Wedding

Why Catholic Teachings on Sex and Marriage are Basically Perfect.

I want to provide a better definition of the Catholic marriage, and how it relates to human sexuality. There are many more (and better, and more reliable) definitions in the catechism, papal encyclicals, and innumerable other resources composed by the Church herself—so I’d encourage you to check those out. In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned.

The first thing to note is that the Catholic ceremony of marriage is a sacrament. It is on par with the most meaningful experiences a person can undergo as a Catholic, including Reconciliation (the reception of complete forgiveness conditional only on our ability to say I’m sorry and mean it); Baptism (a cleansing of all past sins, and one’s introduction to the Faith); Confirmation (a full and official welcoming into the community, including a special blessing of the Holy Spirit); Holy Orders (the initiation of a lifelong commitment to religious life); Anointing of the Sick (the special blessing for profound illness, and often a person’s last interaction with the Church on earth before passing into eternity); and, most wonderful of all, the Eucharist, which is the single most profound, humble way we can bring Christ into ourselves, body and soul.

Marriage is a sacrament among those holiest of religious experiences. It is so immense a blessing that it stands alongside God’s most meaningful, impactful gifts to His people.

That is why the Church’s teachings on marriage are both rigid and essential. As children of God, we are blessed with a select and precious few moments in life in which we can assuredly know that God is present in our experience, fully endorsing of it, and entirely giving of His grace. It is neither our place nor our capability to change the way those moments are encountered. Who are we to place God—and, to a greater point, His approval—at our beck and call?

According to the Church, marriage is given such profound standing in our day-to-day life for a few reasons. Chief among them is that God Himself instituted it. When He created man and woman to be entirely complementary to one another physically as well as spiritually, He created humanity to feature different but unopposing partners who could, together, “be fruitful and multiply” as participants in the creation of life itself. Coming from an omniscient Creator who, at that moment, must have been fully aware of our eventual fall and betrayal of His unconditional love, that is a surreal gift. It emphasizes that love for us, as well as His desire to make us free-willed, intelligent sons and daughters for our own sake, to heighten the genuineness of our love for Him and for each other.

In those first acts of creation, God establishes the nature of the family: that man will leave his father and mother and cleave to his wife, as she will to him. To quote Saint John Paul II, this tells us that “man and woman were created for unity…that precisely this unity, through which they become ‘one flesh,’ has right from the beginning a character of choice.” The act of choosing to commit oneself to a unique, lifelong partner in everyday living, love, and procreation creates a bond unmatched by any other interpersonal relationship we experience. Even blood relatives are given to us—they are not chosen. We are born to our parents, our siblings are born beside us, and our children are born to us. Those relationships are also deeply emotional and profound, to be sure, but by actively choosing the person with whom we will spend the majority of our lives elevates the marital bond all the more.

Naturally, the intangible, ethereal truth—and greater spiritual significance—of the marriage bond is difficult for our limited human awareness to fully comprehend. In addition to its role as a procreative act, sexuality in marriage is the tangible, experiential near-equivalent to that truth. By giving us this opportunity to make a complete and loving gift of our self to our spouse—and, in turn, receive that gift in response—God has provided us some small insight into the intensity of the emotional connections inherent to true marriage.

Even more affecting than that insight, though, is our ability to take part in the creation of new life. Sex makes us participants in the creation of a new human being—it is the miracle of life and, for many of us, the most meaningful experience in an entire lifetime. To take that love which joins us, permanently, in marriage and see a child born of its expression is an incredibly special blessing. It is true that—biologically—not every sexual act will produce a child, and, of course, that’s okay. So long as husband and wife treat it as a healthy expression of love and are open to its life-giving nature, marital sex is inherently good. The Church teaches us that, at its core, marriage—and, consequentially, sex between a husband and wife—is at the heart of family. So, whether it results in the conception of a child or simply binds a husband and wife more closely to each other, sex helps perpetuate love.

Knowing that, I hope it is clear why the Church refuses to allow her members to treat sex as a vehicle for something as basic as a few minutes of physical pleasure. Sex was not meant to be treated as simplistically as a satiation of some physical hunger.

To be blunt, if you can eat a piece of cheesecake or a big steak and groan “This is better than sex” and almost—even a little bit—mean it, you’re doing it wrong.

Sex had for simple pleasure is inherently selfish and objectifying for both people. When purely based on lust, sex is abused as a way of taking another person’s body for the sake of one’s own physical satisfaction. It treats the other as an object of temporary excitement and pleasure, and allows each participant to view the other as a means to an end instead of as a human being. People are not toys to be played with and then cast aside. We are meant to be true partners—in the purest sense of the word—who live and work together in a permanent trek toward a good and honest life.

Basically, when you think of sex as the ultimate expression of love; the unequivocal bonding of a husband and wife who will truly, deeply need one another for the rest of their lives; the act of participating in the creation of new life, which forms everything where there was once nothing; and a completely unique and purposeful gift from God—it’s easy to see why twisting it into a means to the satisfaction of hunger, like a cheeseburger or a slice of pizza, is completely unjustifiable.

So what about pre-marital sex between people who love each other?

As I mentioned above, the Church values the marriage bond as one of the seven most sacred experiences available to Catholics. Marriage is a vocation—a calling to fulfill one’s mission in life—and is beyond our generalized ideas of commitment in today’s culture. True marriage doesn’t mean, “Let’s live together until I get tired of you,” or “I mean ‘til death do us part’ now, but I might fall out of love with you later.” It doesn’t accept “Hey, what can you do? We gave it all we’ve got,” or even “There are some things I can’t forgive you for.” It means two people are one flesh that is impossible to separate because God Himself has joined them together. It means two partners who will live and create life and be a family together, because that’s how humanity maintains its growth and penchant for love. It is like a chemical reaction as opposed to a physical change in matter—it cannot be reversed, undone, or taken back.

A man and a woman who share that kind of bond deserve to give and receive each other completely. We cannot take back the pieces of ourselves we give away during sex. So, by having sex with someone before making the permanent commitment and bonding only true marriage—formed through the sacrament—can impart, we rob ourselves of the ability to make that full gift of self, and we rob our spouses of their right to have all of us as a completion of the marital unit.

The Church takes marriage that seriously. It is the end-all of I and me, and the be-all of us and we.
Because it is unconditional and, above all, because it is designed, witnessed, and blessed by God, there is no other relationship like it—and, therefore, there should be no other experience like sex with the person you’ll love forever, without a shadow of a doubt.

Wedding Rings

Handling the adjustments to newlywed life together.

There is a lot to love about being married. So many more things, I believe, than any husband or wife could even fully recognize—let alone count. It’s just a lovely way to live your life.

But marriage isn’t about easy or simple or hassle-free. It’s about commitment, partnership, and permanence. None of those are easy things to offer, and when it’s unfamiliar, it can be tough to wrangle a new way of life.

Erik and I were the first in our close circles of friends to marry, and among the firsts in our immediate families—so there have been a lot of adjustments requiring inexpert maneuvering and limited advice from peers. Based on that experience, the list below is a slightly unconventional look at the hard parts of being a newlywed.

If you’re a fiancée, fiancé, or newlywed, I hope you consider giving this a read. And if you love a newlywed (or a pair of them), it might give you some insight into the not-so-warm-or-fuzzy stuff, too.

  • Traditions.

Every holiday you’ve ever experienced has had a familiar cadence. But a new marriage means new traditions. And, unfortunately, starting new ones means breaking old ones.

That means Thanksgiving, Easter, and every event in between is going to be different. Own that. Longstanding traditions from two distinct histories are just hard to navigate. For some, that means one side of the family will opt for something new, and you can’t adhere because of conflicts with the other side. For others, it means you’ll have to be brave, offer to host, and start some traditions of your own. For everyone, it means respecting your in-laws’ and your spouse’s feelings, balancing that with your own family, and being true to yourself, too.

Amidst the madness, remember that your collective family is different post-wedding. Two have become one. Do everyone justice by being as accommodating as possible, but also by acknowledging the necessary change in your new beginning.

  • Distance.

This one’s a doozy. Sure, getting married means moving out and, possibly, moving away. But it’s almost worse to feel the emotional distance that a new life inevitably creates.

You cannot see your friends, your siblings, or your parents as much as you once did—no matter how much you tell yourself otherwise. Your spouse is your sole partner and, naturally, they deserve the majority of your time. That’s the way it should be.

Nevertheless, it’s never right to break away from the family that’s raised you and known you from birth. Work hard to help your relationships grow and evolve, and prevent them from suffering. Involve your spouse when you can. Give your friends and family the love they deserve. It takes practice, but find new ways to stay in touch—and never hesitate to reach out. It’s different, but it doesn’t have to be bad. Remember that, and commit to it.

  • Finances.

I am a firm believer in fully sharing finances with your spouse. It’s practical, it’s an act of trust, and it’s another way to commit yourself to your marriage. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t stressful.

Money is among the most frequent drivers of divorce. But if you ask me, it’s rarely about the money. It’s about learning to share, be selfless, and stay sensible.

Do yourself a favor and tackle this from the beginning. Practice full disclosure. Agree to a large purchase threshold (at what dollar amount should any purchase be discussed before it’s made?) and stick to it. At the heart of it all, recognize that when you spend money as a married woman or man, you’re not just spending your own—you’re spending your spouse’s.

  • Pride.

Arrogance, stubbornness, and self-absorption—the three themes of pride—are a problem in any relationship. But, while a good marriage naturally propagates the positives of your partnership, the close proximity of wedded life simply makes it easier to see the negatives.

Everything in life is relevant to you as a couple. It’s not about you, them, who’s better, or who’s right. You spend your time together, endure every discomfort, and share everything. It is essential for you to let go of shame, because shame makes us closed off, pig-headed, and selfish—making pride a defense mechanism for it. Your marriage is a safe space, so allow yourself and your spouse to let go and level with one another in all things.

Additionally, most arguments are worsened (if not caused) by pride. If you know your spouse deeply and you’re properly prepared for marriage, the disagreements themselves aren’t what break your heart—it’s the way you fight over them. Give your spouse the respect they deserve. Make an effort to think before you speak, give 100% (because marriage is 100/100, not 50/50), understand there is no winning, and forgive readily.

  • Compromise.

Everyone says compromise is key, but it’s easy to forget how hard compromise can be until you’re in the middle of a disagreement. Sure, you both get some of what you want. But no one gets everything they want. After a few decades of individual living, that can be hard to swallow.

Your routine, pastimes, home, diet, and household duties won’t be everything you want them to be. It goes without saying that you must accept that. But I’d suggest you start liking it that way, too.

Logistically, choose to live your life as if your spouse needs you to do everything you physically can for them. They should do the same. That’s marriage. There’s no “meet in the middle” or “come halfway”—husband and wife must each give their all. Accept that, and you’ll be happier with what you give and receive. And for the non-logistics? Try new things. Be selfless. When you do it your spouse’s way, learn something about them. Take an interest and have conversations you haven’t had before. If you and your spouse do this for each other, neither of you will lose. You’ll each maintain your own interests, share them with the other, and learn to love some new pastimes. It’s a great way to continuously grow as individuals and as a couple, and the openness to new things will help you avoid a rut.

My young marriage isn’t perfect, and Erik and I still struggle with all of that tough stuff. But I am striving to be a better wife, and he’s striving to be a better husband. And we have our whole lives to get there.

Marriage Commitment

Individual Roles, Mutual Subjection, and Equal Respect in Marriage

My husband and I are two exceptionally different people. I love chocolate; he likes vanilla. I could spend entire days reading; he gets bored after a few pages. He enjoys hunting (for food, not sport); I can barely carve raw meat without cringing. He finds peace in woodworking; I relax while I write.

Every relationship is like this in one way or another. Each of us is a one-of-a-kind blend of nature, nurture, opinions, and habits. For that reason, no two people are the same—and wedding rings don’t turn husband and wife into a single-minded, tunnel-visioned creature. Two become one, but that happens because they complete, support, and accept each other without question.

Given our differences, practically speaking, one component of a healthy marriage is settling into a mutually satisfying set of responsibilities, checks, and balances. In our case, that means Erik pays bills while I go grocery shopping; he shovels the driveway while I do the laundry; he cleans out clogged drains while I toss the expired stuff out of the fridge. We have a pretty traditional approach to household tasks, but not every marriage does. Some men love cooking, like cleaning, and know nothing about home repair. Some women love yardwork, enjoy changing their oil, and have no clue how to patch a pair of jeans. There’s nothing wrong with that. Any combination of shared tasks will do.

The point is finding a balance in which both husband and wife contribute to home and happiness. No one likes chores. But when spouses compromise based on what’s more agreeable for each, they can define their roles easily. Of course, we all trade tasks here and there, when the mood strikes. Again, the point is a shared balance—not formality or normality. You fulfill your responsibilities not because you like it, but because it must be done and you love your spouse enough to share the load. This applies to small stuff like cleaning and setting up dentist appointments, and to larger things like career paths and home defense. That’s family. That’s the partnership that a strong marriage requires.

So, given that well-rounded approach to sharing individual but mutually necessary marital responsibilities, what does the following passage tell us about the roles of husbands and wives?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. Ephesians 5:22-24

Let me begin by saying it does not tell us to be slaves. We are not the unthinking, helpless creatures that pop culture has misinterpreted and twisted this verse into implying. We are capable, beautiful women—wives, mothers, sisters, daughters—and we are strong, so don’t get that wrong.

I recently read a wonderful article that sums up what this passage means. You can read it here. I believe it’s clearly and beautifully voiced the truth behind these verses, so I’d like to share it with you. The following analysis largely mirrors and learns from that article.

Ephesians 5 tells us to accept our husband’s role in our marriage. The Greek word for ‘head’ in this reading is kephale. It doesn’t, literally or figuratively, mean ‘boss’ or ‘king.’ It literally means that thing that sits on your shoulders. Figuratively, the Greek word kephale means ‘source or beginning or completion,’ or ‘one who brings fullness.’ From that perspective, if a wife cannot accept her husband as the one who completes her or brings fullness to her life, she isn’t looking at marriage the right way.

The family unit is where the Church begins, so each family is called to be a mirror of the perfect love exemplified by Christ and the Church, his bridegroom. Husbands fill the role of “head” for a number of reasons. His job is to be a deliberate, logical, and emotive leader. He is a provider and a caregiver, and he takes responsibility for his family’s health, happiness, and safety.

You might still argue that that’s an outdated, hyper-traditionalist way to look at the role of the husband. But being a provider doesn’t mean his sole task is to bring home a paycheck while his wife keeps house. It means doing what he can to make his wife and his children comfortable and happy, and accepting his responsibility for their success. That role can take many forms, and Ephesians calls all wives to be humble and loving enough to accept that role for their husbands.

The rest of this letter’s passage on marriage adds more color to the role of the husband:

Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her. in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the water of the word, so as to present the church to himself in splendor, without a spot or wrinkle or anything of the kind—yes, so that she may be holy and without blemish. In the same way, husbands should love their wives as they do their own bodies. He who loves his own body loves himself. For no one ever hates his own body, but he nourishes it tenderly and cares for it, just as Christ does for the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ Ephesians 5:25-31

The added emphases are mine; they’re meant to call out the depth of humility husbands are called to offer for their wives. The love Paul asks from them here is not erotic or domineering—it is profound, selfless, and sweet. Nowhere in this passage does Paul tell husbands to dominate their wives, give orders, or put themselves first. Instead, Paul is calling for men to offer themselves as servants to their wives: love her, cleanse her, make her holy. Put her first so that she may be without blemish; nourish and care for her tenderly so that you may live your fullest life.

Given the practices of Paul’s time, this message is a radically humbling one for men in the Church. He calls each husband not to be a property owner or a monarch, but a loving, kind, and humble husband whose life’s work is to meet the needs of and support his wife. I don’t see anything misogynistic in that.

Women are blessed with the sublime and completely unique gift of femininity. Naturally, her heart is uniquely open to nurturing love, and that’s true even if she struggles with fertility. In that way, a woman’s role is biologically and spiritually unique to her: she is ordained to be a sister to her family, a wife to her husband, a daughter of God, and a mother to all children. There is no greater blessing than the outpouring and influx of love in a mother’s heart.

Husbands, though biologically separate from the birth of children, are ordained as fathers, sons, brothers, and husbands. Their role, though different, is no less and no more important.

To call men and women the same is an insult to both their geniuses. They look, love, serve, and behave differently. They were created differently, so that each might have their own characteristics, strengths, and weaknesses. They were made to balance one another, to complement each other’s unique needs, and to serve one another.

So masculine and feminine roles in marriage aren’t defined by 1950s standards of social acceptability. It’s not about who cooks, who works, who cleans, and who decides. It is about the two of them becoming one cohesive, loving body—one union to live and share life as beautifully and fully as they can. The day-to-day breakdown of responsibilities isn’t what’s important; the love, selflessness, and balance of their relationship are. And where those priorities are in place, mutual respect will inherently dwell.

Marriage is not 50/50 or 70/30—it is 100/100. It is an equal partnership in which both spouses give everything they’ve got. What they each have is unique to them—that’s why it works. And that’s why we love one another.

Wedding and Marriage

Favorite (and not-so-favorite) Deets of Getting Wedding-Ready

My husband and I dated for exactly eight years before we said “I do.” We attended the same preschool, grade school, middle school, and high school, and started dating at freshman homecoming. We attended different colleges, but stayed steadfastly together. After graduation, Erik got a job almost immediately. I found one a few months later.

The same week I started my career, he proposed. He took me fishing at a small pond near my dad’s house—a favorite pastime of ours. The weather wasn’t ideal, and the fish weren’t biting. He convinced me I needed to change my lure, so he switched it for me.

When he turned around and dangled the line in front of me, all I could see was something sparkly. For several seconds, I had no clue what I was looking at. And then he was on one knee, and I saw it:

Engagement Ring

By then, we were thrilled to finally take the leap. Both of us felt entirely committed to the other, and we ached to make it whole. We didn’t feel a hint of fear; nothing about marriage gave us anything but joy.

We set a date for seven months later. The timeframe was tight, but we couldn’t wait another year for the fall wedding we’d always wanted. So that was that.

Honestly, I think there’s very little is fun in the logistics of planning any kind of large event—even if it’s a wedding. I don’t know if I would’ve said that before I did it, but there’s no arguing with me now.

We had a fairly conservative budget (by the modern wedding’s unreal standards), and we wanted to make the most of it—which, ultimately, meant we had to do almost everything ourselves.

I am not an organized person. Some brides-to-be have three-ring binders with labels and color-coded paper ordered by chronological relevance. Not me. I had a poorly sorted inbox and a few handwritten notes floating between my desk at work, my purse, and my bedroom. Yikes.

I didn’t mean to be that way. At the beginning, I tried. I got a wedding planning app for my phone, which told me when and how to do what. I scrolled through the to-do lists. For a little while, I updated it: I added the info for our church, our priest, our date, and the wedding colors. The basics.

Then I got freaked out looking at that long to-do list every day, and I stopped. I told myself I didn’t need it and, naively, I believed it.

Turns out it’s harder than you think.

I won’t bore you with all the details, but here’s a list of simple tips for the bride-to-be. They’re broken down into highlights and struggles.

Highlights

  • Picking the little details. Flowers, the wedding party’s attire, and the little decorative details are so much of the fun. They make it your wedding.
  • Working with your husband-to-be. Don’t let him get lost in the shuffle—or avoid it. It should be fun to work with him. Like nothing else you’ve ever done, this is a project you two must accomplish together. Consider it practice for the years ahead.
  • Finding the dress that sings to you. Pick the one that makes you feel as beautiful as your fiancé knows you are. Bring the most important women in your life and share the moment, but don’t let them decide for you. And don’t bring your fiancé. There’s nothing like a first look at the altar on your wedding day. Cherish that. Protect it.
  • Bringing your dreams to life—humbly. Don’t settle, but find joy in what’s within reach. That means avoiding materialism. Ultimately, your wedding is about the way you begin your married life. “Things” don’t make that special. Focus on making this precious time with your new husband and your favorite people jubilant. Obsessing over the tangible will taint that, and it doesn’t set a good precedent for the shared life ahead.
  • Counting down the days. Each step in planning—even the annoying phone calls with vendors and the difficult conversations about who you can invite—brings you closer to your marriage. There’s no greater motivation. Hold onto it. Keep it in your sights.
  • Preparing for your marriage. A wedding is simply a stepping stone to something much bigger: a whole, permanent, and loving marriage. Catholic marriage isn’t just a new chapter—it’s sacramental. This “intimate community of life and love” is “a partnership of the whole of life,” and it’s not to be taken lightly (CCC 1602 & 1603). The Church helps you sit down with your fiancé and prepare, together, for the life you’ll share. If you complete that work with a genuine spirit, you’ll be thankful for it when the tough stuff arises later.

Struggles

  • Husbands and wives aren’t perfect. Neither are weddings. As soon as you accept that, you’ll be happier. The prep is stressful, but allow yourself to let go on the big day. The people who love you won’t care if your dress gets a little muddy after the photo shoot, or if you don’t have an open bar. Free yourself to enjoy and share the day.
  • Everyone has an opinion. Take your loved ones’ feedback to heart, and respect the wisdom of your elders. But don’t let their preferences cloud your judgment—or your wedding dress, menu, or guest list.
  • Ask for help. You can make the decisions that matter and not have to do everything by yourself. Erik and I handmade our invitations, favors, centerpieces—everything. It was fun, but it was hard work. At one point, I had to talk to vendors on the phone almost every day. We could’ve shared the load. Everyone offers to help. I should’ve been humble and patient enough to take it.
  • Weddings are beginnings, but they’re also endings. Life isn’t the same after you get married. Understand that that’s okay, because it should be profoundly different. But you can commit yourself to wedded bliss and stay accountable to your friends and family, too. You’re starting your own family unit; the healthiest ones lean on and lift up the same supporters they had before the wedding, as well as each other.
  • Butterflies. As I mentioned, my husband and I weren’t nervous about getting married. But minutes before I walked down the aisle, my stomach was all aflutter. Most of us aren’t used to being in the spotlight. Quick fix: above all, keep your focus on your soon-to-be husband. Everyone’s there to celebrate you, him, and the love and life you now share. Let their joy chase your butterflies away.

Plenty of things went awry on my wedding day. To name my favorites, we forgot to make programs for the Mass, and a few speedy family members had to rescue us during my dad’s toast because we didn’t have toasting flutes or champagne in front of us.

But you know what? I’ll always remember it as a perfect day—unequivocally the best of my life. And you will, too. So relax, prepare calmly, and, when the big day comes, don’t let a single minute pass unappreciated.