Recent comments Pope Francis made regarding what he perceives as invalidity in a portion of marriages today inspired me to share some thoughts from a different perspective. Picking up from where I left off, I will explain what is to follow from a woman’s point of view since I am a woman, but men may also relate to this experience.
When a couple that has already conjugated decides to marry, the woman most certainly feels strong emotional ties to her man; in a sense she may already feel married to him. Hence, if she is concerned about some serious character defects or behavioral traits he exhibits, she is hoping that he will change. However, she doesn’t realize that she removed a strong incentive for him to change when she agreed to consummate the relationship prematurely. In this regard, women do men an enormous disservice in many ways.
On the other hand, a man dishonors a woman by asking or expecting her to conjugate before marriage. In the long run, he only hurt himself. Who carries the most blame – men or women? In the end, we have all hurt ourselves, as prophesied by Blessed Paul VI in Humane Vitae.
The story of Jacob and Rachel in the Old Testament demonstrates well the lengths that a man would be willing to go through to win his beloved’s hand in marriage. Jacob’s story also exemplifies how precious a daughter’s hand was to her father. Rachel’s father told Jacob that he would have to work seven years to earn his daughter’s hand in marriage. Thus, a woman also does a disservice to her father by depriving him this privilege, and in doing so she dishonors him and a long-standing tradition.
Jewish tradition held to the marital couple sealing their covenant with God with bloodshed from the breaking of the hymen, which demonstrates how serious the Lord is about the marital covenant. Thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, Christians no longer have to abide by ancient ceremonial practices, however, the moral implication still remains, for He did not come to abolish the law, He came to fulfill the law (Matt 5:17). Tragically, so many today have taken His laws and completely turned them upside down.
St. John Paul II spoke about “language of the body” (TOB 103:4-6) in that our bodies speak a language that is either true or false. When a couple conjugates out of wedlock their bodies speak a false language. Living this way is confusing and conflicting because despite not taking a vow the couple’s bodies speak a “married language”. Their intimate bond says “we are one” yet there has been no spoken commitment. A couple wishing to practice authentic love will first speak the vow and then consummate in the flesh a physical expression of their spoken words.
The order in which we do things is not irrelevant; it is of utmost importance. Throughout the Bible, God demonstrates that He is a God of order. Satan seeks to bring disorder to the world by distorting God’s intended order, for evil has nothing else with which to toil but the good. As St. Augustine warned, evil is a parasite that exists on the privation of the good. Thus, if we strive to bring order to the family, the natural order will begin to restore itself, the parasites will be shaken off, and everything will fall into place. The evils, which resulted from an intrinsically sinful desire to distort God’s intended order for marriage and the family, will lose their hold on society. A woman will once again honor her husband and cherish her God-given reproductive gifts, and a man will subsequently honor his bride and reclaim headship in the family and in the world. There will naturally be less of an inclination for contraception, abortion, or divorce. All three will gradually become gratuitous and abhorrent, and will release their grip on society. This change will only take place if God’s people once again value and restore the natural order. And we must start with the family.
(There’s a wonderful book, Men and Marriage, by George Gilder, that describes my preceding thoughts in great detail. If you don’t have the time to read the whole book, I highly recommend reading just the prologue.)
Perhaps we should emphasize the importance of protecting the heart as much as the body, for even our Lord is primarily concerned with the condition of our hearts (cf. 1 Samuel 16:7). This does not mean closing ourselves off from love, it means using temperance and self-control. And we cannot do this on own strength; we need the Holy Spirit to help us. For this reason, we should heed what God desires for us in marriage. His will must supersede our own; for too often our will, if left to its own devices, can become obscured by feelings that are fleeting and decisions that are impulsively obtained.
The decision to love should never be taken lightly or viewed as casual; to do so is to underestimate its life-altering potential. We first need the love of God in our hearts. The two greatest commandments should be honored in the order they were taught. Adam, the first man, stood alone before God and discovered himself before being united with Eve. The Ten Commandments tell us to first love God, and then to love our neighbor.
St. John Paul II introduced his encyclical Fides Et Ratio with a call for human beings to come to know themselves – an age old basic truth carved on the temple portal at Delphi. He explains:
“A cursory glance at ancient history shows clearly how in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart. In fact, the answer given to these questions decides the direction which people seek to give to their lives.” (Emphasis mine)
St. John Paul II expressed deep concerns that man would no longer be “the responsible subject of his own action” but rather “an object of certain technologies” (TOB 23:3). He explains that Christ’s desire is for man, male and female, to seek the integral truth about himself and the meaning of the human body so he will be enabled to make decisions as his own subject. He states that self-mastery, self-possession, and self-determination are essential qualities for man to be “the author of genuinely human activity” (TOB 7:2). One must first possess oneself before one is able to give oneself to another. As Pope Emeritus Benedict said, “Every person is called to experience a personal Pentecost.” For it is only through one’s personal encounter with the Holy Spirit that one can truly come to know oneself and become the person God intended.
It is certainly conceivable that over the past fifty years many marriages formed with which the Lord is not pleased, both legally and sacramentally. Therefore, addressing annulments earnestly and efficiently is crucial. That the Church seems to be taking steps to accommodate this need is very promising. At the same time, it is imperative that we implement strategies to reverse this trend.
A young man recently told me that he has no plans for a relationship in the near future because he has witnessed too many painful break ups. Moreover, he is often on the receiving end when his heartbroken friends call to express their grief. He noted that most of them were engaging in sexual relations, of which many of their parents were aware. I told him that breaking up is so much harder today because courting has become like marriage and break-ups have become like divorces. Once two people become one flesh, it is unnatural for them to break up. The bond they created is supposed to be special, unique and permanent. The two of them are supposed to be the only two people in the entire world that know each other that intimately, for the intimacy that is theirs exclusively will become the glue that fortifies their marriage. This special bond is what keeps couples together. The more this bond is formed and broken with multiple partners, the more one’s heart becomes confused and one’s innocence is shattered. And as the heart grows weary, one’s perception of the world grows somber.
Yet, a person will often persist in his frantic search for the perfect “soul mate”. Sometimes that “soul mate” may already have come and gone. Sometimes he may settle for someone he is dating out of convenience, or because all of his friends have settled down and it seems like the next step. It is necessary for personal growth and awareness to occur before committing to another person. A couple needs time to grow in their love for God, apart and then together; for He will enable their growth and, if He wills it, fortify their bond.
How can the Church assist in fostering personal growth and combating the divorce epidemic? She must attend to the needs of those who are sick and those who are well, and those who are in the process of development. Perhaps we can begin with the following:
- Emphasize in teaching that true love by its very nature seeks commitment. The old metaphor “why buy the milk when you can get the cow for free” reveals a truth by acknowledging the frailty of the human condition. Humans beings need motivating incentives - such as the idea of “winning” their beloved - to improve themselves. Cohabitation removes these incentives, which may therefore lead to indifference and apathy. A couple needs to commit to one another in marriage before they consummate the relationship and move in together if they truly desire a healthy, stable, and happy life.
- Inform them that subsequent to the Sexual Revolution a good deal of what we learned about sex education was wrong; many were deceived by the father of lies.
- Emphasize that they shouldn’t be hard on themselves if they have made mistakes. God is merciful and will give them the graces they need to restore their lives and their relationships ; they only need to repent and ask.
- Teach Pope John Paul II’s Theology of the Body to young adults –preferably in Confirmation prep class.
- Stress the importance and reaffirm the validity of Humanae Vitae. Have all CCD students read the encyclical and explain how every prophecy has come true.
- Do not give them a list of do’s and don’ts; rather explain that the Church wants to ensure that they build a their marital foundation on rock as opposed to sand. This is only possible if they understand that they were fearfully and wonderfully made by a Father who loves them and has plans for them, and wants them to cherish and protect their minds, hearts, and bodies.
- Emphasize that practicing chastity and abstaining from pre-marital sex will ensure the protection of not only their body, but also their heart. The Church wants to help to prevent them from winding up heartbroken, bitter, disillusioned, and alone.
- Perhaps it is necessary to implement additional marriage preparation, for example, a pre- Pre-Cana where individuals are the focus without their partner present. Implement a weekend retreat for individuals, previous to couples attending together.
- Pose reflection questions such as: What is your life’s purpose? What are your beliefs? Why do you wish to marry this person? What is most important to you in life? How do you think your future spouse will help you achieve your goals?
- Have them answer: Who am I? Why was I created? To whom does my heart belong? These are questions that young people should contemplate before they commit to another person. If not, these thoughts may continue to haunt them throughout life, especially after being in one or more intimate relationships.
Implementing further preparations for marriage in the Church will teach individuals that they must always protect and cherish their own and one another’s hearts, help couples develop lasting relationships built on authentic love and enable them to form a more perfect and permanent marital union. Helping young couples establish strong foundations will lead to greater percentages of authentic and legitimate marital vows, in addition to stronger bonds in marriage.