Or are we negotiating "benefits"?
As the Synod on the Family continues, Catholics around the world find themselves asking: what might help to stabilize the family? Are there better ways to clarify the real meaning of marriage and sex, in a world that views these primarily as conduits to personal satisfaction?
The problems are familiar enough by now. We live in a world in which family breakdown is more the norm than the exception. Divorce and illegitimacy are widespread. Despite that, birthrates are falling, as more and more people find themselves alone. New suggestions for how to “update” the traditional family model are springing up like weeds on every side. It’s no wonder young adults today are thoroughly confused about marriage and family formation.
Much of the debate has focused on the relative merits of “pastoral” approaches, as the Holy Father stresses his desire to reach out to wayward Catholics. Others have suggested that the language the Church uses for discussing marriage and sex may be unnecessarily alienating, and may seem to modern Catholics like a remnant of another universe.
No one can reasonably doubt the imperative to evangelize lapsed Catholics. In a world that is deeply confused about marriage, we will need to be energetic and innovative in our efforts to spread the truth. By all means, let’s look for better ways to articulate the Church’s teaching on marriage, as well as new venues in which to broadcast it. It’s also good to emphasize the importance of having compassion on those who have lost the path, realizing how easily that can happen in a world that openly disparages conjugal marriage.
At the same time, it’s important not to blur the line between forgiveness and making excuses. Christ’s teachings on marriage have always been hard. They are especially hard now, given how starkly countercultural Catholicism has become. But the Church has a responsibility to articulate the truth in every age, especially when others have taken such pains to bury it.
Perpetuating confusion in the name of mercy will always have consequences. We shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Catholic teachings on marriage are precious to us just because they’re traditional. They are precious because they enable us to order our lives appropriately, in keeping with our own good and the good of the people we love. As St. John Paul II argued at length in his book “Love and Responsibility,” sexual ethics is fundamentally the study of how to love responsibly. When people fail to embrace these truths about sex and marriage, they end up hurting others, often to their own shame and horror. Protecting the innocent from injury is always central to the mission of the Church, and that mission is highly relevant to the Synod’s present deliberations.
It is possible that modifying certain words and phrases may help the Church’s ministers to preach the truth more effectively. Still, it seems to me that the fundamental problem with modern marriage is not linguistic, nor can it be fixed with a few verbal tweaks. The problem is that people aren’t willing to go “all in” anymore when they fall in love. They’re forever looking for ways to hedge their bets, or to “negotiate” their romantic relationships in ways that are more personally advantageous. This entire paradigm is simply poisonous to love.
In discussing marriage with my students, I am always discouraged by the number willing to agree that people should not stay in marriages that leave them feeling unhappy or unfulfilled. Young people, in my experience, have enormous trouble defining marriage, but they can explain in great detail what they hope to gain from it. Marriage, to them, is an opportunity to negotiate a “customized package” of goods and benefits, with the understanding that they must contribute something to the arrangement, but that it should ultimately work to their own greater good. To many young people today, the loosening of traditional marital mores seems to open an alluring freedom. Marriage can be whatever they want it to be. It can be adjusted as necessary to further their self-actualization. The possibilities are endless, and they no longer have to worry about being “trapped” in a family structure that they find oppressive or burdensome.