Monday, November 10, 2008

Starting from a positive hypothesis: marriage is unity

In their recent statement on marriage, Married Love and the Gift of Life, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops observed that couples "considering marriage yearn for certain things". At root their longing is the human longing for unity, for completeness, for happiness. The object of their desire, whether they know it or not, is well-expressed by the Psalmist: "As the deer longs for streams of water, so my soul longs for you, O God" (Ps. 42:1). In his Exposition on Psalm 42, St. Augustine opines that the one yearning for the face of God is not "one individual," but the "One Body,", which is "Christ’s Body," the church. Msgr. Lorenzo Albacete asks how do we see the church’s unity "with our eyes" and "grasp it with our hearts as a reality, as a verifiable fact of life, as a unity that makes us long so strongly for a vision of the face of God"? The answer, taking its cue from Genesis 2:24, which, along with Genesis 1:27, comprises the architectonic foundation on which the biblical view of marriage is constructed, is found in the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: "'For this reason a man shall leave (his) father and (his) mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church" (5:31-32). It is through holy matrimony that "the unity between God and His people becomes a visible reality in this world" (Albacete "Marriage as Witnessing to Christ," Traces October 2008: 51).

The mystery of the unity of the triune God is also grasped in reality by the sacramental union between man and woman. In no way is this unity made more visible than by having children. The Christian tradition has long seen in the natural family (i.e., husband, wife, and children) as an icon of the Trinity. The church teaches that raising children, at least as much as having them, is why Christ has raised marriage "to the dignity of a sacrament" (Canon 1055.1). So, a couple who, through no fault of their, own are unable to bear children, need not be discouraged because a valid sacramental marriage is open to them, too.

Perhaps the biggest challenge to couples seeking to live marriage as a sacrament is faithfully living what the church teaches regarding sexuality and its necessary link to procreation. Nowhere more than here, at a significant crossroads where faith meets life, have so many Christians taken the worldly road. The term "birth control" is important because not only is the church not opposed to birth control, it teaches that limiting the number of children is a moral responsibility of all married couples. In his encyclical, Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI wrote that married couples need to arrive at a "full awareness of their obligations in the matter of responsible parenthood, which today, rightly enough, is much insisted upon, but which at the same time should be rightly understood" (par. 10). So, taking into account the "physical, economic, psychological and social conditions, responsible parenthood is exercised by those who prudently and generously decide to have more children, and by those who, for serious reasons and with due respect to moral precepts, decide not to have additional children for either a certain or an indefinite period of time" (par. 10). "From this it follows," the encyclical continues, "that they are not free to act as they choose in the service of transmitting life, as if it were wholly up to them to decide what is the right course to follow. On the contrary, they are bound to ensure that what they do corresponds to the will of God the Creator" (par. 10). The nature of Christian marriage as set forth in scripture "makes [God’s] will clear" and "the constant teaching of the Church spells it out" (par. 10). What the constant teaching of the church spells out is that the regulation of births, either by way of spacing or number, cannot be done morally by using artificial methods of contraception.

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