The U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has declared February 7 to 14, “Marriage Week”. There is no question that marriage today faces challenges like no other. Not long ago the words “marriage” and “challenge”, appearing in the same sentence, meant that a married couple was having difficulties. Today it means that marriage itself is having difficulties.
The challenge to marriage which gets the most attention is the current attempt to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples. However, long before same-sex advocates began to deconstruct traditional marriage, the norm of marriage as a life-long, life-giving, life-supporting union of two members of the opposite sex was already suffering from decades of no-fault divorce, cohabitation, contraception, and even the casual application of periodic abstinence (NFP).
The real issue is that marriage is not just another institution. It is not like the Boy Scouts, the Rotary Club, the United States of America, or even the Catholic Church. Marriage is unique in that it is an organic institution - the first of all institutions, and as such, the foundational societal unit upon which all other human unions and social constructs are built. Thus, to redefine marriage is to unmake the world.
In 1968, Paul VI prophesied the “unmaking of the world” which would follow the redefinition of marriage wrought by the separation of the unitive and procreative realities of the conjugal act. His warnings were rejected, not just by the world, but by many Catholic leaders. Forty years later, Catholic schools and churches (for lack of population) are closing by the hundreds every year, Catholic families are splitting and collapsing at the same rate as the rest of society, and same-sex marriage is knocking loudly at our door.
Attempting to stem the crisis, the USCCB has issued a series of initiatives and statements including the above-mentioned Marriage Week and a pastoral letter entitled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” Unfortunately, the letter proposes a definition of marriage that is symptomatic of how we often hack ourselves off at our knees:
“Marriage...is a unique communion of persons. In their intimate union as male and female, the spouses are called to exist for each other...This communion of persons has the potential to bring forth human life and thus to produce the family, which is itself another kind of communion of persons.”
Finer theological minds than my own may not see the problem, but I disagree that bringing forth human life in a marriage produces “another kind of communion of persons”. Such language, at least for us regular lay folk, gives the impression that the marital union is fundamentally altered by bearing a child.
While begetting a child may alter the daily life of a married couple, the marriage covenant is not only NOT altered, it is rendered whole. The marital union was made to image the Trinity and is completed in the child who issues forth from the husband and wife - or, in cases of natural infertility, at least in the intention to bear one.
The “first this and then this” view of marriage employs a language which not only appears to separate the unitive and procreative meanings of the conjugal act, but also seems to makes the unitive and procreative properties of marriage serve two separate (“another”) kinds of communities.
Thus we see this view of marriage - a view in which the couple is made first to “exist for each other” with only the “potential to bring forth human life” - made manifest in the otherwise often capricious off-putting of children so that couples might finish their education, buy a home, establish careers, see the world, or whatever.
True, most lay people do not read episcopal statements and thereupon design a course of life. However, episcopal statements do shape catechetical formulas and influence pastoral application, which then forms how we laity think and act.
Ultimately one must wonder why the USCCB felt it could improve upon the definition of marriage carefully constructed at Vatican II and subsequently found in Gaudium et Spes (48), the 1983 Code of Canon Law (1055), and ultimately, the Catechism (1601):
“The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring.”
Here we do not see the couple first existing “for each other” with the “potential to produce...another kind of communion”. Instead, we see the fundamental establishment of a new life order: a single generative communion of persons and the very image of God on earth. I think I like this definition better.