Marriage Power

“Some men think the Earth is round, others think it flat; it is a matter capable of question. But if it is flat, will the King’s command make it round? And if it is round, will the King’s command flatten it?” With these memorable lines, Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man For All Seasons” (1960), has Sir Thomas More arguing his conscience on truths that no earthly power may decree otherwise. Among such truths we would include the meaning of that most intimate yet societal of relationships: marriage. Whatever the incentive to be creative, neither government nor, for that matter, the dictionary can redesign what it humanly is.
The high sounding, self-congratulatory palaver about civil rights, equality, freedom, social justice, compassion, inclusion, fairness — and love — with which passage of the New York Marriage Equality Act is being heralded celebrates actions having little to do with the theological virtue of love, conjugal (marital) love or even uniquely human sexuality. No report that we have seen better exposes the crassly political and economic machinations that melded to produce this specious legislation than that of Michael Barbaro, which appeared on the front page of the Sunday, June 26, edition of The New York Times under the title “Behind Gay Marriage, Unlikely Mix of Forces.” Predictably, even as proponents do their victory dance, some opponents clamor for the retaliatory powers of referendum, boycott and even excommunication. As Barbaro wryly observes, “It was befuddling to gay rights advocates: the Catholic Church, arguably the only institution with the authority and reach to derail same-sex marriage, seemed to shrink from the fight.” Is this so, or is “fight” the wrong metaphor?
Historically, the political influence of the Church can scarcely be disputed. But is marriage an institution whose meaning, ultimately, can be defined by such power? We suspect not. The missional role of the Body of Christ is fearlessly to witness to marriage as a sign of Gospel hope — not because it sanctions a wedding ceremony or a romantic partnership, but because it graces a man and a woman for a life-long, faithful, life-transmitting union from which their children are the fruit of their love. The way Christians called to marriage proclaim it is to live its truth in hope.
Over the New York legislature’s political invention, we might invoke the moral authority of the magisterium and, most especially, the insight and eloquence of Blessed John Paul II. Reflecting also from philosophical, natural law foundations, his Theology of the Body illuminates the joy and mystery of human sexuality and conjugal love. But the argument is not from authority or power but from truth — a radical proposition for a secularized culture!
Christian vision affirms marriage as a sign or sacrament of hope. If one contrives to reduce “two in one flesh” to a biological (pleasurable insertion) or emotional status —then, indeed, why would sex or gender really matter? But Christian vision does not understand human sexuality this way — as the mere capacity to sexually indulge another physically and emotionally — nor marriage as an institution that publicly licenses this with inheritance rights.
Secular views on marriage miss the positive potential with which the Christian vision illuminates marriage as a sign of hope. Its joyous realism knows marriage as indeed a long and very difficult shared journey of failures, forgiveness and grace, but prefigures a glorious future in communion with a Trinity of divine Persons, expanding the horizons of personal fulfillment. Beyond individual gratification, it includes, in the trinitarian image, the procreation and nurture of children given life through the union of their parents of two different sexes. The spiritual heart of marriage lies — sacrificially, yet fruitfully — outside the partners.
God’s design for marriage as radical, personal self-donation prefigures the generous, out-of-self ecstasy of eternity in the uniquely conjugal embrace, of which Pope Benedict XVI has written beautifully in Deus Caritas Est (2005). It is, therefore, testimony to the hope of eternal life in its freedom not only to excite the endowments of one’s sexuality but to engender new life in and through the most intimate, self-giving and (pro)creative of human relationships — both person- and society-building — in a faithful and forever relationship. No invention can surpass such marriage as a heaven-sent sign of hope.