Marriage and family are in the news. Pope Francis has just convened an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops to discuss “the crisis of the family” in the modern world. The media and even some hierarchs have already floated proposals for addressing the crisis. But what do we mean by the crisis in family life? We cannot assess the crisis until we know what we mean by success. What is this ideal of marriage to which we are striving?
I have read a few secular books on marriage and family. I’ve encountered the “revolutionary five-step program for thriving relationships.” I’ve studied techniques for “harmonious, long-lasting relationships.” And many of these are, no doubt, very, very useful and very, very important. There are natural principles, drawn from psychology and science, that are true, beautiful, and good and of which Catholics ought to avail themselves. We all want harmonious, long-lasting relationships and Catholic faith exhorts us to seek such an outcome.
But we should ask, “Is a marriage deemed ‘successful’ simply because it is harmonious and long-lasting?” If so, how would a marriage differ essentially from a harmonious, long-lasting friendship, or a love affair, criminal conspiracy, or a business partnership? Not every “harmonious and long-lasting” relationship constitutes a marriage.
And there is another question we should ask. What if a marriage was neither harmonious nor long-lasting? Should we automatically deem it a failure as a marriage? I am thinking, in particular, of the life of St. Rita of Cascia (1381-1457). St. Rita married an extremely difficult man who, because he lived a vengeful life, was murdered in a vendetta. But before he died, he was converted by Rita’s love and devotion to a sincere Catholic faith. Rita bore him two sons who also died (of illness, not murder). Rita’s marriage would likely be deemed a failure by the standards of modern psychology and couples therapy, but does that mean it failed completely as a marriage, particularly a Christian marriage?
Historically, marriage (whether Christian or not) has been understood as a legal or covenantal relationship extending bonds of kinship and property for the purpose of bearing and raising children. Marriage establishes a society (the household), brings many people into relationship, and provides for the replenishment of the human community. Thus, it is a public institution and it serves the common good. The romanticized ideal of marriage as a more-or-less private affair, essentially providing a soul-mate, friendship, or passionate lover (however valuable those things may be) is a novelty and does not capture the meaning of marriage.
Christian marriage presupposes natural marriage. In other words, a Christian marriage is not something less than a natural marriage nor is it something completely different from natural marriage. Rather it recapitulates and perfects the meaning of natural marriage and raises it to the dignity of a sacrament. Christian marriage (the marriage of a baptized man and a baptized woman) is effected by a freely given vow of life-long fidelity for the purpose of creating a family. In this sense, Christian marriage recapitulates the meaning of natural marriage. But Christian marriage is also a sacrament: a sign and instrument of union between Christ and his Church.
Christian marriage is a sign. Throughout Sacred Scripture, marriage appears as a symbol of God’s fidelity to his people, in spite of their infidelity to God. The Old Testament type is found in the marriage of Hosea and Gomer. God called Hosea to marital fidelity even as his wife Gomer was unfaithful. Hosea writes, “The Lord said to me, ‘Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.” (Hosea 3:1)
In the New Testament, marriage is an even more sublime sign of fidelity. Christian marriage also becomes an instrument, effecting that union of God and his people. Christian marriage is not only the bearing and raising of children in the midst of many hardships. It is also for the sanctification and salvation of the spouse:
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word . . . For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church. (Ephesians 5:25-32)
Natural marriage is about children, household, property, and the common good. Christian marriage incorporates all of that. But St. Paul tells us that the ultimate purpose of Christian marriage is to lay down one’s life as Christ did, a total donation of self, so that by love and sacrifice the spouse may be cleansed and sanctified. My mother has often told me, “I learned that if my husband, a mere man, could love me without condition, how much more could God love me.”
Christian marriage ought to be “harmonious and long-lasting.” We all want that. And friendship, soul-mates, and passionate lovers aren’t bad either. But do not be deceived. St. Rita’s marriage, though difficult, was a phenomenal success. It brought about the conversion of her spouse and has been an efficacious sign of Christ’s love for the Church and the world ever since.