Marriage: Beautiful, God’s gift, and in danger

OSV Newsweekly recently interviewed Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone, chairman of the USCCB subcommittee for the promotion and defense of marriage, on the themes included in the fourth chapter of “Love is Our Mission: The Family Fully Alive.”

Our Sunday Visitor: “Love is our Mission” quotes the theology of the body, particularly where Pope St. John Paul II talks of a certain “interior freedom” and “self-mastery” that spouses need in order to give themselves to one another in love. Can you explain?

Archbishop Salvatore J. Cordileone: (This concept) ties into what St. John Paul says about the virtue of chastity, which I think is very insightful. The popular idea of chastity is that it’s a deprivation or it’s kind of an emotional restraint one exercises on one’s self. But he speaks about how chastity is really what enables one to love according to the true meaning of what love is, and that it affirms the intrinsic dignity of the other person at all times and in all ways, and never crosses over to using the other person as a means to the end for one’s benefit or pleasure. If we understand chastity in that sense, it’s affirming the good of the other.

Marriage (is) a school of self-mastery (with the goal being) love as good will, or always seeking to put the other first. It takes self-mastery in a sense of (our) tendencies of selfishness — or what (St. John Paul) calls the utilitarian norm — where we use other people as a means to our own end, especially in the area of sexual ethics. He speaks about these tendencies — he has this provocative image — of how they’re hatched deep down within the soul and we need to kind of root them out so that we can be purified to love in accordance with the true meaning of love.

OSV: How can married couples learn to give themselves wholly to the other, especially when this concept often is a foreign one?

Archbishop Cordileone: We need to get people in touch with their deepest desires. They might not understand it, but deep down they really desire it. So we need to help them cultivate these virtues early in life: when they’re in school and especially at the high school stage when all of this is starting to come alive within them.

(We must) cultivate this sense of virtue — chastity being I think a fundamental one — but other virtues as well: of generosity, of humility, of prayerfulness. And then get them in touch with what they really desire deep down inside. …

It’s not going to happen just by wishing it to happen. It’s going to require some sacrifices on their own part for the good of the other, but with a view to a payoff with the relationship. It’s like making an investment and then eventually you begin to reap the benefits of it.

OSV: As we know, marriage is under attack from our culture. What are some of the key ways that married couples can remain strong in the face of such adversities?

Archbishop Cordileone: Father (Patrick) Peyton said it right way, way back: “The family that prays together, stays together.” Studies show that for couples who, first of all, live by the Church’s teaching on responsible parenthood and then pray together, (and) attend church together, the divorce rate is way, way low. So just doing that, right there, is already a lot. But, again, they need to be educated on what does the Church really teach and how do they live that in the relationship. I think we need to look to more seasoned couples to be mentor couples to younger ones to live this teaching of the Church so they can experience the true beauty of it in the relationship.

The Church really is, when you think about it, the expert in marriage, because for 2,000 years we’ve been reflecting on it theologically and mystically; we’ve been legislating on it; we’ve been working with it pastorally. And I think we’ve come to a new appreciation thanks to St. John Paul. But it’s precisely at the time we see marriage being eroded so much in the culture. Marriage is a beautiful thing. Marriage is God’s gift to us.

So I would encourage married couples to appreciate that and to see what’s out there that can give them some support and to connect with other married couples that want to keep a strong family life. We need to come together on this and support each other. That’s how we grow.

OSV: With the erosion of marriage, what’s at stake?

Archbishop Cordileone: The whole concept of what marriage is was redefined a long time ago in society. But if we lose this basic idea of marriage (as its very definition is brought into question by the law), it’s going to be really, really hard to evangelize because revelation builds upon what’s already in the created order, most especially marriage.

As we know in our Catholic Tradition, marriage is the only sacrament (in which) Christ took a pre-existing institution and elevated to the dignity of a sacrament. ... So it builds on what’s already in the natural order, and if we don’t understand what’s in the natural order, how are we going to understand what God has revealed to us using this as an image of the transcendent spiritual truth, if we don’t understand the natural truth?

OSV: How does the Sacrament of Marriage relate to that of penance and the Eucharist?

Archbishop Cordileone: From the beginning, God made them male and female, and the husband shall leave his father and mother and cling to his wife, and the two shall become one. So that nuptial principle is stamped on creation from the very beginning. God’s covenant with Israel was a marriage covenant; the prophets speak of that; the psalms speak of that.

With his sacrifice on the cross, Christ is the bridegroom, the Church is his bride. We see the Eucharist right there on the cross: He sheds blood and water from his side, signifying the sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist, by which he gives life to the Church. This is the seed of life Christ gives to his bride.

The Church as his bride receives it and conceives new life and nurtures that new life for his kingdom by giving the new birth of baptism, nurturing that new life with the sacraments, especially the grace of the Eucharist, and teaching the truth that Christ entrusted to the Church, that deposit of faith. And then it’s consummated in the wedding feast of the lamb in the Book of Revelation. What we celebrate in the Eucharist is this consummation of this wedding of Christ and the Church because it’s made present to us in our own time and space the sacrifice of Christ.

So the altar is where this marriage feast is consummated and the faithful are brought into that, the two becoming one. In a marriage, the man and the woman become one flesh. It’s a comprehensive union of mind, body, spirit, but yet they also retain their individual identity, while at the same time becoming one. And that’s the mystery of our union with God.

For the faithful, this is expressed and celebrated in our reception of holy Communion. So as a spouse would seek to be worthy of the love of the other spouse, so we should for the love of God in the marriage covenant he has made with us, his people. And when we fail in that, well, we have this other sacrament (of penance), so we can be forgiven and healed and made worthy to receive him.

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