Bishop Piché – The Importance of Marriage for Catholics

Bishop Lee A. Piché
September 12, 2011
Church of Saint John the Baptist, New Brighton, Minn

“When I came to you, brothers [and sisters], proclaiming the mystery of God, I did not come with sublimity of words or of wisdom. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and much trembling, and my message and my proclamation were not with persuasive words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of spirit and power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom but on the power of God” (1 Cor 2:1-5).

These words of the Apostle Paul to the Christian community at Corinth strike me as applicable to the topic of our reflection this evening. In the present moment, when one broaches the topic of marriage, strong sentiments are stirred, and proponents on both sides of the issue begin to marshal their arguments and their persuasive words. Typically, the exchange gets heated, and the end result seems usually that both sides retire feeling even more convinced of the rightness of their own position.

If what some are looking for in my presentation this evening is a strategy for success in public debate, I am going to disappoint them. In high school, I was for a time a member of the debate team. I and my partner lost every argument in every tournament, except one time, and after the twentieth or so defeat, I decided to switch to something else.

I am not a politician. Nor am I much good at quick thinking under pressure, or giving convincing answers to difficult questions around controversial issues. But perhaps that is all right, because you have already gotten some good material from our other speakers, and I have the example of Saint Paul in front of me. He likewise did not deem himself very skilled in the art of public discourse, lacking what he called “sublimity of words or of wisdom.” Instead, he made Christ Jesus the center of his proclamation, and it was from Jesus that the power came. Not from Paul, but from the Crucified and Risen Christ.

The Gospel and Marriage

As a pastor, my vocation is to proclaim the Gospel, and to keep placing the image of Christ before us, so that the Person of Jesus Christ becomes the lens through which we view this and every crisis that crosses our path. To fulfill my duties as a teacher of the faith, I must try to convey to others as clearly as I can the teachings of Jesus Christ as they have been handed down to us from the Apostles and made visible in the witness of the saints of both past and present times.

The Gospel and our Tradition have much to say about the mystery of marriage. And when we have a better and more complete understanding of marital love, we see more clearly what directions in public policy we can and cannot support.

The whole written record of divine Revelation, the Sacred Scriptures are, as it were, “framed” by the mystery of the intimacy and complementarity of the love of husband and wife. The Bible begins with the Book of Genesis, whose account of Creation culminates in the story of Adam and Eve. “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Gen 1:31). “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body” (Gen 2:24).

The Bible ends with the Book of Revelation, with the symbolic representation of the Church, the Communion of Saints, as the bride of the Lamb: “I also saw the holy city, a new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev 21:3). And a great multitude cried out: “Let us rejoice and be glad, and give him glory. For the wedding day of the Lamb has come, his bride has made herself ready” (Rev 19:7).

The framing tells us something about the importance of the very concept of marriage: it provides a context of interpretation within which the whole story of God’s creation of the world, and God’s subsequent redemption of the world, makes sense.

When Christ our Lord appeared and began the work of redemption, he inaugurated his public ministry in the context of a wedding feast, transforming water into wine. Every Christian commentator from the earliest to the present day assumes that this was not an accident, an unintentional coincidence. Jesus was sending his disciples a signal: “I am the groom, and I have come to claim my bride.” And: “The water of human love is going to be transformed into the intoxicating wine of eternal, divine love.”

At the heart of the drama stands Blessed Mary, the Mother, who is at the same time an image of the Church, the bride, whose intercession for help on behalf of the newly married couple sets the stage and puts the miracle into motion: “Do whatever he tells you.” If we would only learn to trust Jesus Christ and do whatever he tells us, we would soon experience the transformative power of divine love in every aspect of human existence.

Love, Sexual Union and Saint Paul

Some of the clearest statements about the importance of marriage as the icon of the relationship of Christ and the Church come from the writings of Saint Paul in the same Sacred Scriptures. After giving instructions to husbands and wives concerning the depth of commitment and surrender they should have for one another, Saint Paul summarizes by saying: “So also husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. For no one hates his own flesh but rather nourishes and cherishes it, even as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the church” (Eph 5:28-32).

Saint Paul mentions love here. The debate that is going on now also brings love into the picture. Catholic tradition acknowledges various kinds of love. The love of parents for their children and children for parents. The love between friends, deep enough to last a lifetime and very life-giving. But always the love between husband and wife has claimed a special place for us, precisely because it alone is properly expressed in sexual union. So under the surface, the questions about what does or does not constitute a marriage are really questions about the meaning of sexual intimacy and sexual union.

When I hear people say, “No one can tell me who I can and cannot love,” I want to respond, “You’re partly right but mostly wrong.” They are wrong because, in fact, Jesus com¬mand¬ed us to love everyone. So in the name of Jesus I can tell you that if that person there is your neighbor, you must love him. It’s what Jesus tells us to do. But at the same time they are partly right, because for the same reason I must never tell another, “You should not love him.”

Where the claim breaks down is in its equation of love with sexual expression. Not every love is appropriately expressed by sexual intercourse. No one can tell me that I cannot love my sister, but they can – and should – tell me that I should not have sex with her. Not all sexual union is love, even when it is engaged by mutual consent. In those instances, it’s no longer a question of love, but of something else. There are instances of many kinds where sexual expression is decidedly not an expression of genuine love, but actually defeats love.

The Unitive and Generative Nature of Love

The question comes down to this: What is it about sexual love that makes it appropriate within marriage and not appropriate in any other relationship? If the purpose of the transmission of human life to children is not an integral part of sexual love – that is to say, a part of the definition – then a defense of marriage will be difficult if not impossible.

Human sexual love reflects divine love in a profound and unique way. The divine love that is revealed to us in the Person of Jesus Christ reached its fullness in his definitive act of self-surrender on the Cross: here is the love that united Christ and the Church forever; the groom is now one with his bride, in an unbreakable bond. At the same time, this act of love engendered life, eternal life, in countless children – the communion of saints. Here we come to know divine love as it has always been: a love that is in no way selfish, a love that never uses the partner or allows oneself to be used, but which is a genuine giving of the whole self, and is therefore creative, open to the gift of new life. In the crucified Christ we see clearly the love between Christ and the Church: a love that is permanent, faithful, and fruitful: as the bride and groom become one body, innumerable saints are born, born precisely as the fruit of that love.

The supreme natural form of love on earth, expressed in the mutual self-surrender of husband and wife, body and soul, in a mutual dying to self, is simultaneously an act of love which, by God’s design, brings new human beings into existence. This is because our very vocation as persons is love. Because we were created for the purpose of loving and being loved, God so designed that we would each be conceived, brought into being, by an act of love.

The point here is that the Catholic understanding of sexuality includes both the communion of the spouses and the procreation of children as integral and inseparable dimensions of sexual love. Both the unitive and generative dimensions together and not apart. This goes directly contrary to the majority opinion of our time, which says that sex is for pleasure, or when it is combined with a committed love, it may also strengthen the union. Conception, the possible child, is something against which we are counseled to use protection, at least until the partners are in agreement about having a child. The generative dimension of sexual love is at best detachable at will, and at worst a threat against which we should guard ourselves, as we would guard against a disease.

Remaking Human Nature by Means of Law

The only real safeguard for sexual love is chastity. So necessary for human love to become truly liberated so as to achieve its true purpose, it is this virtue, chastity, which is ridiculed and dismissed in today’s culture. There is a chastity which applies to every form of life and relationship, including marriage. Without it, we do not completely “possess” ourselves and our sexual urges, and therefore cannot truly give the gift of ourselves to our spouse and to the children who come into being as the fruit of our love.

One Catholic commentator, George Weigel, has said: “The current attempt to define marriage as something it manifestly is not, and cannot be, is an attempt to remake human nature by means of law and to enforce that remanufacture by coercive state power.” The attempt to remake human nature is an attempt to redefine the meaning of sexual love, to declare that it is up to us to determine the purpose of sexual love.

In one of the recent Sunday New York Times crossword puzzles, I was amused by the answers to several clues, which came under the given theme, “Hack Saws,” but which I prefer to call “Addled Adages.” It made me think of the kind of answers children might have given to Art Linkletter on the old television program, “Children Say the Darndest Things.” For the first one the clue was, “A penny saved is,” and the answer was, “not enough to retire on.” Another one was, “Where there’s a will there’s … going to be a relative.” Another one was, “Don’t bite the hand … that hasn’t been washed.” And another, “He who laughs last … finally got it.”

Handing Ourselves Over to the One Wo Judges Justly

In connection with this talk, I thought of quoting the old saw: “The best defense is … a good offense,” and then I though about changing it to say, “The best defense is … a clear and consistent message.” But in effect, that is an offensive strategy. Offensive but not meant to give offense. We are commanded by the Apostle Peter to be charitable in our explanation of the faith. “Always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope, but do it with gentleness and reverence, keeping your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who defame your good conduct in Christ may themselves be put to shame” (1 Pet 3:15-16) I would add that it is not for the sake of putting others to shame that we do this, but with the view to winning them over, so that they may see and love these truths that we see and love, not because we are smarter or better, but because God has been merciful to us in our weakness.

We are compelled to speak what we see and what we believe, for this is what Christ has taught us. “You are the light of the world.” It grieves us that those who hear this teaching interpret it as a condemnation, when really it is meant to be an exultation of a very beautiful thing, a sharing of light.

Saint Peter also reminded us that in all our dealings with others, we should follow the example of Jesus himself: “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When he was insulted, he returned no insult; when he suffered, he did not threaten; instead, he handed himself over to the one who judges justly” (1 Pet 2:22-23). In connection with the fierce debate that has begun and will continue to rage for some time, I recommend to your spiritual reading both the first and especially the second epistle of Saint Peter. There is much to reflect on in those letters, not least of all the realization that what we are experiencing is not new. It was ever thus for Christ’s disciples.

Prayer and Fasting vs. Sound Bites and Slogans

In the final analysis, however, it seems to me that on this issue the best defense will not be a clear and consistent message alone, but along with the gentle explanation of our reason for hope, an intense campaign of prayer and fasting. The difficulty is that so many of our contemporaries are already beyond persuasion. Their minds and hearts are made up, and they will not be swayed by even the most cogent arguments.

We live in the age of the sound bite and the slogan, with no time or patience for extensive and reasoned debate. Our opponents often will not allow us to speak, even among ourselves, without a public protest and, where possible, disruption. We are being told that we have no right to defend our position in the public arena. This is perhaps a sign of what Pope Benedict XVI has called the “tyranny of subjectivism,” which places limits on free speech whenever that speech makes claims on behalf of an objective moral order.

So, along with clear and consistent teaching, there must be prayer and fasting, and soon if not already, an offering of our sufferings to the Lord for the inconveniences, insults, ridicule, intimidation, and other negative effects that will result from our attempts to witness to what we believe. Again as Saint Peter encourages us: “Beloved, do not be surprised that a trial by fire is occurring among you, as if something strange were happening to you. But rejoice to the extent that you share in the sufferings of Christ, so that when his glory is revealed you may also rejoice exultantly. If you are insulted for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you” (1 Pet 4:12-14).