Jun 21, 2011

So what is Marriage really?

(This is a longer than normal Blog entry so be patient and read on. Early summer days tend to give a little more time.)

Unless one lives under a rock you cannot avoid the present hot button social issue that has been a cause of debate throughout this country and the world – the nature of marriage: man and woman or man/man, woman/woman? Which is fair, just, legal, holy, a constitutional right, better for raising children and good for society in general? It strikes me that it has become as much a cause for debate as other social/moral issues such as abortion, women and the priesthood, and assisted suicide. Not to be surpassed by who will be our next President and which party will prevail. We are a very noisy culture these days. The debate goes on between the sacred and the secular.

Much ink has been spilled in print while talk on radio and television continues in the same sex marriage question. Let me spill a little more “ink.” Catholics have a right to know why the Church teaches what it does. For the State it is a new issue. The position of the Church is as old as the Church.

Our American Bishops have drawn a line in the sand. The definition of the Church always has been and continues to be that marriage is a sacred union, a sacramental bond – a permanent and faithful union between one man and one woman. Millions of people, Catholic and non-Catholic, have no problem with that and will defend it mightily. There are many others who feel that a person has the right to enter any kind of union they want with another person of the same gender in a bond of love and commitment so why not call that “marriage” with all the legal rights that married couples enjoy? Live and let live is the prevailing attitude. The media has become the voice.

My parents were married 50 years and I was raised with three brothers and a sister. Now, as a Catholic priest of more than thirty years, visiting homes, sharing meals, interacting with children, witnessing the joy of marriage and the pain of unfaithfulness and divorce, I still continue to stand squarely on the side of Scripture, Tradition, history and the articulated position from leadership in our Church. That position is not new but is now challenged with a response formed as both a defense and an invitation to seek deeper renewal and understanding of the sacred bond between husband and wife. In that sense it has been a good thing - when something so dear is questioned we tend to call for a reform and a strengthening which bring a new appreciation.

Here's a wonderful resource: http://foryourmarriage.org/

Yes, marriage has evolved in the sense that marriage for love is a relatively new perspective. Marriage between man and woman for financial advantage was more the norm. Arranged marriages still exist in some parts of the world. Get married now, fall in love later – maybe or maybe not. Remember Tevye and Golde singing Do you love me? from Fiddler on the Roof? The push to redefine the nature of a marriage union today is an effort to restructure marriage as solely a civil rights issue.

The tension fundamentally, as I see it, falls between those two perspectives: that of the Church and that of the Government (State). Both sides are pushing very hard but coming from varied beginning points. A great deal is at stake – the structure of the social order.

On the one hand is the position of faith communities and in particular the Catholic Church. The Church sees marriage as a divinely instituted Sacrament. Marriage obviously existed before Christ came but it is what he said about marriage that forms the basis of Church teaching. If we believe Jesus is the Word of God made flesh then his words hold weight. If we do not believe he is the Son of God, then his word is just his opinion subject to redefinition and adaptation. For sake of argument we Christians confess to believe that Jesus is God made human among us every Sunday.

The position the Church takes is that we cannot change what Christ has said or done and what our tradition has handed on to us since the first century of Christianity. Our task is not to redefine but to understand, explain, and apply to every generation even if it means this will be unpopular. This is the same position we hold in regards to the Sacrament of priesthood – Holy Orders. Essentially, the Church does not have the authority to alter the sacramental system. The seven sacraments as we know them today by name have come to us since the Council of Trent (500 years ago) but up until that time the sacraments existed in the form of what they are today. It just took some time for the Church to officially define them as seven in number. That was another time when the Church was on the defensive (Protestant Reformation).

The book of Genesis clearly states that man and woman are created by God as complimentary genders – both equal but different and intended by the Creator to be joined in union Gen 2: 24. Jesus’ own presence at the wedding in Cana in Jn 4: 46-54, his comments on marriage in Mt 19: 3- 8, 27-28; 19: 9-11 and the supportive teaching of St. Paul as he traveled throughout the ancient Mediterranean world consistently explain the Divine intention for married life. Therefore, Marriage is defined to be a holy relationship a Covenant of life and love between a man and a woman that is ended only through the death of one of the spouses. Its purpose is the pro-creation of children and the good of the spouses.The Church bases its moral positions essentially on absolute truth’s (10 Commandments) and the natural law both of which are expanded in the Scriptures.

So, what is the Church to do with this definition today? Simply ignore it? Say it is no longer meaningful and go back to the drawing board? State that Jesus was speaking to his time alone and not to us today? Agree that St. Paul was a “male chauvinist?” (He wasn’t). Or stand in defense of this truth when it is questioned? Yet, divorce is a reality between Catholic couples so there is a way to be sensitive to that reality. Sadly, sometimes divorce is the best option. I must honestly say that I have sometimes, not often, witnessed the wedding of a couple with my fingers, or at least my toes, crossed.

The contrary opinion that we hear so vociferously argued is that of the secular government: Marriage is a legal contractual agreement between two persons, man and woman, and along with that agreement go certain rights and financial advantages. Society calls that contract, marriage. People do have a right to marry just as Catholics have a right to marry in the Catholic Church. The Government defines this as a contract that will hopefully last a lifetime but if it doesn’t it can be ended in something called divorce.

So, if “marriage” is a civil right, as the legal argument goes, why prohibit persons of the same gender? Is marriage merely a legal contract between two persons (State) or is marriage a sacred covenant between a man and a woman (Church)? Catholics must decide on which side they stand and why they stand there and wonder if this is compatible with what they profess to believe each week. We Americans in particular don’t want to deny anyone their civil rights but the Church has a right to be heard loud and clear in the market place.  We Christians may find ourselves on the minority side – it has happened many times before. However, beware of polls since it is rarely stated who the target audience was and that makes a huge difference in the outcome.

Up until the present time, the position of the Government and of the Church has been the same as far as male/female marriage. In one sense we can say the secular government rewards married couples and in that way encourages that relationship. But, now the definition of that contract is up for expansion. Our faith prohibits this expansion as a new definition of marriage.

Our Bishops have courageously taken a stand on the side of marriage as a Sacrament and we must not simply brush them off. The Church will never change that position because it cannot nor should not. It isn’t always easy to be sure and there is room in the Church for everyone but on certain things so crucial as marriage and family life, if we believe in a God of love and truth, we have to be clear.

Let me know what you think in the comment below.