What Did Vatican II Say About Marriage?
by David Gibson
Five decades ago, on Oct. 11, 1962, the Second Vatican Council opened. “The longed-for day has finally dawned,” Pope John XXIII said in a speech that day to the bishops of the church who had gathered in Rome.
Pope John advised the council members that the church must “never depart” from its “sacred patrimony of truth.” Still, he said, the church “must ever look to the present, to the new conditions and new forms of life introduced into the modern world which have opened new avenues to the Catholic apostolate.”
Today the church is set to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the day Blessed Pope John XXIII opened the council. With the approach of the Oct. 11 anniversary, many began revisiting the council and its documents. Countless workshops, classes, books, articles and other events set out to analyze, assess and reassess the council.
Many people are taking advantage of these opportunities to become reacquainted with the council’s legacy on matters related to the church’s identity and purposes, the role of faith in the modern world, religious liberty, liturgy, the Bible or ecumenical and interreligious affairs.
I’m not sure, though, how much will be heard about the council’s teaching on marriage and the family.
I recently was asked to review a book of many essays about the council that mentioned – but in just several sentences– its discussions of sacramental marriage.
Nonetheless, the council’s “Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity” calls marriage “a great mystery in Christ and the church,” adding that “the apostolate of married persons is of unique importance for the church and civil society.”
Moreover, marriage and the family are the first of “a number of particularly urgent needs” of modern times to come up for discussion in Part II of the council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” The needs it addresses “go to the roots of the human race,” the council said.
Esteem for Marriage
The Second Vatican Council’s “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” expresses “high esteem” for marriage and family life, and speaks of the “lofty calling” of spouses and parents.
The title of one of the constitution’s sections refers to “the nobility of marriage and the family,” a nobility to be fostered.
Marriage, the constitution says, is a “vocation.”
This way of speaking about marriage and the family has grown familiar in today’s church. In times when the vocation of every member of the body of Christ is taken seriously, the vocation of marriage and of the family is esteemed.
The council esteemed conjugal love as a sign to others of Christ’s own love for the church. And today it is not uncommon for church leaders to insist that the entire church benefits from the love within committed marriages and that a doubtful society needs to witness the possibility of such love.
In their 2009 national pastoral letter titled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” the U.S. Catholic bishops had this to say about marriage as a vocation:
“The church teaches that marriage is an authentic vocation or divine call. As a vocation, marriage is just as necessary and valuable to the church as other vocations.”
The bishops explain that “the call to love reaches beyond the home to the extended family, the neighborhood and the larger community.” They add that “this marital and familial love finds its complete expression, following the example of Jesus himself, in a willingness to sacrifice oneself in everyday situations for one’s spouse and children.”
The Council, Still Contemporary
Fifty years may seem a long time, but echoes of the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on marriage and family are heard frequently in the 21st century church.
In a major document Pope Benedict XVI released this September titled “The Church in the Middle East,” he spoke about marital love and family life, saying:
“Conjugal love is not a fleeting event, but the patient project of a lifetime. Called to live a Christ-like love each day, the Christian family is a privileged expression of the church’s presence and mission in the world. As such, it needs to be accompanied pastorally and supported in its problems and difficulties.”
Is Pope Benedict speaking the language of Vatican II in remarks like this one? In its “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” the council says that “by the joys and sacrifices of their vocation and through their faithful love, married people will become witnesses of the mystery of that love which the Lord revealed to the world.”
The constitution urges priests trained in family matters to “nurture the vocation of spouses by a variety of pastoral means.”
Over time, the constitution also suggests, the love of a husband and wife ought to “grow and ripen.”
Again, are the U.S. Catholic bishops speaking the language of Vatican II when, in their national pastoral letter on marriage, they describe themselves as “troubled by the fact that far too many people do not understand what it means to say that marriage — both as a natural institution and a Christian sacrament — is a blessing and gift from God.”
The “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World” teaches that “authentic married love is caught up into divine love and is governed and enriched by Christ’s redeeming power and the saving activity of the church.” Does that sound like a blessing?
This love, it adds, will aid and strengthen spouses in their roles as parents.
By virtue of the sacrament of marriage, the constitution states, “as spouses fulfill their conjugal and family obligations, they are penetrated with the spirit of Christ. This spirit suffuses their whole lives with faith, hope and charity.”
About the author
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.