THE VAST interest aroused by the encyclical Humanae Vitae has s placed the emphasis in the last decade on birth regulation rather than on the sacrament of marriage itself. The debate
has taken various forms.
Figures are constantly quoted of large-scale defections in theory or in practice from the adherence to the encyclical. What is the position of such men and women?
Some would reject them and question their Catholicism. Others emphasise the importance of freedom of conscience in these matters. Others have questioned the loyalty of those Catholics who continue to develop ideas not strictly within the letter of the law.
But all this has diverted attention from the large issue the evolution of the sacrament of marriage itself, particularly as developed in the teaching of Vatican H.
There can be no doubt that Humanae Vitae has had an infinitely greater impact on the Church than the evolving theology of marriage. This has been inevitable but tragic, first because the arguments about contraception can only be settled in the light of the wider theology of marriage itself, and secondly because the insights given to us by Vatican II have the seed of an answer to some of the most urgent requirements of marriage today.
While the Catholic Church has been embroiled in the contraception issue the march of marital breakdown has proceeded uninterrupted, a growing challenge to the indissolubility of marriage; one of the basic Christian tenets.
We are in the midst of an unprecedented change in social mores which affect the very roots of one of the most fundamental institutions of our society, and it is regrettable that the world hears the sharpest utterances from the Church, not about the whole sacrament uniting men, women and children, but about a detail, admittedly an important one.
The trend of priorities must be reversed, and we must concern ourselves with The stability of personal relationships in marriage experienced in the second half of the twentieth century. First, we must consider the church's teaching both tradition and scripture, but then we must express in an authentic human and Christian manner the meaning of love in marriage in today's changing world.
The Church has always taught that the fundamentals of marriage are to be found in exclusiveness (faithfulness) and permanency (indissolubility) combining together to form the basis for procreation.
In pre-Vatican II language these were defined as primary and secondary ends: the primary ends were procreation, and the secondary ones were mutual help, the remedy for concupiscence and fostering conjugal love.
Misinterpretation led to the suggestion that the primary ends were more important than the secondary ones, but this was not part of the Church's teaching, which considers all the ends of marriage as essential. The misunderstanding was a dangerous one for, in popular terms, marriage was reduced to its procreative value alone and allowed enemies of the Church to suggest that Catholics were only concerned with children and the more the better.
Vatican II not only changed the terminology, it laid a tremendous emphasis on the personal, loving values of matrimony. A careful reading of the text of Vatican 11 on marriage and the family leaves no room for doubt. For example, marriage and the family are described in striking new concepts, such as a "community of love". The theology has evolved from law to personal love.
Vatican II says that, despite the difficulties, the profound changes in modern society reveal the true character of marriage. Implicit in this statement is the view that we cannot dismiss all the contemporary changes as the fruit of a permissive society, but we need to examine the three traditional headings in an enlarged context.
Unlike the debate on contraception, the teaching on in dissolubility is based on the words of Jesus Christ Himself, "What God has united, man must not divide". (Matthew 19:6) It is clear in the Scriptures that God's plan for man requires permanency in marriage if the image of God is to be reflected in this institution. Vatican 11 spells this out.
"The intimatepartnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws. It is rooted in the conjugal covenant of unequivocal personal consent.
Hence, by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other, a relationship arises which by divine wish and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one.
In order for the marriage to remain indissoluble, it is vital to recognise that the couple must possess the capacity and the resources to make available a mutual self-giving which serves the whole duration of the relationship and meets the continuing minimum human needs of the couple.
There are two basic reasons why marriages break down. One is that a couple find that the promises they made at its inception cannot be realised in practice as the marriage unfolds itself.
The second is that a couple cannot understand, accept or fulfil the expectations inherent in modern marriage. The challenge to today's theology is to discern the nature of modern marriage and identify the patterns which couples accept nowadays as essential to the relationship.
Failure to meet these essential needs is considered sufficient grounds for terminating the relationship.
It is on this point that there needs to be dialogue between the secular and the spiritual. Throughout the last 25 years the courts have ruled in one form or
another what a couple need from one another at least as a minimum — in order for secular marriage to fulfil its human expectations. Those who have been 'quickest to cry out against what they sec to be a reduction of standards for marriage fail to realise that in fact the courts have increasingly but imperceptibly raised the personal expectations of marriage.
Before the concept of irretrievable breakdown was introduced into British law, many divorces were granted on the grounds of cruelty. It has been realised that a man and woman fulfilling_ their traditional social roles of the husband going to work, being the father and head of the household and making important decisions, and the wife as childbearer, housekeeper and principal source of affection is not sufficient for marriage.
Everyone is familiar with the concept of material sustenance. A couple need a roof, food, furniture and other essentials. All this costs money, and traditionally has been provided by the husband, particularly when the wife is pregnant or looking after young children.
But sustaining has now extended to emotional security as well. Couples expect to be understood, communicated with and supported at the level of their feelings.
This is an inevitable develop
ment in any society which has a high material standard of life. As the essentials of food, shelter, protection from disease, and the ravages of un. employment are secured, then the next layer of being, feelings, become the priorities.
Catholic theology has been so intensely preoccupied with reason that it is not prepared to deal with the demands of emotions. But these are essential prerequisites of intimate personal relationships, and none makes a greater demand than marriage. One of the major new factors preventing the survival of a marriage is the feeling of being misunderstood or not supported. Self-exposure of our anxieties, self-esteem, confidence or the lack of it, mood and its variations, initiative and the fears of private and public situations, dependency, and the need of guidance on the one hand and the fear of losing our automony on the other, all provide continuous opportunities for couples to act as healing agents to one another.
Armed with this awareness, the spouses offer to each other a model from which they can learn, perhaps for the first time, what it means to feel confident, lovable, worthy of recognition, accepted. appreciated, able to take the initiative and to withstand rejection without disintegrating or to face disappointment without being overcome by a sense of failure.
Some will say that a couple has no right to require such profound self-exposure of their personality with healing expectatiqns, But secular courts have accepted that failure to accomplish this constitutes a basic failure in rightful expectations of marriage. In different language, Vatican II likewise refers to marital love being judged by Our Lord as worthy of special gifts of healing.
As well as sustaining and healing, there is growth. The extension of the expectation of life has meant that married couples can live together for four or more decades. During this period they can either stagnate as persons or grow into wholeness and holiness._ The obsessional preoccupation of Christianity with sexuality has distracted our attention from the basic pressures of the failure of mutual wholeness of the couple. Emphasis on sex draws attention away from the need to repair the relationship in terms of sustaining, healing and growth which are almost in
variably the root causes of the sexual manifestation of unfaithfulness.
No one needs reminding of the unique privilege and joy of bringing forth a new life, Everything secular and sacred points to the unique role of marriage as a precursor of the
But everything we have learned during the last hundred years reminds us that, whereas nature is orientated towards procreation, the rearing of children makes infinitely greater demands on the couple.
Above all, a stable and loving partnership is required to provide what every child has a right to — parents who are ready to initiate and sustain a stable and loving relationship. This in turn needs a sustaining, healing, growing encounter which spans at least three or more decades of marriage.
Marriage and the family are intimately related with life, first the loving life of the couple and secondly the loving relationship between parents and children which shapes the life of the children through love.
One of the-most obvious consequences of all this is a change in pastoral strategy. Hitherto the Church and the community were geared to the wedding, when marriage began.
The virtual eclinse of any other significant liturgical or pastoral interest in the couple after the wedding needs to be urgently remedied, for the wedding is the beginning of a covenant, and it is in the quality of the relationship that the essence of the marriage is to be found. For it is in the unfolding relationship that the couple will fully realise the vows taken at their wedding.
The whole pastoral strategy must be re-orientated so that the wedding day is the beginning of the relationship which has to be supported throughout its various stages by the Christian community.
Furthermore, the Christian couple have to assess themselves, not their goals of seeking, sustaining, healing and , growth, but their motivation to overcome the difficulties inherent in achieving these goals.
There are no short cuts to wholeness, holiness or perfection. The desire to remain true and faithful is an essential component of Christian marriage and for this dedication, prayer, the sacraments, and such pastoral facilities as those' provided by the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council, need to be used to the full.