Theology of marriage evolving
By MARGOT PATTERSON
The recent beatification of Luigi and Maria Beltrame Quattrocchi, the first husband and wife to be beatified as a couple, highlights the greater emphasis placed on the sacredness of marriage in the last four decades or so.
In the years since the Second Vatican Council, a richer theology of marriage has developed in the Catholic church, theologians say. The new theology is based on an understanding of marriage as not just a biological relationship but as a union of two people for whom marriage is a path to holiness.
The church has long regarded marriage as a covenant between husband and wife, one that reflects the covenant between Christ and his church and which in turn harks back to the covenant God established with Abraham in Genesis.
Daniel Finucane, who teaches theology at St. Louis University, notes that the idea of covenant is deeply rooted in Judaism and in the Christian church that developed out of it. While the notion of marriage as covenant is not new, Finucane said the church prior to Vatican II tended to emphasize more the legal and contractual aspects of marriage.
With Vatican II, a deeper understanding of marriage emerged. In promulgating the 1965 document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World), the church erased a previous distinction between the primary and secondary aims of marriage. For the first time, the good of the couple was placed on equal footing with procreation, paving the way for a more personalist view of marriage. The creation of children had been formerly understood to be marriages primary aim.
Since the 1960s, the topic of marriage has earned increasing attention in theological circles, particularly as the viabilility of marriage itself has become open to question.
My parents generation probably had a decent theology of marriage, but they would never have called it that, Finucane said. But now more and more people are consciously talking about it, which has a lot to do with the crash-and-burn style of marriage in our culture. Theres a fear of marriage and a fear of failure of marriage.
With the older model of marriage in force for some 1,800 years, from 200 to 1965, the new theology of marriage is still struggling to make itself heard, said [Michael] Lawler, a professor of theology at Creighton University and director of the universitys Center for Marriage and the Family. The center conducts research on marriage and families.
Theologians are addressing the new theology of marriage in their writings, but it hasnt consistently made its way into the official teachings of the church, Lawler said.
Change is always difficult, Lawler observed. The church finds it challenging; the magisterium finds it challenging to come to terms with.
In this country greater theological attention to marriage coincides with high divorce rates that are raising concerns about the fragility of marriage.
Theres been a larger effort to reclaim marriage, said Sidney Callahan, a psychologist and educator who writes a column for Commonweal. With the growth of feminism, there was a slighting of marriage and seeing marriage as bad for women. Now, Callahan said, the cultural pendulum has swung back, with some recent books arguing that married people live longer, make more money and are happier.
Callahan called the personalist approach to marriage a very high view of marriage, and one that carries some drawbacks in that it makes it harder to accept staying in a marriage once the personal relationship between a couple has broken down.
The higher valuation of marriage as a personal union does bring problems with accepting the churchs view of divorce -- that there isnt any, Callahan said.
Relationship of love
Lisa Cahill, a theologian at Boston College and the author of Sex, Gender and Christian Ethics, said the Second Vatican Councils affirmation of the centrality of the marriage relationship as a relationship of love was clearly a positive step but not without pitfalls.
One of the potential downsides of this, however, is that one of the reasons for divorce today, and for the huge rates of divorce, is that people do look at the marriage relationship as a relationship of support, Cahill said. They put a huge burden on themselves to have the perfect relationship. They will sometimes tend to give up when they reach the point of friction and difficulty.
Some more traditional societies put a lot more emphasis than we do in North America and Europe on community supporting the marriage, Cahill said. Its not just about the couple, its about the whole family coming together.
Cahill said one of the remaining ambiguities in Catholic tradition is that there are still many moral teachings that uneasily fit together with this emphasis on the personal relationship of marriage -- the teachings on birth control, for example, or the indissolubility of marriage. But while Catholics who grew up around the time of the Second Vatican Council tend to fixate on those issues, Cahill said such issues have become passé for many younger Catholics who do what they think right on those matters.
The official church doesnt have the control it used to, she remarked. The real task of the church is to somehow keep the important focus on the relationship of the couple but also to find ways to link that couple to family, to society, to church in ways that will support that relationship.
Its not the teachings themselves that will produce that support, she said.
Taking a wider view of marriage might include learning to deal with your own failings, learning to forgive, learning to look at your family and the network of relationships youve developed, Cahill said, noting that the church does have a model, especially in the writings of the current pope.
Pope John Paul II has written extensively on marriage and sexuality both before and during his pontificate. In addition to two books, The Theology of the Body and Love and Responsibility, he authored an apostolic exhortation titled Familiaris consortio, which grew out of a 1980 synod of bishops focusing on the family.
In that document, the pope said the church should listen to married people. He exhorted married Catholics to play a countercultural role by modeling fidelity, mutual love, and service to the wider society.
Pope John Paul II has described the married state as one of total and mutual self-giving of the two partners that finds expression in their sexual relationship. His view, which emphasizes the complementary nature of men and women, has been criticized by some feminists as giving too much attention to gender differences.
Sidney Callahan called the popes views highly romantic but said that there is no doubt that the pope has a high regard for both marriage and women and sees men and women as equal.
Theologians and psychologists alike agree that changing gender roles have affected marriage. While a more traditional marriage is still the norm in some non-Western cultures, Western societies are moving to a more egalitarian form of marriage where theres not such a narrowly defined scope of gender roles, said Joann Heaney-Hunter, an associate professor of theology at St. Johns University in New York and co-author of the book Preparing for Sacramental Marriage.
Were looking at a changing society, and the way were looking at marriage is not as fixed by roles as it once was. What I think the theology of marriage does is that it gives us a vision that says that marriage in its core is a union blessed by God, that makes God present, that can be a source of holiness for a couple. We find God in the midst of our relationships. I think thats a really positive development -- that we can look at marriage as a source of sanctification, said Heaney-Hunter.
Finding time together
Meanwhile, contemporary life poses some obstacles to that goal. For example, in two-career families, finding time to spend together is the biggest problem couples have in their early married years. The Center for Marriage and Family conducted a study of the first five years of marriage and found that time, sex and money were the biggest problems newlywed couples face.
Children compound the problem, as couples struggle to juggle not only time for each other and work but time for parenting as well. Debt is another source of strain, Lawler said.
Catholics apparently have as much trouble as everyone else fending off the efforts of such cultural influences. Catholic Americans have the same rate of divorce as other Americans: about 38 percent, said Lawler. Culture is much more influential than church in determining Catholic Americans attitudes to marriage and divorce, he said.
Individualism, so much a part of the American ethos, also has affected contemporary attitudes to marriage, some experts said. Gail Risch, lecturer in theology at Creighton University and a researcher at Creightons Center for Marriage and Family, commented that the Christian concept of a convenant marriage is almost inherently at odds with American individualism. Covenant is about how we are doing. Individualism is about how I am doing, she said.
The key phrase in marriage these days is mutuality a mutual endeavor, a mutual love, a mutual friendship, a mutual reconciliation. Its sometimes very difficult for a generation that came to be known as the Me Generation, said Lawler.
Though couples today bring different expectations to marriage, Lawler reported that in some respects marriage hasnt changed as much as people might like to believe.
If you read the marriage literature today, young American men and women are planning to marry just like their father and mothers, but theyre looking for something different, for companionate marriage, in which the spouses are equally human. They both have jobs. They both have household responsibilities, which they share. That kind of marriage is what theyre looking for, but according to research that kind of marriage is only a dream. American men in the year 2000 do just a little more than their grandfathers did, Lawler said.
Pat McDonough, a Long Island psychologist who has led Catholic marriage preparation programs, said that many Catholics dont understand the churchs theology on marriage -- in part, because the leadership of the church has never been married.
Marriage is not typically understood as a vocation. People get married for many reasons. They want to have children, they want to be coupled, they want to increase their economic standing and theyve never raised the question, Am I called to this vocation? We really havent been taught or exposed to marriage as a vocation, said McDonough, who faults both the church and the general culture for this omission.
McDonough said research indicates that the most effective marriage preparation is provided by teams comprised of both lay counselors and religious or clerics. The reason is that they are both witnesses to vocation, so while their vocation looks different from day to day they have both responded to a call, she said.
A theology of marriage that sees marriage as a committed relationship, one in which the two partners are called to be Christ to one another and to the world, involves a very different way of thinking than that found in the general culture, McDonough said.
If you see it as a covenant, youre going to see fidelity differently and all the heartaches and trials and tribulations of marriage. Youll see it as a journey, as a response to a call rather than a route to happiness.
Margot Patterson is NCRs senior writer. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
National Catholic Reporter, December 28, 2001 [corrected 01/11/2002]