Most of you know me, and I know most of you, and it’s sure good to be back in Modesto. You know, I took a parish in San Francisco this year, and it’s nice being in the city, near the beach, the museums, the fascinating parks and restaurants. But I miss Modesto. When I moved from San Francisco to the Valley in 1991, I would go back to the city about once a month. Now that I’m back in the city, I go back to Modesto about once a week! It was so good to be back on Thursday for Fr. Tony’s funeral, to be with my brother priests whom I’ve known for 30 years, to the warmth of a loving parish community.
Fr. Mark asked me to give two talks on marriage and family life. The title of tonight’s talk is “Defending marriage,” because marriage is worth defending, and needs a strong defense right now. Without marriage and family (an all marriages are families, even if they cannot have their own children), our society collapses. It’s been collapsing for decades, but in the last few years we are seeing an accelerated, systemic collapse of marriage and family. This triggers the collapse of a civil society’s basic structures, such as trustworthy government honest business, and functional education systems. A citizenry that does not have the benefit of growing up with father, mother, and siblings is trapped in a perpetual adolescence. Tomorrow’s talk will be on Sanctifying Marriages, because marriage & family are ongoing, labor-intensive projects. Click here to read more...
To defend marriage we first have to define it. From the dawn of civilization until about five years ago, marriage needed no defining. Everyone knew that marriage was a permanent, monogamous bonding of man and woman. It’s as natural to the human species as eating and breathing, because our bodies and our souls are made that way. If we don’t breathe, the individual dies, and if we don’t marry and have children, the race dies. Our Lord defined it simply in Matthew 19, quoting Genesis: “a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” But the simplest things in life are often the hardest to define.
Have you ever seen Casablanca with Humphry Bogart and Ingrid Bergman? In the 1942 film, the Norwegian beauty Ilsa is in love with two men, but only one of them is her husband. She had been told he perished in a concentration camp when she fell in love with Rick in Paris. When she finds her husband still alive, she leaves Rick so as to be faithful to her vows. When she and her husband find themselves in Rick’s Casablanca nightclub some years later, she realizes she does not have the strength to leave him a second time. She is confused and pleads with Rick, even while collapsing in his arms: “You will have to think for all three of us.” Deeply in love with her, Rick thinks correctly, respects her marriage vows, and arranges safe transport for Ilsa and her husband to America. He is left quite alone in German occupied-Africa, but one gets the sense at the end of the movie that Rick will find happiness because he has done the right thing. The movie has a happy ending, because marriage vows are respected.
The year is 2014, and people no longer assume that respecting marriage vows is the right thing. It has been some years since vows take precedence over “falling in love,” or that feelings trump promises. You may not know why you are at this advent mission, so let me tell you. You have come to think through God’s natural law for the family so as to help build it up for the common good. If Christians cannot define the family, who can?
Babies and Bonding or Fun and Games
What is marriage? Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone of San Francisco recently spoke to all of his priests on the subject: “Sex is either for babies and bonding, or it is for fun and games. The two views are mutually exclusive. Either sex is essentially sacred, or sex is essentially profane. It’s possible to posit aspects of sexuality in both terms, but it’s not possible to posit the essential purpose, the final end, of sex in both terms. A minority understands sexuality as essentially salvific (that would be us, hopefully), and a minority understands sexuality as essentially recreational, but the vast middle hasn’t thought through the question enough to have any clear ideas about it. Most folks, I would bet, think of sexuality vaguely as something fun and important and a little sacred, but mostly kind of what you make of it. Hence the confusion of our time. We have not so much rejected as forgotten the essentially sacred nature of marriage and sexuality. We have forgotten its final end as a sacrament of divine love, a means to lead us to heaven.”
What is marriage? No one in the more affluent, more highly educated parts of the world seems able to figure this out. President Obama was rebuked last year for promoting so-called homosexual “marriage” in Africa. John Nagenda, one of Uganda’s top policy advisors, said “This idea … of Obama's is something that will be seen as abhorrent in every country on the continent that I can think of." Some of the most educated people are making the most contradictory statements about marriage. For example, if the State grants a same-sex couple a marriage license, it has no rational basis to refuse a marriage license to an asexual arrangement such as two brothers sharing the same house, or to a polygamous or polyandrous relationship.
Marriage defined by the Sexual Act, which has A Greater Purpose
What is marriage? Robert George, law professor at Princeton, co-authored a book four years ago by that title. Marriage is a relationship between two people who express their friendship through sexual intercourse, which is oriented toward procreation. Dr. George points out that the marital act is distinct from every other type of human activity because it is ordered to the generation of human life. To quote Archbishop Cordileone again: “Maggie Gallagher’s recently proclaimed a startling discovery: Newsflash! Sex makes babies! I don’t know what could be more obvious than the fact that [this is the only way] in which babies naturally come into the world. The formula is quite simple and clear: healthy societies are built on healthy, united families; healthy, united families are based on healthy, happy, harmonious marriages; and at the heart of marriage is the spiritual-sexual relationship between husband and wife.”
From the time of the Greeks and the Romans and Egyptians, sex has been understood in reference to procreation in every culture until our own time. Recent technology (the hormonal pill) has enabled us to progressively remove the child from marriage, but no technology can change its essential and natural purpose. So marriage is distinct from any other relationship because it is oriented toward procreation. That is why we cannot call two men, or two men and one woman, or two bachelor brothers sharing an apartment, or a mother and son, or a group of like-minded people a “marriage.” Marriage has to be oriented toward procreation, and only the one-flesh union of man and woman is capable of that.
St. Augustine in 401AD wrote De bono coniugale (on the good of marriage):
“The good of marriage in every nation and for all mankind lies in the purpose of procreation and in chaste fidelity…” Augustine distinguishes marriage from any other human relationship in that it is fundamentally, naturally ordered toward the procreation and education of offspring (providing a stable next generation) and the chaste, regulated, and socially-responsible expression of sexuality.
Babies: The best place to raise children.
Marriage has an objective bodily dimension, what we call the marital act, the joining of complementary physical organs. But this dimension of marriage is broader than mere genital contact—it involves the total person as male or female. Every cell in a man’s body is male, and every cell in a woman’s body is female. In the confusion of our time, some undergo what they call “sex change operations.” This plastic surgery, however, only fabricates non-functional imitations of male or female genitalia. It does not change a person’s sexual identity. You would have to replace every male cell in a person’s body with a female cell to do that. George Burou, a Casablancan physician who has operated on over seven hundred American men, explained, “I don’t change men into women. I transform male genitals into genitals that have a female aspect. All the rest is in the patient’s mind.” Marital union is a matter of body and soul, since the human person is a body-soul composite. This kind of union does not mean merely achieving a physical sensation; it means the union of bodies and souls that are capable of being so united.
This bodily union is inherently, naturally, ordered to the first distinguishing factor of marriage, the generation and education of offspring. What makes the sexual union unique among all human interactions is its orientation toward procreation. It naturally, although not always, results in conception of new life. Sex and babies fit together, as we see in all of nature. Only human beings, in their unnatural desire to control nature, have artificially separated sex and babies. Have you ever seen a lion or an elephant or a goldfish engaging in contraceptive sexual activity? Just because we can contracept does not mean it is good to do so. Marriage is distinguished by the generation and rearing of children, and no other institution can replace it with equal efficacy.
Bonding: The best place to express sexual love.
The fact that sexual union is naturally ordered to procreation brings about the second distinguishing factor of marriage, permanence and exclusivity. As John Paul said in his Theology of the Body papal audiences, the body speaks its own language in the marital act. It says “I will always be there for you, my spouse, and I will be ever faithful to our children.” Individuals need a lot of support, particularly during childhood. Life is difficult and tenuous. We are not sure we are lovable. In order to flourish, children especially need the constant and dedicated love of a mother and a father. It is quite hard to be faithful to another person until death; in fact, it is humanly impossible to persevere in permanence and exclusivity. So God gives us the grace of a sacrament. Sexual union between a man and woman that is further enriched by the loving self-gift of each is sacramental: it portrays the self-giving love of God for humanity. Conversely, Christians believe that God blesses our attempts to love in this way by affording us the grace of the sacrament.
Sacrament: Revelation and effect
The most important church document on marriage in our time is St. John Paul II’s Familiaris consortio, written in 1981 following the Fifth General Synod of Bishops in October 1980, on the “Rights and Duties of the Family.” It is probably the Church’s most in-depth catechesis on the family as the expression of the matrimonial sacrament.
A sacrament is an “outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace,” in the famous Baltimore Catechism definition. The CCC 1127 adds: “Celebrated worthily in faith, the sacraments confer the grace that they signify.” Certainly, for example, a baptism or a wedding looks holy and points us to God. But unlike a mere painting of Christ or a song about God, or even the Bible itself, the seven sacraments actually make us holy, if we receive them in faith. The Most Blessed Sacrament, the Mass, from which all the other sacraments flow, does this by reliving the great events of Christ’s life, and propelling us forward to the life of the world to come. In the words of Charles Cardinal Journet, the sacramental liturgy is “full of memories, but these memories are promises. If it communicates the past, it is in order to hasten the future.” The Eucharist, most obviously, communicates the grace of the Last Supper and the Sacrifice of Calvary 2000 years ago. It hastens the future kingdom of heaven, when myriads upon myriads of saints will acclaim the Lamb of God at his Wedding Feast.
In the sacrament of marriage, though, what is this “past” the sacrament communicates, and what is this “future” the sacrament promises? Marriage not only recalls the joyful harmony of Adam and Eve in the Garden, but it also grants a foretaste of that place where “men will be like angels” (“For in the resurrection they neither marry, nor are given in marriage, but are as the angels of God in heaven” [Matt 22.30]). Not only perfect marriages do this, but the sacrament of itself, regardless of its outward perfection, has this divine potential at every moment. One does not need a perfect or even good marriage to receive the saving effects of the sacrament.
Pope John Paul II in Familiaris consortio 13 puts it like this: “By virtue of the sacramentality of their marriage, spouses are bound to one another in the most profoundly indissoluble manner. Their belonging to each other is the real representation, by means of the sacramental sign, of the very relationship of Christ with the Church.” In the words of GK Chesterton: “If a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” We should stay with our marriages, even in difficult periods, because the sacrament sanctifies us despite our best efforts to contravene it. My parents celebrated their 60th anniversary last year. It’s not been a perfect marriage, but it is a marriage. It is an objective reality and an objective good beyond my parents’ abilities and will. My parents, and their children, have a chance at heaven because these spouses have been faithful, in good times and in bad times, to the reality of their marriage, of which God is the author.
A sacrament, then, reveals and effects God’s love, his perfect plan, his ardent desire for our happiness. When we see peace between husband and wife, when we see them making the effort to love one another, when we see the fruit of their love especially in their beloved children, we see God’s will for our happiness. The very image of a godly marriage makes us smile with happiness.
Here below, happiness generally comes by way of the cross. So John Paul writes in Familiaris consortio 13: “Spouses are therefore the permanent reminder to the Church of what happened on the Cross; they are for one another and for the children witnesses to the salvation in which the sacrament makes them sharers. Of this salvation event marriage, like every sacrament, is a memorial, actuation and prophecy.” Marriage does not have to be pleasant to be effective for our salvation. Pleasure, the absence of strife and pain, is not the essence of happiness, at least here below. Since the Fall of Adam, apparently the only way we can learn to love God, to prefer his will to ours, is by the sweat of our faces and by the pain of childbirth. But there will come a day when we will have won the crown by his grace, and marriage, like the other seven sacraments, moves us along the path to that glory. The mentality of easy divorce, of easy sex, of easy marriage, is after all predicated upon a mistaken notion of happiness. Happiness, above all else, is to do the will of God, to be faithful to the natural order. This usually takes a long time for us slow learners. Sacramental marriage teaches us how to love the Father’s will, over many long and sometimes wearisome, but always rewarding, years.
Sacrament: Matter and Form
Sacraments are composed of matter and form: The “matter” of a sacrament is something perceivable to the senses, like bread or water or oil; the “form” of a sacrament are words which indicate our desire and intention to do what Jesus did, such as “This is my body” in the Eucharist, or “I, Joseph, take you Mary, to be my wife” in Matrimony.
What is the material “matter,” the material element, of matrimony? It is not water and oil, as in baptism, nor bread and wine as in the Eucharist. It is precisely the human body, the sacred temple of the Holy Spirit. Our flesh is sacred because it becomes the very matter through which the sacrament bestows grace and salvation. Every day a husband spends his body working long hours to support wife and family; every moment a wife gives her body over to the washing, the cooking, the cleaning, she confects the sacramental grace. And surely the gift of one’s self culminates and is perfected in the marital act, the complete gift of self in the loving, one-flesh union.
And what is the form, that is, the words that confect matrimony? Of course these are the vows spouses make to God and each other on their wedding day. They must be renewed every day in words and deeds, and every act of conjugal union renews those vows. “I take you,” I accept the gift of your self to me, from God, and I promise to be true to you, to give you myself totally, freely, fruitfully, and forever. The vows indicates our decisive act of will to do what Christ did for us: to give himself to us absolutely. Wedding vows must imitate Christ’s vow to us: “No man hath greater love for his friends than to lay down his life for them, and I lay down my life freely. No one takes it from me.”
Necessary for Salvation
Some may say that the Catholic Church is too “biological,” obsessed with sex, excessively focused on bodily experiences. Why do we need to eat at Mass? Indeed, its entire worship—its sacraments—revolves around eating, drinking, oiling our bodies, and sexual expression. Sophisticated people imagine that they have evolved beyond the primitive signs and symbols of religious practices. Couldn’t we be just keep worship at the healthy level of discussion rather than corporeal ingestion? In fact, the Protestant movement did away with the sacraments and ritual worship, although many denominations have returned to some degree of bodily expression in worship.
Are the sacraments necessary for our salvation? Is marriage really necessary for our happiness, here and hereafter? St. Thomas Aquinas asks and answers this question in the Summa, counseling humility: Man “is humbled, through confessing that he is subject to corporeal things, seeing that he receives assistance through them,” he writes. “Human nature has to be led by things corporeal and sensible to things spiritual and intelligible.” We need simple bread and wine, we need to feel the olive oil on our skin, we need to confess to a living, breathing, and very imperfect priest when we sin, and we even need sexual consolation to know that we are loved.
The messy, bodily, imperfectly-received and imperfectly-expressed sacraments are man’s normal way to God. “The Church affirms” (in the Catechism, 1129) “that for believers the sacraments of the New Covenant are necessary for salvation.” We need to be baptized, we need to receive the Eucharist every Sunday, we need the sacrament of matrimony if we are going to live together. “Narrow is the gate, and straight the way, that leads unto life, and few be they that find it,” Jesus said in Matthew 7:14.
Marriage is hard, but we need “hard” to reach eternal life. We need a life project to sink our teeth into, to work up a sweat over, to drive us to surrender to the will of God. Spouses and children, driving our selfishness from us year by year, do this most effectively. The Catechism spells this out in 1609: “In his mercy, God has not forsaken sinful man… ‘pain in childbearing’ and the toil ‘in the sweat of your brow’ embody remedies that limit the damaging effects of sin. After the fall, marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of ones’ own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving.”
Life is hard, and marriage is a slice of life: a big, fat slice of life. Marriage can be either a slice of heaven or a slice of hell. God began the human race with a marriage between Adam and Eve; Jesus elevated marriage to a sacrament with perhaps the hardest words in the New Testament (“I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, unless them marriage is unlawful, commits adultery” (Matt 19); Jesus blessed this sacrament at the wedding in Cana (John 2); the Holy Spirit portrays heaven to John the Apostle as a wedding feast in the Book of the Apocalypse; God began the Bible and ended the bible with marriage. Thus God says to us: I love you with a spousal love. Love one another as I have loved you—freely, fruitfully, faithfully, and totally.
Marriage is a great sign, the only sacrament confected outside the church, for all to see. It is the only sacrament that those who never go into a church will see. John Paul gives each married couple a mission in Familiaris consortio 20: “To bear witness to the inestimable value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time…. I praise and encourage those numerous couples who, though encountering no small difficulty, preserve and develop the value of indissolubility: thus, in a humble and courageous manner, they perform the role committed to them of being in the world a "sign"-a small and precious sign, sometimes also subjected to temptation, but always renewed-of the unfailing fidelity with which God and Jesus Christ love each and every human being.”
Family: be what you are
I leave you, then, with these words of St. John Paul, himself never married but who “fell in love with love” as a young priest working with young married couples. Every marriage, even those without children, is a family, the most basic God-given community of persons. Family, John Paul pleaded: “Be what you are.” You have the blessing and grace of God. You are the most powerful hope for human love in this world. Without the family, our race has no hope of surviving in any civilized form. You must defend your family by living in fidelity. Even single people must support and defend spouses, for together we are God’s family, his one-flesh-union of the mystical body, the Church. Do not be afraid of the demonic forces, so aggressive in our day, that seek to destroy the family. Family, be what you are.