Saturday, December 19, 2009

The state of Christian marriage

The Manhattan Declaration is an important document. Released on 20 November 2009, this declaration is signed by Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox leaders, not least among whom are several Catholic bishops and Metropolitan Jonah, head of the Orthodox Church in America. The entire declaration, which focuses on issues of life, marriage, and religious liberty is a well-written and timely declaration of the Christian faith in the contemporary United States. The section on marriage is of particular interest given the current national debate about it, a debate that is very ideological and too often reductive. To give just one quick example of where we are on marriage, there is an effort underway in California, where a state-wide referendum to amend the state constitution to define marriage as being exclusively between one man and one woman narrowly passed last year, to collect enough signatures to get a measure banning divorce on next year's ballot. I am in favor of such a measure, at least of a measure banning so-called no-fault divorce. Trust me, I understand that it is difficult to stay married. If you're looking for reasons to bail on marriage you never have to look far. We need to change our mindset and look for reasons to stay married. Like priesthood and religious life, marriage is not for everyone, though I daresay it is more normative than priesthood, religious life, or being single. Because it is a vocation raised to the dignity of a sacrament, marrying another requires prayer and serious discernment.

Earlier this month, Sharon Jayson, writing in USA Today, demonstrated that many couples marry not expecting their union to last. This attitude builds from another demonstrably bad practice, co-habitating prior to getting married, a subject Jayson also tackled in concise format for USA Today some months earlier. As with Pope Paul VI's predictions about the consequences of the widespread availability of artificial contraception, what the church teaches about marriage holds up well when measured by against reality. Nonetheless, honesty requires me to note that the divorce rate among Christians, including Catholic Christians, does not significantly differ from the overall divorce rate. This flows in part from the pastoral mentality that does not view co-habitation, pre-marital sex, and non-practice of the faith as barriers to being married in the church. Too often there is no judgment made about whether a sacramental marriage is even possible between the two people asking to be joined. I would also say that teaching people it is not necessary to adhere to Christ by endeavoring to be obedient to what the church teaches about sex within marriage, which basically amounts to dispensing married people from practicing and acquiring the virtue of chastity, also contributes to this sad this state-of-affairs. Neither is it unusual for one or both people not be confirmed, often not seeing completing Christian initiation as important. In this regard, it is always important to remember that to truly love an other means to love her/his destiny.

In any event, the authors of the declaration- Robert George, who is profiled in the current issue of the New York Times magazine, Timothy Beeson, and Chuck Colson (a Catholic and two Evangelicals respectively)- begin the section on marriage with self-critical reflection on the failure of Christians to understand and live marriage in a sacramental way:

"The man said, 'This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called woman, for she was taken out of man.' For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh." Genesis 2:23-24

"This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. However, each one of you also must love his wife as he loves himself, and the wife must respect her husband." Ephesians 5:32-33

"In Scripture, the creation of man and woman, and their one-flesh union as husband and wife, is the crowning achievement of God’s creation. In the transmission of life and the nurturing of children, men and women joined as spouses are given the great honor of being partners with God Himself. Marriage then, is the first institution of human society—indeed it is the institution on which all other human institutions have their foundation. In the Christian tradition we refer to marriage as 'holy matrimony' to signal the fact that it is an institution ordained by God, and blessed by Christ in his participation at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. In the Bible, God Himself blesses and holds marriage in the highest esteem.

"Vast human experience confirms that marriage is the original and most important institution for sustaining the health, education, and welfare of all persons in a society. Where marriage is honored, and where there is a flourishing marriage culture, everyone benefits—the spouses themselves, their children, the communities and societies in which they live. Where the marriage culture begins to erode, social pathologies of every sort quickly manifest themselves. Unfortunately, we have witnessed over the course of the past several decades a serious erosion of the marriage culture in our own country. Perhaps the most telling—and alarming—indicator is the out-of-wedlock birth rate. Less than fifty years ago, it was under 5 percent. Today it is over 40 percent. Our society—and particularly its poorest and most vulnerable sectors, where the out- of-wedlock birth rate is much higher even than the national average—is paying a huge price in delinquency, drug abuse, crime, incarceration, hopelessness, and despair. Other indicators are widespread non-marital sexual cohabitation and a devastatingly high rate of divorce.

"We confess with sadness that Christians and our institutions have too often scandalously failed to uphold the institution of marriage and to model for the world the true meaning of marriage. Insofar as we have too easily embraced the culture of divorce and remained silent about social practices that undermine the dignity of marriage we repent, and call upon all Christians to do the same."

When it comes to out-of-wedlocks births, which occur dispropotionately among people who are poor, maybe we owe Dan Quayle an apology.


  1. I have sat here for a long time, seeking the right words. They do not come easily.

    I did not get married until I was 49. Our wedding was indeed very sacramental - I always say that I did not just marry Mark, I married a whole community. Here I am, 2 1/2 years later, immersed in the life of the church in the city I moved to. It shapes my life, my education, career and is foundational to my family.

    I work in a parish office and I see the couples that come in. It is a challenge for any priest to have to deal with wedding planning. I happen to work for someone who takes this very seriously and it is edifying to be around him. That said, the societal bar shifted some time ago and the expectation of sex outside of marriage, cohabitation, etc - it is all there already.

    Now with that all in place, I must say that I struggle with all of this. I know far too many LGBT people who have been together for many years, in deeply committed relationships. Many of them are Catholic.

    The teaching is one thing and as a Catholic I must always surrender to it. Real life is another and how I bridge the gap is a faith challenge.

  2. As one who has spent years preparing Catholic couples for marriage, I know whereof I speak/write. My comments do not arise from a vacuum. It is precisely because this shift you describe, in which the church for for a decade or so was complicit, is already there that we must confront it head-on and not become enablers. It is easy to always comfort people, but it is sometimes necessary to challenge them, too.

    Any realtionship where there is genuine love and commitment is not without value, but we can't be nominalists and call every such coupling a marriage. Again, I am not a stranger to this pastoral issue either.

    In the end, I do not accept that there is a gap between truth and so-called real life. Such a view flows from a definitive split between believing and knowing. Accepting such a split does not enable one to live in a rational way. Positing this split is a fatal error. Everything we do must be done out of love, genuine love, which means always keeping in view the reason I exist and the reason that other exists, and must be done lovingly. In the end, everyone is free, there is no compulsion. However, free decisions are well informed decisions.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful reply to your very thoughtful post. I took the risk to write what I did because I have come to know you as a pastoral person on-line and I was not afraid.

    I hear every word that you are saying and I pray to have further understanding.

    There are other church teachings with which I have struggled and like water over a stone, rough edges are smoothed as I stay engaged with God, with my church, with my faith. Change does come, metanoia actually, but it can be slow.

    That said, this is probably the toughest one for me.

    I did not say this earlier, but will now. My father was divorced - twice - before he married my mother. They were not the poster children for good marriage. I have nothing to hide about this, I just did not say it and felt like it was needed.

    My husband was divorced too. Mark is the loyalist man I know; I knew him in college, we were in a relationship. I never forgot him and he was always like an ember in my heart. I prayed often about him. When I heard that he was married I felt happy that he had found happiness.

    When he got in touch with me I could not imagine why... It had been 23 years since we had been in touch and I could not conceive of him as being divorced. I had never married.

    He had been divorced and reached out to me some time later. I guess this is what we would call beshert.That is part of a longer story for another day perhaps, but we are married and sacramentally so. This was not easy I can assure you; it is the right thing however. This is not my own relativism, you have to take my word for it Deacon Scott, the evidence is all around me.

    In any event, my long winded point is that I have had to deal with this in my personal and faith life too. Divorce is always painful and I am tragically sad about how many people take marriage less than seriously.

    Thank you again for your words on this topic.

  4. I certainly hope that I come across as approachable, reasonable, and pastoral. I am in ministry because I love people. I understand the many things involved when it comes to divorce. I am one of only two deacons who serve the marriage Tribunal of our diocese. I do a lot of advocacy, especially on behalf of Respondents who request advocacy and who are not happy about an annulment being sought. The truth of the matter is that many marriages are easily annulled these days. In the best situations, people learn and grow, maybe even through a failed first marriage, and become ready to live the sacrament matrimony is intended to be.

    I just think there needs to be more pastoral due diligence up-front, not as a matter of enforcing rules, which is always pointless, un-Christian, and not even human, but out of concern for the people involved. Of course, this is not a 100% guarantee of success.

    As a societal matter, if a divorce was more difficult attain, people would give marriage nore thought. It is the task of Christians to live marriage, not in phony baloney, look we're so happy way, but committed through thick and thin, being honest about our struggles, relying on God's grace.

  5. "As a societal matter, if a divorce was more difficult attain, people would give marriage nore thought. It is the task of Christians to live marriage, not in phony baloney, look we're so happy way, but committed through thick and thin, being honest about our struggles, relying on God's grace." Amen to that Deacon Scott.

    Thanks for having this dialogue with me and for your work in this ministry. Many prayers and blessings for you.

  6. We all need to approach this with a deep sense of humility.

    Often, marriages are subjected to inexpressable pain, some self-made others not, that renders them unsustainable.

    Society is not friendly to marriage as we Catholics understand it. Those of us who are happily in sacramental marriages are experiencing a gift from God that we are trying to treasure and nuture. But we are not immune from the possibility of divorce.

    God's grace builds on nature. What we need to do is change society in such a way as to give God's grace some solid ground to build.

  7. Anonymous, given the fallness of the world and our individual brokenness, which is what makes it necessary for us to rely God's grace, nobody is immune from divorce because no one is immune from sin. Indeed, we must be humble. I can think of nothing more humble than acknowledging the failure of Christians to live what we believe with regard to marriage and to repent, which means to have a change of heart about how we live marriage. Such a change can only happen through God's grace.

    In other words, those who criticize Christians as hyopcrites about marriage certainly have a point.


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