And the Two Become One Flesh

A Model for Marriage and the Universal Church

Arntz art 4-11-16

The world is facing a crisis: the family, seen as the fundamental unit of society since the days of Cicero and Aristotle, is now crumbling at its very foundations. But this is not only a crisis for the world, as the secularization of the family unit has also entered into the Church, not necessarily in her teachings, but into the young couples who are seeking marriage and even, one might say, into the pastoral praxis within the Church. I do not mean here only in reference to the potential for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion, but also in the way couples understand the sacrament of matrimony, and how it is preached from the pulpit. Therefore, it is clear that we need a renewal in how we, as Catholics, teach the sacrament of matrimony.

How we proceed in that task is a difficult question, for many couples do not even know the basics of the Catholic faith. As a beginning for a resolution, I propose that we need to look to the very root of the problem in our misunderstandings of marriage. While we certainly cannot deny the modern world’s influences on how even Catholics view marriage, where do our misunderstandings originate? I argue that the fundamental reason we misunderstand the sacrament of matrimony lies in our misunderstanding of the Church as the universal Church, the Mystical Body of Christ. If we can regain a proper understanding of the Church, based upon Christ’s words in the Gospels, and the teachings of our recent popes, then we will also regain a proper understanding of marriage.

To pursue this thesis to its end, we shall look at the first letter to the Corinthians, and the letter to the Ephesians, to ground ourselves in a Scriptural understanding of the Catholic Church. On that basis, we shall look to see what our findings from these letters mean for both the Church herself, and the sacrament of matrimony today. We shall conclude with a practical application for pastors and educators of what we have discussed about the relationship between marriage and the Church.

The Church at Corinth
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians points to a problem within the Church at Corinth. There is dissension within the Church there, for the people are not “united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). He then points to quarreling among the members: “Each one of you says, ‘I belong to Paul,’ or ‘I belong to Apollos,’ or ‘I belong to Cephas,’ or ‘I belong to Christ’” (1 Corinthians 1:12). The problem is that the newly baptized Christians adhere to one particular teacher of the faith as the “only” true teacher, creating division within the people themselves. If a certain group will only listen to Cephas, and another group says they are the ones who listen to Christ directly, then there is no real unity within the body of believers. While it is true that these teachers all teach the same faith, the Christians believed they were receiving a “better” or “truer” form from one teacher as opposed to another.

Moreover, St. Paul notes three major sins that have crept into the Church at Corinth, in addition to the division among the teachers. The first is sexual immorality: “It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife” (1 Corinthians 5:1). The second is gluttony: “‘Food is meant for the stomach and the stomach for food’—and God will destroy both one and the other” (1 Corinthians 6:13). Lastly, the Corinthians persist in offering food to idols: “Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Corinthians 8:4). All of these, St. Paul indicates, are sins that affect the unity of the Church, in which there should not be any division (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13). For our purposes, however, we shall focus on how sexual immorality creates division within the Church.

At first glance, it would seem that sexual immorality is a private sin: committing adultery only affects those directly involved. But St. Paul quickly indicates that sexual immorality does, in fact, affect all the members of the Church, for all have been baptized in the Spirit. As he writes, “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14). Because the Corinthians now have the Spirit of God, revealing to them those things that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard,” they are no longer “unspiritual men” (1 Corinthians 2:9). They have been set apart by the Spirit, and they are no longer pagans, who have no knowledge of the “secret and hidden wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 2:7). The Spirit makes them something new, something wholly different from the pagans.

Therefore, St. Paul says, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and that temple you are” (1 Corinthians 3:16). Because of the power of the Spirit, each Christian is now a temple of God, for each Christian houses the Spirit within him/herself. The Spirit does not simply dwell within each individual in a merely mystical or spiritual sense. Rather, the entire body of the believer becomes a temple of the Spirit, in a spiritual and physical way. As such, anything that defiles the person’s body (i.e., sexual immorality) also defiles the very temple of God, since all those who were baptized were likewise given the Spirit.

Recall that sexual immorality divided the Church at Corinth. As we have already hinted, one way that this happens is through a defilement of each individual’s body, which has now become a temple of the Holy Spirit. But there is a greater reality about the whole Church that St. Paul is conveying, for if the individuals are temples of the Holy Spirit, then the Church—as the body of believers—is likewise a temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, with regard to sexual impurity, he writes, “Do you not know that he who joins himself to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For, as it is written, ‘The two shall become one’” (1 Corinthians 6:16). St. Paul wants the Corinthians to realize that any sexual act causes the two to become one flesh, for he points to marriage (and likewise the sexual act) from the beginning of creation, “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24). As such, any man who clings to a prostitute will become one flesh with her, which is a sin against a man’s “own body” (1 Corinthians 6:18).

Because the baptized man’s body is now a temple of the Holy Spirit, it belongs to the greater reality of Christ’s Body for “You were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and in the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). For that reason, St. Paul writes, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never!” (1 Corinthians 6:15). Because the Body of Christ is meant to be united, those who become one flesh with a prostitute directly contribute to the division within the Church. The members of the Body of Christ are one, and ought not be joined to the body of a prostitute. Therefore, each individual Christian should not join himself/herself in an unlawful union, but rather he should be married to her through the sacrament instituted by Christ.

For this very reason, “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:11). Christ is the foundation of the Church, and unity with him is achieved both through imparting the Spirit to individuals and his united Body on earth. If individuals are divided through sexual immorality, then it is like uniting the Body of Christ to a prostitute, rather than maintaining Christ as the Head and foundation for the Church. This is why St. Paul says, “You are not your own; you were bought with a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). Each individual, now that he has become a member of the Body of Christ through baptism, is no longer his own autonomous being, capable of acting as he pleases. Rather, he is a member of the Body of Christ, and all the members are necessary in order for a body to work well and be healthy. Therefore, if he divides himself from the Body through sexual immorality, his action affects the other members, and causes division within the Church.

Why does St. Paul adamantly believe that becoming one flesh with a prostitute is so disastrous for the Church? What is the solution to the problem? One cannot ignore St. Paul’s famous words on love, but we shall look at those more closely later. For now, the answer to these questions is actually found in the letter to the Ephesians, which reveals to us why the Body of Christ must remain “one flesh” with its Head.

Christ’s Love for His Church
While there is some doubt as to whether St. Paul wrote the letter to the Ephesians, the answer to the problems in the Church at Corinth lies in the passage comparing the relationship of Christ and his Church to a marriage between a man and a woman. The love story between Creator and creation, begun in Genesis, finds its fulfillment in the love story between Christ and his Church. To understand this passage better, we shall first look at how it describes Christ’s relationship to his Church, and then, how that translates into the sacrament of matrimony. Finally, we shall see how these two facets of the passage answer the difficulty of division in the Church at Corinth.

The love that Christ has for his Church is a total, sacrificial gift. The author of Ephesians writes, “Christ is the head of the Church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Ephesians 5:23). As noted in the first letter to the Corinthians, Christ is the foundation of the Church, and because his Church is also a Body, this means that he is also the Head. He is the one ruling over his Church, guiding her through the stormy waters in order to achieve salvation. Furthermore, he is the Savior of the Church: He completely “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave,” so that man could live a redeemed life in him, and experience the Beatific Vision (Philippians 2:7). Indeed, the Church did not come into existence until the Cross, when she was born from Christ’s side in the outpouring of the blood and water.1  Although he has been assumed into Heaven, Christ’s Body, the Church, is still present in the world, and he still acts as its Head from his heavenly throne, because all things are done in Christ (cf. Philippians 4:13).

If Christ radically sacrificed himself for the Church, it is fitting that the Church should also sacrifice herself for him, for the Church should be “subject to Christ” (Ephesians 5:24). She owes her obedience to Christ, the Head, for he gave himself up for her. This act of obedience occurs through purification, for although it is Christ who ultimately presents his bride “holy and without blemish,” and it is only through him that the Church could be such, the Church must continually return to her Beloved when she falls away from him through sin. The Church is on a journey to find ultimate fulfillment in Christ in Heaven, for we are only “strangers and sojourners” here on earth (Ephesians 2:19). Therefore, the relationship between Christ and his Church is reciprocal: just as Christ gave his life so that the Church might have eternal life, so too must the Church return to Christ when she stumbles and falls.

Thus, we see the nuptial relationship between Christ and his Church. Christ, as the one who gave himself for his Church, is owed the submission and obedience of his Bride, who, although she falls away through sin, must continue to return to him out of love and repentance. We shall now look to the nature of the love that exists between a husband and wife, which is the other half of the discussion about Ephesians 5:21-33. “Wives, be subject to your husbands, as to the Lord” is the phrase used to describe the wife’s love for her husband (Ephesians 5:22). While the text indicates that both the husband and wife are called to be subject to one another, it is the wife’s particular vocation to subject herself to her husband, just as the Church gives her obedience to Christ’s commandment. This is her self-gift to her husband, a love that is open to receiving his will, just as she would receive the will of God. While it would seem that her own personhood, and her own free will, are compromised through such an action, just the opposite is true: she becomes more herself as a wife, the more she submits herself to her husband out of love. The author of Ephesians offers the following as a reason for this submission: “For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church” (Ephesians 5:23). Thus, the wife owes her reverence to her husband as her “head.”

Of the husband’s love, the author of Ephesians writes, “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the Church, and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). The husband’s love is meant to mirror the sacrificial love of Christ on the Cross. If Christ gave everything for the Church, then the husband must also give everything for his bride, so that, as Christ did with the Church, “he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the Church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Ephesians 26-27). In a word, the husband ought to sacrifice everything out of love for his bride so that she herself might be purified and sanctified for eternal life. The husband dies to himself and his own desires, just as Christ did on the night of his Passion. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ submitted his own will to the will of the Father (cf. Luke 22:24). Therefore, the prayer of the husband ought to be like the prayer of Christ, for no matter how great the sacrifice or suffering, he must be willing to give everything for his wife out of obedience to the Father’s will.

In discussing Ephesians 5:21-33, we have shown that it is an image of marriage as the foundation for the way that Christ loves his Church. We see how this image is reflected in the Body of Christ: “For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the Church, because we are members of his body” (Ephesians 5:29-30). Because the two become one flesh through marriage, “he who loves his wife loves himself” (Ephesians 5:28). The husband loves himself in loving his wife, for they are one flesh. At the same time, Christ loves himself, because he is loving his own Body, with which he is one flesh, “because we are members of his body.” Christ loves his Body as a husband loves his wife because he, as the Head and as the Bridegroom, has become one flesh with her, particularly through the sacrament of the Eucharist, in which the members consume the substantial Body and Blood of Christ. Moreover, the author of Ephesians ends this passage by saying, “This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church” (5:32). The mystery is not only the love between a husband and wife that make them one flesh, but it is also the mystery of the love between Christ and his Church, which is reflected in marital love.

We can see why St. Paul pointed to sexual immorality as causing disunity in the Church at Corinth. The very foundation of Christ’s relationship to his Church is like that of a marriage between a husband and wife. If the two are disjointed—if the union between a man and a woman is not truly a marriage—then we can see how that would cause disunity within the Church as a whole. Therefore, we can now discuss St. Paul’s eloquent passage on love (1 Corinthians 13). “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). This love is the love that Christ has for his Church. If the members of the Body of Christ do not have this kind of love, or any love at all, then they become a “noisy gong or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1). This love endures beyond death, since it is the love of Christ for the Church. Without true charity, therefore, there will be division in the Church, for this charity is the “more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31).

The Church in the Modern World
The truths presented in the Scriptures have not changed for the Church in the modern world. Thus, the love described in Ephesians 5:21-33 is still the same love that Christ has for his Church today. It is, therefore, still the basis of today’s marriages in the Church. I contend that we currently do not understand marriage in the Church, and world, because we firstly do not understand the universal Church. If we do not understand marriage, then we cannot understand the Church, and vice versa. For this very reason, Pope John Paul II wrote in his 1996 Letter to Families:

The family itself is the great mystery of God. As the “domestic Church,” it is the bride of Christ. The universal Church, and every particular Church in her, is most immediately revealed as the bride of Christ in the “domestic church” and in its experience of love: conjugal love, paternal and maternal love, fraternal love, the love of a community of persons, and of generations.2

Thus, because the family is based on the love between Christ and his Church, it is considered the “domestic church,” as suggested by Lumen gentium.3  John Paul II makes this radical statement because, just as the family is the domestic Church, so too, is it the “bride of Christ,” mirroring the universal Church as the bride of Christ. Nevertheless, as we have already stated, we have a similar problem as the Corinthians did: we do not actually understand the universal Church. Therefore, in this section, we shall look to the root of our problems in understanding the Church and then, our problems in understanding marriage, showing how the two are ultimately related.

One of the great themes of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s theology is the universal Church, and its resulting relationship to the particular Churches. He writes that the universal Church has become a “static juxtaposition of local Churches.”4  While acting as prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Ratzinger wrote that the universal Church “is not the result of the communion of the Churches, but in its essential mystery, it is a reality ontologically and temporally prior to every individual particular Church.”5 The Church is ontologically prior because she existed before creation, “before the foundation of the world” (Ephesians 1:4), and she gave birth to all the particular churches. Moreover, she is temporally prior, because the Church that “speaks all languages” was founded on the day of Pentecost.6 Ratzinger points to the shift in understanding the universal Church as prior to the particular churches to understanding it as merely a “communion” of churches in the more horizontal understanding of the term, the “People of God.” This is the term used to describe the Church in Lumen gentium: “A people made of Jew and gentile, making them one, not according to the flesh, but in the Spirit. This was to be the new People of God.”7  While Ratzinger does not disapprove of the term, “People of God,” he does say that it must be understood within “the context of the Eucharist, the sacramental unity of the Church, and the collegiality of the bishops with one another, including the Petrine Office,” as summarized by Maximillian Heinrich Heim.8 Thus, if the Church is viewed strictly horizontally without the sacramental perspective, there will be disunity within the Church, for the focus will be anthropocentric, not theocentric.

Furthermore, because we do not have a sacramental understanding of the universal Church, we likewise have more difficulty in discerning the Body and Blood of the Lord. This inability to discern the Body and Blood of the Lord is present in the Church at Corinth, and is ultimately the result of sexual immorality. St. Paul writes, “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Corinthians 11:29). The Corinthians received the Body and Blood of the Lord despite their sexual sins, for they did not see that Christ is the foundation of the Church. Defilement in their bodies would likewise defile the Lord’s Body, with whom they became one flesh in receiving the Eucharist. Because of their unworthy reception of the Lord, St. Paul continues, “That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died” (1 Corinthians 11:30). Thus, improper reception of the Eucharist affects the whole body. In Sacramentum caritatis, Benedict XVI writes: “We know that the faithful are surrounded by a culture that tends to eliminate the sense of sin, and to promote a superficial approach that overlooks the need to be in a state of grace in order to approach sacramental communion worthily.”9 Furthermore, this “loss of consciousness of sin” “always damages the ecclesial communion that we have entered through Baptism.”10 In having a decreased ability to discern the Body and Blood of Christ, we are likewise unable to see the communion we share with all the other members of the Body of Christ, and thus, have a diminished understanding of the nature of the Church.

Lastly, through this improper reception of the Eucharist, we come to the wedding feast without the proper garment. In one of Christ’s parables, a king is hosting a marriage feast for his son, and after many of those invited rejected the invitation, the king brought in any from the streets who would come. Among these, however, “He {the king} saw there a man who had no wedding garment; and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding garment?’ And he was speechless” (Matthew 22:11-12). This man was thrown “into the outer darkness” because he did not come properly dressed (Matthew 22:13). Thus, when we approach the Lord without having gone to the sacrament of Confession, and receive him unworthily, we are likewise approaching the wedding feast of the Lamb without the proper garment. Here, we see the eschatological purpose of the Church: if we do not participate in the Church with the right end of Heaven in mind, then we are doing a disservice to the Body of Christ. How will we be able to respond to the invitation to come to the “Spirit and the Bride” at the end of time, if during our whole lives as Christians we were not properly prepared to receive him? (Revelations 22:17). For the ultimate end of the Body of Christ is to enter the Mystical Body in Heaven, and to do that, we ought to be properly prepared to be part of the Body, and to receive the Eucharistic Body.

Turning to the aspect of marriage, one of the great difficulties in the Church in the modern world is not understanding marriage as an indissoluble union. As John Paul II writes in Familiaris consortio, “By virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner.”11 He gives the following reason for this indissoluble character: “Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church.”12 Therefore, the very reason that marriage is indissoluble is because it mirrors Christ’s relationship with his Church which is indissoluble because it existed before time, and continues into eternity. If we misunderstand Christ’s indissoluble relationship with his Church, we will likewise misunderstand the indissoluble nature of marriage. We should note that this is the fundamental problem as we consider whether the divorced and remarried should be permitted to receive Communion. Many pastors are under the impression that, if they allow couples to marry without teaching them about the indissoluble character of marriage, the marriage will be annullable because of “invincible ignorance.” If we continue to follow this “pastoral” practice, however, we shall only do further damage to the sacrament of matrimony and to the Church.

Without a deep understanding of the indissoluble nature of marriage, the sacramental nature is lost, and marriage becomes secularized, seen as a civil contract between two individuals, always with the option to leave the contract if it is no longer pleasing. Because of the increasing secularization of marriage, the aspect of self-gift as the root of the sacrament is no longer recognized, the self-gift at the very heart of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. John Paul II stresses the utmost importance of self-gift in marriage, which is revealed through the fruit of children. If the union of the two is only for selfish purposes, without the end result being that of children, then the dignity of the marriage is compromised: “The family is indeed—more than any other human reality—the place where an individual can exist ‘for himself’ through the sincere gift of self.”13 This model of self-gift must be set up against the secularized, selfish union prevalent in the world. As John Paul II continues, “An awareness of that sincere gift of self, whereby man ‘finds himself,’ must be constantly renewed and safeguarded in the face of the serious opposition which the Church meets on the part of those who advocate a false civilization of progress.”14

Thus, if self-gift is at the heart of married love, then marriage cannot be understood without reference to Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. In modern society, suffering is not infrequently misunderstood, and often avoided, for fear of the pain that it will cause. Certainly, no one desires suffering, but if we do not have before ourselves the suffering that Christ underwent on the Cross, especially as couples enter into marriage, then it is no wonder that so many marriages end in separation or divorce. John Paul II writes, “Conjugal love reaches that fullness to which it is interiorly ordained, conjugal charity, which is the proper and specific way in which the spouses participate in, and are called to live the very charity of Christ who gave himself on the Cross.”15 Just as Christ sacrificed everything for his beloved Bride on the Cross, so too are couples called to sacrifice everything for each other. This means bearing whatever cross that Christ has ordained for them, whether it be infertility, unemployment, or the difficulty of raising children—knowing that their union is indissoluble, and neither of the spouses will leave because of the difficulties. Without this vision of the Cross, placed within the reality of indissolubility and the necessity of self-gift in marriage, many couples cannot undergo these difficulties without rejecting the union that they have sacramentally entered.

Conclusion: Pastoral Praxis
As we have seen, marriage and the Church are intimately bound: our understanding of marriage comes directly from our understanding of the Church, and the opposite is true as well. If we wonder why there is a disconnect between the doctrine of marriage, and the way that it is practiced, we must realize that it ultimately comes from a misunderstanding of the Church. Therefore, pastors and teachers of religious education cannot be afraid to preach and teach the true nature about the Church, lest we forget the true nature of marriage. Not only that, but we must live the reality of the sacramental basis for the universal Church in our daily lives, one of those ways being adhering to the sacramental nature of marriage. Furthermore, the sacramental nature of marriage must be preached within the context of the Church’s sacramental nature, for that is its true basis, as seen in Ephesians 5:21-33. If we do not adhere to the sacramental understanding of the Church and marriage, we will only see marriage continue to be secularized.

  1. Joseph Ratzinger, Feast of Faith, trans. Graham Harrison, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 41.
  2. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, (New Haven, CT: Knights of Columbus Supreme Council, 2001), 19.
  3. Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen gentium, promulgated by Pope Paul VI on November 21, 1964, 11.
  4. Joseph Ratzinger, Called to Communion: Understanding the Church Today, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1996), 83.
  5. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Some Aspects of the Church Understood as Communion, art. 9.
  6. Ibid., art. 9.
  7. Lumen gentium, 9.
  8. Maximilian Heinrich Heim, Joseph Ratzinger: Life in the Church and Living Theology: Fundamentals of Ecclesiology, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 360.
  9. Pope Benedict XVI, Sacramentum caritatis, (Ijamsville, Maryland: The Word Among Us Press, 2007), 20.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Pope John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, (Boston: Pauline Books and Media, 1981), 13.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Pope John Paul II, Letter to Families, 11.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Pope John Paul II, Familiaris consortio, 13.
Veronica A. Arntz About Veronica A. Arntz

Veronica Arntz graduated (’16) from Wyoming Catholic College (Lander, WY) with a Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Arts, which included courses in humanities, philosophy, theology, and Latin, among others, using the Great Books of Western thought. She is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology from the Augustine Institute (Denver, CO). She has published articles with Homiletic & Pastoral Review, Truth and Charity Forum, Catholic Exchange, and St. Austin Review, among others.


  1. It disturbs me to know that our dioceses are hiring people to their “marriage and family departments” who only know papal documents and theoretical teachings. Maybe the author should become a nun instead. (I mean that. We need more nuns.)

    On a more practical level, the easiest and most obvious way to encourage more Catholic marriages is for parishes to simply become “communities” again. And promote activities that all members – young, old, married, single – can feel welcomed in. Generations of Catholics met their spouses through parish activities and old-fashioned social networking. Why did that stop? The consequences are now very apparent.