family“What is the purpose of marriage?”

I knew the answer to this one.

“Marriage is a solemn commitment between a man and woman to build a new life together, to sacrifice the interests of yourself and permanently commit to meeting each other’s needs — to live as we think Jesus would want us to.”

It was the late 1970’s, and my (hopefully) wife to be and I were sitting at our final Pre-Cana meeting with her parish priest. We had been living in separate cities at the time, so the Pre-Cana groundwork had to be done in different parishes with the ‘final exam’ taking place at my beloved’s church.

Though a bit nervous, I was confident that my answer would get us the passing grade needed to get married in the Church.

“And…?” he replied.

And? I began to think I was in trouble. I came up with something that sounded like a Hallmark card, mentioning something about everlasting love and sharing life’s challenges.

“And….?” he repeated. He didn’t even blink.

Now I really began to panic. I had taken my best shot and it was a swing and a miss. What could be left?

My betrothed kicked me under the table. In doing so, she knocked loose one of those stock answers we had prepared in case something like this happened.

“Make babies?” I answered.

“Yes, my son, have children”. He signed the necessary paperwork and saw us to the door. I swear he said something like “thank you for playing”, but I think I just made that up. My wife to be and I made light of the exchange, but somewhere inside I felt just a bit less like a future husband and a bit more like breeding stock.

Today, that episode seems relevant to me as once again, Church teachings conflict with government policies that, to some at least, appear to make perfect sense. Today, we muse and fume over everything from the Affordable Health Care act to the Supreme Court decision striking down regulations that deny gay couples employment benefits guaranteed to heteros. It’s a time when the US bishops demand that our secular government formally define the nature of marriage, while also demanding the secular government not define what constitutes health services that can be covered by public (secular) dollars.

The Pre-Cana episode is appropriate because it exposed me to an element of Church teaching that seemed so contrary to common sense — yet there was no real explanation, no real dialog as to what the foundation of the teaching was, especially since I knew it was a whole lot easier to make babies than to get through four weeks of Pre-Cana and get married.

Frankly, I never really got the point of the Church’s teaching that the primary reason for marriage is procreation which implied lifelong commitment between husband and wife. I always thought it should be the other way around – a lifelong commitment to build a new life together which implied an acceptance of children as the ultimate blessing of such a union.  The Church’s stand is clear: large families are a sign of God’s blessing, and any conjugal act between a husband and wife that isn’t intended to bear fruit may be considered an act of selfishness.

I guess I should have studied more.

But this isn’t about my need to do extra homework to avoid a failing grade as a Catholic, this note is about two points:

  • The Church needs to do a better job of explaining the reasoning and foundation of its teachings in terms that can be understood and appreciated by followers who don’t have the benefit of a degree in theology.
  • It is time for the lay persons of the Church to stop relying on the state to do the hard work of changing human hearts.

The need to properly explain the nature of Church teachings is essential, since a poor job of explanation can make our Church look incapable of expressing the relevance of the truth in the modern world. (And like it or not, we are in a modern world).

The two hot button topics illustrate just how important it is for the Church to get its message right.

Bishops and Church leaders continue to rail against insurance coverage for contraceptives made possible by the Affordable Health Care Act. But for millions of families who have seen employers reduce (or remove) health care benefits – AHC provides a much needed portability that makes possible the freedom to select employment opportunities without being held hostage by a health insurance plan. And for the growing number of underemployed who may not have been to doctors or dentists in years, AHC gives an opportunity to access a reasonable level of medical care.

If the episcopate wants to be effective in arguing against the provisions of the AHC, they will have to find some way to better express their disdain than by telling our neighbors who live on the margins that a program that offers vital access to medical care constitutes an attack on religious freedom.

And those listening may rightly ask that the Catholic employers be more effective in convincing their employees of the moral correctness of the position opposing use of artificial contraceptives; then such services wouldn’t be used – and the rest of those covered could finally get around to seeing a doctor.

*******

The second point involves the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that struck down policies that denied federal marriage benefits to gay couples (DOMA) and another decision that effectively let stand a lower court ruling that a public vote violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause is invalid.

The Church was quick to respond, with US Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone writing that “the future of democracy” is “very worrisome”, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops writing that the court decision marked a “tragic day for marriage and our nation”.

Aside from the fact that I don’t think a member of a hierarchical organization based in Rome is the right person to be commenting on the future of a democracy, this voter wants to know exactly how the ruling threatens the institution of marriage and, as argued by the bishops, how it will deny the right of a child to be raised by his/her own mother and father.

The argument that bases opposition on the denial of the right of a child to know his mother and father is particularly vague, as the USCCB writings, as well as the talking heads on the news tour never really describe how the lives of children, particularly those already from broken families will be further damaged by these rulings.

How can granting health insurance coverage to a child adopted by gay parents be worse than raising a child without healthcare coverage? Or be worse than leaving the child in an institution without any family?

I also think that maybe other factors are much more serious threats to marriage than the striking of DOMA. What about the pandemic of divorce that began in the 1970’s and 80’s with the adoption of no-fault divorce? While no-fault divorce made the process easier, there are also trends that have assaulted our idea of the traditional family.

Recent studies show that the top three causes for divorce are infidelity, incompatibility, and substance abuse. Of all the hetero marriages that took place in the 1990’s, 43% will end in divorce. (Maybe the emphasis of the purpose of marriage should shift slightly towards future parents — but I digress).

It is hard to see how civil marriage between gays (3-5% of the population) will come close to doing the damage to marriage that has already been done by other trends in our society – trends that allow people to walk away from marriages that are no longer convenient, or our media’s emphasis on everything young and beautiful, or on the habit to turn a blind eye as substance abuse tears a friend’s family apart.

Is marriage under attack? Sure. But the adjective “tragic” is more appropriate for what we have already allowed to happen, not what the Supreme Court ruled.

I have always believed that children are the ultimate blessing for a married couple, even though I think that we too often ignore the emotional health of the parents who are the real bedrock of the family.

And I feel strongly that the Catholic sacrament of Matrimony be celebrated only for a man and woman – as our tradition rightly teaches us that there is a special bond between a man and woman who pledge a lifelong commitment to each other – a commitment that will hopefully yield a new generation to witness God’s work through the love of parents and family.

But while we need to proclaim a staunch defense of life and family, we are too quick to blame others in the secular world for not doing our job. The Supreme Courts interprets the Constitution, not Paul’s letters. We turn to federal and state governments for security, health and educational services, and the mechanics of running a diverse country. We turn to our Church to help guide us to live the best lives we can within that secular setting.

And as we turn to our Church for guidance and leadership, we need our spiritual leaders to do a better job of explaining the reasons behind the public proclamations – the passage of time does not enable a poorly repeated message to become better understood.

And finally, to really strengthen our families, the Church’s limited resources are best directed at the big problems that already exist – doing everything it can to support the truly holy, permanent nature of marriage as marked by the sacrament of Matrimony.

But in this case, when I refer to Church, I mean us.

The bishops will do what they think they must do, and many overworked clergy and professional staff do wonders in delivering badly needed services to young families struggling to find their way.

But there are too many of ‘us’, the lay persons of the Church, who are sitting on the sidelines when it comes to taking an active role in helping to support our families. Too many of us spend too much time shouting and complaining, and too little time helping.

What are needed are our contributions of time and money to improve the delivery of mental health and counseling services where needed. How many of us donate time or money to Marriage Encounter programs and their like? How many of us assist in delivering high quality marriage preparation programs? Who works to bring programs such as Retrouvaille into their own communities? And how many of us extend the support required by divorced members to allow them to heal their emotional wounds and continue to carry on in their role as Catholic adults?

How many of us? Not enough of us.

The family is the lynchpin of our society and the core from which God’s presence becomes known to us.

It needs our help. Not our rhetoric.


References:
Catholic teachings on sexuality and birth control (CatholicAnswers.com)::
http://www.catholic.com/tracts/birth-control

Catechism of the Catholic Church: http://www.usccb.org/beliefs-and-teachings/what-we-believe/catechism/catechism-of-the-catholic-church/epub/index.cfm# par 2373

America Magazine: USCCB on Supreme Court Decision: “Tragic Day for Marriage and Our Nation”: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/usccb-supreme-court-decision-tragic-day-marriage-and-our-nation

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Amicus Brief:
http://www.usccb.org/about/general-counsel/amicus-briefs/upload/united-states-v-windsor.pdf

People’s Reasons for Divorcing: Gender, Social Class, the Life Course, and Adjustment http://www2.psychology.uiowa.edu/faculty/harvey/People’s%20Reasons%20for%20Divorcing.pdf

Statistics on divorce: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Divorce_in_the_United_States

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