Marriage: Workshop for Holiness (I)

Anthony Zimmerman
Seminar on NFP, Montreal
April 23-27, 1986
Reproduced with Permission

Part One

The Church is not a fossilized apparatus which we view from the outside, is not some centrally articulated structure left by a departing Christ to endure through the ages, said Cardinal Ratzinger in a recent, conference. Rather the Church is a living organism, walking thru the ages, is ourselves in whom the Church lives. We carry the Church, and the Church carries us:

The Church grows from the inside out, and not vice versa. She represents above all, the most intimate communion with Christ; she is formed in a life of prayer, in sacramental life, in the fundamental attitude of faith, hope, and charity." (See OSSERVATORE ROMANO, English Weekly Edition 1985/11/25.)

The majority of Catholics live in their 100,000,000 homes, the domestic churches, in which most of our 840,000,000 members exercise faith, hope, and charity. Whether the Church is, at some particular point in history, Christ's bride at her best, radiant, glorious, immaculate (cf. Eph. 5:27);or whether she wanders for 40 years in a wilderness until a sinful generation dies out and a new generation can continue the pilgrimage to the Promised Land, depends in large measure upon how the Church fares in these 100 million families. Christ is the vine, family members are branches, and in every family the great drama is being performed described by Christ:

I am the vine
and my Father is the vinegrower.
He prunes away
every barren branch,
but the fruitful ones
he trims clean
to increase their yield
He who lives in me and I in him
will produce abundantly,
for apart from me you can do nothing (John 15).

We know that Christ can live in spouses where His laws are kept, including laws concerning the transmission of life; He can help them to produce fruit abundantly. We also know that barren branches will be trimmed away, those closed to the sap of the vine. Spouses can interpose an obex, a block shutting off the sap of the vine, to cut themselves off from Christ's grace. We know that contraception is an act so objectively evil, that Christ cannot take part in it. We also know that spouses can remain, open to Christ's healing and elevating grace when their act remains open to life; or, to put it more precisely, when they do not artificially manipulate the possibility of life out of their act.

The meteorological map of grace around the world will therefore be conditioned largely by the 100 million Catholic families. If they, by and large, keep their marriage in communion with Christ by harmonizing with His moral laws, the world map of grace gives promise of a bumper grape harvest; but if they cut off communion with Christ massively, continent by continent island after island, east, west, north, south, by a contraceptive style of life, we expect to see barren branches everywhere, a Church in a situation like Ethiopia in drought conditions. And that is the reason for the title of this paper, "To Rejuvenate the Church: NFP." We know that family planning is rapidly becoming universal in the world, but when Catholics adopt contraception instead of natural methods, this becomes a problem of crisis proportions. It lames and pollutes the Catholic family domestically and cools her missionary activities in the other four-fifths of the world.

But if natural family planning prevails, then the 100 million families in the Church can put on a better show of being Christ's bride, purified, glorious,"holy and immaculate, without stain or wrinkle or any such thing" (Eph. 5:27). And in this radiant condition of the Church, mission work can surge:

Rise up in splendor! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shines upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth and thick clouds cover the peoples;
But upon you the Lord shines, and over you appears his glory.
Nations shall walk by your light, and kings by your shining radiance.
Raise your eyes and look about; they all gather and come to you ....
Then you shall be radiant at what you see, your heart shall throb and overflow,
for the riches of the sea shall be emptied out before you,
the wealth of nations shall be brought to you (Is. 60).


The degree of the health of the Church will depend, the to a large extent upon the degree of the health of Mystical Body of Christ which incorporates the 100 million Catholic families.

It is there that the action of the Mystical Body takes place to so large an extent. It is there that the Body of Christ lives, grows, flourishes, or desicates and wilts until branches are pruned away.

Cardinal Ratzinger quoted a passage from Romano Guardini to explain how the Church is Christ living in all of us, not some external structure:

[The Church] is not an institution imagined and built by men but a living reality...She still lives through time; she develops like all living realities; she changes yet is always the same in her most profound being, and her innermost centre is Christ ... As long as we consider the Church only as an an an association we are not yet living the right attitude towards her. She is rather a living reality, and our relationship with her must itself be living.

The Church is the presence of Christ; we are contemporary with him and he with us. The Church's life springs from this: from the fact that Christ is present in our hearts; out of this reality he forms his Church It is because Christ is the light of the world that there exists a mirror of his glory, the Church, that transmits his splendour (R. Guardini, La Realta della Chiesa. Brescia, 1973, p. 160).

If the Church is the Body of Christ incorporated in the 100 million families and in all of us, then the morals of Christ must also be a reality in this Body, in ourselves who are Church. And just as the Church is not something we can make or produce, so neither are the moral laws of Christ's Body something we can manufacture. We receive Christ with His morals, together with receiving His Church. Ratzinger makes a strong point of the latter:

A group cannot simply come together, read the New Testament and say: Now we are Church, because the Lord is found wherever two or three are gathered in his name. The element of "receiving" belongs to the Church in an essential way, just as faith derives from listening and is not the product of one's own decisions or reflections. Faith, in fact, is an encounter with that which I cannot devise or produce with my own -- efforts, but which must be granted to me. (loc.cit.)

From this it follows logically that, to be Christ, to be Church, we must "receive" Christ's morality, not produce a different morality according to our private ideas. And what is the morality of Christ? Pope John Paul II has explained this admirably, I think, in a recent Wednesday Audience:


(John Paul II): In the previous catechesis we reflected on God's holiness... Now we wish to listen to God's exhortation to the entire community of the children of Israel:"You shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy" (Lv 19:2). "I am the Lord who sanctify you" (Lv 20:8), etc ...What is God's holiness? It is absolute "separation" from all moral evil,an exclusion and radical rejection of sin and, at the same time, absolute goodness .

Moral perfection consists in the exclusion of sin and in the absolute affirmation of moral good. For men, for rational creatures, such an affirmation is translated into conformity of the will with the moral law. God is holy in himself, he is substantial holiness, because his will is identified with the moral law. This law exists in God himself as in its eternal source, and therefore it is called Eternal Law (Lex Aeterna) (cf. Summa Theol.I-II, q. 93,a.1) ...

God is holiness because he is love (1 Jn 4:16). Through love he is absolutely separated from moral evil, from sin, and he is essentially, absolutely and transcendentally identified with moral good in its source which is himself. Love, in fact, means precisely this: to will the good, to adhere to the good. From this eternal will of God there gushes forth the infinite goodness of God in regard to creatures and, in particular, in regard to man. (General Audience 18 December, 1985.)

If we now remember that Christ can have no other morals than Himself, that "his will is identified with the moral law" in his divine nature, and that his human will is attached to the divine: "I do always the things that please him" (John 8:20), then we understand why the moral law in the Church, in the Mystical Body of Christ, is one, is a human and revealed reflection of God's will which is morality in essence. We understand too why the law must be received together with the Church and cannot be constructed anew out of our own resources. If the all-knowing God, the all-holy God is moral goodness, then the goodness which Christ brings into families everywhere, is one, is true, is participation in the absolute goodness and morality of God. The Church is one in the 100 million families, because these families receive the same goodness from Christ through his Spirit.


The fabric of the Church is so intermeshed with the fabric of Christian marriage, wrote Matthias Scheeben, that when one of these is torn, it is catastrophic for the other: Christian marriage is inextricably interwoven with the supernatural fabric of the Church; the greatest damage one can inflict on both is to tear them apart. When such a catastrophe occurs, matrimony completely loses its high mystical character, and the Church loses one of her fairest flowers, wherein her supernatural, all-pervading, transforming power was so splendidly revealed. Nowhere does the mystical life of the Church penetrate more deeply into natural relationships than in matrimony. (The Mysteries of Faith, Herder, p. 610.)

When Catholics distance themselves from the doctrine of the Church concerning contraception; or to put it more precisely, from the teaching about God's law concerning contraception which the Church announces, it cannot be said that the fabric of the Church is torn; nor can it be said that the fabric of Christian marriage is torn, since Christ's Church, which has withstood the ravages of the ages, will also continue to be herself, whole and entire, until the end of time. What happens is not so much a catastrophe for the Church, the Sacrament of the world, the agency to promote God's goodness; rather, couples who distance themselves from living according to norms of the Mystical Body, place an obex, a block, between their families and the inflow of Christ's grace. The condition of the branch weakens, withers. That is catastrophic for the spouses themselves, for their children, for the community, and by negative feed-back, to good health in their Church, the Church which we all are together; the Church which we are all supposed to keep in good supernatural health:

This if someone asks: what must I do to become Church and grow as Church, the answer can only be: you must first of all seek to become one who lives faith, hope and charity. The Church is built up by prayer and participation in the sacraments, in which the Church's own prayer comes to us. (Ratzinger op. cit.).


The Sacrament of Marriage was purposefully designed by Christ to be the vehicle on which to shuttle all those graces suited to meet the specific needs of married persons in all conditions of life, and to elevate them to greater holiness, that is, supernatural love. The bond of marriage which the two establish with each other is the valve or the sluice gate through which the precious graces of God flow so powerfully and abundantly into good Catholic and Christian families. God honors this enduring covenant of the two, this fidelity given for life, by making it the gateway for his gifts into their lives together. There is nothing which these graces cannot do for the two and their children, if they leave themselves open to God's graces and cooperate fully. Matrimony was made by God to be a sign and source of grace to perfect natural love, to confirm an indissoluble union, to sanctify both man and wife (cf. Council of Trent, Sess XXIV). In the words of Pius XI, Christ stands by to help couples in all aspects of their conjugal lives:

By the very fact, therefore, that the faithful with sincere mind give such consent, they open up for themselves a treasure of sacramental grace from which they draw supernatural power for the fulfilling of the rights and duties faithfully, with holiness, perseverence, even unto death. This sacrament not only increases sanctifying grace, the permanent principle of the supernatural life, in those who, as the expression is, place no obstacle (obex) in its way, but also adds particular gifts, dispositions, seeds of grace, by elevating and perfecting the natural powers. By these gifts the parties are assisted not only in understanding those things which pertain to the marriage state, its aims and duties, but in knowing them intimately, adhering to them firmly, in willing them effectively, and in putting them into practice successfully; in other words, the gifts provide them with a right to the actual assistance of grace whenever they need it for fulfilling the duties of their state. (Casti Conubii, 40).

In present day parlance, we could call it "full coverage insurance,"or "life time service guarantee"for a successful marriage. But, as in all things where the divine helps are available to humans, the latter must also "do their part." If they cooperate diligently, wrote Pius XI "they will be able to bear with ease the burdens of their state and fulfill their duties." But the grace of matrimony could also remain "for the most part an unused talent hidden in the field" unless the partners cultivate and develop the seeds they have received (Casti Connubii XI).


The Sacrament of Marriage does not imprint a character on the souls of spouses as does Baptism, which marks us as incorporated into Christ and destines us to the lay priesthood of offering prayers and gifts to God. Nevertheless the bond of marriage until death which the two accept is a new and specific title which does more than just deliver bills to God for graces needed. The bond places them into a new "order" of lay priests who offer the acts specific to married life to God in a holy and becoming manner, pleasing to God, brilliant in themselves, splendid in goodness, genuinely human, genuinely conjugal, always suffused with the inner glow of God's own assistance. This of necessity requires that couples live their lives in God's way, so that He can supply the graces for this worthy service, and accept the offerings as a sweet smelling sacrifice. In other words, couples must accept marriage as it is in itself, so that it is genuine, so that God recognizes it as His own work. God is not one who can be deceived by counterfeit or make-believe acts. Man cannot make a new kind of marriage, but must receive marriage as God made it. What Ratzinger says about the Church, namely that it "cannot be made, but only received" from where she already is "a sacramental community of her Body which extends throughout history" applies also to marriage. That is why we cannot do a half-way marriage, make a trial of it, enter it with the idea of divorcing if things don't work out, and try again. We either marry "for life" or we don't marry at all. And we perform actions specific to marriage in this state correctly so that they are "liturgical," and please God as did the sacrifice of Abel; or we attempt to offer our own contrived sacrifices, but the "smoke goes down" when God does not look upon them with favor, as in the case of Cain (cf. Gen 4:1-5). We will come back to this point when treating about contraception, which is Cain's kind of "liturgical service."

In any case, it is evident that couples must perform their marital services correctly, as ordained by God, if they are to qualify as liturgy, acceptable to God. God has made us to be his offspring, who see light in His light, and therefore see things as they are, correctly, as God also sees them. He is absolute love which is goodness, and we become good only with His goodness. If God's light is not in our actions, then they have no light; they are dark. If God's goodness and grace is not in our actions, the actions are not good; they are bad. There can be a pluriformity of essentially the same marital goodness and truth as reflected through different persons and cultures; but there cannot be a pluralism of marital goodness, one as God is, another as God is not. We are so much caught up into God's goodness, love, and truth, His moral laws, that we are held by them inescapably, just as God cannot escape from His own nature.

That is also the reason why every act of love in married life is done with goodness, with God; else it cannot be an act of love, of goodness, at all. We will see how important this point is when we come back to the counterfeit love which contraception is; it isn't an act of love, said Pope John Paul-II (General Audience, August 22, 1984).

"God delights in us when we reflect His glory" wrote Pope Clement to the first century Christians at Corinth. God takes that special Sabbath rest in us when we perform well in His eyes, just as He did when contemplating His works of creation: "God saw all he had made, and indeed it was very good... God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day he had rested after all his work of creating" (Gn 1:31; 2:3). The idea is not far fetched: it was a great performance of God to create the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, and He was entitled to sit back and enjoy it on the seventh day; and it is again a beautiful performance on God's part when He can create a world of goodness with marriage partners - God taking the leading part inspiring their "liturgy of marital life" to be a creation of great beauty - God loves to work with beautiful creations, and will be more and more delighted with the couple as they perform through all the various movements of their own special symphony under God's baton, until the piece comes to an end, and they can enter the Sabbath rest together.