WARNING: a long, but information-filled post.
Piggybacking on Ben’s earlier post about defending conjugal marriage, I thought I’d add my own thoughts about the current state of the marriage as an institution in society and as a Sacrament of the Church. Unfortunately, the landscape is changing rapidly and I believe the Church, especially at the local level, is not prepared to defend marriage either as a societal institution or as a Sacrament. I’m not saying that the official teaching of the Church is somehow deficient, but, rather, that no one seems willing to proclaim the teaching in full. I am also, at this time, personally affected by a divorce in my immediate family, so I find myself particularly concerned about the state of marriage.
Marriage is “Obsolete”
About a month back, TIME Magazine offered a hit piece on marriage entitled: “Who Needs Marriage? A Changing Institution.” In it, the author informs the reader:
The Pew survey reveals that nearly 40% of us think marriage is obsolete. This doesn’t mean, though, that we’re pessimistic about the future of the American family; we have more faith in the family than we do in the nation’s education system or its economy. We’re just more flexible about how family gets defined. (emphasis mine)
I’d say that’s just about right given the simultaneous attacks on marriage and the traditional family carried out by a persistent and aggressive homosexual lobby and entertainment industry. Consider this story applauding the new birth of a child to Elton John and his partner in which a surrogate was used to produce a baby boy for the couple. Popular television shows, too, portray almost every family situation imaginable from traditional to two-daddy to polygamous as do movies (see here and here – please note, my references here are not necessarily recommendations. The movie, “American Beauty,” is especially offensive on many levels). Simply put, more and more people are willing to define “family” very loosely with the traditional family becoming almost anathema.
In a similar vein, People Magazine abounds with celebratory stories of couples newly engaged over the Christmas holiday even though many of them recently left marriages. Now, I understand that we are talking about Hollywood here, and that the moral rules are different, but Hollywood elites are not the only people leaving marriages only to enter into new ones.
An article in the New York Times highlighting the new marriage of a middle age couple where both people left former spouses and their families because “they were deeply in love” caused quite a stir. It didn’t matter that their spouses and children were “devastated,” they had found their “soulmates” and the consequences be damned.
Enter the “Soul Mate”
In the report, “When Marriage Disappears: The Retreat from Marriage in Middle America” issued by the University of Virginia National Marriage Project and the Institute of American Values, the authors describe an emerging marriage model called “the Soul Mate” model. They describe the model as such:
Over the last four decades, many Americans have moved away from identifying with an “institutional” model of marriage, which seeks to integrate sex, parenthood, economic cooperation, and emotional intimacy in a permanent union. This model has been overwritten by the “soul mate” model, which sees marriage as primarily a couple-centered vehicle for personal growth, emotional intimacy, and shared consumption that depends for its survival on the happiness of both spouses.
Setting aside whether one believes in “soul mates,” I have heard this concept invoked to justify divorce. In fact, my sister is claiming the “soul mate” defense for separating from her husband. Now, my sister is hardly cognizant of Christian theology or the Church’s view of marriage, but even those who should know better fall in this trap. Popular culture does little to dissuade the idea that 1) soul mates exist and 2)a person should settle for nothing less. My 40 year old sister, married for 12 years with two small children is breaking up her marriage because she feels that “maybe my soul mate is still out there.”
The Rejection of Marriage by Middle America
Marriage is not only suffering among the barely educated (no high school degree) and poor, but also among the formerly socially conservative “working class” of middle America. The above mentioned report from the UVA National Marriage Project offers a sobering prediction about the future of America if marriage is further eroded in Middle America (defined as moderately educated, working middle-class):
The retreat from marriage in Middle America cuts deeply into the nation’s hopes and dreams as well. For if marriage is increasingly unachievable for our moderately educated citizens—a group that represents 58 percent of the adult population (age 25–60)—then it is likely that we will witness the emergence of a new society. For a substantial share of the United States, economic mobility will be out of reach, their children’s life chances will diminish, and large numbers of young men will live apart from the civilizing power of married life.
Interestingly, like the TIME article referenced above, this report notes that a large percentage of the population values marriage and believes it is a desirable thing. Unfortunately, cultural factors are powerfully changing the reality of marriage especially among the less educated and working class. The authors argue:
In their attitudes as well as in their behavior, Middle Americans are shifting toward a culture that still honors the ideal of marriage but increasingly accepts departures from that ideal.
Enter the Church
And it seems even within the Church we are willing to accept “departures” from the ideal. People in positions of leadership and authority publicly suggest that the Church is “out of step” with the times and that there is a need for recognizing long-term, committed homosexual relationships. These same people suggest that divorce and remarriage should not be a hindrance to full participation in the Church and Her Sacraments (I am thinking specifically of Sr. Patricia Schoelles, Fr. Charles Curran and Fr. Richard McBride among others. Our own Bishop is very sympathetic to homosexuals and is a something of a hero in the gay community). In 1997 at a New Ways Ministry celebration, Bishop Clark remarked:
I do think with growing conviction, based on my own pastoral experience that the Church really needs to engage in an intentional, corporate and systemic reflection on human sexuality.
He responded to a question about public blessings for homosexuals in this way:
My concern with the practice is not so much a concern with the practice, but the practice as it communicates to the wider community, that that issue is settled, that it is in exactly the same place as the Sacrament of Marriage is in the faith and understanding of the people at large. And I simply ask that any practice of blessing or validation, whatever it is called – and I know it’s called different things in different places -my concern is that it’s carried out in such a fashion that there is visible equation made to the Sacrament of Marriage in the sense that I just described, as that is understood and commonly held by the Christian assembly. (see the book AmChurch Comes Out, p. 55-66 by Paul Likoudis)
His statement is a bit convoluted, but if I’m understanding it correctly, it appears that Bishop Clark is hoping for homosexual unions to be on par with traditional marriage. I find it unsettling, to say the least.
I must admit to a certain sympathy when I hear the argument that gay marriage won’t erode marriage because heterosexuals have done a fantastic job already. No-fault divorce laws and even the annulment process in the Church sends the message that marriage is temporary. Last year, in fact, Pope Benedict cautioned church tribunals against allowing the growing civil divorce rate to dictate the number of annulments they grant (Did you know that while US Catholics comprise 6% of the total global Catholic population, 60% of annulments are granted to Americans?). Recognizing that many divorced Catholics seek annulments so as to pursue a second marriage within the Church, our Holy Father argued that the desire to be married and receive the Eucharist should not come at the expense of marriage, adding:
Both justice and charity require love for truth, and essentially involve the search for what is true. Without truth, charity slides into sentimentalism. Love becomes an empty shell to be filled arbitrarily. This is the fatal risk of love in a culture without truth. (As Fr. Z would say, can I get an “AMEN”?!)
Of course the fact that straight couples are unable to keep vows doesn’t change the reality of marriage nor take away from its basic purpose as so well stated by the authors Ben mentions in his recent post. They define marriage as thus:
marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together, and renewed by acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction.
I think it really is that simple.