Tag Archives: marriage

On Marriage

I posted this on Facebook, but then the whole Laurel v Yanny thing blew up, so nobody had time for this. I get it. Since then I’ve added a little (to make it, you know, even longer).

Some of you know I play a small role in the marriage preparation process at our church. I have been doing this long enough that I’ve seen a few trends; for instance, lots more couples who met online (and tend to do well on the assessment I go over).

One thing I’ve noticed lately is that younger Millennials are quick to offer suggestions to the Church about how to make the process more relevant to them. Recently, a couple suggested the Church would do a better job of attracting couples if we downplayed the whole “Christ-centric” thing.

Anyhoo, they liked the way I explained how Catholics understand marriage better than they liked the official messaging. Earlier in our conversation, I shared an abbreviated version of the line of reasoning that I posted when a favorite FB personality asked if he and his girlfriend should get married. (Incidentally, let’s agree: if you are asking your million+ FB followers whether to get married, the answer should be a hard no.) Here’s what I said there, for what it’s worth:

“Here’s another way to think about marriage: Committing to another person is an acknowledgement that you need their help to become your best self, and in return helping them become their best self is a purpose you want to take on. But just as you need each other to be your best selves, you need the support of your community of friends and family to keep you going in that commitment when things get hard (and you want your friends and family to celebrate with you when it’s not so hard). That’s what marriage is – inviting your community to join you in support of your commitment to each other. (Upon which, for some believers, you layer on the support of the divine Lover.)

***

Now, to the Church couple, I added that this is what we mean when we say our vocation is to help our spouse grow in holiness or get to heaven. (And, later, I told them the whole “Christ-centric” thing was really just truth in advertising, at least for couples seeking to get married in the Church.)

Later in our conversation, the couple asked about the Christ-centered thing: How does that play out? So I said, look, April and I don’t have it all figured out or anything, but we pray together every day, morning, evening, night. (I didn’t think to also say): And we pray for each other throughout the day. And we support each other in growing in our faith as individuals, and we center some of our time together to catching up about what that growth has looked like, so it can inspire and inform the other one, and so we can support each other in the way God is working in us individually. And (this part did come up at another point of the conversation) we set aside time for just-us to do deep dive catching up and exploring how God is working in our marriage and where he is calling us to change together.

Anyway, I am sharing because I’m surprised this isn’t common knowledge about marriage. Except when I reflect on the fact I didn’t really understand it 25+ years ago.

I had a realization after talking to another couple. The couples that are making it to the point of marriage want to know some of this stuff. They want to be prepared for marriage. They *know* that they prep for careers for years and do continuing ed, even though a crappy job is exponentially less miserable than a crappy marriage, and a phenomenal job pales in comparison to a phenomenal marriage, yet we offer little training and no CEUs for the latter. I wish I had the bandwidth to offer the little bit we’ve figured out so far. If I did, it would be to point to the thing that I almost never tell the couples I meet with, which is the point I made above about the real vocation of marriage.

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A Personal Note

We’ve been listening to this soundtrack in our house a lot. My daughter and I are both pretty fixated on this show (I mean, in case this blog didn’t already give you that impression), and my wife likes it a lot, too, so it plays throughout the house as background in the evenings even as we’re in our own zones.

The other night, when “Tightrope” came on, I ducked into the room where my daughter was at the time and said, “This song always reminds me of your mom and me.”

“Why? You never did anything crazy, like buy an old building with wax figures of Marie Antoinette and giraffes,” she said.

+++

April and I dated all the way through college, and for the first 11 years of our relationship, she saw me for who I was. Every semester, I started dreaming about what I was going to take the following semester. I changed majors enough that it was easier, going through the course catalog, to point to the (non-STEM) majors I hadn’t considered than to list all the ones I had. When graduation approached, I juggled ideas for graduate school ranging from religion to public administration to political science to law to business to what-else-is-out-there. I wanted to do all the things.

I got a professional degree for a vocation (ministry) that I knew I did not want to pursue. While there, I talked my way into interning with the (then-World Series) Atlanta Braves’ chaplain, even though he had never had an intern. When I left school, it was to go into sports, where my career path was:

  • unpaid intern for Minor League Baseball’s AA Southern League
  • intern for NCAA Division III (non-scholarship) athletic program
  • director of media relations for a startup women’s professional basketball league
  • sports information director for NCAA Division II all-women’s athletic program
  • (accidentally become head of public relations for that same school)
  • sleep on my sister’s floor, two flights away, while telemarketing for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays
  • dream of being the general manager of a Minor League Baseball Class A Florida State League team and run it like a circus

+++

When our daughter started to develop a personality, one of the things that popped up quickly was that she was a dreamer. April would look at me in those times when she set outlandish, slightly off-kilter goals (like founding “Dog Cirque du Soleil”) and say, “She is definitely your kid.” But, more seriously, April would say how glad she was that our daughter inherited my head in the stars rather than her feet so firmly planted on the ground.

While April would be the first to say that she is not a dreamer, she would also confirm that she knew who she was marrying and signed on whole-heartedly for the adventure. Even though my career path got a little more conventional, life with me still brings its twists and turns and off-kilter dreams, and she has continued to gladly dance on the tightrope with me.

Writing straight with our crooked lines: #Synod15, family, and the hot issues.

For the next three or so weeks, the focus of the Church is off of Pope Francis and on the bishops gathered for the ordinary synod on the family. If this sounds like deja vù, it’s because last year bishops gathered for an extraordinary synod on the same topic (ordinary synods happen every three years; extraordinary ones are ones that don’t fit that schedule and are fairly rare in the 50 years of synodal history). Plus there was a World Meeting of Families in Philly last week. This synod should end with a document, and possibly from that document Francis will write an apostolic exhortation like the one that sort of launched this blog.

Lots of expectations about what could happen in this process. A path forward for divorced couples to fully rejoin the church? Softening on same sex marriage? Married priests?

First, let me suggest one of the most likely, and most potentially fruitful outcomes: a new commitment to more comprehensive marriage preparation that extends across the lifespan from youth through traditional marriage prep to ongoing continuing marital education, if you will. The Church has an exceptional story to tell about the sacrament of marriage that most members, much less non-members, don’t know about; Saint John Paul II made it, and the Theology of the Body in which it sits, the cornerstone of his theology. To fully inculcate that appreciation of what marriage can optimally, gracefully be, would require a significant rethinking of what catechesis is and how it’s delivered, and if the outcome were for even 1/2 of Catholic marriages to fully embrace the prefiguring of divine love that marriage can be, it could transform the church and the world.

This would be the easy part.

The tough questions are really two-fold: What does the Church do for those whose marriages have broken apart seemingly irrevocably? What does the Church do with exemplary marriages that don’t fit the template? (I think there is an argument for married priests, but I just don’t see it coming up in a significant way in this synod.)

On the first question: Pope Francis seems pretty clear on this front: the Church should do everything it can to embrace and welcome the broken, because they are merely more visible reminders of the brokenness we all face in our own way. The catch is, how do we balance hope – the hope that through God’s grace no relationship is truly irretrievable, no marriage completely over – and mercy – and with it the recognition that sending someone back into an unrepentantly toxic relationship is dangerous and unloving. That’s a pastoral challenge I hope the synod chews on a lot. The Catholic understanding of marriage is lofty enough that a “cheap grace” that gives up too early defrauds the recipients from a great gift – the strength that comes with fighting through hardship. But so many people, mostly women, have been damaged unspeakably by an ethic that is unrelenting in its call to keep returning to a bad relationship that the Church has to be sensitive to the need to protect its more vulnerable members.

If the first question is pastoral, the second is theological and historical.  It was just the Sunday before last when Numbers and Mark both told of examples of God working through those who weren’t considered to be acceptable by the favored. In both cases, and in Acts’ history of the inclusion of Gentiles, God clearly sided with the unexpected against convention.

If there are remarried couples who are truly modeling the beautiful mutual self-giving of divine love prefigured in marriage, should we in the Church be turning them away from full communion? 

And what about this? I know same-sex couples who have been better examples of commitment, self-sacrifice and love for longer than I have been. While they, like many opposite-sex couples, have been unable to procreation biologically, they have created life in their service to the greater good and have nurtured life through adoption, fostering, and friendship. They do not fit the mold. They will never conform to the template of sacramental marriage the Church holds today. Just as the Gentiles who received the Holy Spirit did not conform to the template of Jesus’ first followers. Our call as the Church, as was that of the early disciples, is to look not for poll numbers or market share but for evidence of the working of God’s love, discern its authenticity, and honor it at the risk of sacrificing our own assumptions.

Why Ashley Madison is a bigger threat to sacramental marriage than gay couples are

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.

Well.

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. 

So.

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’sLove 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.

We’re having the wrong discussion about marriage as a sacrament

I posted this before the Supreme Court’s decision. It’s still what I think.

Why?

Why do we fall into this trap time and again?

Our message about marriage as a Church should be about how it uniquely prefigures what God is like. If you want to fully experience what God’s love feels like, wholly give yourself to someone who wholly gives themselves back to you and commit together to make each other holier by perfecting each other in love. Heaven, we should be saying, isn’t bright lights and soft harp music. It’s being eternally in the throes of ecstasy that can only be faintly approximated by a couple that is fully and completely in love with each other, not only in the initial crush phase of a romantic relationship, but in the daily pinch-yourself of being married to your best friend, best advocate, and ultimate lover. We don’t know what God is like, but that’s as close as we can come.

That’s why marriage is a sacrament. That’s why John Paul II spent a long stretch of his pontificate lecturing every week about the transformative nature of married love.

Instead, we get sucked into the culture wars. When we should be paying witness to the centrality of love in the gospel that acknowledges a God who loves you so much that nothing you can do can alter His love for you for better or worse, we instead get caught up in drawing distinctions about which types of broken, imperfect, human relationships God smiles or frowns on. And the point of sacramental marriage gets buried.

If you want my opinion, we should be doing much, much more to sing the praises of truly sacramental marriage. Which, I think, like sainthood, can probably only be fully discerned after the fact, though sometimes when you are in its presence, you have a gut level awareness.

If you want my opinion, we should do a lot more to prepare young people for marriage in a way that sparks them to strive for loving greatness instead of settling for good enough.

And if you want my opinion, we should underscore for everyone who has already messed up, in the eyes of the world, that this kind of holy relationship – with God, with another – is absolutely still available. And we should trumpet the stories of those who have fallen down but gotten back up, those who failed in the past but are reflecting that all-in love anew, with the same partner or in a new relationship. And we should acknowledge that, though societal and religious rules prescribe optimal conditions, God is a God of surprises, and the history of our faith shows a God who picks the unlikely, a God who breaks the rules we put on him. Shame on us if we allow someone to think that, if the world or even the Church thinks less of their love, they are broken, less than, disordered. Because leaving people thinking that God turns His back on the broken is 180 degrees from the reality that the faithful know in their hearts.

In today’s Gospel, the religious authorities ask Jesus to render a judgment about a situation that is, to say the least, less than perfect. And he doesn’t fall for it; he sticks to his message. Focus on loving God and loving your neighbor. 

And we should do the same. The next time someone asks a Church leader to weigh in on whether gay marriage should be legal, I pray that he speak instead to the truth that marriage can be so much more than what we are fighting over – a civil arrangement for joint economic, legal, and social benefit. It can transform your life and bring you into God’s presence on a daily basis. Don’t settle for legal marriage. Strive to be sacred.

Let’s work as a church to inspire every marriage to reach for that goal rather than fighting over which ones are legal and which ones aren’t and leave the civil wrangling to someone else.

“I’m sticking with Jesus”

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Is anyone else finding it relevant that as the Church leadership discusses rules on divorce and remarriage, contraception, homosexuality and other family issues, the daily readings from Galatians, in which Paul rails against the congregation for falling for false prophets who undercut the power of the gospel of grace by insisting that followers have to obey the law in full? No? Just me?

Last week, talking about the synod, Cardinal Pell of Australia told the press that on divorce, “I’m sticking with Jesus.”

Well. It’s true that in Mark 10:11-12, Jesus says “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.”

But in Matthew 19:9, Jesus throws in a caveat: in cases of unchastity, it appears, remarriage isn’t adultery.

And in John 8, Jesus is asked what to do with a woman caught in adultery. His response, as you know, is to challenge he who is without sin to cast the first stone. And when nobody dares, He tells her to “go and from now on do not sin any more.” No big penitential rite. No paperwork. Just go, do better.

But I think rather than argue over which of those versions “counts,” Pope Francis would rather focus on a couple other stories: in John 4, Jesus talks to a Samaritan woman (the conversation itself breaking cultural norms), asking for water from her and telling her “If you knew the gift of God and who is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.” And only after she begs him for this living water does he raise the issue of her five husbands. And then, he does so with the effect, not that she goes and gets four annulments, but that she recognizes him as a prophet, runs into town, and tells everyone she sees to come see this prophet, with a result that many Samaritans in the town become believers.

Maybe the question we should be asking about Church teaching is, does it have this kind of result? Or does it get in the way of spreading the gospel?

All About Expectations

I kinda thought my next post wouldn’t be until Pope Francis published his encyclical on the environment, but I realized that there’s been a lot of attention about this week’s extraordinary synod of bishops on the topic of the family, and my non-Catholic, was-Catholic, and Catholic-but-busy friends were aware and not necessarily sure about it. So let me throw a few things out there.

First of all, I’m hugely grateful that the Church leaders are looking at Catholic family life as in crisis and need of rethinking. I play a small role in our parish’s marriage prep process, and that fact alone should be enough to tell you that we need to do better. I have talked a couple into delaying if not calling off their wedding, but I have also seen couples who seemed very much on the right track have their marriages quickly fall apart. It is horribly painful for them, and I feel like I and the Church have failed them.

Second, let me say that I have not been watching live streams of the goings on, only monitoring some news coverage, so I am by no means an expert on the process or the likely outcome of this meeting. But I can share a few things and my best hope for the process.

In the run-up to this meeting, the interviews with participants have all included a statement about how, yes, it’s great that the media is interested in this BUT we need to set expectations. This will not be a groundbreaking meeting, nor will it be a duke-it-out debate. And they are right. But the “lower expectations” message has at least three levels, and you need to understand them all.

First of all, there’s the level of process. This extraordinary synod is called that because it’s not a regularly scheduled meeting, not because it’s going to do earth-shaking stuff. It decidedly is not, from a process perspective, because the goal of this meeting is to set the agenda for the ORDINARY synod that is already scheduled next year. If you work for a big enough organization, the “meeting to plan what we will talk about at the meeting” phenomenon is painfully normal. That’s what this is.

The second “low expectations” message is about doctrine. The participants have said that this is about pastoral issues, not doctrinal ones. What that means is, among other things, the Pope and cardinals are not going to wrap up this process by saying “Remember all that stuff about contraception/gay marriage/polygamy? Never mind. We’re changing those rules.” So if your threshold on “worth reconsidering the Catholic Church” is for the Church to say the sacrament of Catholic marriage is open to same-sex couples, I don’t see the synod clearing that bar or even attempting it.

Now, the third “low expectations” message, I think, is more questionable. Some of the more traditional bishops have made noises that, whatever the synod is about, it’s primarily about being more effective at educating those in the pews on what Catholic teaching is on family issues. Essentially, at it’s most humble, this line of argument says that Church leaders just need to get better at communicating the truth. (At its least humble, it says that we parishioners need to get better at hearing and obeying the truth.)

My expectation is that this line won’t win. Already in this synod, it seems pretty clear that the participants are invested in focusing on how to effectively share the love of God and minister to people in all life settings, and there seems to be a recognition that just as we are all children of God, there are elements of God’s grace and love in relationships that don’t quite align with the Catholic ideal of sacramental marriage. Even the first day included some detailed and pointed discussion about how Church leaders need to adopt more thoughtful language – labeling believers as “living in sin” or “fundamentally disordered” puts up some pretty significant barriers to evangelizing. That may sound simple, but it’s still progress.

Here’s where I realistically (I think) hope this ends up: at the end of the ordinary synod, the Church reaffirms that the full sacramentality of marriage is intact as the ideal for family life and we need to do more to help Catholics understand all that that entails and offers (which is WAY more than simply one man, one woman, saving yourself for marriage, being open to children by not using artificial contraception, and not divorcing; if you’re not familiar with the Theology of the Body, read up on it). At the same time, there is a statement that we are all on a path to holiness, and we as Church need to support each other in that journey not only by holding up the ideal but loving each other in the imperfect and real as a way to encourage progress and spiritual growth. That means putting love before judgement in all the areas where the Catholic Church currently is perceived to have it the other way around, even while encouraging fellow believers to make the next right choice.

Pope Francis’ most famous statement of his early pontificate was about gay clergy: “Who am I to judge them if they are seeking The Lord in good faith?” My cautious expectations are for more in that vein such as:

-Recognizing that God’s love can manifest itself, if imperfectly, in same-sex and non-marital relationships. While these aren’t marriage in the sacramental sense, they are still of value as opportunities to grow in love.

-Acknowledging that, even if the choice of artificial contraception is against Church teaching, couples who are deliberate and prayerful in approaching that choice may grow in their appreciation of the holiness of marriage through the process.

-(This might be the toughest) Affirming that only God truly knows the state of a person’s soul, and that, just as the sacrament of Eucharist was instituted with a group of apostles who were themselves sinners, and as it is a sign of God’s grace in sanctifying us as imperfect creatures, all who believe in the real presence of Christ in the bread and wine and who confess the Catholic faith should be welcome to receive it. Even those who have divorced and remarried.

Ok, maybe my expectations are too high, too.