Enough is enough with all of the talk about “defending traditional marriage.” The authentic Christian call to marriage, becoming one flesh, which is articulated in Genesis and affirmed by Christ, is and always has been exceptionally radical. It challenges us to build a future not yet seen, not to gaze back at an illusory past.
One-flesh marriages are rooted in a unique, distinct form of love, shared by both partners, who are equal in dignity and worth. This understanding of marriage calls on couples to unite intellectually, emotionally, physically, and spiritually through God’s grace, guidance, and love. In a culture where autonomy and self-dependence are highly valued, this call to communion seems strange and out of place. It is, and that is why an authentic commitment to one-flesh marriage is necessarily radical.
Some may contend that this is the vision of “traditional marriage” that they are defending. However, most who use this term are referring to a form of marriage rooted in the customs of the past. They look back to a bygone era of “Leave it to Beaver” domestic tranquility. This is why they talk about “defending marriage,” not building one-flesh marriages.
Marriage as it has been traditionally practiced has never matched (on a widespread scale) Christ’s one- flesh vision. We find polygamy in the Old Testament. Christ deemed the divorce laws of his time excessively permissive. Later, the sacred vocation was seen by many as inherently inferior to celibacy. And for millennia, there was a failure to accept the fundamental dignity and equality of women. Throughout history, social, economic, and sexual desires have often trumped the call to communion. Certainly there have been authentically one-flesh marriages throughout history, but they have never been the standard. There is no golden era where the customs and traditions of the time aligned with Christ’s vision of marriage.
Today marriage is in such a state of disrepair that “defending the institution” is akin to defending the artistic integrity of Milli Vanilli. We have all heard the statistics on sky-high divorce rates, the frequency of infidelity, the large number of children born out of wedlock, and widespread sexual permissiveness. For many, marriage is viewed contractually, rooted in self-interest, and contingent upon perpetual feelings of happiness. Some see marriage as antiquated, a product of an unjust, patriarchal past. Others view it as simply unnecessary. They are still likely to get married, but they will view it as a temporary arrangement, not an enduring covenant. Are these problems so severe that the Church should shift its focus away from spreading Christ’s vision of marriage to defending egocentric, individualistic marriages as long as the relationship in each is between a man and a woman?
If one is more concerned with promoting one-flesh marriages, the narrow obsession with holding the line against gay marriage seems preposterous. Beyond the sheer futility, given Millennial support for gay marriage (which is not enough to permit a change in the Church’s position, though perhaps the intensity of its efforts), it is the equivalent of fretting about a hangnail while having a heart attack. Whether gay people remain celibate (the Church’s position) or get married, the impact on marriage among heterosexuals is virtually nil.
Yet last year we witnessed a priest contending that he could not confirm a Millennial Catholic because of the teen’s support of gay marriage. Now I have seen numerous Catholics post “Healthcare is a privilege not a right” on facebook, along with hundreds of other statements on social media and blogs that reject fundamental Church teachings, including many that can only be shaped by outright heresies, particularly the deification or idolization of the free market. Would they be turned away or can people reject the Church’s fundamental teachings on human rights and the dignity of the person as long it does not involve human sexuality? It is difficult to imagine a better strategy for alienating Millennial Catholics, who loathe this type of obnoxious hypocrisy and do not want to be associated with people who enjoy casting the first stone.
As a former teacher in Catholic schools, I can say that some of my most devout students—the most faithful, service-oriented, kindest, and pious by every other standard—were the strongest proponents of gay marriage. Why? They believed in marriage. They believed it was a sacred call and vocation. They believed that strong marriages are the cornerstone of the common good. They just happened to believe that two members of the same sex could become one flesh. Does the Church want to exclude these young people who are among the strongest believers in the truths of the Nicene Creed, service to others, and the defense of human life and dignity, because they think certain people (that the Church acknowledges have “deep-seated homosexual tendencies”) should take on the responsibilities of marriage and raising a family, rather than live celibately? Is it worth casting them out because their commitment to marriage is excessive, extending to people and a type of relationship that the Church believes should be excluded?
If so, that standard should be applied to all of Church teaching. The big problem is that it never is. It is only applied by sex-obsessed zealots who radiate hypocrisy. An even bigger problem is that the legalistic purging of the Church would decimate its ranks. Perhaps the biggest problem would be that Jesus Christ directly rejected these legalistic methods of exclusion and preached against them, a seemingly relevant detail for a church founded by Jesus Christ.
Perhaps, instead the Church should focus on the real threats to marriage. The most dangerous enemies of one-flesh marriage are perennial: pride, ignorance, selfishness, doubt, insecurity, and intemperance. And cultures can foster and intensify these instigators of marital destruction or take steps to mitigate their pernicious effects.
The Church can wallow in status-quo conservatism, too often embraced by political liberals, libertarians, moderates, and conservatives alike, or challenge the underlying values in our culture that rip marriages apart. The Church can take on the rampant sexual objectification of others, which blocks intimacy and encourages wandering eyes and hearts, or it can sugarcoat Christ’s hardline view that lust in the heart constitutes adultery. The Church can challenge Catholics to stop connecting their understanding of their worth to transient matters of status, such as their professional success or the size of their bank account, or say nothing to its affluent donors and watch as pride and insecurity block communion in their marriages. The Church can refuse to challenge our materialism or tell us that real love can only be found in virtue and that when children are starving to death, it is not virtuous to express our love by giving our spouse expensive luxuries instead of spending that money on those in need. Spousal love that is not aligned with the love that makes us care about others is deformed by narcissism and selfishness and can never match Christ’s vision.
If the Church wants to support marriage it must take a strong, persistent stand against our culture’s obsession with superficial attraction, secular standards of success, material accumulation, and other temptations that pull couples away from unity and toward sin. That means speaking with a prophetic voice.
Speaking with this voice means teaching the virtues. It means teaching a faith that is liberating, but also demanding; a hope that inspires optimism and joy, but is grounded in realism and not oblivious to suffering and sin; and a love that is fundamentally radical and subversive, at odds with the societal status quo. The Church should not project an image of being stodgy and old-fashioned, but passionate and daring. The quest for communion is the fundamental mission of the Church, and its promotion of marriage should reflect that first and foremost.
On a more structural level, reversing no-fault divorce laws seems to be a worthier cause than spending millions to block the legalization of same-sex marriage. And enacting pro-family policies that reflect the reality of modern life and households with two working parents would reduce a great deal of the stress that shatters marriages. Of course, financial problems can also have a devastating impact on marriages, even among couples who desire communion. Economic insecurity is a genuinely grave threat to many marriages and it also leads many people to never marry. If the goal is to promote authentic marriages between men and women, there is perhaps no better place to start than ensuring economic justice.
This is not a call for the Church to alter its position on gay marriage. This is a call for everyone who cares about Christ’s vision of one-flesh marriage—whether they are pro-gay marriage, anti-gay marriage, or searching for clarity—to come together and address the real obstacles to the unity of spouses and to durable marriages that produce human flourishing. And for opponents of gay marriage who are certain of their position, the real challenge is not figuring out how to throw proponents of gay marriage out of the Church, but to keep them as part of our community and to convince them without coercion that the Church’s current position is compatible with the law of love. The debate over same-sex marriage will (and should) continue, but it must not divert us from the essential task of promoting one-flesh marriages, which are essential to the common good and a reflection of the glory and goodness of God’s radiant love.