in the New Testament (“I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, commits adultery” (Matt 19); when Jesus blessed this sacrament at the wedding in Cana (John 2); when the Holy Spirit portrays heaven to John the Apostle as a wedding feast in the Book of the Apocalypse: when God began the Bible and ended the Bible with marriage, we understand Him to be saying this: I love you with a spousal love. Love one another as I have loved you — freely, fruitfully, faithfully, and totally.

Marriage is a great sign, the only sacrament confected outside the church, for all to see. It is the only sacrament that those who never go into a church will see. John Paul gives each married couple a mission in Familiaris Consortio 20: “To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time…. I praise and encourage those numerous couples who, though encountering no small difficulty, preserve and develop the value of indissolubility: thus, in a humble and courageous manner, they perform the role committed to them of being in the world a “sign” — a small and precious sign, sometimes also subjected to temptation, but always renewed — of the unfailing fidelity with which God and Jesus Christ love each and every human being.”

An Open Question

We have considered arguments for traditional marriage in the light of both human reason and divine revelation. I noticed how we struggled in the second seminar, with Robert George’s book, to articulate the arguments solely under the light of reason. I noticed that we felt more confident and at consensus discussing the question with the help of the Church’s Magisterium. And so I end with this question: Is human reason alone, compromised as it is by Original Sin, sufficient to arrive at the truth of marriage? Does society need the help of Biblical revelation to define marriage, or is it possible to articulate the truths of this societal good solely by the light of human reason?


Posted: July 24, 2013

Father Illo Lecture - 07-20-2013
Patrick Nazeck (’19) -- quote 2

“Here I am surrounded by other people my age who share my interests, who value their education as much as I do, and whom I can have fun with while still learning about big ideas. It is an awesome experience that I have never found anywhere else.”

– Patrick Nazeck (’19)

Ridgecrest, California

“Thomas Aquinas College is doing on the undergraduate level exactly what should be done. The College's alumni and alumnae prove that with this kind of education you can go on and do anything.”

– Dr. Ralph McInerny (†)

Scholar and Writer