Consider for a moment how the popular understanding of marriage has been revolutionized since the 1960s. The best way to do this is to imagine the choices a young Catholic man had when pondering his future fifty years ago.
Let’s say Jimmy was brought up in an Italian American community in Philadelphia in the early sixties, and let’s imagine that he is thinking about becoming a priest. One of the things he has to weigh up is celibacy, so he looks around at the men he knows: husbands and priests.
If he chooses to be a husband he will probably end up working long hours at a dull job to support his wife and a big tribe of kids. Eventually they might be able to move out of the cramped apartment and put a down payment on a little house. Being a husband and father is a good but hard life. If he’s a decent, honest and sincere Catholic he knows that his priorities are his faith, his family and his friends. Without knowing it he has accepted that his life is to be one of service and self-sacrifice for a greater good. This is not a truth he ponders. It’s simple. It’s life.
The priesthood is also attractive to Jimmy. He’ll get a better education. Maybe he’ll travel to Europe and even study at Rome. When he is ordained he’ll live in a big house with some other guys in a community full of people like his own family. There will be an Italian mamma to keep house and look after him. He has plenty of family and friends close by. Sure, he’s sacrificed having a wife and kids, but just as the married life has its rewards, so the life of a Catholic priest is rewarding and full. He accepts that the priesthood is a life of sacrifice and service for a greater good just like marriage would be.
Now consider Jimmy’s choices fifty years later. The priesthood means living alone in a rectory house struggling to keep a parish open with dwindling congregations and no money. Not only does he live alone, but he knows most people assume that he’s homosexual and a good number of the wider population suspect him of being a pedophile. The life of the priest has little attraction and plenty of drawbacks. It is not only a life of service and self-sacrifice, but it also seems like a long, slow martyrdom.
Then the twenty-first century Jimmy looks at married men and sees guys who have it all. The attractive wife has only had two kids because after the second she was sterilized. She has her own career, so they enjoy a double income. Not only do they have it all, but they got it instantly. They have the nice snug family, the big house in the suburbs and maybe a house at the lake. They go to Mass just like the other good Catholics. They’re happy, healthy, prosperous, and they’re Catholics in good standing. Marriage does not seem to have caused them problems. It has become the solution to all their problems.
This is the true mangling of marriage in America. The difficulty is not that there is widespread cohabitation, promiscuity, same sex unions, divorce and remarriage, serial relationships and polygamy. These are symptoms of a deeper disease. The disease is a sweet seductive cancer that has eaten away at the very idea of marriage. Marriage is no longer perceived as a sacrament of self-sacrifice. It is perceived as a sacrament of self-fulfillment.
Marriage is seen as a flight to Disneyland. It is the yellow brick road on which we skip happily to the eternal Emerald City of happiness. Marriage is the passport to American nirvana of life in the suburbs. Why do so many want to be married? Why do homosexuals want to get married? Why do divorced people want to be married? It is because marriage has become the magic pathway to self-fulfillment: the way to have it all, the ultimate path for the pursuit of happiness.
How is it that marriage was so mangled? The shift in understanding must be traced back to the acceptance of artificial contraception. If sexual intercourse meant babies, then sex also meant self-sacrifice because babies must be cared for. Babies require self-sacrifice and lots of babies mean lots of self-sacrifice. The idea that self-sacrifice was therefore built into the action of sex and the choice of marriage. When the sexual act became no more than mutual self-pleasuring, then marriage became no more than mutual self-pleasuring.
This is why true pastoral concern for young people in love must involve education about the very nature of the sexual act and the marriage covenant. Marriage should take the man and woman to the understanding of love which they find at the foot of Christ’s cross. There love is shown to be self sacrifice and self-sacrifice is shown to be the only way of love. When this fundamental misunderstanding of marriage is corrected we may gradually learn to re-construct marriage and move towards healing the mangled marriages in our society.
The Catholic Church is the only institution which can hope to lead the way forward to a renewed understanding of marriage, for it is only the Catholic faith which holds marriage to be a sacrament and teaches that each sacrament, in its own way, is a participation in the cross of Christ. Only by patient teaching by word and example may couples re-learn that marriage is a sacrament of self-sacrifice and that it is only through this self-sacrifice that they will find true self-fulfillment.