I’m more than a little disappointed. It was just a few months ago that Christians in general and Catholics in particular were up in arms about the “threat to marriage” posed by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage. And yet, now that a much more real threat to sacramental marriage has hit the front page, there’s mostly silence from those same folks. I’m talking about the data leak of users of a site called Ashley Madison, which is dedicated to helping married men and women find someone with whom to have an affair.
Just to be clear, the leak isn’t the threat. Nor is the public shaming of those found to be users of the site – although that element of the leak’s coverage seems to speak to our baser interests in seeing the humiliation of others. But, no, the threat to sacramental marriage is the mindset of the guy who launched the site, and like most threats, it actually brings a great opportunity to testify to the truth.
The Washington Post recently profiled the founder of Ashley Madison, Noel Biderman, and his views on marriage. Essentially, his belief is that lifelong monogamy is against our nature, it’s something that we are not wired for (especially men), that when sexual attraction abates, we have to choose between celibacy/unhappiness, divorce and infidelity, and that the latter is better for individuals, families and societies than is divorce. So, by facilitating the sort of adulterous arrangement that is often seen as an tacitly accepted practice in many cultures, Biderman’s site “saves” marriages.
This is a great moment for Catholics to correct the misperceptions about sacramental marriage and profess a relatively new, radical, and powerfully attractive element of our faith. But we don’t seem to be interested. As the slow fastball crosses the middle of the plate, our bat is on our collective shoulder.
I suspect the implicit assumption of many (including many Catholics) is that Biderman’s general premise is true, and that the Christian response (especially the Catholic one) is that we should settle for the unhappy, celibate faithfulness. And that would be wrong on at least three counts.
But before I get there, let me detour for a moment. There was an interesting long read about marriage and relationships this week that had nothing to do with Ashley Madison. In Huffington Post’s “Love in the Age of Big Data,” Eve Fairbanks digs deep into the work of John Gottman and his wife, Julie Schwartz Gottman, who have spent decades developing a method to create happy couples. If you’ve paid attention to theories of love and relationships you have probably heard about Gottman, who claims to be able to predict with remarkable accuracy whether a couple will get divorced based on listening to them talk together for only a brief time. The article is worth reading, and I don’t have any problems with Gottman’s findings as described. I mention this here, though, because of one passage that I found very revealing, not about Gottman or even the author but about us:
Simon May, a British philosopher who has studied the development of beliefs about love over two millennia of Western culture, suggests that we’ve placed vastly more importance on finding love since the retreat of Christianity and the rise of relativism. “Human love,” he writes in his magisterial Love: A History, “is widely tasked with achieving what once only divine love was thought capable of: to be our ultimate source of meaning and happiness, and of power over suffering and disappointment.” The grounding we used to find in devotion to ideals like nationalism or communism, or in our faith in an ever-caring Shepherd, we now seek from individual, fickle human beings.
After I read May’s theory that love “is now the West’s undeclared religion,” I began to see evidence of it everywhere. “When you get down to it … [love is] the only purpose grand enough for a human life,” writes Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees. At funerals, we praise the way the deceased person loved as the ultimate sign that his life had meaning. Justice Anthony Kennedy, in his Supreme Court opinion legalizing gay marriage nationally, identified marriage as the ultimate wellspring of all the other essential human joys, from “expression” to “spirituality,” while Sheryl Sandberg counsels young women that their choice of a mate is the most important decision of their lives. According to May, we no longer view love as “the rarest of exceptions,” as older cultures did, “but as a possibility open to practically all who have faith in it.”
What’s fascinating to me as a Catholic is that, just as our culture invests in romantic love the claim of holiness in a way that is idolatrous, that puts it in the role that only God can fill, a voice from the Church answers not in a defiant denial but in a “Yes and…” Romantic love is divine. Not as a god of its own, but as a unique representation of who God is and what God wants of us. And the radical (soft? liberal?) voice that delivered that message was Saint John Paul II.
This wasn’t an offhand remark at the end of an interview. This was the basis of a message that John Paul II delivered in more than 125 weekly audiences, a little at a time, pulled out of a manuscript titled “Man and Woman He Created Them: A Theology of the Body.” (N.B. You can buy it, but you’re so much better off picking up Christopher West’s Theology of the Body for Beginners, which is very readable.) Those who have studied the pope’s teachings more closely than I have believe that this point of doctrine has more power to reshape the future of the faith than anything since Vatican II, and just about everybody agrees that not only does the world at large not know about it, but the vast majority of faithful Catholics don’t even have a clue.
So what does the post-Theology of the Body Church have to say to Ashley Madison and its founder?
First, it shows a false understanding of who we are as humans. The prevailing mindset is that humanity is unable to transcend its fundamental animal nature. In contrast, the Church teaches that we have woven together natural and supernatural essence. We are built for more than just animalistic existence; we are built to house God within us, and through that spirituality we can avoid the trap Biderman believes is inevitable. (This, by the way, isn’t new with John Paul II.)
Second, it reduces marriage to an extended sexual contract. I say “reduces” intentionally, because John Paul II has much to say about the glory of sexuality within sacramental marriage (which I will get to in a minute). While some might claim the positive alternative to the Ashley Madison mindset is a “traditional marriage” that anchors society with a stabilizing core institution of family definition, this in reality is trading one too-small view for another. Marriage is not just about sex, nor is it just about stable family. It is about the power of love to transcend ourselves and become better versions of who we thought ourselves to be through willing self-sacrifice. This is the part that the philosopher May gets at least partly right. The most successful couples recognize that the most meaningful part of their life is loving their beloved by helping him or her become a better person and, in the process, becoming better themselves. I don’t know if Gottman goes that far. I recommend another author and therapist who does, though: Gregory Popcak. While I will cite another of his books below, his very best, and also, interestingly the only one not written from an overt faith perspective, is The Exceptional Seven Percent. Regardless of where you stand from a faith perspective, pick this book up. You will see his research and experience leads to a model where the very happiest couples strive to make their partner better while becoming better people themselves.
Finally, sacramental marriage reflects who God is in unique and transforming ways. In short, John Paul II says, the ecstasy and self-giving of married love prefigures faintly the way God loves us. And, yes, that includes the ecstasy of sex. (I know, you were waiting for me to come back to that.) If you don’t believe me, read the West book or John Paul II’s original teaching on the importance and meaning of great sex. Or better yet, pick up Popcak’s Holy Sex. You will probably be surprised.
In the wake of Ashley Madison, we should be making these points loudly and often. We were not made to live in inevitable gloom of monotony or the sickly spark of adultery. Marriage was made to transform us for the better, not just trap us into a long-term contract like a devious cell phone provider. Sex isn’t bad; it’s actually so good you won’t believe it. Those are messages that need to be heard, especially by those who think the only mistake of Ashley Madison users was getting caught.
And, I have to say, though the Church remains clear on the sacrament of marriage being reserved for one man and one woman (note JPII’s title), I would argue that same sex couples who aspire to this vision of marriage aren’t a threat; a culture that trains couples to settle for a marriage that is so much less is.