7. Something further on indissolubility
Skepticism about binding commitments?
So, why not divorce? We have tried to show that it makes for unhappiness for most people, rather than for happiness. But the ultimate reason for no divorce lies with God. He made marriage indissoluble. He wants married love and family love to be indissoluble, as is his love for us. "Marriage based on exclusive and definitive love becomes the icon of the relationship between God and his people and vice versa. God's way of loving becomes the measure of human love" (Benedict XVI: Deus Caritas Est, 11).
God's faithful love; this has to be the standard of human love too. It is a truth that our Western world urgently needs to recover. There will be no real or lasting happiness in marriage unless it is prepared for and entered on as a challenging and joyful commitment to faithful love.
Indeed we have come far from that approach. So many people today are deeply skeptical about a permanent husband-wife relationship. They are no longer convinced that it is worth making and can be stuck to. This loss of faith in marriage, with the fundamental pessimism it denotes about the possibilities of finding a happy and lasting love in life, is a major crisis for humanity into which more and more people are being drawn; and are paying the consequences.
Catholics too, in ever larger numbers, are coming to think that marriage-open-to-divorce is better than marriage-bound-to-indissolubility. In theological terms, this could be seen as a temptation against faith, since indissolubility is a defined dogma (Denzinger, no. 1807). As such, it is no small temptation. Yet its possible occurrence should come as less of a surprise when we recall the reaction provoked by Jesus when he insisted that according to the original divine plan, the marriage bond is unbreakable: if things are so, his very Apostles felt, then it is better not to marry (Mt 19, 10). But of course they were wrong. Things are so; and it is still good - a great good - to marry.
Current misgivings about the value of indissolubility have no less serious anthropological implications, reflected in the idea that faithfulness to a lasting commitment, however freely undertaken, is not reasonably to be expected; it is something beyond human nature and people are not capable of it. As this idea spreads, it creates a mindset hostile to any type of permanent commitment: the priesthood and religious life included, as well as marriage.
The idea that "indissolubility is a bad thing" - for which there must be a way out - has effects on both people and pastors. Those contemplating marriage approach it less seriously; and when they do marry, strive less to keep their marriage going later on as it becomes subject to stress. For their part, pastors and counselors may tend to prepare couples less in pre-marriage instruction for the difficulties they are going to meet, and may not be sufficiently positive and supportive with couples who are going through the actual experience of difficulty. We have a real problem on our hands when the 'solution' being offered for difficult marital situations is not "try to make a go of it, pray, rely on grace", but more and more: "seek a way out, a 'good faith' solution, an annulment..." Things will continue to deteriorate unless we can achieve a re-evaluation of married indissolubility. This has to be a central point of pastoral reflection and responsibility, especially in the formation of priests and counselors.
Christian and secular anthropologies
The Second Vatican Council sought to offer a renewed vision of marriage, of marital love and commitment. How is it that this renewed vision seems to have been so infrequently translated into practice? One reason, I feel, is that much post-conciliar reflection on marriage has not always grasped the Christian anthropology which is a key to conciliar thinking about human realities, especially as applied to the marital covenant. The result is that much recent understanding and presentation of marriage has been largely, though no doubt unconsciously, colored by the anthropology dominant in our secular world.
The "secular anthropology" I refer to is that individualistic view of man, which sees the key to human fulfillment in self: self-identification, self-esteem, self-concern, self-assertion... The current crisis about indissolubility - the tendency to look on it as an "anti-value" - finds much of its explanation in this individualism, present outside and inside the Church. Individualism fosters a fundamentally self-centered approach to marriage, turning it into a tentative agreement between two individuals, each inspired by self-interest, rather than seeing it as a shared endeavor where a couple want to build together a home for themselves as spouses and for their children.
I doubt that one can come to see indissolubility in a positive light without understanding and assimilating Christian personalism, that alternative to individualism which we have seen as a key to the anthropological thinking of the Second Vatican Council and of Pope John Paul II. If the human person can attain fulfilment only through the sincere gift of self to worthwhile values , it should be clear that marriage, as a real gift and not just a loan of self, is the normal way of human fulfilment.
A choice between two fears?
Yes, I would like to marry, but... Yes, I am ready to "tie the knot", - always provided I can untie it at will and drift away - where I will, or where I am carried. Unbound, unhindered, ungoverned, loose, drifting, homeless, family-less; on my own. People can clarify their approach to this matter and be helped in the decisions they make about it, if they realize that for each one it has to be a choice between two fears: fear of commitment and fear of isolation. Which am I more scared of - commitment or isolation?
The Devil is the most isolated being in the whole universe. He cares for no one, loves no one, is bound to no one. He perhaps thinks he loves himself; in fact he hates himself - if he would only admit it. But to see the truth is not his 'forte', and to admit it is repugnant to his nature. In his pride he keeps up the pretence of self-sufficiency; yet in his heart - if he had one and could go to it - he knows his life is nothing more than the self-love of a self not worth loving.
Now let us try to draw some practical conclusions from these points. We could first consider preparation for marriage; and then, care during marriage.
Pastoral preparation for marriage
We have to try to ensure that education given to young people, at least in Catholic institutions, is inspired by a truly Christian anthropology, which restores the sense of the naturalness and attractiveness of the call to marriage, with special insistence on the goodness of the commitment to an unbreakable bond of love. Two aspects of this education could be distinguished.
Love-education, which really means education in giving. If frustration is inevitable and fulfillment not possible without giving self, then each of us faces three main problems in life: (1) to find something - some ideal, some person - worth giving self to; (2) to be able to give self (for this, one must first possess self); (3) to able to stick to the gift (because fulfillment is not a momentary but a life-long process).
Corresponding to these problems, perhaps three rules could be put to our young people. First, don't be afraid to give of yourself, now. Practice self-giving now, in your teens, at home, in service activities. Second, don't give yourself sexually until the moment comes; and that moment is marriage. As we have seen in chapter two, if you give yourself before, you give yourself in parts and too easily, and have little or nothing left to give when the moment comes (a powerful argument in favour of pre-marriage chastity). Third, when the moment does come for marriage (if that is your vocation), give yourself really, in the full gift of your conjugal self.
Sex-education. Though some would deny it, the contemporary attitude not just toward marriage but toward sexuality is tinged with profound pessimism. When sex is presented as easily-accessible pleasure, it becomes almost impossible for people to understand its importance and its fragility in so many aspects of human development.
Applying what was seen in chapter one, we could say that proper sex-education must help young people:
- understand the truly human side of sexuality: not only the equal dignity of the sexes, but especially the value of sexual complementarity. Here we are up against a pervasive unisex culture and philosophy.
- achieve proper sexual identification, seeing the development of masculinity and femininity as goals to be pursued. Many girls (just to take one example) seem today to have little idea of those traits of feminine nature which can captivate a man, and hold him captive, even as physical charms may wane.
- understand the delicacy of the sexual relationship . Sex used to be an area of happiness - a promise or a hope of happiness - surrounded with danger. Once the sense of danger has been taken away, the hope of happiness seems to be going with it too.
In this work, our educators ought to be the first to realize that when sexuality is reduced to the level of physical differences, women are the losers; for on the merely physical level, man is the stronger and can easily dominate. Whereas, when the more truly human and spiritual aspects of sexuality are operative, woman tends to acquire a special ascendancy and superiority.
Educators need equally to realize that an over-emphasis on independence with an under-emphasis on complementarity, can make the achievement of true sexual identity almost impossible. Many marriages fail today because there is not enough masculinity or femininity to keep them together. No preparation for marriage is adequate if it does not help toward spousal role identification.
Pastoral care during marriage
Toward a couple as spouses. It is easy to make the marital commitment. It is not easy to maintain it, to perfect it, thus reaching, as Veritatis splendor says, "that maturity in self-giving to which human freedom is called" (17). People need to be reminded that, together with prayer and the sacraments, a main key to success in conjugal love (the love that binds together two persons with defects) is learning to forgive and asking for forgiveness. Each time husband and wife acknowledges their defects to the other, they become more human and therefore more lovable. The husband and wife who deny their defects or seek to justify them, become more proud, more isolated; less loving and less lovable.
Not only the spouses themselves, but their relatives and friends need to be taught to understand and respect the demanding beauty of the conjugal relationship, in the life-long task of learning to love. People need support: from relations and friends first; and then from pastors and counsellors. There is need for a constant catechesis which shows a new appreciation of the commitment involved in marriage, especially of the goodness of the bond; so that the very beginnings of trouble are met with positive help and advice, not with encouragement to seek an annulment (which may not be granted in the end). Friends and neighbors all need to be reminded of their grave responsibility to be a help and not a hindrance to the perseverance of married persons.
Toward a couple as parents. Wise spouses learn how to distribute parental roles. As in any team, complementing one another lessens difficulties in getting along. But if the team approach is lost, if they let themselves be pushed into a power-struggle, the family enterprise is almost bound to end in failure.
The help that families need cannot come mainly from outside, nor will it suffice if provided on a merely collective or social level, such as family days or activities organized by the parish. It is in the home itself that families need to develop their personality and strength. The family life of each Christian home needs to take on a forceful quality, expressed in family conversations, plans, projects, which are humanly attractive . No easy task, given the attraction of other forces? Agreed; but there is the challenge to parents to be the creators of something unique. They need to find encouragement from their pastors in this, just as they certainly will find the grace of God.
The true commitment and binding relationship of marriage attracts powerfully, for there is something deeply natural to it. However, for our nature in its present state, there is also something deeply difficult in it. To achieve the fulfilment promised by marriage is not possible without grace; it is possible with grace (Veritatis splendor, nos. 102ff).
Our pastoral presentation of marriage must be optimistic - showing the natural attraction, without underplaying the natural difficulties; and emphasizing the supernatural help.
True pastoral care for marriage must therefore be based on:
- sound anthropology, which on the one hand stresses the complementarity of the sexes and of sexual roles no less than the equal dignity between man and woman; and which then particularly underlines the main aspects that make marriage attractive and worthwhile, especially offspring and indissolubility;
- sound psychology, which helps people realize that difficulties, even severe ones, must arise in marriage; and that it is there that love, which means giving, is tested and grows or fails;
- sound pastoral and sacramental theology, which equips married people to face difficulties with full reliance on sacramental grace, and on prayer and guidance ;
- sound ascetical theology, which reminds those preparing for marriage and those in marriage of what Vatican II so emphasized: that marriage is fundamentally and ultimately a vocation to holiness (Lumen gentium, nos. 39-41; Gaudium et spes, nos. 48-49); it means constant exercise in true love, which consists in self-giving, self-sacrifice, losing self for others and so finding oneself.
In the end we cannot and should not want to get away from the fact that happiness - also the happiness that marriage promises - is not possible without generosity and sacrifice. I often heard St. Josemaría Escrivá, the founder of Opus Dei, say that happiness has its roots in the shape of a Cross . It is the rule and apparent paradox of the Gospel: only by "losing" and giving ourselves - the essence of love - can we begin to find ourselves and, even more than ourselves, the happiness we are made for.
Our preaching on marriage will produce no renewal if it does not reflect this basic truth. As the 1994 Catechism of the Catholic Church says: "Following Christ, denying themselves, taking on themselves their own cross, the spouses can "understand" the original sense of matrimony and live it with the help of Christ. This grace of christian matrimony is a fruit of the Cross of Christ, the source of all christian life" (no. 1615).