In my last post, I noted that many people have come to think of marriage as “love + commitment.” Let’s start with this claim made by the Catholic Church: marriage is supposed to be lifelong, faithful, exclusive, and open to life.
Now, right away, we will catch some flak. The complaint will probably look like this:
1) If by “open to life,” you are ruling out contraception, that’s just one of those Catholic things; most religions don’t buy that, and certainly those who are not religious don’t care.
But if you mean by “open to life” that we will affirm each other, and perhaps make room for children in one way or another if we want them, then anybody can agree.
2) If by “lifelong” you mean no divorce, that’s just another Catholic thing; hardly anyone else accepts that.
But if you mean by “lifelong” something like “the ideal is for our whole lives, unless we decide otherwise,” then anybody can agree.
3) If by “exclusive fidelity” you are ruling out multiple spouses, there is a long history in the world of polygamy, and some religions accept it.
But if you mean by “exclusive fidelity” that people should not have sexual relations with anyone other than their spouse at the time, then most people can agree (although there is a minority who think that such faithfulness is just plain unnatural).
4) If by any of this you mean to suggest that sex without benefit of marriage is wrong and should be discouraged, hardly anyone accepts that. People want intimate relationships; people are made to love each other, and their bodies crave sexual contact.
But if you mean that two (or more) people who want to have sex with one another, who perhaps feel like they are in love with each other, and want to commit themselves to one another and blend their lives together should honor that commitment as they understand it, then anyone can agree.
You will note that the language of marriage as taught by the Church—lifelong, exclusive, faithful and open to life—remains intact. But, the meaning of the terms is drained off, the words stretched and distorted to mean something quite different.
This has happened, in our contemporary world, to the term “marriage” itself. It has come to be understood by many—even Catholics—as “love + commitment.”
Notice that the definition is “love + commitment,” not “a commitment to love.” For in this understanding of marriage, if I have a certain feeling for someone, and I cannot imagine ever not having that feeling, I might want to commit myself to sharing my life with that person—at least until one of us no longer feels that way any more.
This view has become commonplace in contemporary Western society—but it makes little sense out of the reality of the human person and human experience, or of the very long history of marriage. We’ll address this in the next couple of my posts.