Christian Marriage: An Instruction
by Father Hoffmann, SSJE
WHAT are the ideals of marriage which the Church sets forth; and what are the conditions most favorable for the attainment of those ideals? To answer these questions within the limits of this space entails a degree of brevity which must lead to apparent dogmatism, since there is not space for elaborate reasoning or useful qualification. However, there are certain things which must be said.
First, notice that we are to discuss Christian marriage. Much could be said about the social institution of marriage as conceived by the state; but that is not our present topic. Further, Christian marriage means the marriage of Christians; the union of a man and woman who believe in God, who acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour, who join in the worship, the sacraments, and the fellowship of the Church.
This last implies the sacrament of Baptism as a requisite. When a baptized man and woman agree to live with each other for life, and that union is consummated, the sacrament of holy matrimony has taken place, even in the absence of priest or Church. The blessing of the Church, ministered to the parties by the priest, conveys the grace to keep the vows given and received and to live chastely in the estate or status of matrimony. And of course the marriages of Christians should be solemnized by God's priest, when that is possible.
should a Christian marry? The answer is not so obvious as it seems. There is the social necessity for procreation, if the race is to continue, and to this end God has endowed men and women with a strong attraction for each other, but that is not the whole answer. There is the longing for intimate companionship, for the completion of a solitary personality by union with another, but that alone is not enough. Basically, two Christians should enter marriage because they feel that united together for life they can serve God more fruitfully and joyously than either could singly. In other words, marriage is a vocation, a call from God, to find salvation and holiness in that particular way. It is a very common vocation, but it is not universal. Some are called to renounce marriage and family life under the vows of Religion; others, I believe, are called to a single life of service in some profession, or in the mission field.
Now a vocation is always a call to become holy, by this or that particular discipline. If people only remembered this there would be less nonsense talked of "rights" and "happiness" and so-called romantic love as an excuse for breaking marriage vows. The purpose of Christian marriage is to make men and women holy; if they achieve that they will certainly be happy, and the mystical reference of Saint Paul to the marriage between Christ and His Church will be better understood.
This may seem an impossibly idealistic approach to marriage; but remember, we are talking of Christian marriage, not the indiscriminate mating of people living without God in the world, with the consequent high percentage of tragedy and failure. If a man's life is surrendered to God, to do His will, then his marriage must be entered into only in obedience to that divine will. If the Christian community has largely lost sight of this ideal, it is cause for repentance on the part of priests and people.
WHAT MAKES A SUCCESSFUL MARRIAGE?
NOW for a few words as to the human conditions likely to lead to a successful marriage.
Unity of ideals is the most important requisite. Not necessarily unity of interests or tastes, but a sharing of those ultimate standards, such as integrity, loyalty, tolerance, sympathy, which give tone to the whole of life. In other words, a deep and healthy friendship may often be a better basis for marriage than an almost uncontrollable attraction. It is not necessary that a man and woman should experience tickling sensations in the spine every time they see each other. In other words, being "in love" in the romantic sense, though it is a delightful experience which comes at least once to most people, is no sound guide to a happy marriage, especially if other more important factors are absent.
A common-sense knowledge of the obligations of the marriage partnership on every level—physical, social, financial, mental, and spiritual, is obviously useful. I know a young wife who threw the whole dinner at her husband because he habitually read Arabic for an hour when he came home from work. She knew only English, not too well, and the only French she knew was demi-tasse.
Hasty marriages are usually foolhardy, and engagements of long duration are undesirable. "Hope deferred maketh the heart sick." Strong family influence on either side is often disastrous. Better move to California with your wife than have the wrong sort of mother-in-law or father-in-law living in the next block.
It boils down to this: that two people, a man and a woman, are to be one in Christ. If His Spirit has ruled them in their courtship, demanding modesty, restraint, mutual respect, and unselfishness, then they can seek His blessing at His altar with confidence that the future holds for them a growing experience of sanctified love, a love that because it is first spiritual, makes all things new.
AGAIN, let me stress the fact that we are discussing the union of two Christian believers, who join their lives in Christ, for better, for worse, in the hope that by God's grace their united lives will serve God better than either could have done singly.
Marriage, then, is a partnership, and as in most partnerships, there is a senior partner who rightly wields a balance of prestige, if not of power. Normally, the man is the head of the family, and in return for his responsibility as breadwinner, is entitled to make certain basic decisions, such as where the family should live.
But marriage is not intended to be a mutual admiration society. Any marriage, to be fruitful, must look beyond the mere happiness of the two parties. Normally, this means the birth of children; and indeed, the establishment of a Christian family is the primary purpose of Christian marriage. It is a perilous and probably wrong thing to postpone the birth of the first child for any reason short of grave ill health. Deliberately childless marriages are statistically proved to be liable to failure. If a thoroughly unchristian economic system forces a couple to delay the appearance of further children by continence or by use of natural periods of sterility it is still an evil, though sometimes a necessary one. Large families, closely spaced, alone form the ideal environment for healthy childhood—to mention only one consideration.
If, however, children do not appear, through no fault of the husband and wife, then they must endeavor to share in some unselfish interest. Church work, charity work, or perhaps an adopted child or two are useful outlets to prevent a purely selfish absorption in each other.
WHAT MAKES A HAPPY MARRIAGE?
TURN, then, to the factors in the marriage relationship which make for happiness. The most important thing, as we stated before, is the sharing of the deepest ideals, kneeling in prayer together night by night, and at the altar rail on Sunday; encouraging each other in everything that is sensitive and fine; offering sympathy and understanding even before it is needed.
With that should go a mutual forbearance and tolerance. Neither partner to a marriage is. perfect; but imperfections, if they are accepted with tolerance and a sense of humor, can become added bonds of mutual affection.
How about mutual frankness? Perhaps the ideal couple might boast that there was nothing in the past of one concealed from the other, and no unshared thought from day to day. But this is an ideal to be approached with caution and discretion. Often the past is better buried and forgotten, even if it means a lack of frankness; sometimes part of the penance for grave sin is that a man, let us say, has no right to the luxury of his wife's forgiveness, if the memory of his transgression is going to leave a scar which many years of faithfulness may not wipe out. In such cases silence becomes a duty.
Further, each party must respect the other's personality, and avoid possessiveness. You cannot own your wife, or your husband, or your children. There are areas in every personality which can be exposed only to God. Do not try to force your way into those secret places of each individual's loneliness.
There is need for perspective in married life, the more so, because the very intimacy of marriage tends to destroy it. A few individual interests, which one partner does not share with the other, may help to bring variety into the home. Similarly, an occasional short vacation from each other may well be a wise precaution against staleness. But just as important is a need for periodic renewals of the romance of courtship—perhaps an anniversary honeymoon week-end, alone with each other, and away from all routine responsibilities and all usual friends.
Another point to remember is the essential difference between men and women. This seems obvious enough, but many men treat their wives as they would a good friend of their own sex, and some women (though fewer, since women are cleverer about these things) expect the same emotional reactions from their husbands that they would expect from another woman. This is bad technique. A man is apt to want most from marriage a predictable routine of comfort; a woman most wants unpredictable and thoughtful manifestations of affection—a little gift, however inexpensive, the remembrance of anniversaries, and such like.
Finally, here are ten rules for a successful marriage:
1. Don't ride hobbies which distress the other person.
2. Try to settle any misunderstanding before you go to sleep.
3. Never humiliate each other by open criticism in front of others.
4. Never think that marriage is an excuse for sloppiness about your personal appearance, or for discourtesy.
5. Invite confidences by your own attitude of trust, but never force them.
6. Respect each other's privacy. There are times when the most devoted husband or wife needs to be alone.
7. Always live together as if you were sure of celebrating your fiftieth anniversary with thanksgiving.
8. Speak the truth to each other in love about annoying mannerisms, and correct them as far as possible.
9. Generous praise, not flattery, of each other is a great tonic.
10. Share the great things of life—worship, loyalties, joys, sorrows, ideals, enthusiasms. Share them as far as possible in Christ, and the lesser things will take care of themselves.
WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
WE have considered vocation to marriage, preparation for it, and certain factors which make for happiness in marriage; now we must turn to difficulties that arise and how they may be met. Remember that Christian marriage is the union of a baptized man and a baptized woman for life. They solemnly vow to be faithful "Till death us do part," and the priest solemnly warns them that no man may put asunder what God joined together.
And then, alas, after a few years, or sometimes only a few months, we find that the marriage has broken up, and a year or so later one or both of the parties may be living with another partner.
What are the reasons back of this too frequent tragedy? In the first place, far too much emphasis has been placed on a lack of adjustment to the physical side of marriage as the chief cause of failure. In the general average of divorces it may be true, but the general average includes hosts of marriages which cannot be considered Christian within our definition. On the other hand, in genuinely Christian marriages, the physical element after a relatively short time tends to assume a subordinate position in the scale of things which unite the two parties. Further, there are many really happy Christian marriages where the adjustment on that plane has never been more than tolerably good.
What, then, causes failures? Here is a short list:
1. Lack of a spiritual outlook on life. Only disciplined marriages are happy, and if pleasure is the only goal, success is practically impossible.
2. Interference by the family of husband or wife—more often the wife's mother, who can't let her daughter lead her own life.
3. Jealousy or lack of trust on either side.
4. Persistent selfishness and lack of sympathy on the part of one partner.
5. Repeated lies and deception—whether about some outside illicit affection, or financial or family matters.
These are causes of failure, but they are not necessary causes. Rather, they are reasons or excuses. Further, most of these situations would not arise if from the very first day husband and wife worked together to make a successful marriage. Such a marriage, free, wholesome, unselfish to others, yet intimate and devoted within the family, tolerant, enduring, is the result of patience, ingenuity, tact, faith and perseverance.
But the difficulty is that two people are involved—and sometimes they are sadly unequal in strength of character, in ideals, in self-control. Only too often one is trying desperately hard, and the other is not trying at all; one is giving to the utmost and the other complacently receiving. What then?
Well, even in that sad situation, one party at least can be gloriously faithful. Remember, it was "for better, for worse." The result for that faithful partner, who sticks through thick and thin, will be a Christian character and the friendship of God. Is that too meagre an exchange for the married happiness he or she once sought?
In some cases, of course, especially where the welfare of children is concerned, there must be a separation. But it should always be assumed that such a separation is temporary, to last only until the causes which made it necessary have been removed. More rarely still, and for reasons of justice in the distribution of property, there may be the necessity for a legal divorce. In that case the law of God forbids remarriage.
WHY NOT TRY ANOTHER MATE?
BUT what is wrong with divorce and remarriage? If the marriage is a failure, why not admit it and start over again?
Four things are wrong. First, marriage is not just a human contract. It is a status, ratified on the spiritual plane, a status which only death can break.
Second, remarriage blocks the way to holiness, which might have resulted from courageously facing a single life. I have known really holy people who in the past went through some tragic experience of a broken marriage, and who did not try to find an easy way out by getting another spouse. I have never known a holy person who had two or three successive spouses, all living. Have you?
Third, remarriage closes the door of Christian forgiveness. Whatever the wrong may have been, supposing the erring spouse should come back five years later, converted, penitent, ashamed, and say, "Will you take me back? I'm a different person now." The answer must be "Yes" if Christian forgiveness has any reality. That is impossible if there has been another marriage and perhaps more children.
Fourth, divorce and remarriage is an incurable wrong to the children, if there are any. Have you ever heard a little girl of four say, "But who is my real mummy?" I have, and I know of few things more tragic.
"But," say the objectors, "haven't I a right to be happy?" No; not if it involves breaking sacred obligations and involving others in your sin.
"But," they say, "if love has gone, is there any marriage left?" Yes; one party at least can still be faithful, and, if both weather the immediate storm, a much finer type of love may emerge later on.
A WAY BACK FOR THE STRAYED
LIFE is not foolproof. Who would want it to be? One may make grave mistakes, foolish choices; and if one is a Christian he will stand by them, confident that God can and will reward a difficult faithfulness, and that He cannot bless a self-regarding laxity.
But what of those who, having no knowledge of the law of God, have already broken that law, and acquired a second spouse, and perhaps a new family of children; what can be done about them when they have been converted, and desire to be received into the Church?
And what about those members of the Church who, ignorantly, impetuously, or even wilfully, have broken that law and are truly sorry?
The present Canon Law of the Church provides that such cases are to be referred to the Bishop of the Diocese for his judgment. In cases of the first class, there are often factors present which nullify the first marriage, so far as the Church is concerned. When such a decree of nullity has been granted by the Ecclesiastical Authority, any priest may give the blessing of the Church on the second marriage. (It is to be remembered that an ecclesiastical annulment is not to be interpreted as impugning the civil validity, or the legitimacy of any children, of the marriage annulled.) And of course, if the former marriage was annulled by the Civil Courts, the priest is free to bless the second union.
In cases of the second class, the procedure is somewhat different. If, in the judgment of the Bishop, the circumstances warrant it, if there is real penitence for past wrong, the parties to the second, and unchristian union, may, under certain circumstances, be readmitted to the sacraments. The marriage cannot be blessed, since it is outside our Lord's own covenant, but the Church will try to save something from the wreckage, especially where children are involved. Further than this the Church cannot go, if she is to be faithful to the gospel of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.