Today is Marriage Sunday and the Archbishop has asked us to preach on marriage, and our pastor in turn has asked me to address this topic, probably because I am married.
I'm not certain, but perhaps over the years some people might have said to him, as they've said to other priests, "How can you tell us anything about marriage, when you're not married". I've heard that line over the years, and it is unfortunate, because it is a case of faulty reasoning. A priest or a sister who lives the gift of celibacy faithfully is one who above all can speak about marriage.
My return to the Church 32 years ago was the result of meeting a very joyful and faithful priest from the United States, and I've been very blessed to have had very good priests in my life like him over the years. And when I got married, I became acutely aware of the example of fidelity that this priest was to me. What his celibacy said to me and the culture at large, was that this life is about one thing, and that is learning to live every day of our lives with God and for God. Until that happens, we will never experience the joy that we were created for. And that is what marriage is about. It is about learning how to love, how to love our spouse and how to love God. The sacrament of holy matrimony is a vocation, which means that it is the particular way that God calls certain people to love Him, to serve Him, and to eventually possess Him in eternity. Marriage is a way to heaven.
But getting to heaven is difficult. Learning to love God is difficult, and learning to love others, including the person we marry, is difficult. And the reason is that we carry with us, throughout our entire lives, the wounds of Original sin. The Church has traditionally referred to this as concupiscence, a tendency to selfishness and sin. Only one person did not have to struggle with concupiscence, and that was Mary, Our Lady of Grace, because she was "full of grace", conceived without original sin. She is the Immaculate Conception. But the rest of us have to struggle against the tendency within us to sin and self-seeking. That's why love of self is easy, but loving another, not for what the other does for me but for the other's own sake, is difficult.
But marriage is about learning just that. And that's why marriage has been on the decline in North America since the late 60s. Individualism and hedonism took root in this culture at that time. So if the chief purpose of this life is to live for oneself, for one's own enjoyment, and if love means loving another for what the other can do for me, then marriage makes no sense. I remember walking downtown Toronto as a teenager when a limousine and a number of other cars went by honking their horns – someone had just been married – , and a man wearing a nice suit walked by, turned around and looked straight at me and said, "There's a sucker born every day".
I was taken aback by his remark, but that's how a lot of people began to regard the institution of marriage – for "suckers". Marriage did not make sense to a great many people. And so it is not surprising that generally speaking, most people do not really know what marriage is. My students certainly do not, and of course many of our politicians have no idea what marriage is – Catholic politicians at that, I'm sorry to say.
But there is an essential difference between living together with insurance benefits, and marriage. The fundamental question is: What do two people intend when they intend to marry? It is exactly what cohabitating couples do not intend. When a couple genuinely want to be married, they intend to give themselves entirely and completely to one another. If that mutual self giving is to be a complete giving of the self, then it is going to involve the body – since I am my body. And if I choose to give my body to another completely, that means I cannot take back what I give. If I could, it would not have been given entirely, but partially. And if that self-giving is total and irretrievable, then it is until death takes my body away. That's why a valid marriage is indissoluble.
Children watch their parents; they learn the basic grammar of human relationships from watching them. And if what they see is twisted, then the twisted will, for them, become normal.
Marriage is therefore a joining of two, male and female, into one flesh, one body, through an irrevocable self giving. It can only be between a man and a woman, because only a woman can receive the body of a man, and only a man can receive the body of a woman. Only a male and a female can become one flesh. And the two receive one another bodily in the act of sexual intercourse, which consummates the marriage. That is why the act of sexual union is called the marriage act.
In a culture in which marriage makes no real sense – since love is about enjoying, not giving – the sexual act is eventually separated from marriage. And that's the reality now, 40 years later; sex is no longer associated with marriage and children, culturally at least.
But the result of this is that fewer young men today are even capable of marriage. And that is why the divorce rate is so high, and why many marriages that take place in the Church can be annulled. I don't know the figures, but an annulment means that there was never any marriage in the first place. It isn't the priest that marries the couple; it is the couple that impart the sacrament to one another. But they have to be able to do that – they need the moral and psychological maturity to actually be able to give themselves to one another exclusively and till death. Not everyone who stands before a priest or deacon and takes those vows is really able to do that, and often we don't know that until after the wedding, sometimes months, but sometimes even years later.
There are a number of impediments that prevent a marriage from being valid. Coercion is an impediment – the vows must be freely given. Fraud impedes a marriage – if the other person kept important information from you that you needed to make a free consent. The inability to perform the sexual act is an impediment, for this would amount to the inability to actually become one flesh, one body, which is precisely what marriage is. The deliberate intention not to have children renders a marriage invalid. There must be an openness to children. Infertility is not an impediment to marriage, but the deliberate intention to close the marriage to children renders one flesh union impossible. And if a couple do not intend a permanent union, but leave an opening for divorce, the marriage is invalid. And finally, psychological immaturity is an impediment.
The emotional health of future generations really depends on the state of marriage in a culture. Children watch their parents; they learn the basic grammar of human relationships from watching them. And if what they see is twisted, then the twisted will, for them, become normal. Marriage is a very serious and holy vocation. To be faithful and to fulfill that vocation well is to do more good than we can hope to measure. And even if something were to happen, if our spouse were to be unfaithful and leave us, or if for our own safety we had to separate, and if our marriage were valid and thus indissoluble, our vocation then would be to remain faithful to our vows and remain celibate and surrender our spouse into the hands of our Blessed Mother. That's our witness to the world – a witness of fidelity and self-sacrifice. The good we do in remaining faithful to our vows will extend down into the generations long after we are gone.
And the beauty of priestly celibacy is that we can look to faithful priests who are humble and joyful and be reminded continually that our happiness does not have anything to do with romance, that our life, our married life, is about living every day of our lives with God and for God. When we finally achieve this, then we will know happiness, and we will be ready for whatever happens.
Deacon Douglas McManaman. "Marriage: A Way to Heaven." CERC (February 13, 2011).
Printed with permission of Deacon Douglas McManaman.
Doug McManaman is a Deacon and a Religion and Philosophy teacher at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario, Canada. He is the past president of the Canadian Fellowship of Catholic Scholars. Deacon Douglas studied Philosophy at St. Jerome's College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. He is the author of Christ Lives!, The Logic of Anger, Why Be Afraid?, Basic Catholicism, Introduction to Philosophy for Young People, and A Treatise on the Four Cardinal Virtues. Deacon McManaman is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center. Visit his website here.Copyright © 2011 Deacon Douglas McManaman
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