Monday, August 09, 2004

The Pursuit of (Un)Happiness: on Catholics and marriage

Alicia links to a Godspy article (a reprint of one from Crisis) entitled "Breaking Vows: When Faithful Catholics Divorce", which sounds to me like a pretty fair semblance of an oxymoron; it’s hard to see how a vow of faith and the disavowal of a sacrament can walk very far together, in peace, at any rate. The article’s title is also betrayed by the content as somewhat misleading, for as the author admits: …as with most polls that identify trends in the Catholic population, there's less in that number than meets the eye…The Barna Research Group estimates that 25 percent of Catholics who have been married have been divorced… So, what percentage of these divorcing Catholics are lapsed Catholics, and what percentage are committed Catholics? Barna doesn't say. In fact, no one knows exactly what the assenting-Catholic divorce rate is. Catholics sometimes cite the statistic that only 2 percent of married couples who use natural family planning (NFP) end in divorce…but no one knows where the 2 percent figure came from.

I can’t say I got much out of it, although I did enjoy some of the ironies, like the husband and wife team who, until recently, "published pamphlets on how to live a Catholic marriage better" (they’re not a team anymore), and the statistics at the end indicating that "unhappy" couples who toughed it out found their marriages to be tolerably "happy" a few years down the road. And I appreciated a particular reminder: A marriage was Satan's first target in the Garden of Eden…

But the rationalizations these couples employ are just what one might expect from a casual observance of human nature: …for an assenting Catholic, the topic of divorce is usually accompanied by a question: What if our marriage isn't even valid to start with?

Or, as Alicia [not our Alicia] stated it: "I'm too good to be divorced. Therefore this was not a valid marriage."

Yes, we want what we want. And it works the other way, too. I knew a young woman once, unmarried, who was "faithful" in all the ways this article describes – to doctrine, to discipline, to the authority of the Pope. She attended sodality weekly and the Mass daily. She was pretty and smart and finally found a man she wanted to marry. The difficulty was that he had already contracted another marriage, a Catholic one, and was in the midst of the tedium of having it annulled. The civil divorce, of course, had already gone through. Convinced that the prior marriage was indeed invalid, and apparently confident of the board’s ultimate ruling, our two lovers didn’t want to wait, and found a priest who would "bless" their marriage with the proviso that the vows must be reaffirmed once the decree of nullity came through. It took them a while to find a priest who would do this, but you can always find one if you really want to. Most of her sodality friends (like my wife) had doubts about all this, and so our pretty, smart, faithful young woman found it necessary to distance herself from them. These are the kinds of ruptures that are never fully healed, and we gradually lost touch with her. We want what we want. We want love so badly we’ll go bad to get it.

That "the culture of the world has infected the Church" is one of the tired, old-news insights the article offers. Shouldn't faith steel the assenting Catholic against the culture? it asks. In fact, it's the other way around. Faith needs a culture to stay strong. Well, I suppose it helps; on the other hand, tell it to the early Christians, Origen’s little "islands of light." Others come from the laity, like this divorced Catholic woman, one among several who complain about the general haplessness of priests in dealing with personal "issues": "It's like the Church has let us go into the hands of a monster that is tearing our family apart, and the Church won't intervene," she said. "They just stand back and watch it happen. When I made my vows, I signed up for something different".

Oh did you now? I figure it goes something like this: a couple comes running to the Church squealing, "We’re all grown up now and want to get married and we want it now."

And the Church (in the form of a priest, most likely) says, "Are you sure?"

"Oh yes, completely sure."

"You’ve thought it through?"

"Absolutely all the way."

"And you promise to do this, that, the other, and everything else besides?"

"Of course, silly."

"Till death do you part?"

"Do we have to get morbid? But yeah."

And the Church, in due course, gives them what they want. A few years later, things calm down, which is to say they get rough. The romance, that hormonal enthusiasm of youth in which we would bask forever, has flatlined, and their sex lives along with it, for they had always presumed that the fun of it ought always to equal in importance its function. They "know" each other now and the mystery has dimmed. Each finds the other a creature of annoying habits and patterns of thought. His enthusiasm for the television conflicts with hers for rearranging the furniture. She complains that they don’t spend enough time together, as though more frequent exposure would relieve the drudgery. She wants to "talk" about things; he thinks they’re better off unmentioned. In time the list of reservations grows quite long, and they go running back to the Church.

"You didn’t tell us it would be like this."

And the Church says, "But you said you’d thought it through. All the way. To the morbid end."

"Well, can’t you fix us or something?"

And the Church says…I must say, my sympathies are all with the priest. Not having been a fly on the wall during the course of your deterioration, how is he supposed to know how to fix you? Physician…and you know the rest.

One young man, Doug, thinks he’s figured out the problem in his now-failed marriage: …the troubles that tore his marriage apart came down to pride. "Both of us became guilty of self-righteousness," he said. "We both thought it was more important to be right than to be happy. And that's a killer for a marriage."

This sounds a little vague to me. [An aside: this has never been a problem in my marriage. I am always right and she knows how to say so. Then she goes and does what she wants and convinces me later that it’s what I’d wanted all along. But then I forgot to mention I’m married to a saint.] I wonder, for example, why Doug didn’t say that it was more important "to be humble than right." What’s happiness got to do with it? It’s not a word that pops up with much frequency in this article, and yet screams in its silence. None of the people profiled were happy in their marriages, yet that is what they wanted to be, what, they conceive, they had a right to be. It was a notion that so annoyed Malcolm Muggeridge, he wished it had never been put into the Declaration of Independence, and in the sense that so many today regard it as a civil right rather than a light at the end of a dark tunnel called death, we take his point. But it is well to remember that the document asserts our right to the pursuit, not to the happiness.

If an "assenting Catholic" couple’s discontents took the form of a syllogism, it might go something like this: God wants me to be happy in life. Marriage is a part, a big part, of life. I am not happy in my marriage, and at the moment see no hope of ever being so. Therefore, God does not want me in this marriage, which is in fact a non-marriage. Thank you, God.

And (by God) the marriage tribunal had better see it that way.

My suspicion (not a very profound one) is that these discontents find their origin in the juvenile conviction that the romance of first love, and the sex that accompanies it, ought not to diminish in brightness with the passage of years. But who, raised in any kind of family, cannot see that it must? You must not have been watching. There is a need, says the article, for better marriage formation. Now I know that some priests deliberately instruct their charges in a manner contrary to what the Pope (that is, tradition) would have them. But I also know that these instructees know this. That’s why they’re there. If they’d wanted to hear something else, they’d have walked out. And why do we need to be better formed? So that we’ll be happier? If you want to know what marriage will be like, talk to your parents. Better yet your grandparents. Why did it have to wait until you found a priest? Did you think you would be told that your marriage will be different from most others? I wonder who you thought you were.

Children should be happy. Adults should be something else. Committed, perhaps, to finishing a task and of holding to a promise, duty-bound to the drudgery, "happy" in the manacles of self-sacrifice by which, at one point, you asked to be confined.

And this, some would ask, is a vision of marriage, of a sacrament? Surely it was not meant to be. Well, it is – is it not? – the very manner in which Christ married Himself, indeed gave birth, to the Church, unto eternity, and without ever losing His love for the Bride.

If you don’t like it, you can always try the alternative, the loneliness of the single life. Then, no one will bother you. You can live as you like, seeking happiness all day long. You might even find it – in what I’m not sure – but I can guarantee it will involve some sort of marriage: to your work, to a succession of "encounters", to your hobbies, the television, books, boredom…and in the end none will prove satisfactory. Some people have this life thrust upon them, this loneliness, people whose hearts long for the day that someone comes along to say, "Let’s do this together." Someone with whom to take delight in children, in growing old together, someone with whom you see that the setting of the sun is a veil drawn over an impending glory, not an end to the only life you’ve ever known. Yes, there are people like this, who will never know the unhappiness of which you complain.

Or perhaps you’ll choose the religious life, reveling in the joy of your marriage to Jesus, undistracted by the things of the world. If you think worldly marriage is tough, I invite you to try that one.

Looking back, I’m glad I was able to see the romance transform into something else, a thing well nigh to witnessing a miracle, kin perhaps to Chesterton’s sentiment when he said that "keeping to one woman is a small price to pay for so much as seeing one woman." And it is this: at some point – and it was a particular moment – I was dumbfounded by the circumstance that some woman would want to throw in her lot with mine. What, after all, did I have to offer? What do I now? What was it about me that would so incline the most beautiful, gentle, and delicate of our race? That I could ever be even the partial fulfillment of the longing of another’s heart was a mystery beyond my capacity to solve. I saw suddenly this great adventure stretching forward down the years, all the privilege and honor it would entail – that she would bear my children (would even want to), that she would be willing to suffer my personal and professional setbacks, the financial hardships, the crises of health, the senseless and selfish upwellings of anger, all those moments that would seem so desperate and even disastrous when they finally arrived - and knew that somehow embodied within them, within the struggle itself, was the meaning of life. If she was willing to risk it, how could I not be? To have backed away would have been to dishonor that peculiar amalgam of strength, weakness, and above all, courage, that makes a woman, this woman.

The looking forward has sent me backward as well, back to those days of romance and the memory of what kindled it in the first place, of what it was that first bound me to her, and to the certainty that it could not have been any of the fading, perishable things of this world, like sex, or beauty, but only some inward facet of her soul that shone outward to enchant my own. It was something in her character. You can find a string of adjectives (if you’re lucky) to attach to it, to describe it, but you’ll never lay a finger on the source of the spark that sends it out into the world. And believing that it is the mark of immortality is (if you would marry) a risk that must be taken. That belief will be the food of your survival.

You can change her, of course. Just treat her poorly, neglect her, let slip from memory the miracle you once thought her to be, and watch the bright edge of her personality fold inward like a wilting flower where she can protect what’s left of what once you could not live without. That’s when you’ll go running to the Church pleading some invincible defect of the will, and you’ll be right, but incompletely so. You’ll have forgotten the heart.

The origins of human love are very nearly as mysterious to me as God Himself, as are the reasons why it necessitates such strife and rough sailing, but I’d like to keep it that way. It is in the midst of strife that character is forged, and in the presence of mystery that love is kept alive. Why the two must remain inextricable is a question I’d like the answer to, but I have a feeling it’s already been given. We just have a little trouble keeping Him before our eyes.


Great post!
Posted by Christine email at August 9, 2004 11:37 AM
Well, I think I liked the article more than you did! :-) But your points are very well taken.
Here's what I don't get. What on earth do these people (theoretically faithful Catholics) think that marriage is gonna be like? And where do those obviously erroneous ideas come from?
We're far too surrounded by the modern day fairy tale: soap operas, Sex in the City, romance novels (souped up with lots of hot, hot, hot sex!), and the like. We've somehow managed to convince ourselves that life is supposed to be "exciting", "fun", "new" and "sexy" all the time. Humph.
Craig and I have seen it in our own circle of friends. Sacrifice is all the rage--as long as you are the one being sacrificed *for*, but not if you're being the one *doing* the sacrificing.
We live in a culture of non-denial. We refuse to deny ourselves ANYTHING. What? Sex might come with babies? Don't deny yourself sex--just use contraception (or abortion, if that fails). Want that big house and the SUV? Don't deny yourself--MAKE NO SACRIFICE--just take out loans and charge up those cards.
It's all the same. We've just decided that there ought not be a brake on anything that crosses our minds. After all, we're nice people aren't we? We couldn't possibly want anything bad for us. Could we?
Hey, pass me that apple, Bill!
Posted by MamaT email at August 9, 2004 11:56 AM
What I don't understand is how these couples failed to take advantage of the many opportunities out there for marriage enrichment. Marriage Encounter, Retrouvaille are two that come to mind immediately. I have also seen marriages turned around by couples retreats, cursillo, life in the spirit seminars, etc. Anything that reminds the couple what Catholic Christianity is all about, and it isn't just having fun. Were these couples going to confession and being honest about it? There is a kind of idolatry in being more devoted to evangelization than to one's own marriage. Marriage is rough! rewarding, but rough! The only think harder, I think, is the alternative.
Posted by alicia email at August 9, 2004 03:07 PM
I like some of your comments so well at the end of your essay, I have linked your site today. Thank you for your wise words.Donna Boucher
Posted by Donna Boucher email at August 9, 2004 03:55 PM
I have to say I'm very surprised at all these comments and the cynical, uncharitable tone about the subjects of the article. I liked the article because I think it shows how easy it is to fall even when we ARE better prepared than the other segments of society. Anyone who has done any marriage preparation at all is head and shoulders above what most people do, myself included. We picked a church, the pastor gave us about 5 minutes of advice and then we went on planning. Through the grace of God, we are still married 20 years later after having to discover through painful lessons what a lot of people were given warnings about in marriage prep.
There is nothing wrong with being idealistic and thinking that our marriages will be different from others ... that is the condition of youth and is to be expected. Who doesn't think that they can do better than their parents, especially when they are young?
The points you make are all valid and especially the end of your comments are very true. But try to remember what it is to really be young, idealistic and finding your way ... have a little charity.
Posted by Julie D. email at August 9, 2004 06:34 PM
Christine - I thank you.Alicia and Donna - Thanks for the trackback and the link, respectively.Terry - this is for you.Julie - ...I liked the article because I think it shows how easy it is to fall even when we ARE better prepared... I make the point early on that I don't think there are great numbers of well-prepared Catholics whose marriages are failing. The article gives the impression we're in the midst of a crisis that doesn't exist, and their own numbers (a lack of them) admits this.- You want me to try to remember what it was like to be young. My memory is better than you think.- Your request for charity toward the young who think their marriages will surpass those of others requires that I concede willful stupidity to be a virtue, something I can't do. The notion that God would look upon my marriage with greater solicitude than He would upon someone else's is nothing but a self-centered delusion - pride, pure and simple. My marriage - perhaps yours, and certainly many others - survived because I surrendered such vanity, and focused instead on the person before me.
Posted by William Luse email at August 9, 2004 09:37 PM
We do live in a culture of non-(self)denial. We constantly hear both directly and indirectly "YOU deserve..." Of course we believe that what we "deserve" (desire) cannot be bad for us. But like the ants supping on the poisoned syrup, we do not recognize that it will lead to our death.
When I think of my marriage I am reminded of one of the ways our Catholic faith is still countercultural. "We believe so that we may come to understand." I believed in my marriage and in my promise and commitment. To paraphrase Scott Hahn "our covenant with each other and with God". For better or worse, my rebellious attitudes, her rebellious attitudes, the children and their attempts to play us against each other, The rebellious and argumentative periods of the children. If I am honest I can see where (who) the rebellion came from in the children. (me)
With time I have come to understand more and more of what this sacrament of marriage is all about. It is about prayer for / and with each other. It is recognizing that God has forgiven me. AND ("as we forgive those") I am to forgive the one who is closest to me. Particularly those times when she does not ask for forgivness.
Sometimes I see glimmers of how we may have done some things well. We were told by our 28 year old son (just about 10 days ago when visiting him) that we had stood shoulder to shoulder and could not be played against each other when he was growing up. We both commented that we remember our arguments during that period. He neither saw nor heard them.
Sometimes just slogging along, offering it up, and trusting in God has been enough for me. When I think of how close I came to giving up on our marriage, I realize what I would have lost. It brings me to tears. Too many feelings to sort out.
What I tell my children, and anyone else as well, is that Marriage, like life, like our faith, will not be easy. But, it will be worth the struggles.
Lord, I believe. Help my disbelief.
Posted by John Huntley email at August 10, 2004 12:36 AM
Looks Alicia found the right guy. You might want to post some of these thoughts over at Dads.
Posted by William Luse email at August 10, 2004 04:24 AM
Lovely commentary, Mr. Luse.
But thie gave me pause:"Or, as Alicia [not our Alicia] stated it: "I'm too good to be divorced. Therefore this was not a valid marriage.""
Eek, shades of Henry VIII, who for wont of an annulment started his own religion. ;-)
Posted by Julie (the elderly one) email at August 11, 2004 04:40 AM
ehm.. That should be "this" and "want".
Posted by Julie (the elderly one) email at August 11, 2004 04:43 AM
The article was good, but your reflections are better. Wish I had it to think about at the end of June when I go through my yearly doldrums around the time of our anniversary. The past 26 years haven't been the easiest (like, what was I expecting? :) ) and I still have moments when I think that 23 year-olds should not be allowed to make lifelong vows. Just out of school - I was barely responsible to join a record club...(they still had records back in '78)
The quote: "But, you know what? If you have the wherewithal to figure out that you were so gravely incapacitated as to invalidate your marriage, chances are you're not incapacitated." made me laugh. In a good way. Because on bad days I think that all a marriage tribunal would have to do is meet my husband to know that I must have been insane to contract a marriage with him.
But it has been 26 years and we are married. And that's what it's all about. Not anything like the treacly pictures in bridal magazines or , even worse, the marriage preparation materials that our parish gives to couples.
Posted by Ellyn email at August 11, 2004 08:34 AM
Ellyn, We are called to make commitments. Even in our late teens and early twenties we do KNOW and we can make commitments. We may not UNDERSTAND fully but we believe and hold to the covenant so that we may understand.
The nauseatingly sweet magazines contribute to the belief that it is all about the spectacle of being the Bride. "I will only have this one wedding so it is worth the expense" is followed by "We can't have kids right now because we have to pay off the expense of the wedding". Sigh.
Did you (like most of us) truly believe that you were prepared for the marriage? It sounds like you learned as we all do. Sufficient unto the day are the Graces we are given.
Join me in a prayer of thanksgiving for all sacramental marriages. For the graces, the travails, and the deepening joy that this covenant commitment brings to each of us in our sacrament.
May our prayers help those with inadequate preparation to find their way to the graces and resources that the Lord has awaiting them in our troubled world. Help us to be those resources when you call us to be and a quiet example the rest of the time.
Posted by John Huntley email at August 11, 2004 12:38 PM
Ellyn, some great thoughts, and from John as well (seems to be a topic that gets him going). He's posting on it over at Dad's and maybe you should too. To me, the endurance of those 26 years is a thing of beauty. We seem to believe these days that a thing is not beautiful unless it's easy to look at, and easy to do. Might be just the opposite.Julie, since when did you become 'the elderly one?'
Posted by William Luse email at August 11, 2004 08:48 PM
Amongst the Catholic bloggers that seem to frequent these circles, I have now run into a Julie M. and a Julie D. Since my initials are Julie M. D., I was experimenting with a moniker. I guess I could be Julie Protestant. :-P
Posted by Julie email at August 12, 2004 09:39 AM
:~) Julie will be fine. Then I'll know who you are
Posted by William Luse email at August 12, 2004 05:57 PM
Barna is an anti-catholic evangelical. The primary purpose of his "polling" company seems to be to trash Catholicism. I posted on some other Barna shenanigans here.
Posted by The Barrister email at August 16, 2004 12:29 PM

1 comment:

Maureen Martin said...

Wow, I loved your post. I plan to send it to a few people.

God bless, Maureen