The 20th century saw a blossoming in the Catholic theology of marriage. One of the earliest expressions of this came from Dietrich von Hildebrand, a German philosopher who, as early as the 1920s, was talking not just about the ‘purpose’ of marriage—in children or its social value—but about the ‘meaning’ of marriage.
For von Hildebrand, the nobility of marriage, its deepest meaning, is found in it being a communion of mutual and self-giving love. Regardless of whether society values marriage, and whether it is possible for children to be welcomed into a marriage, its meaning resides in a bond of love unlike any other found on earth—a kind of love that should be prized and nurtured for its own sake.
Another man who contributed significantly to this theological blossoming was Fr Karol Wojtyla (who would go on to become Pope John Paul II). Two themes that unite these thinkers are the heroism of marriage and its very real grace.
For von Hildebrand, marriage involves an element of risk and therefore requires a ‘heroic spirit’. It is not a ‘safe’ thing to bind our hearts to another person and might actually entail great suffering. But if we aren’t willing to abandon ourselves entirely in love to the beloved, we may never experience some of the deepest happiness that is available to us on this earth. This is something he explores in Marriage: The Mystery of Faithful Love (1942).
For Wojtyla, marriage involves a kind of heroism when the cultural, economic or political conditions do not help nurture marriage.
This comes through in some of his earliest reflections on the topic, translated into English and offered for the first time in Theresa and Peter Martin’s book The Rule: St John Paul II’s Rule for a Joy-filled Marriage of Divine Love (2023).
When it came to the challenges married couples faced—and not just ideological ones—Wojtyla was under no illusions. In one reflection in 1957, back when he was known as Wujek (‘uncle’) because it was too dangerous to refer to him as ‘Father’ in public, he talks frankly about how economic pressures—the cost of living, a lack of housing and the struggle for work—affect the moral and spiritual lives of spouses.
With Poland under Communist occupation, these would have been very real pressures for the couples Wojtyla pastored. His response, however, was not to lower the bar of what marriage demanded of people. On the contrary, he said that in such challening we need to lift our game. We need to ‘raise the standards for ourselves’ and embrace marriage with real spiritual maturity.
‘Sometimes, we speak of the need for heroism in this area,’ he said. ‘Such words are not an exaggeration. Certainly, in ordinary circumstances men cannot be obliged to heroism, but there are certain extraordinary conditions that may demand it of him.’
But something else von Hildebrand and Wojtyla emphasised was the very real grace that is attached to marriage.
‘We must clearly recognise that the sacramental grace of marriage is not just some theory but a real endowment,’ Wojtyla said in a 1961 reflection.
In the Catholic theological tradition, the sacrament of Marriage is not something we build by ourselves through our own herculean efforts. It is, in von Hildebrand’s words, a ‘source of grace’. Christ turned it from something sacred into something sanctifying. As one of the seven sacraments, mysteriously participating in Christ’s redemption, marriage actually communicates grace to spouses if they are receptive to it.
Here is how the Catechism puts it:
By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, [Christ] himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ’s cross, the source of all Christian life (§ 1615).
This is an important point: as Jesus himself recognised, the call of marriage is a tall order in a world marked by sin. ‘Let anyone accept this who can’ were his words about marriage as God originally intended it—as a lifelong and indissoluble bond of love (Matthew 19:12).
There are many things that can go wrong over the years, some that are stubbornly beyond our control. But building a life together for the long haul, nurturing a marriage that is truly loving, life-giving and destined for eternity, is not something that has to be tackled alone.
Carrying through this idea into Veritatis Splendor, Pope John Paul II wrote, ‘This is what is at stake: the reality of Christ’s redemption. Christ has redeemed us! This means that he has given us the possibility of realising the entire truth of our being’ (§103).
In other words, what is possible is not determined by our own limited imaginations, by our faults or even by our own heroic efforts. It is determined above all by grace.
Proclaim: Office for Mission Renewal29 November 2023
Melbourne Catholic28 November 2023