Now that the reality of same-sex “marriage” is upon us, it is worth reflecting on what we should now do to protect and promote the crucial, sacred state of matrimony.
Since we experienced this most recent defeat in the public arena, the natural impulse is to redouble our efforts in the Legislature, to try to overturn the so-called “Marriage Equality Act” and to uphold the federal Defense of Marriage Act. Together with our allies in the pro-family movement, we will be pursuing those aims, along with other efforts to mitigate the damage caused by this terrible legislation (e.g., striving for better conscience protections for individuals and institutions).
But we also have to recognize that the seeds of this public policy defeat were sown over many years, as our culture — and individuals — gradually turned away from the values that underlie authentic marriage. We see this in the separation of marital sexuality and child-bearing thanks to contraception, the de-linking of sex and marriage thanks to the “sexual revolution”, the acceptance of non-marital cohabitation, the deterioration of the notion of permanence and fidelity. All these cultural and moral developments over the past fifty years have undermined the foundation of a marriage culture. And all of these are rooted in the decisions of individuals to turn away from God’s plan for love and life.
This is the battleground as we move forward. It is a struggle that will be fought on the level of society, but it is first and foremost an effort to “win the hearts and minds” of individual men and women, to convince them to embrace authentic love and real marriage, and to reject the counterfeits.
This struggle is actually very similar to the campaign to promote a culture of life. That pro-life effort has never been merely “anti-abortion”, as the media likes to portray it. Rather, it has always been a sustained initiative to build a culture of life in all arenas of society — in law, education, pastoral support, and prayer. In fact, marriage and true love has always been a crucial part of the effort to build the culture of life and civilization of love.
In his great encyclical letter, The Gospel of Life, Pope John Paul set out the blueprint to build a “new culture of life”. Based on this model, we can see that there are three major areas in this effort:
Proclaiming Marriage — The foundation of this proclamation is the person of Jesus Christ Himself, who is authentic love Himself. His free, total, faithful and fruitful gift of self is both the model and the personification of real love and real marriage. We must be unafraid to proclaim this truth, and we must do it in a sustained, systematic way — to our children at home and in religious education, to our parishes in liturgy and preaching, to adults in marriage preparation and enrichment programs, and to the world through the personal witness of the lives of married couples.
All too often we have spoken of marriage in muted terms, out of a well-intentioned sensitivity to those in irregular situations. But we must never be shy about speaking about marriage and its essential role in God’s plan for humanity. Pope John Paul said, “The meaning of life is found in giving and receiving love, and in this light human sexuality and procreation reach their true and full significance.” (The Gospel of Life, 81)
This proclamation is the task of every part of the Church. It is an unpopular message, but, as Pope John Paul also said, “we must not fear hostility or unpopularity, and we must refuse any compromise or ambiguity which might conform us to the world’s way of thinking” (The Gospel of Life, 82)
Celebrating Marriage — As with all of our initiatives, the celebration of marriage is rooted in prayer and in liturgy. It is only by prayerfully contemplating the beauty and splendor of God’s love that we can appreciate the true nature of human love and the vocation to marriage. In this regard, the daily simple prayers of married couples, widows, and those who aspire to the married state are crucial.
In addition, the liturgical celebration of marriage must be emphasized, particularly its importance to the entire community. Our parishes can encourage this in simple ways, such as including blessings of engaged couples, the newly married, and jubilarians in the regular Sunday Mass. Congregations can be encouraged to attend weddings, so that they are not just private affairs but true celebrations of the entire People of God. Every opportunity should be taken to incorporate nuptial themes in preaching the Gospel at Mass. And special days of celebrations, such as “World Marriage Day” can be emphasized in the regular liturgical calendar of parishes.
The ultimate celebration of marriage can be found in the daily lives, the strong witness, of married couples. We all know that marriage is not easy. But as we struggle through the vicissitudes of life, we testify to the power of self-sacrificing love of “the many different acts of selfless generosity, often humble and hidden, carried out by men and women, children and adults, the young and the old, the healthy and the sick.” (The Gospel of Life 86) This is especially true of the heroic married couples who remain faithful and committed to their bond despite bearing particularly difficult crosses — sickness and disability, discord in the household, substance abuse, mental illness, infertility, and chronic discouragement.
Again, the celebration of marriage is the task of every part of the Church. It is “everybody’s business” that there be strong successful marriages, and the heart of that is the spiritual and sacramental life of the entire Church.
Serving Marriage — At a time when so many marriages are struggling, and so many people are doubting whether a successful marriage is even possible, we must focus tremendous energy on providing practical loving assistance to couples and individuals. This is a mission rooted in the command of Jesus Himself: “In our service of charity, we must be inspired and distinguished by a specific attitude: we must care for the other as a person for whom God has made us responsible. As disciples of Jesus, we are called to become neighbours to everyone (cf. Lk 10:29-37), and to show special favor to those who are poorest, most alone and most in need.” (The Gospel of Life, 87)
This will involve a sustained effort at educating people, to promoting the vocation to the married life, and to teaching the practical skills that are needed for a successful marriage. We spend a great deal of effort already in marriage preparation classes, but they must be preceded by years of education in chastity and in the nature of true love. The promotion of Pope John Paul’s beautiful Theology of the Body has been of enormous help in this regard. But we as a Church currently spend very little time and energy on the vast majority of married couples — on marriage enrichment and marriage rescue programs, which offer help and support when it is most needed.
As with all of our efforts, this comes down to the commitment of our entire Church. We need to call and train more married couples who can share their vocation, their troubles and their triumphs. We need to help and train our clergy, who are so often the “first responders” to those married couples who need help, and who turn to Mother Church for aid. We are in desperate need for more authentically Catholic counselors and therapists, who can offer the professional assistance that can mean the difference between a broken marriage and a saved one.
A particularly important area in which we can serve marriage is in public policy. The passage of the “Marriage Equality Act” here in New York is not the final word, by any means. That law is invalid as an offense against natural law and has no binding force of conscience. We will continue to resist it as best we can — especially any attempt to expand recognition to other immoral unions like polygamy and polyandry. We will continue to support pro-marriage legislative and litigation efforts on the federal level and in other states.
So, that’s where we go from here. We pick ourselves up from this defeat and we soldier on. This is a broad-based struggle for the soul of our culture, and for the souls of individuals. No marriage is a private matter. Our entire Church has an interest in proclaiming, celebrating, and serving marriage.
This battle is far from over.