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Friday, July 17, 2015

Marriage: The Heart of the Matter

Since the Supreme Court's terrible ruling my pastor, Fr. Michael Dobbins, has given several homilies pointing out our own culpability in bringing about this evil assault on God's plan for marriage. It's a good time to examine our consciences and reflect on how our past (and perhaps present) sinful choices contributed to the ruling. 

There has been much discussion in the past week and a half regarding the recent decision of the Supreme Court of the United States to legalize same sex marriage in every state of the union. Many people rejoiced and many were outraged by the decision. As Catholics, we do not believe that marriage can be anything other than the union of one man to one woman for the totality of life. To look at this decision with anger and to be angry with the justices who rendered the majority decision is to be very short sighted. This is a decision very long in the making.

At the heart of the issue is a question: What is marriage?Here we are gathered as persons attending Sunday Mass, sitting in a place where marriages and so many other sacraments are celebrated and sacred scripture is read. What is marriage to persons who dare to call themselves Disciples of Christ? (The word disciple means that we are persons who place ourselves in the school of Christ and that we share his views about what he teaches.)

In paragraph 1601 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church we read:
“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”

In paragraph 1602 we read:
Sacred Scripture begins with the creation of man and woman in the image and likeness of God and concludes with a vision of “the wedding-feast of the Lamb.” (Rev 19:7,9; cf. Gen 1:26-27) Scripture speaks throughout of marriage and its “mystery,” its institution and the meaning God has given it, its origin and its end, its various realizations throughout the history of salvation, the difficulties arising from sin and its renewal “in the Lord” in the New Covenant of Christ and the Church.

In paragraph 1603 we read that…
“The intimate community of life and love which constitutes the married state has been established by the Creator and endowed by him with its own proper laws…. God himself is the author of marriage.” (GS 48 para 1)

From these three paragraphs we learn that marriage is for the good of the spouses and the increase of the human family. We learn that there are certain qualities necessary for it to be a marriage: one man and one woman; for the whole of life; for the increase of the human family.

These qualities are discussed whenever a couple present themselves to their parish priest or deacon for marriage preparation. In that process they discuss how marriage is to be entered into freely, without reservation or condition. They are asked whether they intend to be completely faithful to their spouse for the rest of their lives. They are asked that one of the purposes of marriage is the birth of children and whether they intend to fulfill this aspect of marriage. In short all of the questions are distilled down to four qualities: fidelity, permanence, total commitment, and openness to children.

The next question that is raised after learning all of this is simply: Do you believe this?

We did not get to this point in modern society without a long series of actions that changed the very understanding of marriage throughout the decades. Without question, perhaps we can even conclude that some of us here present have contributed to the break down of the proper understanding of marriage.

Taking a look at history we can see, beginning in the latter part of the last century, various points of degradation: the loosening of the divorce laws, which weakened the permanence of marriage. Followed in quick succession there was the introduction of contraception, which easily compromised faithfulness in marriage and the openness to life. When marriage becomes unhinged from fidelity, permanence, total commitment and openness to life, it ceases to be marriage. To say that the Supreme Court redefined marriage in its ruling concerning same sex marriage is dishonest. All the Supreme Court did is acknowledge what modern society has already done. At this point in history marriage had already been redefined.

Sadly too many Catholics have contributed to this redefinition, even in the face of the revealed truth of sacred scripture and the constant teaching of the Church. Although the intention of our selfish actions may not have been to undermind marriage, our actions nevertheless contributed to it.

This brings us to today’s scripture. Many of the words used in the first reading are what the Dictionary of Biblical Theology describes as “Hardness of Heart.”
“The progressive sclerosis of the man who is separated from God is called hardness of heart…To harden the heart is to fatten the heart; to stop the ears; to coat the eyes; to sleep; to throw a fit of giddiness, or torpor, or of falsehood so that one has a stiff neck and a heart of stone. This state can affect all men – of pagans, Israelites and even the disciples of Jesus…Hardness of heart characterizes the state of the sinner who refuses to be converted and who remains separated from God.”

Such a disposition reveals a lack of faith, as we see in today’s Gospel. A faithless person asks of God such questions as “Where did this man get all this? What kind of wisdom has been given him?” Such questions are asked because the one asking the questions believes that he or she knows better than Christ about how to live, to love and even how to die.

When we think about some of the questions people have asked about the Church in our more recent history, we can see this hardness of heart: “Where does the Church get off on telling me what marriage is,” or, “What does the Pope know about marriage?”
So, what is our response to the times in which we live? In the “United States Catholic Catechism for Adults” a powerful observation is made: “We seldom do justice to the ways in which our bodies share in and reveal our interior personal lives. We have drawn attention here to Pope John Paul II’s meditation on the nuptial meaning of the body because we believe it is a vision of sex, marriage, and the person best suited to rebuilding a wholesome, faith-filled, and loving approach to these most precious gifts,” (page 413)

Any vocation, whether it is marriage, priesthood or the religious life, is about sacrifice. It is about laying down your life for the sake of another. The call of every vocation is a call to imitate Christ. The content of how that vocation is played out is different in each vocation, but the demand is the same: there is no greater love than to lay down your life for your friends.

The family is the basic unit of society. Marriage is the foundation of the family. If we wish to renew or rebuild society, we need to rebuild marriage. We need to sincerely examine our personal understanding of marriage. Whether or not we are married, if any of us has personally contributed to the degradation of the understanding of marriage in our culture, then we need to repent.

For those who are already married, or those who are thinking about getting married, a greater effort should be made to be even better at being married. In fact, the goal of any married couple should be to be really good at being married. If you are really good at being married, you will get many other things about life, love and death correct. Our society is sick. Our society is sick because our families are sick. Our families are sick because our marriages are sick. You want to change society? Then our understanding of marriage needs to be renewed.

Fr. Michael Dobbins


Jerry B said...

My family got a good sermon from a traditional priest while on vacation. He blamed the Church for dropping the ball on marriage. The problem is that we no longer hear the clearly stated truth that the primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children. A good reference is Pope Pius XI's encyclical Casti connubii. The priest cited canon law as an example of the lack of traditional teaching. He could have cited the CCC also. Additionally, the priest condemned the use of birth control, including NFP because that is how it is taught and used.

I sent him a note of encouragement and included two other examples. First is Pope Paul VI's Humanae vitae which blurs the ends of marriage. Also Vatican-II Gaudium et Spes speaks of the right of parents to choose the number of children they have. Both Cardinal Ottaviani and Cardinal Brown spoke against the novel understandings of marriage.

Mary Ann Kreitzer said...

Well it's refreshing to hear that a priest is speaking the truth with courage. I do have to disagree about NFP however. (In the interests of full disclosure, I spent 15 years teaching NFP at Providence Hospital in Washington, D.C.). NFP can be used immorally just like a match can be. But there are times in marriage when it is important to postpone a pregnancy: ill health, a crisis necessitating the care of an elderly parent, etc. When we taught NFP we stressed that it was all about planning to HAVE families. But I experienced personally the need to avoid pregnancy when I had cancer and was on chemotherapy. In that kind of stressful time, marital intimacy is a comfort. But the drugs attack the fastest growing cells and can be lethal to a baby. So we practiced NFP very conservatively. If I had conceived I would have immediately stopped chemo, but I didn't. But certainly that is one of those serious reasons for postponing a pregnancy.