Misunderstanding Marriage

Once upon a time, long years ago, people throughout Western civilization had the notion that marriage was among one man, one woman and Almighty God. So, the Church very much was in the mix. No politicians or civil officials were wanted or expected.

Then came the Reformation. Then came the French Revolution and corresponding social and cultural upheavals virtually everywhere in historically Christian societies. Secularism reared its ugly head. What, then, about marriage, with the Church out of the way?

Nobody but the civil authority was left. So, civil authorities began to record marriages. Civil authorities required people to be civilly licensed to marry. Finally, slowly but surely, divorce was allowed.

This accommodation of a process “to terminate” a marriage moved along with hesitation, even in the United States. Believe it or not, at least in the older states, only an act of the state legislature could grant a divorce, and adultery, proven and obvious, or desertion constituted the sole acceptable grounds.

Then, in this country, states authorized local courts to rule regarding petitions for divorce. The acceptable legal reasons for granting divorces multiplied. Today, anything goes, in all 50 states.

As to marriage itself, so many people have no problem with following civil statutes about marriage when they are planning to marry, but the religious matter is something of an incidental, at best, or an outright nuisance, at worst.

Along the way, God was removed from the picture, and so were most of the traditional Christian values about marriage.

Add the “me, myself and I” equation to the mix, and we have what we have today. The notion of unquestioned gift of self, and of sacrifice even to the point that it hurts, virtually has vanished.

It is true even among Catholics, as any priest knows from his experience of working with people anticipating marriage or coping with difficulties in marriage.

Does the chicken or the egg come first? Probably, at least in my estimate, the most erosive issue is that utter and total self-interest, everything else aside, drives our culture. It is a very hard situation in which to speak of Christian marriage.

God bless the Holy Father and the bishops who will meet in the October Synod to point the Church’s ministry regarding marriage forward for the future. They have their jobs cut out for them.

Any discussion at this moment about marriage likely will be diverted to, or captured by, the question of “same-sex” marriage. This circumstance, increasingly available in this country under the law, and, to believe so very many polls, more and more is accepted by the population, is no trivial concern. Go back to Genesis, and come forward. Our religion never, ever has viewed marriage as being anything but a relationship between one man and one woman.

This sudden, radical departure from the past, represented in the emergence of “same-sex” marriage, truly is sailing, and sailing at breathtaking speed, into the unknown. Who knows what will come perhaps not in the distant future, but sooner, in our culture’s entire approach to marriage, family, procreation, the upbringing of children and so on. Think about it and have a nightmare.

Still, if social estimates are correct, thereby assuming that same-sex attraction affects a small percentage of the American population, frankly, then, presuming all civil barriers are removed, “same-sex” marriage will not involve untold millions, insisting again that its inclusion in this culture will have serious consequences.

The greater problem is what the gradual tolerance for divorce indicates. We have a gigantic pastoral problem in addressing convincingly for our people the very concept of marriage, indeed if marriage is acknowledged as a union between one man and one woman.

It goes to Catholic religious formation, but the current plight of the theology of marriage, in terms of its acceptance among so many Catholics, is no indictment of any catechetical endeavor.

A wise bishop, now with God, made a point well worth remembering when anyone speaks of religious education. “We instruct them,” he said. “God converts them.”

Hampering conversions of hearts these days is this tsunami in the culture in its attitudes about marriage and, more broadly, about self, community and purpose in life.

The best teacher is the example of a truly committed, God-fearing marriage. Blessed be those marriages of such quality that we priests, and our people, behold each day. We need to celebrate them.

In any case, Church ministry must find the incentive, and practical techniques, to convey to people, to society overall, the traditional Christian principles about marriage.

A good place to begin reflection is by reading the liturgy of weddings. The wording is eloquent, straightforward and profound. At times, presiding at weddings, I feel that we are just mouthing words, as if we were reading the want ads from the daily paper.

The words of the wedding liturgy tell it all.

No pastor wants to be seen as harsh and uncaring. Certainly, Pope Francis has set an excellent model in this regard. Our sensitivity, however, to the unfortunate experiences of divorced persons cannot detour us from speaking frankly about the Christian values of marriage and, indeed, about the tragedy of divorce. In my years as a priest I have not yet seen one divorce occur as a happy event. A moment of relief, or acceptance, or even hope for a better future, perhaps divorce may be for some, but happy? Never.

Then there are the children of broken marriages. When people are married, everything is wonderful, and few people in any case truly face the problems that theoretically, but very possibly or even likely, in life lie ahead. Still, the misery and insecurity of so very many children affected by divorce needs to be noted. (I thankfully am aware of the very constructive programs in many Catholic schools and parishes for such children.)

Some, but arguably not enough, depending on local circumstances, outreach to adult Catholics involved in the effects of divorce occurs in parishes. God bless these efforts.

The heartache has happened, however, when these programs to assist adjustment to divorce are put before people. The genuinely productive ministry, not to demean gentle and understanding pastoral care for divorced persons or their children, is to prepare people for marriage in the first place.

The same also can be said of diocesan tribunals. Here, I begin by saying that several of my closest friends among priests serve in diocesan tribunals. I know of no other priests whom I more admire for their pastoral instinct and simple human goodness.

With these impressions in mind, I admit a bias when I hear people mumble that this tribunal or that tribunal is hardhearted and pedantic, and it really raises my blood pressure when I listen to the hunches that either hefty donations or pull will speed a case before a tribunal toward final, and affirmative, resolution.

It happens now and then that my telephone here at Our Sunday Visitor rings and a person asks me how to contact her or his bishop. (Google? Telephone book? Call to the parish?) At times the caller wishes to implore the bishop to intervene, or even dictate a judgment, in some tribunal process. I bite my tongue.

This compliment to tribunal personnel noted, I now recall the changes in the processes of tribunals’ studying petitions for declarations of nullity that have been enacted in my lifetime as a priest.

If the synod recommends, and if the Pope orders, another change better to accomplish the tasks before tribunals, I will put it in context and take it in stride.

All this having been said, we best concentrate on how we teach the young and the unmarried about marriage.

It has to be set within the vision of total Christian living, a truism but a fact.

When Christian values dazzle from the lives the spouses in our pews, we will have come a long way. “Same-sex” marriage and cohabitation will fall into place.

It is such a tall order, frighteningly so. The incentive is the benefit found by our people when they acquire, and live, the ideals of Christian marriage.

MSGR. CAMPION is editor of The Priest and associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor. He is a former president of the Catholic Press Association and the Vatican’s ecclesiastical adviser for the International Catholic Union of the Press.