The domestic Church that should flourish within a marriage
IN THIS article I have been asked to consider what would constitute an ideal Christian marriage set against a background of high rates of divorce and widespread sceptism about marriage.
Since the Second Vatican Council much has happened to the theology of matrimony which has yet to be grasped by the Catholic community. The largescale conflict on contraception has diverted attention from marriage. Yet marriage is the place where the overwhelming majority of Christians will find God and their salvation.
One has to begin by stating that marriage in the Catholic tradition is a sacrament beyond the need to abstain from sexual intercourse before the wedding night, a rule widely disregarded nowadays, to marry in church, and avoid divorce. These are the elementary rules. The theology of the sacrament. however, is infinitely richer than these requirements.
The first thing to realise is that the sacrament does not by-pass the ever-changing secular reality. The sacrament divines human reality. So to understand the sacrament we have to understand modem marriage. What is it like to be married today?
Traditionally marriage was a contact of social roles. The couple agreed that the husband would be the provider the head of the family, the decision maker.
The woman was going to be the childbearer and rearer of children, the person who looked after the home, the catalysts of love, and the supporter of her husband. Provided the couple carried out these roles, and were faithful to each other, then the marriage was considered to be good. Love may have entered the relationship, but was not its basis.
Today this whole picture has changed. Wives work in large numbers, the hierarchical relationship has become egalitarian, the size of the family has been drastically reduced, and women are free to behave as the equals of men. Even more important than all these changes, the basis of marriage is altering from a contact of social roles to a relationship of love. The media, literature, drama all emphasise one thing, which is love.
That is the secular reality. How does it match with theology? Vatican H in an extraordinary leap of thought abandoned the theology and language of centuries; made love the centre of this Sacrament and called it a "community of love". This love reflects the covenant between Yaweh and his people. Christ and the Church, and is sealed by sexual intercourse.
So both the secular and the Christian reality converge on one theme which is love. The trouble is that no-one has clearly defined marital love. We know it is to be found in the relationship and not in the social roles of the couple. But what constitutes it? There is no general agreement, but what follows is the fruit of 30 years experience with modem marriage.
The first phase is falling in love, and everyone knows about that. It is a state of emotional excitement in which the couple idealise one another. This stage subsides after a while, and it is followed by loving which continues for fifty years or more. Of what does loving consist?
First there is physical availability. All the complexities of couples working, making enough money for their needs, finding time to look after the house, centre on balancing all these needs with time for one another.
Most articles or books on marriage focus on this topic and how to have a modem marriage in which the couple work. have children and can support one another to do both.
There is no agreed formula, but the support of the husband is essential if the wife is to cope with home, children and work. However, love requires more than physical availability: it needs emotional availability.
Secondly there is communication. Through communication we share what is good, we express our love and we confront what needs to change.
Thirdly, there is need for constant demonstration of affection. Men are the worst offenders. They feel that their initial declaration of love will endure without renewal.
Fourthly. there is need for affirmation, by which I mean the confirmation of the goodness of each other. Finally, there is the need to resolve conflict by understanding the hurt that has been inflicted and avoiding it next time rather than winning a battle.
These five expressions of love are the basis of modern relationships, and in turn help the couple to heal each other and to grow in mutual appreciation. All this affection is sealed by sexual intercourse, which is a powerful expression of love.
These areas of love take a long time to he developed and require hard work. In the past the hard work of marriage was to maintain the traditional roles; today the task is to keep the loving relationship alive in an ever changing situation as the marriage alters from phase to phase.
The Second Vatican Council spoke of marriage both as a community of love and also as the Domestic Church. What is meant by this is that in the minute living encounter of love just described the couple use their ordinary human experience to see and discover God in one another.
The daily routine of mutual care of each other and the children becomes the liturgy of their Domestic Church. Modern theology brings God into love, and the experiences of the week are the offerings for the Sunday Mass. The marvel of the Sacramental life of the Church is that one is never far from the presence of God. In the past we thought that the focus of that experience was the Sunday Mass. The expanding theology of marriage brings it right into the home and the grace of the Sacrament is what strengthens and maintains the couple. All this is an enormous challenge. There will inevitably be difficulties in every marriage, but Our Lord's teaching of indissolubility is a challenge to work at the difficulties constantly. Ultimately there will also be failures, but we want to keep these to a minimum.
In order to do this the Church must realise that the wedding is not the conclusion of its responsibility, but the beginning of a task for preparation and support for the whole duration of marriage. Every diocese and every parish must have a programme to put marriage on the map by having adequate preparation for marriage and support for it after the wedding.
There is nothing more urgent facing the Church today.