In the Archdiocese of Chicago, on Sept. 19, about 350 couples renewed their marriage vows during the annual Mass to celebrate the anniversary of those married 50 years. In reflecting on their 50 years together, some couples wrote that the best part of being married was the companionship of a husband or wife who could always be counted on, in good times and in bad, along with the blessing of children and grandchildren. Others said that the Catholic faith had strengthened their marriage because it gave them a common vision that helped them see themselves and their union in the light of what God called them to be. Their relationship grounded in faith had held like glue to keep their lives together. Their advice to newly married couples was to stay together and make it work, helping one another to grow in love while the circumstances of life kept changing. It was a privilege to celebrate the Eucharist with these men and women whose lives have so enriched the church and society and whose personal experience witnessed to the nature of marriage.
In all the dioceses of the United States, Sept. 19 marked the annual observance of Catechetical Sunday. While thanking all those responsible for catechetical programs in our parishes and schools, we were urged to reflect this year on the theme, “Matrimony: Sacrament of Enduring Love.” Reflecting on marriage in the pages of Scripture leads one to understand how the marital unity of a man and a woman bears witness to the union between God and his people, Israel and to the relationship between Christ, the bridegroom, and the church, his bride.
Both the experience of the golden anniversary married couples and the teaching from divine revelation about the relation between God and his people speak to the natural conviction that marriage is the union of one man and one woman for life for the sake of family. This understanding of marriage, however, has its origin neither in Western civil law nor in church teaching. Marriage predates both state and church; it is an institution of nature. In China or other places where Christianity has not had great impact on law or culture, marriage is nonetheless understood to be the union of one man and one woman for life for the sake of family.
Marriage is weakened in our society now because of our tendency to treat even the facts of nature as matters of individual rights and personal choice. The current political argument about calling homosexual unions “marriage” is not a disagreement about fairness or justice but a fight about whether the state has the “right” to call a circle a square. Without the bodily complementarity between a man and a woman, there can be no real bodily union of two in one flesh. Infertility is not legal ground for declaring a marriage null and void; but impotency, the inability of a couple to perform the marital act, is. Companionship, friendship and love between two men or two women are profound human values; but the sexual expression of love between two men or two women cannot be a marital act. Every human person is to be respected, but so is the nature of marriage. The God who created the natural world gave us the gift of reason to understand it lest we use the gift of free will to destroy it.
Perhaps the desire to change the legal definition of marriage by ignoring its true nature reflects the troubled experience of marriage and family in society today. When couples who live together as if married hesitate to actually get married, something has gone wrong in their experience of love. When about 40 percent of babies are born outside of wedlock, the stability of family life has been seriously weakened. When as many couples divorce as remain together for life, an essential element of genuine marriage goes lacking. Statistics on rape and sexual violence expose a loss of respect for the gift of sexuality and the self-discipline that protects it. We all know that the state of marriage and family life is not good and raises cause for concern about our life together in society.
In the light of faith, of course, marriage is more than a natural institution. Family life is a school of love that introduces children to God’s own love for the human family. The U.S. bishops’ 2009 pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan,” explains well the church’s teaching on marriage and is available at www.usccb.org/loveandlife. The archdiocesan Family Ministries Office, www.familyministries.org, sponsors many programs that help our parishes to prepare couples for marriage and that support family life.
Papers and programs, however, cannot by themselves restore right order in our relationships; prayer and habits of good living depend on God’s grace, which is ours for the asking. The Lord has a vested interest in strengthening an institution that reflects his own life and love.
Sincerely yours in Christ,
Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago