Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Defining Marriage

     There is a matter before the Supreme Court of the land: whether or not it is permitted by the U.S. Constitution to restrict the legal state of "marriage" to the once common understanding of "between one man and one woman."
     I have certain ideas that may be of interest.
     First of all, regarding the Church: I believe that the Church has failed in catechizing the faithful, including the married faithful, on the nature of marriage. The result is that a vast number of professed Christians, failing to understand the mystical nature of Christian Marriage - or having never been taught it -  have embraced concepts of marriage that may be cultural or conventional, but not really consistent with what sacramental marriage is. As a pastor I have been approached on numerous occasions by persons I did not know, belonging to a variety of religious traditions, asking if our church was available on such-and-such a date - for a wedding. I realize that in many denominations, a pastor may perform a wedding for anyone at all but it is not so for Orthodox Catholics. For us, at least one of the partners must be a practicing Catholic. This is because marriage is a sacrament and, as a priest, I may not dispense the sacraments to those who are not members of the Church. I cannot marry a Methodist to a Lutheran. I may not marry an atheist to a Baha'i.
     Such a request - for a date in our church's building - most likely was based on an aesthetic idea, namely, the hope for a beautiful back-drop for something having nothing -really- to do with the Church. Or perhaps the request came from a spiritual kind of idea that it would be nice to embellish the wedding with some religious symbol.
     I recall the first time I saw a "unity candle," which is not a part of Catholic wedding ceremonial. It was at a Roman Catholic wedding at the campus church of Fordham University circa 1970. At that time the unity candle was a cute novelty - an engaging visual aid to the concept of "two becoming one." At some point within the past few decades this novelty has become commonplace to the extent that most Catholic goods stores have a wide array of unity candles for the happy couple's upcoming nuptials even though it is not a part of the ritual and, in some parishes or dioceses, is strictly forbidden! So, some hip idea of a neat thing to do has "crept in," so to speak.
     A few years ago when New York State voters approved their state's recognition of same-sex marriages I was astounded at how many young people I know who posted ecstatic approvals on social network sites. What astonished me the most were that many of these approvals, blandishments, and celebratory expressions were posted by persons I knew who were themselves cohabiting with members of the opposite sex, or to use the language of a prior age, "shacked-up." My question posed to them was: "If the benefits of a committed, legalized, exclusive relationship status is so praiseworthy, why are you persisting in your shacked-up status?"
     I suppose, for the cohabiting crowd the whole affair was seen as an issue of justice or of equality. Nevertheless, I am still confused as to why persons in pairings without legal status appreciate the benefits of a legal status for others, regardless of the configuration.
     During my entire high school career (1964-8) I knew of one solitary case of a student who had become pregnant out of wedlock. There were 3,000 students in my school. (I am sure there were others who fell under the then-common rubric of silence, secret, and shame). The student I knew was popular and well-liked and no one shunned her. But she did drop out of school and remained secluded in her parents' home to take care of the birthing and care of the child. In our time a large percentage of infants are born to unwed parents and there is virtually no adverse reaction. Thus, for society at large, the conception and bearing of offspring has been effectively cut off from marriage. And no wonder, for since the widespread rebellion against the Church's ban on artificial contraception - and the failure of the Church leadership to effectively teach it - the conception and bearing of children within marriage often has nothing to do with the nuptial bed.
     There once was a kind of marriage called a "shot-gun wedding." This covered the scenario of a young man being encouraged to marry a girl he had impregnated, by the girl's father and/or other relatives, or perhaps even by his own parents. Needless to say this is not the best basis for a life-time commitment. Yet the message was clear: the child deserved to have both parents in a family situation, hastily contrived though it was. Some of it certainly was shame-based: "You have defiled my daughter and brought shame upon her and us. The only remedy is for you to fix it by marrying her."
     There also was once a kind of marriage called a "common law marriage." This meant that - depending on one's civil jurisdiction - after a man and a woman had lived together as husband and wife without benefit of the marriage license and the public ceremony, within a certain number of years they were considered "legally" married, with at least some spousal rights.
     I have remarked many times that I believe that most couples walking down the aisle on their wedding day have no idea what marriage is - much less Christian Marriage.
Yet we all know what a "wedding" is, due to cultural and even consumerism-based ideas promoted by t.v., magazines, celebrity weddings, etc. It is a pageant and it is all about the bride. Her special day. The gown. The photographer. The wedding-rehearsal dinner and the requisite gifts to the members of the wedding party. The lavish wedding reception. The extravagant white gown. The unity candle. Daddy walking his daughter down the aisle and the "giving away" of the bride. It has even come to the bizarre custom of engaged couples advising their gift-giving guests as to which stores they are "registered at" - I assume this is to safeguard that the gifts of china, silverware, salt cellars and table linens can all "match." NONE of this has anything to do with marriage, of course.
     I vividly recall one pre-nuptial catechesis in which I was giving the deep, mystical, sacramental significance of the Rite of Crowning (i.e., the Byzantine Catholic wedding ritual). The couple appeared to be utterly consumed by the depth of the theology I was expounding. They were paying attention and seemed to be sincerely avid. Like any teacher, I was thrilled to behold what I believed to be the "light" in the eyes of students who were grasping the meaning of my teaching. Then, at one point I asked if they had any questions. The bride-to-be asked "Can we have bows on the ends of the pews?" I mentally threw up my hands because, rightly or wrongly it made me think that the beautiful depth of the ritual, signifying the sacramental union of the couple with Christ, the beginning of a new household of faith, the centrality of Christ and His Gospel, the sense of "ordination" as priest and priestess of a new family of God, the shared cup of joys and sorrows, all came down to "bows on the ends of the pews." A pageant. Her special Day.
     In another but similar circumstance I had a "fallen-away Catholic" (whom I knew) and his non-Catholic fiance swear with their hands on the Gospels that they would commit to becoming active members of the parish community, and promise to raise any children within the Church. They faithfully worshiped with us most Sundays up to the time of their wedding. After that I never saw them - until they wanted their first child Baptized. After repeated oaths, apologies, explanations and acts of contrition, they agreed earnestly. They then participated in the catechesis preparatory to Baptism. And, after the Baptism I never saw them again.
     There is a likelihood that my own pastoral skills and instructions, the catechesis and preparations were flawed and insufficient. But they were, at best, steps of ordeal to be endured by the candidates until the desired end was achieved: namely the ritual. And then even the ritual was simply the prelude for a celebration afterwards in a restaurant.
     In another instance I gently approached a young man who was living with his pregnant "girlfriend." He had been raised somewhat in a Christian context. I gently and lovingly urged him to consider getting married. His response: "I would, but my girlfriend wants a really big wedding and we can't afford it." I told him "There's no such thing as a big wedding! One bride. One groom. Two witnesses. A priest. That's a wedding!" (So: since there can't be a major pageant and a memorable banquet and party, there are now TWO children born to two adults who are not, at least formally, committed to a serious family life together.)
     So, it occurs to me that in our modern, secularized society, even among Christians, the notion of marriage itself is hardly at all sacramental. It has become a way of celebrating an idea, perhaps even of romantic love. And when that idea peters out or is replaced by a "better idea," or when the romance is over, what's the point of remaining in the marriage?
     In our time there are myriad notions of what constitutes a couple, a family, a commitment, a meaningful life together. Society itself has broadened to include all of these: cohabitation, open marriage, no-fault divorce, contraception, conception and birthing out of wedlock, and so on.
I fear that the Christian concept of a sacramental marriage is one that is rarely held - even by Christians. The Supreme Court and the European Union can consider what constitutes a "right." And every society develops its own conventions. But the Church and Her leadership, Her pastors, Her faithful, need to be clear and unrelenting in feeding the flock with the Christian meaning of marriage regardless of what governments and societies come up with to please their constituencies.
     Finally: for centuries in many places it was the Church who taught, exemplified, and lived the Mystical Life and society at large accepted it as the basis of its understanding. And the society supported it. This is no longer the case in the West. Society really doesn't care.
     Personally I regret this state of affairs. But, again, I see it in the context of a generation or two of very poor catechesis and the loss of support in the society at large. Regardless of what civil authorities come up with, the faithful Christian can commit himself or herself to living the life of grace we have received in the waters of Baptism, sealed with the chrism of the Holy Spirit, nourished at the Table of the Lord by His Body and Blood, renewed it in Confession, and exemplifying it ever deeply in our own lives, families, and vocations. Our modern American Society is not at all looking to the Church for guidance, much less parameters. And I fear that the Church has either been "defeated" in this regard, or has wimped out. Whether its a unity candle during Mass, or the white gown on a mother of four, or a reading from a Shakespeare sonnet, or the crucial matter of bows on the end of pews, or a ceremony on the beach performed by a Unitarian clergyman, everyone can pretty much make up his own mind, and the crowd with accept it.
     But for Christians, CHRIST is the True LIGHT Who enlightens every man who comes into the world. He has come into the darkness and the darkness does not grasp him. He has come to His own, and His own have not received Him. But to those who have received Him, He has given them the power to become children of GOD. (paraphrasing John 1)


  1. The clarity of understanding Christ has given you regarding the sacrament of marriage is refreshing. Thank you for sharing. May God strengthen you as you endeavor to fulfill your sacred mandate of living sacrifice until the peace of Christ frees you from this mortal coil into a life of liberty and worship eternal.

  2. Great perspective but you skirted the whole issue of same sex marriage.

  3. Great perspective but you skirted the whole issue of same sex marriage.