And what happens when we don't
by Mary Ellen Bork
It is good to take time to celebrate the twenty-five years that Women for Faith & Family has witnessed, often heroically, to the Church’s view of marriage and the irreplaceable role of women. WFF was created in response to radical feminism’s undermining of faith, family, and motherhood. It has evolved into an important source, both print and online, of intelligent reflection on Church teaching. This organization of and for Catholic women has consistently followed Saint Peter’s advice to keep our attention fixed on this teaching “as a light in a dark place”. Thank you for resources that provide intellectual and spiritual food, and renew our sense of hope in trying times.
The cultural battering of the institution of marriage continues unabated. Recent adultery scandals of well-known politicians Senators John Edwards, John Ensign, and Governor Mark Sanford contribute to the continuing weakening of the institution of marriage. Politicians committing adultery is nothing new in Washington. Centers of power always hold temptation for the morally weak. Henry Kissinger once said the greatest aphrodisiac is power.
What makes these cases especially sad is that all three men publicly professed their Christian faith and presented themselves as virtuous politicians. They chose to break the promises they made to their wives and their children for their own pleasure and ego. In the public expression of tearful sorrow and regret for their actions, one had the feeling they did not fully grasp the suffering caused by their recklessness.
Much of the press coverage was ambivalent about marital infidelity as a political liability in the long run. A Wall Street Journal article said “infidelity is no longer a career-killer for politicians. But weirdness, mendacity and ineptitude just might be.” Americans are becoming more tolerant of sexual misadventures by politicians if they handle themselves well at their press conferences and express appropriate sorrow and humility. Some adulterers have continued with their careers and improved their standing by simply moving on with their political work. The hidden personal suffering of breaking marriage vows is thought less important than getting on with business, whatever that may be.
But keeping promises, marital fidelity, is the glue that holds marriages together and is very important to holding society together. Catholic teaching has clearly affirmed marriage as an irreplaceable institution in society. Pope John Paul II in his 1994 Letter to Families, Gratissimam Sane, said “the family is a community of persons and the smallest social unit. As such it is an institution fundamental to the life of every society”. And “Marriage, which undergirds the institution of the family, is constituted by the covenant whereby ‘a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of their whole life’ and which ‘of its own very nature is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children.’ Only such a union can be recognized and ratified as a ‘marriage’ in society.” (Letter to Families, 17 - www.wf-f.org/LettertoFamilies.html)
Pope Benedict XVI speaks frequently of the central importance of the debate about marriage. In his World Day of Peace message of January 1, 2008, he said the state of the family is essential to peace in the world. “The natural family, as an intimate communion of life and love, based on marriage between a man and a woman, constitutes ‘the primary place for the ‘humanization’ of the person and society, and a ‘cradle of life and love.’ The family, therefore, is rightly defined as the first natural society, ‘a divine institution that stands at the foundation of life of the human person as a prototype of every social order.’” (Original emphasis on the Vatican web site. The web site of the Institute of Marriage and Public Policy lists 111 quotes from Pope Benedict on the subject of marriage: www.imapp.org).
The dominant moral culture in America and Europe no longer accepts these truths and is debating the re-definition of marriage in legislatures and courts. Marriage is often discussed in terms of individual rights, not moral and sacred commitments. Have we lost our ability to think morally?
In a real sense, the answer is yes, we have. The common understanding of morality has changed radically in the last hundred years. Kenneth Minogue, emeritus political scientist at the London School of Economics, writing in the June 2009 New Criterion, describes the change as moving from a morality that valued self-chosen commitment, the “romance of duty”, the stiff upper lip, to a morality of convenience in which we manage our commitments to enhance our pleasure and avoid pain.
The ideal in the past was that a couple made promises to each other for life and accepted all the implications of their choice. The romance they experienced actually flowed from their true disinterested gift of themselves to one another that transcended all the fluctuations of life. They saw freedom as sticking to their commitment through all the joys and sadness of life. The romance in the 1957 movie “An Affair to Remember” comes from the suffering, dreaming, searching, and waiting of the couple who found love on a transatlantic voyage and then lose each other for a while before they can make their promise.
During the last fifty years or so people have become more wary of commitment because it could be inconvenient. The culture of convenience follows the principle of maximizing happiness and minimizing pain. As Minogue says, “convenience here means getting what we want without delay or impediment”. (p. 38) Marriage is seen as a tentative project at best. If problems develop in a relationship (she is not my ‘soulmate’) the search for happiness can take one into an adulterous relationship or into divorce. The transcendent power of the promise adhered to at all costs has given way to a less restrictive promise that will give way to one’s need for happiness, sometimes understood as physical pleasure or freedom from anything that restricts me, such as my spouse’s illness and suffering.
The ideal of remaining faithful to one’s spouse is being undermined by the culture of convenience. Attention has shifted from the commitment that transcended the couple for the good of the family and society to a focus on fulfilling individual needs. Minogue says individual freedom used to be seen as self-reliance and self-restraint, part of America’s history and greatness. Freedom has collapsed into liberation. Revered moral conventions (the Ten Commandments, sexual restraint) are seen as restrictions on individual choice and liberty. Chastity was a way to control procreation and the sanctity of marriage but the advent of birth control and other trends made chastity seem pointless.
The search for personal liberation becomes a balancing of the duties of commitment with the pain, restriction, and inconvenience they cause the individual. When there is a conflict because of one’s commitment, the commitment is often thrown off for the sake of achieving personal liberation. The effect of this attitude on marriage is to weaken the ties of love and make it more difficult for a couple to achieve the great goods of marriage and family life. Children are often silent sufferers of adult choices.
Marital fidelity keeping promises is at the heart of spousal love and the joyful self-sacrifice that is the traditional understanding of married love. Catholic spiritual teaching sees married love as a participation in Christ’s own oblation for our redemption. The sacraments help us to grow in Christ and deal with our human weakness and tendency to sin by turning back to Him for forgiveness and growth in holiness. When marriage vows are broken something in the bond of marriage is broken, even when there is forgiveness for wayward behavior. One of the spouses has been treated as an object and the relationship has been ruptured. Deep personal suffering marks both the spouses and the children for life.
Looming on the cultural horizon now is another threat, the dispute over same-sex marriage. The lawsuit to overturn California’s Proposition 8, which stopped the courts from imposing homosexual marriage in the state, has accelerated the pace of legal action on this issue. Some groups hope that this or another case will go to the Supreme Court and they will hand down another Roe v. Wade type decision on same-sex marriage.
The Church vigorously opposes this attack on the traditional family. Pope Benedict told the American bishops during his papal visit in April 2008, “your task [is] to proclaim boldly the arguments from faith and reason in favor of the institution of marriage, understood as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman, open to the transmission of life. This message should resonate with people today, because it is essentially an unconditional and unreserved ‘yes’ to a life, a ‘yes’ to love, and a ‘yes’ to the aspirations at the heart of our common humanity, as we strive to fulfill our deep yearning for intimacy with others and with the Lord”. (www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/speeches/ 2008/april/documents/hf_ben-xvi_spe_20080416_bishops-usa_en.html)
Pope John Paul II said in his Letter to Families that to subordinate or change the role of the family “excluding it from its rightful position in society, would be to inflict grave harm on the authentic growth of society as a whole”. (§17)
We are closer to this happening than we want to think. We can uncover the attitudes of the culture of convenience behind the false reasoning and arguments promoting same-sex marriage. Using the language of rights instead of morality, homosexuals are presented as a victim group whose happiness is unjustly restrained by the religious traditions and laws that uphold marriage as only between a man and a woman.
While a few states allow same-sex marriage, the Obama administration’s Department of Justice at first defended the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) passed by Congress but in less-than-enthusiastic terms. In a June 2009 filing it said in part, that the marriage law “reflects a cautiously limited response to society’s still-evolving understanding of the institution of marriage”. (Wall Street Journal, Aug. 18, 2009, p. A6)
The “still-evolving understanding” of marriage might as well read: “we will re-imagine marriage to liberate gays (or any other group with a grievance) from any religious or cultural stigma.” The administration showed its true position in a filing on August 17, 2009 saying, “this administration does not support DOMA as a matter of policy, believes that it is discriminatory, and supports its repeal”. The New York Times also reported that the lawsuit against Proposition 8 “comes as societal views on same-sex marriage are rapidly evolving”.
What is rapidly evolving is the “culture of convenience” as it reshapes the institutions of civilized society for the sake of accommodating the demands of personal liberation.
Marriage is the foundation of society; it is the fundamental institution of society, as we know from history. Christianity has raised marriage to a sacrament and source of holiness. The attempt to replace the traditional moral understanding of marriage with a purely legal definition and impose it through the courts is a complete break with the past. Some see it as a new frontier of freedom. Others, especially the Catholic Church, see this as a harmful step of society moving away from the truth about the human person, marriage, and the family. Pope John Paul II lamented at the end of his Letter to Families, “How far removed are some modern ideas from the profound understanding of masculinity and femininity found in divine revelation! Revelation leads us to discover in human sexuality a treasure proper to the person, who finds true fulfillment in the family but who can likewise express his profound calling in virginity and celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of God.” (§19)
The stakes are high in this cultural moment and keeping our promises may be our only source of happiness as we live through it.
Mary Ellen Bork is married to Judge Robert Bork and lives in McLean, Virginia. She is a member of the Voices editorial board and is a board member of the John Carroll Society and Women Affirming Life.
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