Marriage Equality as a Teaching Moment

This month, Maryland became the eighth state (plus the District of Columbia) to pass marriage equality legislation. It was signed into law this week by Gov. O’Malley, but will not take effect until after any referendum reversal attempts have completed.

I expect I don’t have to explain the official position of the Catholic church on this legislation, but it’s worth noting that a number of Catholics have very actively supported marriage equality, precisely out of their conviction that it is consistent with the dignity of the human person that is foundational to much of Catholic moral theology.

My object in this post is not to advocate for one side or the other; indeed, for the purposes of this post, I will assume the official church teaching that marriage is valid only between one man and one woman. Instead, I want to point out that the bishops are overlooking an important teaching moment here. Rather than pouring all their time, energy, and resources into fighting a cause that I strongly suspect has already been lost, this would be an excellent opportunity to strengthen the church’s teaching on marriage by distinguishing it from the civil-secular understanding of marriage.

It’s like the struggle over the holiday season: rather than insisting that everybody else in the country conform to the Catholic way of doing things, let’s take this opportunity to clarify what makes Catholic marriage different from civil marriage.

That difference is not just “get married by a priest, no divorce, no birth control.” Did you know that? I didn’t know that. And I grew up really, really Catholic, with a better Catholic education than much of my generation. As a friend of mine said recently, “If they didn’t get you, they can’t have been seriously trying.” Oh, I knew it was a sacrament, but I never thought about what that might imply, and nobody told me, or encouraged me to think about it.

About ten years ago, I took an excellent online course on the sacraments from the Notre Dame STEP program. One of my assignments was to answer the question, “What would you tell a young couple who want to make plans to be married in the Church, but do not have much sense of what a Catholic sacramental marriage is?”

Here is my response:

Dear young people,

As we discuss what Catholic marriage means, I must ask you to pretend that I am telling you about the marriage customs of another culture from a faraway land, something that is foreign to you, where marriage doesn’t mean what you expect it to mean. I must also apologize to you for the poor state of things, that I should have to ask you to do this!

If you marry in the Catholic church, you are making a radical commitment to each other, to love each other as Jesus loves us: completely, unfailingly, and with openness to new life and new possibilities.

Your spouse will disappoint you. S/he will not live up to your expectations, or meet your needs, or do his/her fair share of the work – at least, not all the time. If you marry, you are vowing to love each other anyway: just as Jesus loves us even when we don’t meet his expectations, or do our fair share of the work of the kingdom.

You will not “live happily ever after”. Don’t expect to. Life is hard. Married life has its own particular challenges. These challenges will be the crosses you are given, to embrace in love as Jesus embraced his cross in love.

In your married life, you are called to live up to the ideal of Christian love and faithfulness. Your community of two is called to be a city set on a hill, so the world can see what it means to love as God loves us.

As married Catholics, the Church teaches (albeit somewhat incoherently) that you are to use the gift of sexuality always in ways that are open to new life. That means that if there are times in your life when you are fertile but don’t want children, you are called to fast from sexual activities that can result in pregnancy. This can be an opportunity to learn and appreciate your sexuality as it connects with the miraculous ability to create new life.*

At your Catholic wedding, the two of you will be the ministers of the sacrament; you will administer the sacrament to each other, in the witnessing and affirming presence of the priest and the community of family and friends. The grace of the sacrament will not magically make you able to withstand all trials: like all the other sacraments, it requires that you be properly disposed and actively cooperate with God’s grace for it to come to fruition in your lives.

If you’ve never prayed together, I urge you to pray together now, and frequently, before you decide to marry. Pray over the things I’ve told you, and ask God’s grace to discern the path that he is calling you to follow. Pray separately as well as together.

At its best, a sacramental marriage can imbue your daily lives with an awareness of God’s love and faithfulness. But it is a solemn commitment, and requires more work and attention than the ordinary road faced by a couple that is living together. As you will be asked at the baptism of your children, I will ask you now: Do you fully understand what you are asking of the Church? Are you willing and able to take on this responsibility in your lives?

Don’t answer now. Go home and pray over it.

(*On the other hand, it might not be, as witnessed in this very important series hosted by Women In Theology.)

Later still, an older, married, Catholic theologian friend talked about how a Catholic marriage should bring you closer to Christ. My mouth just dropped open in astonishment: both that nobody had ever said that to me before, and that it had never occurred to me on my own: it’s a sacrament, of course it should bring you closer to Christ!

If the bishops are serious about strengthening marriage, then they should drop this exclusive focus on the pelvic issues (which, hello, almost no Catholics are paying attention to anyway), and start teaching about Catholic marriage as a sacrament, as a vocation, as something that is more than “natural marriage”, that builds on natural marriage as grace builds on nature.

Marriage equality is a terrific opportunity for the Catholic church, because it points out the lazy fallacy that any non-sacramental marriage is identical to the “natural marriage” presumed by natural law. Civil marriage isn’t any more equivalent to natural marriage than church marriage is: both are social constructs built on the natural human inclination towards sexually-motivated pair-bonding that supports the bearing and raising of children.

The thing is, they are different social constructs, and this is right and proper, because as I’ve said before, the goods of a civil society are not the same as the goods of an ecclesial society. Civil marriage confers economic and social benefits to established “households” that are good for society as well as for the persons that receive them. Sacramental marriage confers the grace to live out the corresponding challenge of being a domestic church, living the gospel amid the particular challenges of married life.

Strengthening the church’s teaching on marriage, and broadening it past the pelvic issues, would have the additional benefit of teaching about vocations generally, and would very likely also strengthen Catholic understanding of the vocations to religious and to single life. If this could be done well, then it would be a real step in a positive direction.

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6 Responses to Marriage Equality as a Teaching Moment

  1. neodecaussade says:

    Dear Gaudete Theology,
    I have to say I appreciated your pragmatic approach. I hope to see your vision come true. I liked the way you navigated the sex minefield to point at God. All the gyrations of the Bishops should teach us the sacrament is only valid if it brings us closer to God. Well done.

    • Thanks, Neo! I appreciate the encouragement.

      Although I feel compelled to point out that, of course, a sacrament can be “valid” even if it is not “fruitful” (ie, in bringing us closer to God). This is one reason I object to annulments on theological grounds: if we can declare a properly celebrated sacrament of marriage to be invalid post facto, then what would stop us from declaring a properly celebrated sacrament of baptism to be invalid post facto? Or any other sacrament? It just seems to open the door to a direction we really don’t want to go.

      I think the Eastern Orthodox approach to marriage and divorce is much stronger, both theologically and pastorally.

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