Saturday, November 09, 2013

The Contracepted Marriage

A few days ago, I posted a link to a post on some advice that a father gave to a son about marriage that he eventually found compelling. The point is that marriage is not for you, or more precisely, about you. It's about your commitment to your future spouse and your children.  The way that the message was conveyed perhaps made it sound a bit too self-sacrificial, but the idea intended was that you don't go into marriage with the attitude that it's about meeting your needs.

I'll double-down on this young man's point and say that there is only one way to go into a successful and that is by giving yourself completely to it. If you are not ready to give yourself completely to your spouse, then don't get married.


I think that was the young man's point. I read a post of a friend of mine (a fine person, but with whom I disagree on a number of opinions politically and spiritually) who took issue with the idea that one must put yourself completely at the service of the other. He (and some others who responded to him) took it to mean that one essentially would stop having any concerns for his or her own needs. They considered it to be a detriment, even destructive to a marriage.

Frankly, such a criticism misses the point. Naturally, people need to have their needs met, and a one-sided relationship where one partner gives and the other only takes is certainly doomed. And it is precisely the kind of relationships that develop when people enter marriage concerned only about what they get out of it. Putting yourself at the service of your spouse is not in and of itself codependent behavior, because ultimately, codependency is itself an attempt to get your needs met, whether you're the problem child who demands all the attention or martyr who suffers not so silently. Nobody gets sucked into a codependent relationship who feels ther needs are being met.

I shared the post with the understanding that there are differences in how my Church and the church of the young man who wrote the article see the marriage covenant, the notion of sacramental marriage, and of self sacrifice. Even in the Catholic Church, many married Catholics don't have a proper understanding of the sacramentality of marriage, its permanence, and its self-sacrificial essence.

Now, that sounds really idealistic, but the Catholic view is that marriage is not merely a human reality but the reflection of a Divine reality—the complete self-giving love of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the Trinity. In Genesis 1, God creates man in His own image: "in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them" (1:27). How do we get the threeness of the Trinity with man and woman in holy matrimony? Simply this. A marriage is not simply between the man and the woman but man, woman, and God. Marriage, like the Trinity, is a communion of persons in love. Moreover, it reflects the complete gift that God makes to man in His Son.

Blessed John Paul II wrote that the "analogy of the love of spouses (or spousal love) seems to emphasize above all the aspect of God's gift of himself to man who is chosen 'from ages' in Christ.... a gift that is in its essential character, or as a gift, total... and irrevocable" (Man and Woman He Created Them, 95b:4).

Scripture uses the image repeatedly of God as spouse to Israel, and Christ as spouse to the Church. St. Paul doesn't admonish men to keep their wives in line and demand their respect and service. He admonishes men to give their lives for their wives, as Christ did for the Church. He says "Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ" (Ephesians 5:21). So this is not codependency. It is mutual self donation.

One of the evils of artificial contraception is that it allows couples to tell a lie with their bodies. The sexual act is supposedly one of complete self giving to the other (which, again, is why the Church reserves it to married couples). By contracepting, the couple refuses part of themselves to the other. There might be very pragmatic reasons for it, but it turns an act of self giving into a partial gift. But literal contraception is merely a symptom of a larger problem in marriage—the withholding of the self from the other.

A marriage in which a man and woman withhold themselves from complete self-donation is in this sense contracepted. It removes part of the mutual gift from marriage. When two people enter into marriage concerned more about what they get in return than they do for the welfare of their spouse, they are entering marriage with a contraceptive attitude.

If nothing else, Christian marriage must be about helping your spouse get to Heaven and doing whatever it takes to aid them. Is it easy? No, but it's also not impossible. You can find such marriages in surprising places— for example, between an Austrian emperor and his wife. I have no doubt these two are standing in God's presence now.

Marriage is not about you. We have lost sight of this fact in our modern age, which is why we have the crisis in our families. We need to look again at God's plan for marriage—modeled on His own image. Man and woman he made them, and they became one flesh.
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