Thursday, January 5, 2012

Marriage and Religious Life

Had a lively conversation at the dinner table tonight with the brothers about marriage, inspired by our bemusement over the opulence of wedding celebrations. How lavish the wedding feasts have become; how impoverished the marriages. A banquet in tribute to the vanity of the bride and groom and their families, followed by a starvation diet as the spouses and clans neglect the covenant made. Why such an effusion of creativity and splendor for the wedding feast, and a complete and utter lack of imagination for the work of the marriage itself?

I contended that the Church, which requires a year or several years of catechesis and faith formation for reception of the sacraments of initiation, and which requires many years of formation for one of the sacraments of vocation, holy orders, should require at least as much preparation for marriage, the other sacrament of vocation. Couples who desire a marriage in the Church ought first to know what the Church is offering by way of the sacrament, and then they should decide if they want what the Church gives. But they should not approach the Church wanting only a pretty place for a wedding. And the Church should not rubber-stamp their request for a sacramental marriage just because they are in love and feel entitled to it.

I feel very strongly about this, having been in discernment about my vocation for many years and now in the first year of a prolonged process of formation in preparation for my equivalent of the marriage vows, the religious vows of celibacy, poverty, and obedience. Just because I feel called to be a Capuchin doesn't mean I automatically get to be one. The other friars have something to say about this, and so does the Church! I feel this way especially because, unlike the vocation to religious life, the Church has raised the vocation to married life to the dignity of a sacrament. Every baptized Christian has a right to the sacraments, but with rights come responsibilities.

Every baptized Christian is called to bear the love of God revealed through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit into the world. Only a few are called to do this through consecrated religious life. Most of them are called to do so through a relationship with another person characterized by mutuality, intimacy, exclusivity, commitment, and justice. By the grace of God, the love between these two persons may become, through the sacrament of marriage, a mirror of the love between Christ and the Church. That love is courageous and just, loyal and true, all-powerful, deeply creative, tenderly intimate, perfectly mutual, and indestructible. Every person should want their love to become this kind of love. To help committed couples attain this, the Church offers them the love of God in the sacrament of marriage. This offer of grace should be as inclusive as the Church's ever-developing understanding of marriage will permit it, but it should not on that account be an easy offer or a cheap grace.

My thinking has been stirred by a symposium of reflections in the most recent issue of Commonweal on sex, marriage, and the Church. A panel of writers and theologians were invited to comment on the following thesis by church historian Eamon Duffy:

The shrinking of Catholic institutions is clearly part and parcel of a much broader unsettlement within Western society. It is not merely Catholic marriages, for example, which are in decline, but, it would seem, the institution of marriage itself. The moral pattern imposed by the church (slowly and with enormous difficulty) on European sexual behavior and family structure from the early Middle Ages onwards seems now to be collapsing. Later than most of the rest of the churches of the West, the Catholic Church is increasingly confronted with the need to evolve a modus vivendi with these apparently inexorable social trends, which can be lived by ordinary people with integrity. Marriage is above everything else a social institution, and if the church is not to decline into being a sect for the saintly, ordinary Catholic couples cannot realistically be expected to live lives untouched by the social and sexual expectations and mores of the culture as a whole. The tragically large and growing number of Catholics in irregular unions is both an indicator of the way in which the values of society shape the lives and perceptions of Christians and also, in pastoral terms, a ticking time bomb, which by one means or another is going to have to be defused if it is not to decimate the Catholic community and, more importantly, deprive thousands of people of the sacramental support and light they need.

I encourage you to read the full article of replies to Duffy, but I will excerpt from the response by Prof. Nancy Dallavalle of Fairfield University, as it reflects my own thinking:

Duffy’s warning, with which I concur, is not so much about the list of desirable behaviors as it is about the danger of seeing marriage not as a sacred institution into which one enters, but rather as a self-expressive affective choice that comes with no inherited goods and gives rise to no ramifications beyond the immediate bonds. The problem, in other words, is not our behavior; in fact our behavior is quite understandable. It’s the impoverished goal—a private union that is about me. Well, “us.” Well, actually, me....

Getting married should mean—for some of us must mean—entering with awe into a sacramental moment that is much bigger than any given couple and their combined Facebook friends. In response to Duffy, I suggest that the bar for this sacrament should be higher, not lower, so that marriage can serve its properly prophetic role in a world that longs for a transcendent that must be more than one’s own world writ large. Yes, the traditional moral patterns matter—let’s teach them. But they are not the entire point, and should not be presented as such. Sacramental marriage should not be reduced to a prize awarded to couples who meet all items on a checklist of approved behaviors; it should be an invitation, reserved for couples who genuinely recognize their need for grace, and have the humility to hunger for a tradition that will sustain it.

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