Friday, 01 November 2019 14:10

Marriage and the Spousal Meaning of the Body - part 5

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This article is the fifth of a series of five articles. The five articles together make up a thesis writing on marriage and the spousal meaning of the body. This fifth article covers the fourth chapter of the thesis, on how properly living out the spousal meaning of the body affects marriage, and ends with the thesis conclusion.


Chapter 4: How Properly Living out the Spousal Meaning of the Body Affects Marriage

Historical Magisterial Teachings on Marriage

            When reviewing the four magisterial documents examined in this paper there are several key teachings presented; some of these teachings are echoed in multiple documents, and further expounded upon as the circumstances of the time required. The most prominent reality reaffirmed with each document is that God is the author and institutor of marriage, and as a result, marriage is not to be made subject to the whims of man. God has placed marriage in the care of His Church, that the Church might always instruct the faithful according to God’s law concerning marriage.

The excellent properties of marriage have been set forward as unity and perpetuity. Marriage, by its nature is indissoluble and works for the good of the spouses, the family and society. This understanding of the twofold properties of marriage was further developed to explain how marriage incorporates the blessings of offspring, conjugal faith, and Sacrament; with an emphasis on the fact that marriage is ordained towards procreation and extending the love of God to the resulting children. The Sacramental aspect of marriage helps bring about the sanctification of the spouses as graces are provided for working through the challenges endured during married and family life. As each of the family members strive to grow in virtue and holiness individually, and also collectively, the family becomes a school of deeper humanity where the members become more who they were created to be.

Special care must then be taken to ensure the proper instruction of the faithful in the precepts of Christian wisdom, focusing on the purification of one’s passions, denying oneself, and growing in chastity so as to aid spouses in living out God’s plan for marriage. It is only by adhering to God’s plan for marriage that marriages can flourish, and as such, all decisions concerning marriage and the family must be discerned according to objective moral standards, taking into account the eternal destiny of man. Since marriage is ordained towards procreation and extending God’s love to the resulting children, it is of great importance that decisions concerning the governing of procreation are discerned in such a way.

Insights from the Theology of the Body

In original solitude man becomes aware of his being distinguished from the rest of creation, as a person, and also experiences an incompleteness when he does not find another person like himself. Original solitude is the condition which sets the stage and explains the natural attraction towards original unity, whereby man is filled with joy at the discovery and experience of the woman, the second person, the second I. The discovery of the other is at one and the same time a discovery of the man’s own humanity; up until that point man’s self-understanding had consisted in a non-identification with the rest of creation instead of an identification with a particular nature.

The first man and woman possessed an original nakedness whereby they were naked and without shame. They possessed a freedom from fear in the face of the other and were able to communicate with one another according to the communion willed for them by God. This original nakedness allowed them the fullness of vision in freedom to be able to perceive and understand the whole of the meaning of the body, and made it possible for them to make a disinterested gift of themselves while reciprocally receiving the gift of the other as a communion of persons. As a part of this communion of persons, each person exists as a person, beside a person, given for that person. Man cannot fully realize his essence or fulfilment apart from his communion with another person, and it is only through participation in this communion that man can recognize and receive the gift of creation.

This leads to the concept of the spousal meaning of the body, the body’s “power to express love: precisely that love in which the human person becomes a gift and – through this gift – fulfills the very meaning of his being and existence.”[1] The spousal meaning of the body is the fulfilment of human sexuality, masculinity and femininity, whereby man (male and female) recognizes and affirms the dignity of the other as made in the image and likeness of the Creator. Marriage is the institution created by God whereby the spousal meaning of the body can be expressed between spouses in an ordered way, and was later elevated to the dignity of a Sacrament by Christ so that it might become a way of living which participates in the mystery of redemption. As an instrument of God’s grace, the Sacrament of marriage effects the sanctification and healing of the spouses, allowing “man and woman to find the true freedom of the gift together with the awareness of the spousal meaning of the body in its masculinity and femininity.”[2] The gift of self, as well as the reception of the gift of the other, first occurs in the soul, and is ultimately expressed by body. The freedom to live as a gift according to the spousal meaning of the body finds its proper expression through the language of the body. In the vocation of marriage, when this language of the body is spoken in truth it corresponds to the marital vows and allows the spouses to continually deepen their communion through every act and gesture. In the other vocations of priesthood, religious life, or single life, the spousal meaning of the body and the gift of self for another becomes a continence for the kingdom of heaven, for God alone.

Challenges and Temptations

            Having examined the Divine plan for human nature and the spousal meaning of the body, this section will transition to confronting some of the challenges posed by living in a fallen world where man has left the state of original innocence. Often times, man has believed the lie that he is the author of marriage, and as such has attempted to manipulate and control the norms of marriage and procreation. The manipulation of the norms of marriage has led to a greater acceptance and use of divorce as a means to escape the challenges of marriage; there has also been a rise in confusion as to what most properly constitutes a marriage as men and woman approach one another with lesser intentions than the Divine will for marriage. The result has been an increase in the number of broken families as well as a view and understanding of marriage which pales in comparison to God’s original design.

The manipulation of procreation has led to a contraceptive mentality. By accepting the use of contraception, men and woman no longer give of themselves completely to one another, either reserving a part of themselves (their fertility), or rejecting a part of their spouse. This problem has evolved into separating procreation from the sexual act in the mind of men, and allowing for the sexual act to be reduced to simply an act of pleasure. This skewed understanding of the sexual act has only further fed the lust in the hearts of men, and perpetuated the temptation for spouses to treat one another as objects of pleasure instead of subjects of communion. This problem has been exacerbated by the reality of the concupiscence which man has inherited, as it inclines the heart of men to lust, making it more difficult to make a disinterested gift of himself. This situation has eventually further devolved into the separation of the sexual act from the confines of marriage in the mind of men, so that now promiscuity has become rampant.

With each step that has been taken by man to further manipulate marriage and procreation, man has stepped further away from living according to the spousal meaning of the body, through a disinterested gift of self, as a part of a communion of persons imaging the love of the Trinity. As a growing number of marriages image only counterfeit versions of marriage, the understanding of marriage in the minds of the youth becomes increasingly malformed, only perpetuating the cycle as they grow to form their own families; producing more broken families and wounded individuals. While the situation has become very tragic, it is not without hope of redemption. A return to the Divine plan for marriage and striving to live according to the spousal meaning of the body can invite the Lord’s grace for the healing and transforming of marriage and sexuality.

Healing and Transformation through Life According to the Spousal Meaning of the Body

            The path laid out by Christ in Matthew 19:8, Matthew 5:27-28, and Mark 12: 26-27 provides the key to the healing and transformation which God wills for human sexuality. In Matthew 19:8 Christ is quoted as saying, “Because of the hardness of your heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8). This is the first of the triptych of passages examined by John Paul II, whereby Christ points to the wounded condition of the hearts of men, in an attempt to remind man, to reawaken in him an awareness of the innocence once possessed by man in the beginning so that man might recognize his need for conversion and healing.

In Matthew 5: 27-28 Christ is quoted as saying, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you: Whoever looks at a woman to desire her [in a reductive way] has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Mt 5:27-28). During his reflection on Matthew 5:27-28, John Paul II explained how Christ sought to correct the distorted understanding of how men are to carry out the moral law of the Old Covenant by bringing about a conversion of their interior perception of values; a transition from the simple understanding of the law as an ethic, to an ethos. [3] Where the first scripture passage of the triptych was aimed at bringing about an awareness of man’s need for conversion and healing, this second passage brings attention to the specific conversion required.

In Mark 12:25-27 Christ responds to the Sadducees regarding their question on the possibility of the resurrection. Christ’s response provides insight on man’s future state and the proper understanding of marriage, “when they rise from the dead, they take neither wife nor husband, but are like angels in heaven. And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not God of the dead, but of the living” (Mk 12:25-27) Marriage between the sexes and procreation is thus proper only to this world, to this side of heaven; man will experience a new constitution of masculinity and femininity in heaven.[4] This passage also sheds light on the reality that the fulfilment of human sexuality and the spousal meaning of the body ultimately lies in the participation of communion with God; the communion of persons which spouses participate in during their life on earth is meant to be a sign which orients men towards their ultimate fulfilment in heaven. Thus, the healing and transformation being sought is ordered towards man’s growing in the freedom and capacity to participate in communion with God.

As man recognizes his need for conversion and healing, and pursues this conversion through the transformation of his interior values, he will be able to pursue freedom from sin and grow in his capacity to participate in communion with God and with others; namely his spouse. As man strives more and more down this path, he will seek less and less to manipulate marriage, procreation, and sexuality. Instead, man will more and more embrace the freedom of living in the truth of God’s plan for human flourishing. Evidence of this was found in a 2013 study from Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. It was found that the percentage of Catholics who were ever married and later experienced a divorce was approximately 28%. While this rate of divorce is still tragically high, it was found that individuals of no religious affiliation had a percentage of divorce of 42%.[5] That is roughly a 67% higher rate of divorce. While there is not enough granularity within these statistics to be able to look into the circumstances of the marriages or determine the depth of prayer or commitment to the faith of these individuals, there is enough information to indicate that having some level of relationship with the Lord, and thus some degree of desiring to live according to His will, results in a lesser occurrence of failed marriages. With more individuals working through the challenges of married and family life, there are more individuals growing in virtue, more individuals growing in depth of relationship with one another, and more individuals moving in the direction of growth in freedom from sin.

As previously stated, the calculated percentage of Catholics who became married and later experienced divorce is still tragically high at 28%; that means that more than 1 out of every 4 Catholic marriages are ending in divorce. This highlights the existence of a great need to cultivate a martial culture which is not only steeped in awareness of the spousal meaning of the body, but also striving to further embrace the spousal meaning of the body so as to most grow in freedom; freedom from sin, freedom to give of themselves as a disinterested gift, and freedom to flourish as God most desires.

Guidance for Living According to the Spousal Meaning of the Body

Foundational for further embracing and living according to the spousal meaning of the body is seeking out appropriate education and formation in the faith. This includes formation for couples prior to marriage, but also ongoing formation for spouses after marriage. Many Catholic dioceses have begun trying to transform their marriage ministry programs to focus more on conveying the beauty of the Church’s teaching, and emphasize the importance of the spouses’ relationship with God, as opposed to focusing solely on conveying practical matters of finance and communication. While these practical matters are important, the duty of the Church is to catechize and evangelize couples in order to help them encounter the person of Jesus Christ. [6] This encounter with Jesus is what will bring about healing and conversion in their lives and in their marriages.


Christian and Christine Meert are the founders of an organization called Catholic Marriage Prep Online, which focuses on preparing couples for marriage through conveying faithful Catholic teaching and the Theology of the Body, in order to engage couples in committing to their relationships with the Lord, the Church, and each other. There have been promising results from The ministry surveyed couples who participated in their marriage preparation program, and compared practices of the couples before and after completing their marriage preparation program. The statistics showed a large increase in commitment to abstinence prior to their wedding (from 10% prior to 79% after the program), a large increase in the couples’ commitment to abstain from use of contraception (from 20% prior to 68% after the program), and a large increase in the couples’ commitment to involvement in parish life (from most having irregular participation to 99% committing to becoming involved).[7] These results reveal the great importance of marriage preparation in order to help spouses flourish in their marriage.

As promising as these ministry results are, further guidance must be provided for daily living after marriage to help build up and sustain couples. During a recent course in Rome on marriage and family life, Pope Francis addressed participants urging for “a permanent catechumenate for the sacrament of marriage,”[8] that is, the need for a continual state of learning and formation for spouses. The pope continued to state that “the more the journey of preparation [for marriage] is deepened and extended in time, the sooner the couples will learn to correspond to the grace and strength of God and will also develop the ‘antibodies’ to face the inevitable moments of difficulty and fatigue of married and family life.”[9] Examples of such ongoing marriage formation are available at offers a variety of resources for both engaged and married couples, and covering a variety of topics such as “enriching your marriage”, “overcoming adversity”, “sexuality and conjugal love”, “the later years”, “parenting”, and more. Each topic covered provides practical tips or even related articles from marriage ministry professionals, such as the article “Changing Your Spouse – and Yourself” by Lauri Przybysz, a coordinator of marriage and family enrichment for the Archdiocese of Baltimore.[10]

As couples actively seek to equip themselves through ongoing formation, there must also be an intentional living out of the good being learned in order for it to truly take effect in their lives. Charity must be re-established as the central virtue of the Christian life, for charity “provides the only and adequate response towards others, who exist as persons to be loved, and not objects to be used.”[11] This charity and the theology of the spousal meaning of the body are made more tangible by what John Paul II calls the language of the body.[12] This language of the body is most essentially concerned with the conjugal union of the spouses but is also communicated between the spouses throughout every act and gesture of daily life. John Paul also spoke of this daily self-gift in Familiaris Consortio, saying that the spouses “are called to grow continually in their communion through day-to-day fidelity to their marriage promise of total mutual self-giving.”[13] John Paul II introduces the idea of the language of the body while explaining the dimension of sign in the Sacrament of Marriage, stating that the “sacramental sign is constituted in the intentional order inasmuch as it is simultaneously constituted in the real order.”[14] Concerning the sacramental sign of marriage, the vows and intentions expressed at the altar must be followed by a conjugal act to make them complete, without which the Sacrament is not consummated. During the conjugal act of the spouses, their bodies repeat and confirm the very words spoken at the altar, and with each subsequent conjugal act these words are intended to be spoken anew. John Paul writes


The words, ‘I take you as my wife/as my husband,’ bear within themselves precisely that perennial and ever unique and unrepeatable ‘language of the body,’ and they place it at the same time in the context of the communion of persons…In this way the perennial and ever new ‘language of the body’ is not only the ‘substratum,’ but in some sense also the constitutive content of the communion of persons.[15]


By its very nature, the conjugal act “expresses the full gift of one’s self to another.”[16] As each participation in the conjugal act is intended to be an ever-new communication of the sacramental vows, the spouses repeatedly draw from the wellspring of the grace of their Sacrament. In this way sacramental marriage is “an outward sign of the gift or grace of God and a gift of selves in return.”[17] This grace is intended to bring Divine life into every aspect of the marriage; this language of the body is meant to communicate the self-gift of the spouses in every glance, in every word and gesture, and in every act of service. “They become this gift in their masculinity and femininity while they discover the spousal meaning of the body and refer it reciprocally to themselves in an irreversible way: in the dimension of life as a whole.”[18]


The self-gift made by the spouses can occur in the smallest of details. Such as when a spouse notices a chore requiring attention which the other spouses typically attends to, they can give of themselves by attending to the chore without complaint or mention of it to the other spouse. Should one spouse recognize that the other is having difficulty with a certain situation or circumstance, simply allowing themselves to be a listening ear is a gift of self. Or should one spouse recognize that the other is struggling with particular circumstances, they can make a gift of themselves by intentionally showing greater patience should the other spouse become distracted or less attentive to their normal duties, or the care that they take in their speech. There will be countless opportunities for a spouse to intentionally act so as to be a gift of self, with kind and loving glances, not allowing any unwholesome talk, but only speaking what is helpful for building the other spouse up according to their needs (Eph 4:29). There will be many opportunities for a spouse to make a gift of self through bearing wrongs patiently, even while inviting the offending spouse to reconciliation for the growth and healing of the relationship. These are only a few of many possible examples of ways which spouses can make a gift of themselves and strive to live according to the spousal meaning of the body. The spouses must themselves become students of love, allowing themselves to learn to love in the image of God, so as to allow for an integration of love in all of their actions.[19] As German Martinez puts it, “Without love, marriage is empty.”[20] The spouses must participate in the work which God is accomplishing in them, the mutual molding and perfecting of each other.[21] Only in this way can they learn to live according to the spousal meaning of the body. 


The triptych of Christ’s words has provided a means for building a fuller theological anthropology of man, while also providing a call for historical man to seek the interior conversion required to reorder his life and be able to pursue man’s ultimate fulfillment in heaven. Recognizing the original plan of the Creator for man and woman to live as a communion of persons, through the free and reciprocal gift of self, men can discover anew the spousal meaning of the body. The rediscovery of the spousal meaning of the body, with the help of God’s grace, can become the key which transforms the interactions between man and woman, so that the language of the body might once more correspond with the sacramental vows which they once professed to each other.


[1] John Paul II, General Audience (16 January 1980), trans. Waldstein, 15:1, p.185-186.

[2] John Paul II, General Audience (1 December 1982), trans. Waldstein, 101:5, p.522-523.

[3] John Paul II, General Audience (16 April 1980), trans. Waldstein, 24:2, p.227.

[4] John Paul II, General Audience (2 December 1981), trans. Waldstein, 66:2, p.387-388.

[5] Mark M. Gray, “Divorce (Still) Less Likely Among Catholics,” Nineteen Sixty-four (blog), 26 September 2013, at

[6] Wayne Laugesen, “Divorce Statistics Indicate Catholic Couples Are Less Likely to Break Up,” at National Catholic Register (14 November 2013), at

[7] Agape Catholic Ministries, “The Tangible Fruits of,” at Catholic Marriage, at

[8] Catholic Online, “Francis calls for ‘permanent catechumenate’ for married couples,” at Catholic Online (27 September 2018), at

[9] Catholic Online, “Francis calls for ‘permanent catechumenate’ for married couples.”

[10] Lauri Przybysz, “Changing Your Spouse – and Yourself,” at For Your Marriage, at

[11] John Sikorski, “Towards a Conjugal Spirituality: Karol Wojtyla’s Vision of Marriage Before, During, and After Vatican II,” Journal of Moral Theology 6, no. 2 (2017), 109.

[12] John Paul II, General Audience (5 January 1983), trans. Waldstein, 103:4-5, p.533.

[13] John Paul II, Apostolic Exhortation on the Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World Familiaris Consortio (22 November 1981), §19.

[14] John Paul II, General Audience (5 January 1983), trans. Waldstein, 103:3, p.532.

[15] John Paul II, General Audience (5 January 1983), trans. Waldstein, 103:5, p.533.

[16] Robert Ryan, “More than Self-Gift and Sex: The Role of Receptivity in Catholic Marital Ethics,” Journal of Moral Theology 4, no. 2 (2015), 142.

[17] M. Lawler, Marriage and Sacrament: A Theology of Christian Marriage (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1993), 18.

[18] John Paul II, General Audience (5 January 1983), trans. Waldstein, 103:5, p.533.

[19] Karol Wojtyla, Love and Responsibility, trans H. T. Willetts (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1981), 139.

[20] German Martinez, “Marriage as Worship: A Theological Analogy,” Worship 62, no. 4 (1988), 332.

[21] Pius XI, Encyclical on Christian Marriage Casti Connubii (31 December 1930), §24.

Chris FernandezChris Fernandez was born and raised in south Florida. Chris studied at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, FL where he obtained a bachelors degree in aerospace engineering. In 2013, Chris received a certification in spiritual direction from Our Lady of Divine Providece, School of Spiritual Direction, in Clearwater, FL. Then in 2019 he received a masters degree in theology, with a concentration in spiritual theology, from Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT. Chris is a lay member of the Home of the Mother, currently living in Jacksonville, FL with his wife and three children.