Marriage in light of Creation, Fall, and Redemption

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The whole notion of marriage is so confused in our time, even among Catholics, that we desperately need to recover some basic and foundational truths. The mini-catechesis on the sacrament of marriage in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (¶1601-1617) proceeds in light of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. Marriage, it states, belongs to the order of redemption, is under the regime of sin, but is grounded in the order of creation.

John Paul II wrote regarding marriage: “Willed by God in the very act of creation, marriage and the family are interiorly ordained to fulfillment in Christ and have need of His graces in order to be healed from the wounds of sin and restored to their ‘beginning’ [back to creation], that is, to full understanding and the full realization of God’s plan.” (Familiaris consortio 3) This major claim, along with its undergirding theology of nature and grace, is developed throughout John Paul II’s Man and Woman He Created Them.

The Word of God teaches that the redemptive work of Christ reaffirms and simultaneously renews the goodness of creation – and hence of marriage, of the human body sharing in the dignity of the image of God, of the complimentary sexual differentiation of man and woman, and of a faithful, reciprocal, and fruitful love. Yes, in light of the redemptive work of Christ, the Catholic sacramental tradition teaches that the sacrament of marriage renews and restores the reality of marriage – given that it is savagely wounded by the fall and our own personal sin – from within its order.

Thus, the grace of marriage communicated by the sacrament has two main ends: first, that of healing, i.e., of repairing the consequences of sin in the individual and in society; and second – and above all – that of perfecting and raising persons and the conjugal institution. “According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman.” (CCC 1607)

Gaudium et spes summarizes all of this: “This [marital] love God has judged worthy of special gifts, healing, perfecting and exalting gifts of grace and of charity.” (49)

This two-fold effect means that the grace of the “marital sacrament is not a ‘thing’ added to the reality of the couple from the outside; rather, the couple itself is and must become the living sign of an invisible reality of grace,” as Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet puts it. There is an intrinsic relationship between the natural order and the order of Christ’s grace such that grace renews the fallen order of marriage from within, orienting it to its proper ends.

The Marriage Feast at Cana by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, c. 1672 [Barber Institute, Birmingham, England]

Grace penetrating fallen nature and renewing it from within (“gratia intra naturam”) means there is an essential continuity in man and a link between creation and redemption. “Endowment with grace is in some sense a ‘new creation’,” says John Paul.

“New creation” does not, however, mean that grace is a plus-factor, a superadded gift, to the order of creation. Rather, nature and grace, creation and re-creation, the sacrament of creation and redemption are united such that God’s grace affirms and simultaneously renews the fallen creation from within its own internal order. As the Catechism puts it, “Jesus came to restore creation to the purity of its origins.” (2336)

Elsewhere, the Catechism explains, “In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning. . . . By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Jesus] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. ” (1614-1615)

This sacrament not only recovers the order of creation but also, while reaffirming this ordinance of creation, it simultaneously deepens, indeed, fulfills the reality of marriage in a reciprocal self-giving, a joining of two in a one-flesh union that is a visible sign of the mystery of the union of Christ with the Church. (Eph 5:31-32)

The unity attained in becoming “two-in-one-flesh” (Gen 2:24) in marriage is grounded in the order of creation, and it is affirmed and simultaneously renewed and restored in redemption. Since continuity exists between creation and redemption, we can understand why John Paul II sees marriage as “the primordial sacrament.”

When we look at the visible sign of marriage (“the two shall be one flesh”) in the order of creation from the perspective of the visible sign of Christ and the Church, which is defined in Ephesians as the fulfillment and realization of God’s eternal plan of salvation, we can see John Paul’s point. He says, “In this way, the sacrament of redemption clothes itself, so to speak, in the figure and form of the primordial sacrament. . . . Man’s new supernatural endowment with the gift of grace in the ‘sacrament of redemption’ is also a new realization of the Mystery hidden from eternity in God, new in comparison with the sacrament of creation. At this moment, endowment with grace is in some sense a ‘new creation’.”

Let’s be clear that he calls it a “new creation” in the specific sense that “Redemption means. . . taking up all that is created [in order] to express in creation the fullness of justice, equity, and holiness planned for it by God and to express that fullness above all in man, created male and female ‘in the image of God’.”

Thus, nature and grace, creation and re-creation, the sacrament of creation and redemption are united such that God’s grace affirms and simultaneously renews the fallen creation from within its own internal order. For JPII and the main Catholic tradition: “Marriage is organically inscribed in this new sacrament of redemption, just as it was inscribed in the original sacrament of creation.”

Eduardo J. Echeverria is Professor of Philosophy and Systematic Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. His publications include Pope Francis: The Legacy of Vatican II Revised and Expanded Second Edition (Lectio Publishing, Hobe Sound, FL, 2019) and Revelation, History, and Truth: A Hermeneutics of Dogma. (2018). His new book is Are We Together? A Roman Catholic Analyzes Evangelical Protestants.