The Meaning of Marriage and Sexual Difference

Same sex marriage is one of the lightning rod issues of our day. The Catholic Church has stood firm in its 2000 year commitment to marriage as a sacrament between one man and one woman. This costly fidelity has focused the rage and hatred of fair number of people on the Church and on all Catholics.

Since people in a number of states will be voting on same-sex marriage today, I’ve decided to post the discussion about it that I found on the USCCB website.

Please read it prayerfully.

The Meaning of Marriage & Sexual Difference

Marriage: What’s a good starting point?
To understand what marriage is, the best place to start is with the human person. After all, marriage is a unique relationship between two specific persons, one man and one woman. We must ask, “What does it mean to be a human person, as a man or as a woman?” First, men and women are created in the image of God (see Gen 1:27). This means that they have great dignity and worth. Also, since “God is love,” (1 Jn 4:8) each person – created in God’s image – finds his or her fulfillment by loving others. Second, men and women are body-persons. The body – male or female – is an essential part of being human. Gender is not an afterthought or a mere social construct. The body shapes what it means to love as a human person. To sum up, when we think about marriage, we must think about who the human person is – created with great dignity, and called to love as a body-person, male or female.

Where does marriage come from?
“God himself is the author of marriage” (GS, no. 48). When God created human persons in his own image, as male and female, he placed in their hearts the desire, and the task, to love – to give themselves totally to another person. Marriage is one of two ways someone can make a total self-gift (the other is virginity, devoting oneself entirely to God) (see FC, no. 11). Marriage is not something thought up by human society or by any religion – rather, it springs from who the human person is, as male and female, and society and religion affirm and reinforce it. The truth of marriage is therefore accessible to everyone, regardless of their religious beliefs or lack thereof. Both faith and reason speak to the true meaning of marriage.

What is marriage?
Marriage is the lifelong partnership of mutual and exclusive fidelity between a man and a woman ordered by its very nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children (see CCC, no. 1601; CIC, can. 1055.1; GS, no. 48). The bond of marriage is indissoluble – that is, it lasts “until death do us part.” At the heart of married love is the total gift of self that husband and wife freely offer to each other. Because of their sexual difference, husband and wife can truly become “one flesh” and can give to each other “the reality of children, who are a living reflection of their love” (FC, no. 14).

Marriage between a baptized man and a baptized woman is a sacrament. This means that the bond between husband and wife is a visible sign of the sacrificial love of Christ for his Church. As a sacrament, marriage gives spouses the grace they need to love each other generously, in imitation of Christ.

Why can’t marriage be “redefined” to include two men or two women?
The word “marriage” isn’t simply a label that can be attached to different types of relationships. Instead, “marriage” reflects a deep reality – the reality of the unique, fruitful, lifelong union that is only possible between a man and a woman. Just as oxygen and hydrogen are essential to water, sexual difference is essential to marriage. The attempt to “redefine” marriage to include two persons of the same sex denies the reality of what marriage is. It is as impossible as trying to “redefine” water to include oxygen and nitrogen.

What is sexual difference?
Sexual difference is the difference of man to woman and woman to man. It affects a person at every level of his or her existence: genetically, biologically, emotionally, psychologically, and socially. Sexual difference is an irreducible difference. It is unlike any other difference we experience, because it – and only it – allows for the total personal union between husband and wife that is at the heart of marriage. The difference between men and women is for the sake of their union with each other. It is what makes spousal union possible.

Isn’t marriage just about love and commitment between two people?
Of course love and commitment are important for marriage – as they are for many relationships. But marriage is unique because the commitment it calls for is better described as communion, where “the two become one flesh” (Gen 2:24). Only a man and a woman in marriage can become a “one flesh” communion. The unity of husband and wife is so intimate that from it can come a “third,” the child – a new life to be welcomed and raised in love. No other relationship, no matter how loving or committed, can have this unique form of commitment – communion – that exists in marriage, between a husband and a wife.

Why does a person’s gender matter for marriage?
Gender matters for marriage because the body matters for love. My body is not simply “the shape of my skin.” Instead, my identity as a person (my “I”) is inseparable from the reality of my body – I am a body-person. As John Paul II said, the body reveals the person. It is a deeply personal reality, not just a biological fact (see TOB, sec. 9.4). The body is “taken up” into every human action, including the most important task of all: loving. Loving as a human person means loving as a man or as a woman. Marriage, the “primary form” of human love (GS, no. 12), necessarily involves the reality of men and women as body-persons. Marriage is intrinsically opposite-sex. To “write off” the body, and gender, as unimportant to marriage means treating the body as inconsequential or, at best, as an object or tool to be used according to one’s pleasure, instead of as an essential – and beautiful – aspect of being human and loving as a human person. Such a write-off would ignore the very essence of what marriage is.

How is the love between a husband and a wife irreducibly unique?
The love between a husband and a wife involves a free, total, and faithful mutual gift of self that not only expresses love, but also opens the spouses to receive the gift of a child. No other human interaction on earth is like this. This is why sexual intimacy is reserved for married love – marriage is the only context wherein sex between a man and a woman can speak the true language of self-gift. On the other hand, sexual behavior between two men or two women can never arrive at the oneness experienced between husband and wife, nor can these acts be life-giving. In fact, it is impossible for two persons of the same sex to make a total gift of self to each other as a husband and a wife do, bodily and personally. For this reason, such sexual behavior is harmful and always wrong, as it is incapable of authentically expressing conjugal love – love which by its nature includes the capacity to give oneself fully to the other and to receive the other precisely as gift in a total communion of mind, body and spirit. Therefore, no relationship between two persons of the same sex can ever be held up as equal or analogous to the relationship between husband and wife.
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What is complementarity?
“Complementarity” refers to the unique – and fruitful – relationship between men and women. Both men and women are created in the image of God. Both have great dignity and worth. But equality does not mean “sameness”: a man is not a woman, and a woman is not a man. Instead, “male and female are distinct bodily ways of being human, of being open to God and to one another” (LL, p. 10). Because men and women are “complementary,” they bring different gifts to a relationship. In marriage, the complementarity of husband and wife is expressed very clearly in the act of conjugal love, having children, and fathering and mothering –actions that call for the collaboration – and unique gifts – of husband and wife.
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Why does the Catholic Church care so much about marriage?
The Catholic Church cares about marriage because marriage is a fundamental good in itself and foundational to human existence and flourishing.
Following the example of Jesus, the Church cares about the whole person, and all people. Marriage (or the lack thereof) affects everyone. Today, people all over the world are suffering because of the breakdown of the family – divorce, out-of-wedlock childbearing, and so on. Marriage is never just a “private” issue; it has public significance and public consequences. One only has to think of the connection between fatherless families and young men in jail to know that this is true. In addition, the proposal to “redefine” marriage to include two men or two women is really a proposal to “redefine” the human person, causing a forgetfulness of what it means to be a man or a woman. This is a basic injustice to men and women, children, and fathers and mothers. Marriage is truly one of the most important social justice issues of our time.

Where can I learn more about marriage?
Please visit for videos and companion guides on the promotion and protection of marriage. For a list of relevant Church documents on marriage, click here. For more information on strengthening marriage, visit

  • Ted Seeber

    I know this will make Bill S. likely respond, and I’m endangering one of my vows, but perhaps if I don’t tell anybody what vow it will be somewhat OK.

    The list I posted earlier about the precepts of the Church is not the list I’ve heard in a certain secret situation for determining practical Catholicity.

    Those were the 5 that were from the Catechism, it’s true. But most recently, that list has been expanded from five to six:
    What are the Six Precepts, or Commandments, of the Catholic Church?

    1. To respectfully and devoutly assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on all Sundays and Holydays of Obligation.

    2. To fast and abstain on the days appointed.

    3. To go to Confession at least once a year during the Easter Season.

    4. To receive the Sacrament of the Most Holy Eucharist at least once a year during the Easter Season.

    5. To contribute financially (i.e. give money) to the support of the Catholic Church.

    6. To never violate the laws concerning the Sacrament of Matrimony.

    • Ted Seeber

      And at that site, but a longer link: To never violate the laws concerning the Sacrament of Matrimony.

      • Ted Seeber

        Which doesn’t work, so just go to the first link and click on #6

    • Bill S

      6. To never violate the laws concerning the Sacrament of Matrimony.
      For your convenience, these include, but are not limited to:
      a) Never marry a person who is of the same sex.
      b) Never marry a person who is not a Catholic.
      c) Never marry a person who is related to within the third degree of kindred.
      d) Never marry a person privately without witnesses.
      e) Never solemnize marriage at forbidden times.

      Ted, this is all too much for me. I’ll never get back to the faith with rules like these. Not all of them of course. a) is a point of controversy. b) is unreasonable. and I don’t know what e) means.

      I myself am in compliance with these and many other rules, but I can’t make voting decisions based on archaic rules like these. Are they written on vellum or something?

      • Ted Seeber

        Study more. I find that in my life, whenever I disagree with the Church, that is the true answer: Study more. There is NO objection to church teaching, even the slightest church teaching, that has not been raised AND ANSWERED in the last 2000 years.

        And always, when I objected to Church teaching- I came eventually to believe in Her Wisdom, given by the Holy Spirit, for invariably She was Right, no matter how controversial the subject.

        Now having said that, I’d like to address your specific concerns, at least briefly. I don’t intend to convert you to the Church’s point of view but:

        Your last question first indicates a huge part of your problem, what Pope Pius IX called the sin of modernism. That is, you believe that just because a philosophy is new, it must be more true than the old. But in fact, many new philosophies are old philosophies rewritten- there is nothing new, only deeper understanding of the old. The law of gravity is archaic as well, but like most of Church teaching, it can’t be dismissed merely because it is old!

        Which leads me to another point that even I misunderstood for a large number of decades. Church Law isn’t legislated, it’s discovered. That is, it flows from an understanding of Divine Revelation (both Tradition and Scripture) as well as the study of Natural Law. It is what it is NOT because some guy in a funny hat in Rome says it is, but because we have become convinced by centuries worth of empirical evidence and human reason that it is true.

        In light of that, no, this isn’t written on vellum, and is backed up by centuries of reasoning and thought that you and I can’t hope to duplicate.

        a) is a point of controversy, surely. But why is it a point of controversy? Mainly because in America, the gays bribed a single psychology scientist, George Weinberg, to proclaim loudly that anything opposing the gay agenda was insanity. His studies were not peer reviewed, but they got enshrined in the DSM anyway. Compare THAT to the debates of the early church that decided this topic, when Christianity, through St. Paul, first encountered the homosexual -dominated culture of certain Greek Cities at the time. The controversy isn’t new, and we shouldn’t shirk from proclaiming the truth just because somebody’s feelings might get hurt.

        b), likewise. You see this as a huge burden, but I don’t- there was a reason why I was engaged for 18 months, 12 of which included RCIA for my wife. 6 of which included RCIA and pre-cana at the same time. It does not say you must only get engaged to a Catholic- but only that she be Catholic at the time you marry her. (This is a bit of a personal family tradition! My mother and sister-in-law are also converts).

        e) confused me at first too, but the same page contains the explanation: Nuptual Masses are forbidden during Easter and Lent (some local diocese add other sacraments to this, such as Baptism and Confirmation- thus the common modern practice of converts being baptized and confirmed at Easter).

  • Sus

    Rebecca, thank you for posting this. Although I don’t agree with all of it, I truly appreciate understanding better what the objections are. I will go to the site Ted posted also.

  • Jessica Hoff

    Great post Rebecca. For Brian S’s benefit, b, d and e are not things I find enforced in the UK.

    • Ted Seeber

      Enforced is the wrong term. Church teaching isn’t about enforcement, it’s about describing truth.

      What you mean I think is that in the UK, these things aren’t TAUGHT because of fear of reprisal from the government and a largely disconnected-from-reality society.

  • Holly

    I like the article thanks for sharing with us.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      You’re welcome Holly. Glad you liked it.

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  • Bill S

    “And always, when I objected to Church teaching- I came eventually to believe in Her Wisdom, given by the Holy Spirit, for invariably She was Right, no matter how controversial the subject.”

    History has proven that the Catholic Church has been wrong in many things. If you are saying that, in your personal history, you have never found the Church to be wrong, I find that hard to believe.

    But I’ll take your word for it. Thanks for the guidance. I, of course, do not believe in such infallibility.

  • J.C.

    Rebecca, Great post. My dtr just cited it in a paper she wrote for a Psych class at OSU-OKC. : )

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Joanne. I’m thrilled she could use it.

  • Nathan

    Good Post Rebecca.

    The idea that marriage is sacrament is something beautiful. I find the difference between the Catholic church and mainstream Christian church almost night and day on the subject. What I mean it that even though the mainstream Church views marriage as holy, set apart even, it lacks a basic understanding of sacrament. I am no different. It was not until speaking on the subject with a Catholic friend that I understood these difference. The Sacrament, more purposeful than your average church wedding. The idea that this must be qualified by reason to even hold the title of sacramental is too something I found beautiful. And I wonder it in part, it is not the lack of this sacrament through out the non Catholic church base that continues the rampant divorce rates within the Church. As we don’t fully understand it’s weight in light of our society.?

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Nathan, I’m a convert, so I’ve been through the same learning process you describe. You’re right. The Catholic teaching on marriage is beautiful — and empowering for married couples, if they let it be.

  • Katherine

    A wonderful explaination of the Catholic definition of marriage. However, this is nowhere near how civil society defines marriage. There are legitimate reasons to oppose same sex marriage, but to suggest that same sex marriage changes the social/civil defintion of marriage from something the Catholic Church embraces to something it cannot is simply false.