Chatting with a friend recently, we remarked that having children had made us each realize the value of a Catholic spouse. We both marveled that we had once considered the possibility of compromising. In college, it was easy to flirt with the idea of dating—and even marrying—someone who did not share our faith. I went so far as to date a non-Christian, imagining that somehow he would change or that my relationship with Christ, something foundational to my very being, could take the back seat when choosing a life partner. In the throws of emotion, infatuation with a potential significant other or desperation at being alone, we can find ourselves downplaying the importance of common beliefs and values. Having crossed to the other side of the sacrament of marriage and established a family with a Catholic husband, I cannot imagine marriage without a spouse who views the world through the lens of the Catholic faith, who has founded his life on the same principles, and who shares the same goals for our family.
A sacramental marriage, by definition, can only take place with the full knowledge of both parties regarding the nature of marriage. A marriage between two practicing Catholics means starting a God-centered family that is open to life, obedient to His church, witnessing to His love, and aiming for heaven. Furthermore, both spouses must understand that marriage is a vocation: a lifelong calling, not just a side project. They must believe that marriage is permanent and indissoluble. Mother Church insists that the couple entering matrimony share a commitment to the true meaning of the sacrament, establishing a firm foundation for their life together.
In practice, this insistence means a couple is working from the same first principles when answering the tough questions life will throw at them: Will they have children? How many? How will they raise them? How will they spend their time? Their money? Without a common understanding of the purpose of their life together, answering these questions can be, at best, divisive and, at worst, impossible. A difference in priorities will strand a husband and wife at cross purposes, working against each other. St. Paul’s admonition in 2 Corinthians 6:14, not to be “unequally yoked,” reminds us that spouses are meant to face the same direction and pull together toward the same goal, united in their purpose of living the life God has chosen for them.
Through the Church, God gives those called to the vocation of marriage a beautiful gift. Sacramental marriage unites a man and a woman physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Our culture of instant gratification, quick fixes, and self-centeredness often tells us to settle in our relationships. It tells us that it is normal and healthy to seek only physical pleasure, without a more deeply satisfying intellectual and emotional connection. But we are called to a relationship that unites two complete human persons: body and soul, mind and spirit. More than pleasure or sentimental feeling, we are rewarded with the other half of our self, a helpmeet, a companion on our pilgrimage, and a partner in the creation of a family.
I am not claiming that the sacrament of marriage is a magical talisman against suffering, misunderstanding, or trouble. I am not saying that it instantly gives us the patience of the saints or the wisdom of the years. Nor am I arguing that Catholic marriages are more blessed, more holy, or less prone to sin. As Catholics, however, we are given a distinctive promise of grace when we unite in marriage under the auspices of the Church. By choosing daily to avail ourselves of that promised grace—to ask for and accept it—we can begin to work out our salvation through our vocation.
The Church provides us with the tools we need for a happy, well-ordered marriage: a foundation of faith, a unity of purpose, and access to specific grace. She urges those with a vocation to marriage not to settle; we are created for no less than a sacramental union that lasts forever.