Marriage, Holy Matrimony, and Catechesis

marriageIn England, “gay marriage” is now officially legal though still not ontologically possible–which precipitates another round of posts about marriage and Holy Matrimony. Monsignor Charles pope wrote one on this following the US Supreme Court’s decisions on DOMA and Proposition 8–really, he was revisiting an old post. And of course, a few responses were written to the good Monsignor.

Now on the heels of the England decision, Fr Dwight Longenecker has a post of his own calling for this distinction to be made, and for the Church to get away from civil marriage when she starts making this distinction:

It is now time for the Catholic Church to distance itself from civil marriage. The best thing we can do is withdraw from every aspect of civil marriage. I would be in favor of the situation which exists in France and other countries–where two people who want to be married go to the local registrar to be married civilly and then go on to the church for the Christian ceremony. This will give us a clarity. It will also allow us as pastors, to restrict church weddings to those who really intend to enter into a Catholic marriage. To do this we need to clarify what Holy Matrimony is. Here is a discussion.

I would also advocate a change in terminology. From now on I will refer to a Catholic marriage as “Holy Matrimony”. If “marriage” can be between two men or two women or multiple people or whatever other definitions people wish to put on it, then that term is no good to us. Terminology matters and I suggest that those who wish to maintain the truth of marriage now use the term “Holy Matrimony”. It may be somewhat cumbersome at first, but we will know where we stand.

This issue is not only one concerning same-sex couples. How marriage is defined is going through radical change in many other ways. How many people do you know who are on their second, third or fourth “marriage”? How many do you know who co habit before they are “married”? This is not only widespread in society, but amongst Catholics. How many do you know who want to be married at the beach or in a mountaintop retreat or in somebody’s backyard? How many do you know who trample all over marriage by committing adultery, run off with another person, divorce their spouse and “re-marry”?

I applaud his decision to tighten up things on his end concerning marriages. Marriage preparation is in many parishes (and dioceses) woefully inadequate. Part of the problem comes from the fact that it begins at the lowest common denominator (which in our society is tragically low) and then only has so much time to build up to where a marriage should begin. I have a similar lament about RCIA, and I suppose also about the pre-baptism classes that I’ve experienced.

It’s not just a matter of attempting to fast-track the more advanced folks–though if a parish has the resources to do this, we do tend to appreciate this. Part of the problem is time, and this is not an easily-fixed problem: requiring a longer RCIA process is a sure-fire way to reduce the number of people who make it through, both because many want instant gratification [1] and because some people are simply unable to maintain the schedule for an extended period [2]. Yes, some of this can be benefited by having more homilies about Holy Matrimony and what it should look like—however, an even better lesson comes through the witness born by good married Catholic couples (and for that matter, others of good faith), both as a covenant and as a sacrament.

A successful Christian marriage lived out as an inseverable lifelong bond between a man and a woman which unites the spouses in faithful intimacy for the purpose of procreation is a very powerful witness for our culture. So much the better when the marriage is treated not only as a covenant but as a sacrament—that is, as a sign [3] which points beyond itself and to God’s grace [4]. We as a culture want to have marriage on our own terms, and not on God’s. Thus, for example, we have a society which is slowly but surely looking to legitimize gay marriages, and perhaps polygamous or incestuous ones as well. On the other hand, the culture has long sense moved beyond merely “legitimizing” fornication, pornography, and adultery. These are not merely tolerated or even treated as “healthy alternatives” to abstinence or faithful and monogamous marriages, but are often trumpeted as superior to either of the traditional moral options.

Marriage lived out faithfully and joyfully thus becomes a sign of contradiction, a statement that we do not have to settle for the empty promises of hedonism, that we do not have to be ruled by the passions of the moment. It is a rejection of the allure of the evil one, and better it is evidence that we are left happier having done so. As Joseph Pearce puts it in the St Austin Review,
Those who embrace their crosses selflessly are liberated from their slavery to themselves. This is the only freedom worth living for or dying for. Those who hate their crosses are nailing themselves more painfully to them, enslaving themselves to their own selfishness.

The number of suicides is increasing. Despair is increasing. Nihilism is rampant. Addiction is an epidemic. These are all signs of a society that is crucifying itself through its hatred of the Cross.

Those who live out their marriages by making loving sacrifices for the good of their spouse or children are able to show that there is a better way than the selfish hedonism with which our culture is awash: and that there is happiness to be found in this Way. I concluded an earlier post by writing that

Culture change begins in the home, and in particular in the parents, who should be models and teachers for their children. This is a great responsibility, but it is our responsibility—indeed, it is our solemn duty—to be witnesses to our culture first and foremost by being witnesses to our children. We do both best by example. It is by our fruits that we will be known, by our public example which we will evangelize and by our private example which we will catechize.

This is the duty of the vocation of marriage, and it is helped by the graces which come in that sacrament of Holy Matrimony. In my next post I will look more at the implications of this regarding the suggestion by Fr Longenecker and Monsignor Pope and others that the Church pull out of the civil institution of marriage and focus exclusively on the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.


[1] I have heard people complain about RCIA, for example, since the Church typically requires a 9 month program of religious instruction and preparation prior to baptism (for most parishes around the US, anyway). Compare this to any number of Protestant communities which will baptize new members after a simple altar call.

[2] At certain stages of life, this is difficult if not impossible to accomplish. There’s something to be said about not having to wait until a “certain” stage of life before converting, and equally much to be said about not having to wait for a certain stage of life before being able to get married in the Church. The Church needs to be encouraging people to get married at a younger and not an older age these days.

[3] Theologically, it is an interesting symbol for the Trinity, in that God is three persons sharing one divine nature. In the marital act, there are still two distinct persons, but in a sense they become one nature for the purpose of procreating a third person.

[4] Even the ending of marriage at the death of a spouse is part of the sacramental “sign.” Jus as the marriage bond is ended when one of the spouses dies, a mortal sin severs the soul from God’s sanctifying grace. Mortal sin is the death of the soul, though of course we are able to return to God’s grace through reconciliation, whereas we will have to wait until the afterlife to see our deceased loved ones again.

JC Sanders is a cradle Catholic, and somewhat of a traditionalist conservative. He has earned his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Texas at Austin in the summer of 2014. He is currently a visiting assistant professor of physics at a university in the deep South. He is a lay member of the Order of Preachers, with a three year commitment to the Order. JC has been happily married since June of 2010. He has at times questioned – and more often still been questioned about – his Faith, but he has never wandered far from the Church, nor from our Lord. “To whom else would I go?”