By Cardinal Justin Rigali
My brother priests throughout the Archdiocese who are engaged in parish work tell me that, in addition to the traditional months of May and June for the celebrations of marriage, weddings now often continue throughout the summer. In the midst of this time of the year when marriage is often celebrated, let us reflect on it this week.
Truly a gift
In the past few weeks, several of the titles for this column have made use of the word “gift.” For example, I referred to the gift of Jesus in the Eucharist and the gift of the revelation of the mystery of the Most Blessed Trinity. Perhaps, according to our common understanding, we may find it easier to refer to those mysteries as gifts than we might do so for marriage. Unfortunately, marriage is at times treated as a source of humor and even of ridicule. It is often treated as an impossible or outmoded institution. It has even become a battleground when it comes to defining it. Sadly, we also know that in our own country one half of all marriages end in spanorce. With all those seemingly grim statistics, does it make any sense to refer to marriage as a gift? By all means!
The giving of a man and woman to one another in an exclusive union of mutual love and support is imprinted into our very nature, as related to us in the very first book of the Bible. It is introduced into the plan of creation in a context of great care and sensitivity on the part of our Creator.
Pope John Paul II wrote: “The fact that man ‘created as man and woman’ is the image of God means not only that each of them inspanidually is like God, as a rational and free being. It also means that man and woman, created as a ‘unity of the two’ in their common humanity, are called to live in a communion of love, and in this way to mirror in the world the communion of love that is in God, through which the Three Persons love each other in the intimate mystery of the one spanine life. This ‘unity of the two,’ which is a sign of interpersonal communion, shows that the creation of man is also marked by a certain likeness to the spanine communion” (Mulieris Dignitatem, 7).
I thought it important to introduce this very rich quotation from the documents of the Pope John Paul II because it immediately elevates the mutual gift of married love to the exalted level it deserves and rescues it from any trivial or demeaning interpretation.
Characteristics of Christian marriage
We know that Jesus took the gift of marriage, which had been with man and woman from the beginning, and elevated it to a greater level of intimacy with Himself. He gave it the dignity of a Sacrament, so that He might show forth His esteem for this state and also so that He might make a promise of the gift of His own life of grace to those who cooperate with Him and with each other in Christian marriage. He endowed marriage with what we call the “characteristics” of Christian marriage, which are unity and indissolubility. What do these words mean?
Unity reminds us that we have been given the ability to love one person with a unique and exclusive love. What a joy it is for an inspanidual to meet, come to know and then fall in love with someone whom he or she loves more than any other person! What a gift two people exchange when they proclaim that unique love to one another and, in a sense, to the whole world because marriage is always a public and communal act. What marvelous security each gives to the other in promising to remain true to this unique love until death. What joy to love and be loved in such a way. All this is possible through the gift of marriage.
The characteristic of indissolubility identifies the quality of Christian marriage which tells us that it is a bond broken only by death. This is not meant to place an intolerable burden upon two people. Rather, it is meant to create a foundation of stability and confidence within which two people can go through life as one. This gives it its peace and security when it is faithfully upheld, and its heartache and betrayal when it is not. It is not meant to be a burdensome chain but a great source of peace and healthy security amid the challenges of this life. Many of you reading this know this to be so because you experience it in your own faithful marriages.
Openness to children
I have at different times in this column addressed the place of children within marriage. It is necessary to reiterate their place as we address marriage this week. In the intimate physical union of husband and wife, there are both love-giving and life-giving aspects. This does not deny the legitimate pleasure that God has made a part of this aspect of marriage, but it also elevates it to a level that is appropriate to the dignity of the human person. Intimacy within marriage is meant to express the enduring love that two people have committed themselves to; it is not a mere vehicle for pleasure. Therefore, this intimacy must always have a love-giving aspect. Since God has placed the cooperation of two people in His own work of creation within the context of this act, it must always have an openness to a life-giving aspect as well. This not only fulfills one of the purposes of this union but it also protects the act from a selfishness which is part of the weakness of every person, wounded with the results of the sin of our first parents.
Pope Benedict XVI has placed great emphasis on another aspect of marriage: its ability to be an instrument of peace. In just his first three years as Pope, he spoke about marriage over 110 times, often speaking of it in this context of peace. In a speech given to a group in 2007, Pope Benedict said: “There are those who maintain that human reason is incapable of grasping the truth, and therefore of pursuing the good that corresponds to personal dignity. There are some who believe that it is legitimate to destroy human life in its earliest or final stages. Equally troubling is the growing crisis of the family, which is the fundamental nucleus of society based on the indissoluble bond of marriage between a man and a woman. Experience has shown that when the truth about man is subverted or the foundation of the family undermined, peace itself is threatened and the rule of law is compromised, leading inevitably to forms of injustice and violence” (Speech to the Executive Committee of Centrist Democratic International, 21 September 2007).
Our Holy Father is most accurate when he speaks of marriage as an instrument of peace because we also know the tremendous toll in poverty and crime that the absence of marriage and a stable family has upon both children and adults. This invariably affects the peace of society as well. While the state has in interest in providing for the needy and seeking the good of all its citizens, it is not meant to take the place of marriage and the family. These have been established by God as part of the natural order for the peace and security of inspaniduals, the proper upbringing, safety and security of children and as the greatest means of attaining the common good within a peaceful society. Over and over again, we read the devastating statistics concerning a cycle of poverty, lack of education and resulting lives of crime that accompany the collapse of marriage and the family. This is why the Second Vatican Council reminds us that “the well-being of the inspanidual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life” (Gaudium et Spes, 47).
Marriage is not a restriction of freedom
Sometimes, marriage is looked upon as a restrictive state, which takes away the freedom of the inspanidual. While it is true that any relationship, which by its nature makes demands on those in the relationship, can be seen to limit freedom to a degree, this is not the ultimate end of marriage. In fact, the refusal to give oneself to an exclusive union of love, while only desiring the pleasures found in its physical aspects, is exactly what leads to slavery, not freedom: slavery to our passions, slavery to selfishness and, ultimately, slavery to the state, which winds up assuming those powers which belong by right to the inspanidual and the family.
Pope Benedict often encourages us to make use of modern technology to proclaim the message of Jesus. The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops sponsors an excellent web site called “For your marriage,” (http://www.foryourmarriage.org), which contains many helpful resources. A section of this website, containing links to social networking groups, is entitled “Become a fan of marriage.” Without trivializing marriage or its challenges, in the light of what marriage is and the gift that it is meant to be for both inspaniduals and society, we might all take up that same theme and attempt to become “fans of marriage.”
25 June 2009