Can Marriage Be Saved?

by Laura Garcia

Our society must be increasingly dumbfounded by the Catholic claim that marriage is a sacrament -- something holy, sacred, revelatory of God. Marriage as an institution is in a state of crisis, and many view it as a relic of earlier (happier?) times that has simply lost its relevance. Even in 1905 G. K. Chesterton could write that anyone basing his judgment of marriage on the way it was portrayed in the Sunday comics would assume that men and women must be in a state of revolt against this oppressive institution. He would expect crowds gathered around bonfires, tossing in marriage certificates and melting down their wedding rings. "He would suppose," says Chesterton, "that any couple daring to get married would be assaulted at the church-door by the infuriated populace and pelted with bricks instead of confetti."(1)

At least the prevailing view in Chesterton's day took marriage seriously as a binding commitment, however ill-advised such a commitment might be. More recently, actor Woody Harrelson told an interviewer that he had no interest in marrying his current girlfriend, the mother of his child, "Why would I get married? The vows have to be something like, 'I take you to have and to hold until we get bored with each other.'"(2)

1. Marriage without God

One could cite many reasons for the current sense of the meaninglessness of marriage, but perhaps its deepest root lies in what John Paul II calls "practical atheism" -- living as if God does not exist. In spite of opinion polls indicating that many people still believe in the existence of God, we as a culture have lost our sense of transcendence, of the supernatural, of eternal realities. This in turn means that nothing can be sacred for us -- not marriage, not the family, not even human life itself. Living as if God does not exist means living as if the material world is all there is, and within this view there can be no objective basis for valuing human beings above any other material thing. With startling rapidity, practical atheism leads inevitably to what C. S. Lewis calls the "abolition of man."

If we see ourselves as nothing more than glorified animals, then the purpose of our lives must resemble that of other animals -- maximizing pleasure and comfort, and minimizing pain and sacrifice. This in turn leads to an obsessive concern for personal freedom, where freedom means simply license to do as I please. Classical writers thought of freedom primarily as liberation from the dominion of one's lower desires and passions so that one could will what is genuinely good. Now the tendency is to accept, even embrace, our passions and desires as they are and seek to eliminate every obstacle to their fulfillment. On this hedonistic view, others play a mainly instrumental role in one's own happiness. As long as the benefits outweigh the costs, one can value the company of others.

But if they become an obstacle to one's pleasure or comfort or freedom --if one should get bored -- then the relationship has to go. In marrying, as in other human relationships, many persons are primarily seeking themselves.

Within such an impoverished materialistic account of persons and the meaning of life, sex can never be anything more than trivial. The title of Christopher Derrick's Sex and Sacredness (Ignatius Press, 1982} must seem farcical to many of today's readers. For the modern hedonist, sex is simply another biological craving, and the main goal is that sexual activity should be as pleasurable as possible and relatively hassle-free. Sex has no meaning, or it has only the meaning that each person decides to give it. If you think there is anything particularly deep about sex, you're just naive -- you're downright rude. In The New Manners for the 90's, Letitia Baldridge explains:

When two people have been intimate, and the sexual encounter was a pleasant experience for both, it should be considered common courtesy the next day for one to get in touch with the other, if for no other reason than to say "thank you." Neither person should take a thank-you call as a profession of love or as an indication of desire on the caller's part to deepen the relationship. When you make a short thank-you call, it is nothing more and nothing less than a gesture of appreciation for a very enjoyable shared experience (pp. 175-176).
One way of assessing the impact of the materialistic outlook is to ask ourselves what would be the ideal marriage by today's secular standards. We will find that the goodness of a marriage can be computed, in this view, by taking each partner in isolation and totaling up the costs and benefits to each of being associated with the other. Self-help books constantly remind marriage partners to put themselves first, to look out for their own interests, not to give up the things that really matter -- money, comfort, freedom, prestige, career goals. Fidelity to one's vows in the face of increasing cost to oneself is seen not as heroism but stupidity. It's one of the paradoxes of our day that traditional marriage vows are repeated with the intention of making, not the unconditional commitment of which they speak, but a commitment which is very conditional indeed. Spouses are bound to wonder: What if I do get boring? What if I get sick or lose my job? What if I simply grow old?

It may surprise some that children have not been mentioned in this description of marriage, despite the fact that having and raising children seems to be the chief purpose of marriage. But the good of children can be hard to defend in a society that measures value in purely material terms. Children bring pleasure, it is true, but the pleasures are intangible and somewhat unpredictable, while the costs are evident and unavoidable. Further, children interfere mightily with that most prized of all commodities -- autonomy. The more children, the worse the inteference. No wonder the child is increasingly seen in our society not as a precious gift, but as an unfortunate burden. Expectant couples used to be greeted with congratulatory goodwill, but now it's not uncommon for them to be asked, "So you're expecting a baby! Are you glad?" We haven't yet arrived at their being pelted with bricks, but perhaps the time is coming.

It may seem harsh, but I conclude that given the values dominating our culture today, the ideal marriage might be that between two homosexuals. There is no possibility that children will enter the picture unexpectedly to create burdens on the couple's time or money or freedom. Partners are free to leave whenever the relationship no longer suits them, with no repercussions on children and little financial impact. There are likely to be few financial difficulties, in fact, since both partners are likely to be working and in general handle their accounts separately. Sexual desires are gratified without risk of pregnancy. If children are seen as a desirable addition, perhaps they can be adopted or artificially produced -- poster babies for Planned Parenthood's slogan "Every child a wanted child."

This picture of the ideal marriage would seem extreme if it were not for so many recent efforts within our society to make heterosexual relationships approximate the homosexual model outlined above. Couples increasingly draw up prenuptial agreements to insure their autonomy and their interests in case of divorce, and spouses are encouraged to keep separate accounts and financial holdings to guard against the greed of the other in the event of separation. Men and women routinely place advancement in their careers above the good of their marriages, presumably on the assumption that marriages come and go but jobs last. Children are feared as a threat to one's happiness and financial stability, as requiring a huge investment of material resources and so-called "human capital" with no guarantee of return.

Artificial contraception is an absolute necessity within the materialistic view of marriage. Many who despise the institution Planned Parenthood are convinced in spite of themselves of its basic message, that every child's arrival into the world should be carefully programmed so as to impose minimal constraints on the lifestyles and resources of his or her parents and the community as a whole. Children who don't measure up on the cost/benefit scale of values must be eliminated, of course -- those with health problems, those who will be poor, those who are not "wanted." If the true end of human life is to maximize pleasure and comfort, then control is everything. Contraceptives hold out the promise of control over the number and "timing" of one's children, while leaving one free to pursue sexual pleasure with no thought of pregnancy and children. Of course, when contraceptive measures fail, it is ever so tempting to regain control by turning to abortion. Similarly, when a newborn child fails to measure up to society's standards of value, it is often "allowed to die" so as to preserve resources for those who are worthy. At increasing speed, the culture of self is becoming a culture of death.

It is against this somber backdrop that the Church presents her vision of the dignity of human life and the sanctity of marriage. No wonder that message often meets with incomprehension or hostility. But every Christian must believe along with the Holy Father that marriage can be saved, and that it is possible for couples aided by grace to live out the truth of their marital commitments even in difficult environments.

One of the clearest descriptions of the contrast between materialism and theism comes from C. S. Lewis in The Screwtape Letters. Screwtape, a senior tempter, explains to his young disciple that:

The whole philosophy of Hell rests on recognition of the axiom that one thing is not another thing, and, specially, that one self is not another self. My good is my good, and your good is yours. Now, the Enemy's philosophy is nothing more nor less that one continued attempt to evade this obvious truth. Things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of one self is to be the good of another. This impossibility He calls Love, and the same monstrous panacea can be detected under all He does and even all He is -- or claims to be. Thus He is not content, even Himself, to be a sheer arithmetical unity; He claims to be three as well as one, in order that this nonsense about Love may find a foothold in His own nature (pp. 81-82).
It is just this "nonsense about love" that the people of our time so desperately need if they are ever to make sense of their lives, and especially if they are to make sense of their marriages.

2. Christian marriage

Wedding invitations sometimes quote the beautiful phrase from Genesis, "The two shall become one," and even if some see this as more of a threat than a promise, it is evidence that the philosophy of Heaven has not wholly faded from the cultural consciousness. After all, on a purely natural or materialistic view of human persons, it is pretty obvious that one and one can only make two. Yet divine addition seems to have it that one and one make one. This is closely related to the insistence of the Church on the view that marriage is not about conveniences or comfort or self-realization, but about love. It is a gift of God's love; it is a unique sign of His love; and it is meant to end in His love.

It is already a great shift in focus to see marriage as a vocation, as one way of living out the general human vocation, which is a call to sanctify oneself and the world and to attain lasting union with God. On the Christian view, marriage is no mere human convention, drummed up to meet certain needs or interests and revisable according to our whims. It is a union intended and ordained by God, and a path to holiness and union with Him. It is meant to be lived in the presence of God, not as a way of seeking oneself, but as a way of seeking Him.

We find further clues about the purpose of marriage by looking more closely at the quintessential spousal act, at that sharing of love between husband and wife that has become so frighteningly trivialized in our culture. A long tradition within the Church teaches us that this act has at least two fundamental purposes: it fosters a deeper love and devotion between the spouses -- this is the unitive meaning of the act; and it participates in God's creative activity of bringing new human beings into the world -- this is the procreative meaning of the act. Marriage, then, gives couples a share both in the being of God, who is Love Itself, and in the work of God, His love poured out on his creatures. A closer look at these meanings of the marriage act will reveal that both aspects are essential, and that openness to one's spouse and openness to children are connected in such a way that attempts to pursue either one to the exclusion of the other are doomed.

No one has written more eloquently about the unitive meaning of marriage than Pope John Paul II. Indeed, he makes the sweeping claim that "to be in communion" is the most fundamental fact about the nature of human beings. It is of our very essence, and a primary way in which we reflect the image and likeness of God. In other words, Screwtape was right. Christian teaching on the Trinity has scandalized many, but it is fundamental to God's revelation of himself as Love, as a communion of persons, three yet somehow also one. The profound truth about human beings is that we are persons too, capable not just of external relations of spatial proximity or physical causality, but of internal relations of knowledge and love. People have minds and hearts, and these are no less real than their bodies.

In fact, John Paul II finds in the human body itself evidence that humans are destined for communion, not simply for animal fulfillment. The fact that we are created as male and female is a sign that we are a gift for one another; not simply that women is a gift for man, but they are ordered to each other as complementary and mutually fulfilling. Since human beings are endowed with reason and will, they are not simply bodies, but bodies which express a person. This is why sex between human beings can never be anything like the mere mating that takes place in he rest of the animal kingdom. The language of the King James Bible, in which Adam "knew" his wife, is much more adequate to that reality than the updated, prosaic versions announcing that the two "had relations." Married lovemaking is (at its best) the perfect picture of a gift of self which enriches the giver as well as the one who receives; of an act of receiving a gift which is itself a gift. It is a wonderful sign; a clue into the deepest mysteries of reality: he who loses his life, finds it.

It may seem that this is too easy, or that it comes out too neatly, but that is only if we focus simply on the fact that the marital act can bring pleasure to both partners at once. We must bear in mind that marriage is not just a union of bodies, but a union of persons, and that the act of love within marriage is a means for the growth and expression of that union. That is, persons in a marriage are giving not just their bodies, but their very selves. This is what love seeks. Commenting on St. Paul's letter to the Ephesians, John Paul II says, "In a certain sense, loves makes the 'I' of the other person one's own 'I': the 'I' of the wife, I would say, becomes through love the 'I' of the husband ... Love not only unites two subjects, but allows them to be mutually interpenetrated, spiritually belonging to one another to such a degree that the author of the letter can affirm: 'He who loves his wife loves himself.'"(3)

This language can sound very sinister, of course, if we remain in the grips of the philosophy of Hell, where one thing is never another thing. Won't this kind of union result in the annihilation of at least one of the parties involved? I am tempted to say "No" to this, but of course there is a sense in which it is true. As the Holy Fathers says in The Gospel of Life, "Life finds its center, its meaning and its fulfillment when it is given up" (no. 51). The paradox is that it is only by seeking the self-annihilation demanded by love that we find the self-fulfillment proper to our nature as human beings. We cannot really find ourselves by seeking ourselves. This is what is so hard for us to believe and accept, but it is the key to human happiness and certainly to happiness with marriage.

3. Marriage as a sacrament

The "union of communion" proper to marriage has inspired wonderful theological reflections on the role of marriage as a sacrament. If we understand a sacrament in the widest sense, as something which makes visible an invisible reality, then marriage has a vast cosmic significance as revealing something about the inner life of God. The marriage relationship emerges continually throughout the Old Testament as a metaphor for the relationship between God and his people, and again in the New Testament as a symbol of Christ's relationship to his Bride, the Church. In St. Paul's beautiful words, "Christ loved the Church, and gave himself up for her; that he might sanctity her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present to himself the Church in all her glory, having no spot of wrinkle or any such things; but that she should be holy and blameless" (Eph. 5:25-27). It is this emptying of the self that Paul is especially recommending to husbands in this passage.

In its more specific meaning, marriage is one of the seven sacraments instituted by Christ as a means of grace, as a way of increasing the divine life in us. Married couples are called to recognize in the person across from them at the breakfast table their path to heaven. They will one day kneel at the feet of Christ, not in spite of that person, but because of him or her. Their most important service to God is their effort to live out the promises they made on their wedding day: "I take you to be my husband (wife); to have and to hold from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as we both shall live."

These are very big promises indeed, expressing a total gift of oneself that is so complete it can only be given to one person, and can only be dissolved by death. The grace of the sacrament of marriage enables each spouse to live this commitment of love day by day, to remain faithful in good times and in bad, to be a man or woman who "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7). Every married person should recognize this calling as something utterly beyond the unaided powers of finite, fallen beings like ourselves. If our culture has lost sight of the true meaning of marriage, this is in part because it has lost sight of the God who can help us attain it. Jesus' first miracle was performed at a wedding, and it could be that every couple needs a miracle of some kind if their marriage is going to survive.

Contrary to the popular opinion that the Church is dubious about the body and about sex, we find instead a constant emphasis on the importance of the body in Catholic teaching about marriage. It is our bodies we give to one another in marriage, and an unconsummated marriage is incomplete, because the spouses have not done what they consented to do with one another. Their marriage is, in fact, still dissoluble under certain circumstances (can. 1142).

Every sacrament consists of form--words that are spoken--and matter--the material elements such as physical objects that are consecrated, as bread and wine are consecrated in the Eucharist, or sensible actions. In marriage, the matter of the sacrament is the sensible action of the man and the woman's mutual offering of themselves to one another, an offering which includes consent to bodily union. It is the act of marriage itself that becomes a channel of divine grace. A marriage ceremony normally concludes with the celebration of the Eucharist, and this is a clear reminder to the spouses that their union is to be an earthly sign of the love of Christ for his Body, the Church. It is also a sign to those entering marriage that they must learn to make the words of consecration their own: "This is my body which is given up for you."

John Paul II has written very eloquently on the theme that the human body reveals a person, and that our actions are filled with meaning because they are not merely instinctual but are the actions of persons. These can have a significance which is objective, which remains regardless of what we want them to mean. A smile has a universal meaning of this sort, as does a handshake, an embrace, a frown. The act that consummates marriage is full of meaning as well, because it is a total surrender of oneself, holding nothing back. It is two becoming one, making the "I" of the other one's own "I." By this act, the partners say, "I give myself to you wholly and unconditionally, and I accept you wholly and unconditionally." That is, "I take you, to have and to hold from this day forward...." Some couples choose to repeat their wedding vows on their 25th or 50th anniversary, but in fact they have been repeating those vows in every act of love since the day they were married.

Understanding the language of the body provides a further insight into why sexual relations outside of marriage are gravely wrong. It is not just that one commits in such acts an injustice to another person, that one uses another, or that one betrays one's spouse or violates one's solemn promises. The act itself is also a lie, because one cannot truly mean what one says in this act unless it is in the context of an unconditional, exclusive commitment to another person.

This perspective can also add to the moral case against the use of artificial contraceptives, even (and especially) within marriage. Contraception represents a rejection of one's spouse precisely in his or her awesome power to bring about human life, to cooperate with God in his creative activity, to bring forth a child whose value is measureless. The aspects of our bodies and of our personalities which make us male and female are those which are ordered to this generation of new life; they are called reproductive organs precisely for this reason. To reject another's fertility or procreative potential is to reject him or her precisely in what is distinctively masculine or feminine. But this is the very aspect under which spouses are to receive each other, which makes the relationship a marital one. She receives him as a man, indeed as the man, who corresponds to her femininity; he receives her as the woman who corresponds to his masculinity.

It is the Church who has been a true mother to the human race on this point, reminding us that marriage is meant to be a creative love. It reflects the love of God in his Trinitarian nature, his generosity in creating the universe, and the total gift of his Son for our salvation. Without repeating the whole of the Church's teaching on the procreative meaning of the marital act, it is at least worth asking ourselves what forces are behind the enormous pressure on couples today to see their potential children as a grave threat to their happiness. Much of the blame has to go to the practical atheism and practical materialism of our age, which upholds "quality of life" as the ultimate value and defines quality solely in terms of wealth, success and power.

It is up to Christians to enable our culture to recognize once again the truth that each child is a gift, and that children are a blessing in married life. The child is a living sign of the union of the two spouses, the natural and most obvious expression of their love. In their newborn baby, the two have become one. Far from being mere recreation, the sexual act is meant to be a genuine re-creation, a renewing of the spouses' promises of fidelity to each other, and an act which retains its wonderful potential to bring into existence an image of God, a reflection of his glory, a person who will live forever. When a child is conceived, the whole universe changes. It is truly amazing that in his desire to fill the earth, and one day heaven itself, with those who will return love for love, God waits upon men and women, upon our generosity and acceptance, our "Yes" to life.

So often we see children simply in terms of the sacrifices they demand, or the burdens they impose on our time and finances and work schedules. Couples who choose to have large families are rarely praised for their generosity, and are more likely to be ridiculed for their insanity. This shows to what extent we have adopted the philosophy of Hell, viewing other persons primarily as enemies of our own freedom and growth. In a recent book, a feminist author vigorously defends the right to abortion in hopes that women will learn to "speak an unconditional NO to life, recovering [theirj own autonomous aliveness."(4) Against such a view, we must insistently proclaim the philosophy of Heaven, that saying YES to life expands the heart and enriches the universe and every person in it. However paradoxical it may seem to modern ears, when two become one, they don't shrink, but grow larger. The more they succeed at becoming one, the more they grow. And when those two become three and four and five, these others do not take from the two but add to them. This is because to give is to grow; to serve is to reign.

Many complain that the Christian view of marriage is unrealistic, that it calls us to something we cannot possibly attain. After all, marriage can bring with it many hardships and sorrows--sorrows which are great because the love between the couple is such a great love, making its failures all the more painful. And caring for children can be difficult and demanding, requiring at times truly heroic sacrifices on the part of the couple and the whole family. But no state of life enables us to escape suffering. What matters, as Christians know, is that suffering has redemptive value, that it can purify and strengthen us, and bear fruit in the lives of others, especially when we offer it to God as our part in the sufferings of Christ. Nothing deepens our union with him more than this sharing in his cross, so that we can learn to accept and even rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that they are not in vain.

Finally, married couples can draw upon the grace of the sacrament of marriage through which they receive all the help they need to face the challenges of living out their commitment to each other and to the children God has entrusted to them. Service to others, even when very costly, comes more easily when we remember Christ's words that whatever we do for another person, we do for him. As one spiritual writer puts it, "Beyond her husband, and in her heart, a holy wife sees and loves and serves Christ."

Our gifts of self to our spouses and children, our generosity, our patience in suffering, our fidelity, our perseverance--all these are our sacrifices of love. When we offer them to our Lord, we are at his feet with Mary of Bethany, pouring out that costly perfume whose fragrance filled the house where they were sitting. Marriage is a high calling, but married couples are rich in the graces needed to respond to this call. The Church especially invokes for married men and women the intercession of the Virgin Mary, spouse of the Holy Spirit, so that their lives will become true reflections of the mystery of God's love, that love which never fails.

Laura L. Garcia is the mother of four and teaches philosophy at Rutgers University.

1. "All Things Considered," Illustrated London News, Oct. 28, 1905 column.

2. Prime Time Live, television program, 5/28/94.

3. Theology of Marriage and Celibacy, The Daughters of St. Paul, pp. 210-212. The reference is to Ephesians 5:28.

4. Barbara Duden, Disembodying Women, Harvard, 1993, p.110.