Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
"Believing in Marriage"
by Bishop Blase J. Cupich
(From the September 20, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
Last month I offered some reflections on the meaning and place of marriage in society based on the light of reason. My sole aim was to help those I serve in the Catholic community to begin a conversation with friends and family of all faiths and none, as the citizens of the State of Washington will decide the fate of the law passed by our legislature and signed by the governor.
As a short recap of my earlier reflections, I note the following:
1) Proponents of the redefinition of marriage argue that a change is needed to insure equal rights for same sex couples. Yet, this law does not give same sex couples any new legal rights which they do not already have access to through the state’s registered domestic partnership provision. All the law does is give these unions the title “marriage.”
I now want to build on these reflections by approaching marriage with the light of faith, which we have come to know and understand through God’s Word and our Tradition. However, I will first comment on the nature of faith, and what it means for us to accept what God has revealed.
Admittedly, believing beyond what we can come to know by our own human abilities is a challenge for people living in our time, particularly in view of the impressive advances in science and technology. We have so much information at our finger tips. We have the means to test and retest assumptions and to measure with increasing exactness and precision what is real.
Five decades ago, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council spoke of the difficulty of believing in our time, remarking that “today it is not rare for the abandonment of faith to be presented as requirements of scientific progress or of a certain new humanism.”
Yet, our experience as disciples has taught us that our humanity is not diminished by believing revealed truths. Our own experience teaches us that these truths build on and enhance what we have come to know by human knowledge and reason. In fact, these truths enrich our lives.
Is that not what we claim each time we profess the Creed at Mass? It is a Creed that inspires us, for while we know we are dust, we declare that we are made in God’s image and called to work with Christ in saving the world. It is a Creed that humbles us as we hear that we and all reality are created by God’s plan, not ours. And when we embrace that humility in a simpler lifestyle our lives are much richer. It is a Creed that challenges us to let go of our natural inclinations to trust only in ourselves, and instead to surrender to these revealed truths, aware that what we hold has held the disciples of Christ together over the ages, making them a Light to the Nations.
That letting go and opening ourselves to mystery, to what is beyond our natural abilities seems to be what Pope Benedict XVI meant in announcing the Year of Faith, scheduled to begin this fall to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council. He reminds us that faith is the grace “that allows the eyes to see below the surface and to understand that what has been proclaimed is the word of God.” Faith is a gift that opens our hearts to listen to the Lord’s word and respond to His invitation to live as His disciples.
Praying for that grace and gift will serve us well as we take up this debate as faithful citizens for the common good.
The vocation of marriage is written in the very nature of man and woman as they came from the hand of the Creator. Marriage is not a purely human institution despite the many variations it may have undergone through the centuries in different cultures, social structures and spiritual attitudes. Catechism of the Catholic Church, ¶1603
It is striking that the Bible begins and ends with a reference to marriage – the union of man and woman in Genesis and “the wedding feast of the Lamb” in the Book of Revelation. How appropriate, for the Bible is nothing less than God’s call for us to enter into a relationship with Him, to become His partners and co-creators in bringing about the salvation of the world. The union of man and woman, then, is not only a good for the couple but for the entire community of the Church and of humanity, for marriage serves as a model and a point of reference for all that God calls humanity to be.
When a man and a woman marry, we claim that it is a celebration of the whole Church. Married couples on their wedding day make an act of faith as they freely choose to give their lives to each other “for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and health, until death.” Their act of faith benefits us all. Whenever a couple is willing to promise themselves totally to each other, faithfully sharing their unique and complementary gifts as man and woman, all of us are again called to be faithful in our relationship with God, “who loves us beyond all telling.”
This is precisely why we call marriage a sacrament: it reveals God’s plan for us and makes present the saving work of Christ in our midst, a saving work that makes us one with God. From the earliest days of the Church the disciples of Jesus have treasured the witness of husband and wife, for it keeps fresh in the life of the Church the invitation that God has held out to humanity since the dawn of creation, to love Him as He loves us, to be one as the Father and the Son are one in the Spirit. Thus, when St. Paul uses the image of the bride and the bridegroom in describing the relationship between Christ and His Church, he is telling us something about the Church, to be sure, but he is also telling us something about the importance of marriage in the community of believers as a special revelation, a sacrament of our relationship with God. We refer to a married couple and the family they create as a domestic church precisely because it is a “relationship” temple in our midst.
In a word, then, the act of faith in God and each other, which a man and a woman make on their wedding day, makes visible and present in the Christian community what God has been saying to us from the beginning of time. This is why it is a sacrament.
It has been said that “intimacy is true when fruitfulness is intended.” We all know that from our friendships. Friendships become dry and unsatisfying when friends “use” each other for their selfish aims. This is also the case when it comes to our prayer, which is a celebration of friendship. The goal of prayer is not to gain helpful insights or to “feel good.” True prayer liberates us to create something new as we extend our relationship with God to others.
The same is true for marriage. We believe that marriage has two interrelated aims, which together make it true: the faithful, intimate and loving union of the couple and the generation of children. Both these aims – unity and fruitfulness – are mutually nourishing for the couple, a fact which all the more helps us understand what it means for marriage to be a sacrament. Nothing more fully reveals the nature of our relationship with God than a faithful, lasting and fruitful union of two people of the opposite sex, for it too is a relationship in which God, who is Other, faithful and eternal, brings about new life in us.
It is true that not all couples are able to have children. Yet, they do bring to society their witness of sharing gifts, which are different and which complement each other, in a meaningful conjugal life that “can radiate a fruitfulness of charity, of hospitality and of sacrifice.” (CCC 1654) Or, as St. Paul would say, they as bride and bridegroom, distinct and opposite, reveal and make present in their sharing of counter-balancing differences the life Christ invites us to share in union with God who is “Other.”
The world seems to have forgotten the real meaning of love. “Love is a word that has never before been used so much and meant so little.” Each day around the clock the world of entertainment and other media bombard us with messages designed to arouse “love.”
The late Catherine de Hueck Doherty, Servant of God and foundress of the Madonna House Apostolate, makes this same point. She once wrote that the world needs marriage to rediscover the meaning of real love: “Love was born in a manger and died on a cross. Real love is synonymous with sacrifice and service… A man and a woman united in holy wedlock are a miracle of love – two distinct persons yet one in a fusing creative beauty. They are lifted by God to become co-creators with him of another human being, another immortal soul – a child.”
The world needs this witness of real love, for the love between a man and a woman, which is faithful, fruitful and permanent, reveals how God loves us.
On Nov. 6, the citizens of the State of Washington will be asked to decide the fate of Referendum 74 and the law that has redefined marriage. As members of the community of Jesus’ disciples the decision before us is about much more than one’s politics, one’s partisan affiliation, the debates about rights or being sympathetic to trends in society. It is about what we believe God has been doing from the creation of the world and how He invites us to be partners in continuing His work until the end of time through the decisions we make. But it is also about what we know from human experience and serious social science study, both of which validate what our faith teaches us about the value of marriage, traditionally understood. Decisions like the one before us do make a difference in our lives. Married couples know this. Each day they make decisions that stabilize their marital journey. So, too, our decision to be a faithful companion of Jesus enriches the faith community and the world in which we live with a greater sense of well-being and fulfillment.
In the end, the decision before us is a decision to surrender to what we believe. Pope Benedict XVI once wrote that our Christian understanding of marriage is “only comprehensible and feasible on the basis of faith in God’s… irrevocable decision, embodied in Christ, in favor of ‘marriage’ with mankind (cf. Eph 5:22-33). It stands or falls with this faith: in the long run, it is just as impossible outside this faith as it is necessary within it.”
While I have a particular obligation to clearly state what we believe, all the members of the Church, lay women and men, the ordained and religious men and women are charged by Christ to keep alive in our time this vision of marriage which God gives as a unique gift to the whole world. Of course, as the Pope noted, this takes faith. It takes believing in God’s plan, not ours. It takes believing we are made in God’s image and called to work with Christ in saving the world. It takes letting go of our natural inclinations to trust only in ourselves and our ways of knowing and thinking. It takes surrendering to God’s Word. It takes believing that here and now, in this time and place, God is calling us to be a Light to the Nations.
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