How I Misunderstood Marriage

(by Stephen)

Next November, Minnesotans will vote on an amendment to our state’s most fundamental legal document, the state constitution. The amendment would establish that a marriage can consist only of one man and one woman.

Admittedly, marriage in Western culture is not in good shape. But it is only with recent court rulings and state legislative actions that we have encountered an actual change in the very understanding and definition of what marriage is. This of course, is why the marriage amendment has been proposed.

Why should we care whether the definition of marriage changes? More to the point, why should the Catholic Church care?

Civil vs. sacramental

Back in the 1980s, I found myself puzzled when the Vatican seemed to be sticking its nose into a political battle where it didn’t belong: whether to legalize divorce in Italy. The U.S. bishops did not seem to have kicked up much of a fuss as no-fault divorce swept our country. The way I understood it was: civil marriage is one thing; sacramental marriage is another.

You could get married in a church, or you could get married in front of a justice of the peace. Catholic marriage was sacramental; civil marriage was not. Catholics did not allow divorce, but the civil authorities did. If you got married in the Church, you could only get divorced as a civil matter, but not as a sacramental matter; that is, you remained married in the eyes of the Church. The civil authorities weren’t allowed to tell Catholics (or anyone else) how to practice their sacraments, including marriage, and the Churches weren’t allowed to tell the civil authorities to make marriage sacramental for everyone.

So what kind of backward country was Italy that it didn’t allow non-Catholics who accepted divorce to obtain one if they so chose? And why would the Church want to insist, in the era of Dignitatis humanae and religious freedom, that everyone had to do things the Catholic way?

Catching up to the facts

As it turned out—and it took a few years before I caught up to the facts—what I thought was the Church’s position on marriage was not the Church’s actual position. What the Church actually taught—and I had heard this many times over the years, yet it had never sunk in—is that marriage is a natural institution. That is, it is an institution arrived at through reason based on observations of the kind of being we are.

Certainly, we have been made aware of its full nature by revelation, yet its nature is quite readily discoverable by reason alone. Indeed, from time immemorial, long before there was Christianity or even Judaism, there was marriage. Certainly, it had been given a sacramental character by Jesus Christ during his life on earth and through the grace obtained by his suffering, death and resurrection. But its sacramental character is something added to its fundamental nature.

Accessible through reason alone

What the Vatican had been arguing in Italy was not that everyone had to accept in secular law a matter of Catholic faith, known only through revelation. Rather, Mother Church was arguing that acceptance of divorce is an assault on the natural institution of marriage itself, an institution which is by nature lifelong, exclusive, faithful and open to life. These are facts accessible by reason alone.

So here is the first point to be made in my succession of blog posts: the understanding of marriage that the Church is trying to defend by supporting the Minnesota Marriage Amendment is not a faith-based idea of sacramental marriage, but a reason-based idea of natural marriage, as in the fight about divorce in Italy in the 1980s.

Now, many people have come to think of marriage as “love + commitment.” The question is whether this idea is compatible with the claim that marriage must be lifelong, faithful and open to life. I’ll take this up in my next post.