We forget that marriage is an institution at our own risk.
Catholics are in an awkward spot about marriage. On the one hand, we have this elegant, refined theology of marriage dating back to the earliest Christian writers, and culminating in the iconic writings of our Polish Papa. On the other hand, we are products of our culture and are fairly ignorant of what-marriage-is.
The awkwardness arises as a kind of sophomoric problematic—knowing something, and yet not knowing. Where most people would mumble a few things about a loving relationship and then give up—Catholics, armed with third grade catechism and popularized versions of theology of the body—might not do much better. “Marriage is a sacrament, that, um, affirms, or blesses, a loving relationship—between a man and a woman—that is permanent, or is supposed to be, and has something to do with being an image of God. Right? Oh—and sex is sacred. That’s the sacrament part.”
Not a great definition, by any standard.
So Catholics don’t know what marriage is—but they sort of think that they do.
Why? Because they rightly understand that the Church claims some kind of authority over marriage, they understand that marriage is a sacrament, and they understand—again rightly—that the Catholic Church stands nearly alone against all of society and declares that marriages are permanent, and that marriages should be receptive to new life. So it would be natural if Catholics felt that they had learned something about marriage over the years from a Church that talks a lot about it.
And yet, in spite of all this—there is little evidence that Catholics “do” marriage differently from others, regardless of what they think that they know. What’s going on?
I suspect the problem is that Catholics in recent decades have been better theologians than anthropologists. Let’s start here: marriage is the only sacrament, the only one, which is also a natural institution. But what is an institution? And what is a natural institution? These are themes I will take up frequently when I write about marriage. Without a sound understanding of institutions we will lack a sound understanding of marriage.
Let’s pose a question to illustrate the point: what is the role of “love” in the institution of marriage? To whet your interest, consider the chapters of Gaudium et Spes that deal with marriage and the family, paragraphs 47-52. These six paragraphs use the term “institution” four times. In contrast, “love” appears some forty-five times in these same six paragraphs. That’s an 11-1 ratio of love to institution, which raises the question, what exactly is the relationship between love and institution?
In 1996 a survey asked college men and women to rank the characteristics most desired in a potential mate. Men and women both ranked “mutual love and attraction” as the number 1 most-desired-trait in a potential spouse. The same questions were asked of young men and women in 1984. Then too, men and women ranked “mutual love and attraction” as the number 1 most-desired-trait. But looking farther back it wasn’t always so. In 1967, records show that “mutual love and attraction was only the 2nd or 3rd most-desired-trait in a spouse.
And in 1939—the earliest recorded instance of the same questions being asked—“mutual love and attraction” ranked 4th for men, and 5th for women. Characteristics such as “dependable character” (1st place), “emotional maturity and stability” (2nd), and “pleasing disposition” (3rd) beat “love” among males. For women, character, emotional maturity, industriousness, and disposition all beat out “love” as more desirable traits in a spouse. (These findings are summarized in a 2001 paper by Buss et al. in the