Tuesday, June 28, 2011

What We Need is Better Catechesis on Marriage

Lots of cyber-ink has been expended in discussing the passing of the same-sex "marriage" law in New York and discussions, especially among Catholics, has been heated. The issue, it seems to me, is that there is confusion between the American cultural understanding of marriage and the Church's. The difference is that for most, marriage is only about human love, not a divine institution that is an integral part of God's plan for human beings.

The American cultural understanding is that marriage is primarily about ratifying the love of two persons.  The Church's view, in contrast, is that while that is certainly true, marriage, as a sacrament, has a larger purpose.  Therein lies the the difference. The understanding that many people who support gay "marriage" are working from is simply reductive.

Elements of the larger sacramental purpose include the formation of a family unit which will be fruitful and open to creating and nurturing new life (children), which forms the basic building block of society and images the love of God.  Sacramental marriage is the natural result of the complementarity of male and female, who find their fulfillment in each other, and is the result of Natural Law and God's intention. It is not only the way we create loving environments for raising children, it is simply and most naturally the best way we provide those children with a model that validates and balances their own gender identity so that they can grow up to take their own natural roles in their own families.  Along the way, sacramental marriage is a school for love and gratitude and a mutual journey of human and spiritual growth.  The giving of oneself in sexual union is not only human, physical gratification, but a spiritual experience that mirrors divine love.  You can read more about Catholic teaching on marriage here.

Of course, we have not always lived up to this ideal. In a world where marriages frequently fail because one or both partners is unable to live up to the "job description" we have not really been our own best advertisement for this vision.  However, it remains the vision in spite of our limited ability to live it out because God's plan for man and woman is rooted in both biology and psychology. Humans were created as male and female for a reason. We are different. Necessarily so. Our difference is the original, unchanging biological mechanism for procreation and continuation of the human race. The psychological balance of male and female is one of the building blocks of family and society. We frankly offer different and complementary gifts. While in our modern society gender roles may be less strictly defined, the partnership of male and female remains the most common expression of human family around the globe.

This is not to say that a committed same-sex couple cannot engage in at least some of the elements of a good marriage. This is not to say that their love is not real, and certainly not to say that they should not have the same rights in the civil realm. This is not even to say that they cannot raise children in a loving home (although in my experience, those children can sometimes be confused or troubled.)  However, what those who deny the validity of Catholic teaching fail to see is that the purpose of a same-sex union is imperfect because it is primarily about validating love, and that the other elements are not present. The difference, of course, is mostly on two counts - the complementarity provided by two genders is absent, and the fruitfulness is, of course, missing.  What is less obvious (and frankly a lower priority for those who see marriage as a purely human union) is that such unions are not the result and expression of Natural Law and God's plan.

The issue, as I and some other commentators see it, is that since many young men and women today are not choosing sacramental marriage in the Church, and since so many Catholics see same-sex unions as logical and necessary from a human standpoint, we have failed to pass on a sense that the Church's view of marriage is either valid or important.  It is a fact that a significant number of marriages fail, mostly because the commitment is to nothing larger than love and sexual gratification.  It is a fact that fewer Catholic young people are seeking sacramental (or for that matter even civil) marriage. That being acknowledged,  it is important that we revisit the purpose of a lifelong union between man and woman.

This is, quite simply, a call for better catechesis of our own people about the meaning and purpose of the Sacrament of Marriage. We certainly cannot and should not tell non-Catholics what to believe, or how to conduct their lives in the civil sphere. What we can and must do is help our own people understand the special differences between a union that merely images human love, and one that images the fulfillment of divine love. Quite simply, the same-sex union of two people, though it may be loving and positive, is not the same as marriage.

A sacramental concept of marriage has something greater and more sacred to offer, and we need to preserve that treasure and pass it on to our younger generation. This is quite simply a call to textbook publishers, catechetical leaders, preachers, parents and others who help form young people to do better. If we don't, Catholic marriage will increasingly be seen as no different than anyone else's civil union.


  1. I wrote an article in the April/May 2011 isssue of Today's Parish magazine entitled, "Use the RCIA as a model for wedding preparation" Our formation on the sacrament cannot be limited to the six-months to a year between when the guy gets down on one knee and the girl walks down the aisle.

    Formation is more than workshops and retreats. It is an apprenticeship lived out in community. Married couples need to take the lead on this. Marriage is a vocation lived out in the world and those "walking the walk" need to teach others how to do so.

  2. This article does a nice job of explaining a Catholic understanding of marriage. However, it isn't quite right to say that "we certainly cannot and should not tell non-Catholics what to believe, or how to conduct their lives in the civil sphere," as the article does. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith document Considerations Regarding Proposals to Give Legal Recognition to Unions Between Homosexual Persons states in the introduction that "Since this question relates to the natural moral law, the arguments that follow are addressed not only to those who believe in Christ, but to all persons committed to promoting and defending the common good of society." Here's the link: http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20030731_homosexual-unions_en.html

  3. Patrick - I know that is true in the ideal - and I would love to say we should do that. However, the adult Catholics I have been dealing with would simply walk away if we told them this. I fear by appearing to overstep our bounds of authority, we could lose the entire battle. We can promote one man, one woman marriage as a norm, we can wring our hands and say that society is being degraded by the presence of same-sex unions, but in the end, the "America is a free country" argument is where people will land. More power to us if we could do that, but it isn't always prudent. It may look like the right thing to do from Rome, but from within the American culture, perhaps not so much. We have to get people's ears first. If we are too extreme, they discount us. In time, perhaps, we can bring them to this understanding, but not all at once.

    Someone sent me a link to this thoughtful article from back in 2003 when same-sex marriage initiatives were just beginning - and I think the writer makes a decent case for not trying to foist our ideal on others in the civil realm.
    I am not sure I am comfortable with all his conclusions, but the one about the relation between civil law and Catholic moral teaching is not bad. Maybe not strictly by the book with Church teaching, but again, perhaps prudent.

  4. "...simply and most naturally the best way we provide those children with a model that validates and balances their own gender identity so that they can grow up to take their own natural roles in their own families."

    Perfectly said.