As a quick recap for a couple previous posts, in my opinion (and the opinion of many others) the whole marriage debate has a lot of nuance to it, and the sudden realization that marriage has been re-defined carries with it no shortage of fault and blame going back centuries. I won’t re-hash that detail, but it is important to remember the following points:
1) Marriage never has been universally defined. Ages of people and cultures have viewed it, its purpose(s), and its structure differently. Never has it meant same-sex relationships, though, to my knowledge. But the historical nature of it has not been, and is not, universal.
2) The above point is not an argument that there should not be a universal definition. Just as Jesus started the spread of the Gospel in a small area with a small group of people, there is some providential design that is apparently very important in the way Christian teachings are to take root in the world. God wants us to live in a certain way and believe certain things, but He didn’t make that happen by zapping everyone in the world with a magical laser beam of perfect knowledge. The Church was to grow over centuries and millennia and reach people at the designated time.
3) As with all things Christian, the true nature of marriage was revealed slowly and steadily throughout the world. The lack of uniformity is not, and cannot be, an argument that there should not be uniformity. And so the true nature of marriage became more understood and accepted and adopted not just in a religious sense, but in a secular and civil sense. This truth largely prevailed, and even further, was recognized as a necessary base for a strong society and nation.
4) Some would say that marriage started to be redefined when governments (often backed by the churches) got involved. This is not really correct. It may have changed the way governments decided to view married people or treat married people. It may have added conditions to the marriage arrangement that would later set in motion the redefinition of it, but none of these things fundamentally changed what marriage actually was, or what its purpose was.
5) Luther cracked the nut when he declared that marriage was not a Sacrament, which meant it was not covenental in nature. It was a vow or promise, but between people. When we talk about “redefinition,” we are now talking about this relative to the Christian ideal.
6) The next post was a review of how divorce moved from a rare and generally unacceptable thing to a very prevalent and acceptable thing. The very idea that this is even possible stems from a belief that there is not a true, very real, singular unity of the spouses that cannot be broken. This took a long time to take hold as a belief, but once it did it spread very quickly.
The fundamental purpose of marriage is not to have a companion for life. The foundational purposes are to (a) unite with someone who can help you get to heaven, (b) have children, (c) raise children with the primary idea that you want them to get to heaven.
That, of course, is entirely simplistic, and it says nothing of all the things that go into actually having a “good” marriage. There’s all sorts of love and sacrifice and struggle that goes into all that, but those are not what marriage actually is. It’s what it should look like to the outside world. What it actually is is more real at the spiritual level, and invisible to us all. We don’t see a physical contraption binding husband and wife, nor do we see the Sacramental graces that come from God in the marriage arrangement.
OK, so that recap is nearly an entire post’s worth of words. Sorry.
But now I move on to an issue that generally is a hard sell to people who really really really don’t like the implications of re-thinking what it would mean to change how they view it. Wait for it… wait… almost there…
There. I said it.
It shouldn’t be anything new. After all, Pope Paul VI wrote Humanae Vitae at a time when boatloads of theologians and clergy alike all thought he was going to give the green light to the use of contraception. He pretty much pulled the rug out from underneath them.
I am not going to re-write that document or St. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body here. There’s a wealth of information for all who have the desire to be honest with themselves about really learning and understanding the Church’s teachings on the issue. All I’ll say here is the top line summary: Contraception is considered an intrinsic evil (yes, these words from the Catechism nearly instantaneously caused my own conversion on this issue after never receiving appropriate catechesis prior to marriage). Why? Boiling thousands of pages of detail into one sentence: The sexual act in marriage is about bringing life into the world through the act of love between man and woman that is our human and physical mirror image of the love between Jesus and His Father that gives us the Holy Spirit. (It’s kind of a run-on sentence, but once I typed “into one sentence” I was pigeonholed.) I admit, that comparison can seem quite odd, and even a bit disturbing if not viewed in its fullness of meaning, which is why I encourage much deeper study on it.
If this purpose of the marital act can be relaxed into one of pure pleasure without the life-giving nature of it, then it takes one of the foundational pillars of the purpose of marriage away and once again redefines it. Yes, I know that these relations can still be an act of love, and a joining of two people, and all the good things that can come from that. It’s not that every intimate embrace using contraception is entirely selfish. But it almost always has at least some element of selfishness to it, and in many cases it really is just all about the pleasure of the act without the potential rewards of it. (I always hear “ramifications” as if begetting a child is like the aftermath of pressing the nuclear button. I prefer “reward” when speaking about a new life coming into the world.) And even removing the purity of motive, there is still the plain, old, legalistic, can’t-get-around-the-fact, aspect of using contraception that takes away the procreative aspect of sex. Even if only intended to be a temporary measure for this reason or for that reason, you’ve removed the life-giving element of the act, which means you are no longer emulating the life-giving love between Jesus and the Father, which in turn means that act is no longer a human reflection of the Family that is the Trinity. The longer one uses contraception, the more reasons one uses it for, and the fewer kids you decide is “right for you” because of it, the further away from the procreative foundation of marriage we get.
All the Christian religions universally agreed on the importance of this aspect of marriage until the Lamberth Conference in 1930. The Church of England cracked open the door. The Federal Council of Churches followed in 1931. These initial allowances were conservative in nature – only when abstinence was deemed impractical for limited reasons. But by 1961, nearly all Protestant religions followed suit, and many relaxed the standards, and the National Council of Churches finally declared that the only requirement was mutual consent of the couple.
The slippery slope is always an amazing thing to see historically. And yet, every time someone proposes some relaxation of standards on just about any issue, they always seem to dismiss the future implications and the slippery slope argument.
From a social standpoint, the Federal ban on birth control in the US was lifted in 1938. In 1965, states were no longer allowed to make their own decision on the matter. The Supreme Court determined that contraceptive use is a Constitutional Right between married couples. In 1972 the Supreme Court extended the right to unmarried couples.
The current prevalence of contraception, and its presentation as a good thing for women and “reproductive rights” has led to a world where numerous “Christian” nations are not even replacing themselves. The sexual act is no longer reserved for marriage and comes (seemingly) without consequence. The sexual act, primarily, is self-serving even within marriage.
Combine divorce and contraception, and you get a non-permanent arrangement where sexual gratification is one of the primary purposes of your maybe-lifetime-maybe-not relationship. How many people call it quits when they are “no longer compatible sexually” or “that passion isn’t there anymore?” How many don’t bother to get married in the first place?
This all needed to happen to get us to where we are today. The Catholic Church stands alone, once again, in preserving the complete sanctity of what marriage is. Unfortunately, an alarmingly high percentage of Catholics have decided that they do not need to follow Church teachings on this particular matter. So, while the Church isn’t devaluing marriage in general, they are devaluing their own marriage, and likely passing that attitude on to their children and others. I can empathize. Many of those people simply do not know any better. I thank God for revealing the truth to my wife and I after a few years of marriage before we did anything stupid and permanent, and I thank God for the grace to accept the truth. It isn’t always easy. Doubtless we would not have 9 children right now had we continued along our previously merry, but darkened, path. We would have decided wrongly that 3 kids or so was the “right” number for us.
I digress a bit from the main point, but I don’t think we can understate what this has done to the mindset of marriage and relationship. This, more than anything, has entrenched the idea that marriage is really about sexual companionship that has been given an official stamp of approval from someone or some institution that makes everything you do from here on out OK.
There are a couple more things that have assisted in re-defining marriage, though they are not, strictly speaking, a foundational thing. By themselves, they wouldn’t be absolutely critical. Combined with these foundational things, they acted to move things along, or were contributory elements in accepting some of the more fundamental changes. I plan on posting about those as well. May as well upset everyone while I’m at it.