The Synod and Marriage: The Deeper Issues
Sherif Grigis FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2014
With numerous western countries now redefining marriage, October’s Synod of Bishops will have to grapple with a fundamental question: what exactly is marriage? Drawing upon both faith and reason, Sherif Girgis attempts to answer that question.
This October, Pope Francis will convene a synod of bishops to discuss marriage and family. Any good fruit from it will stem from the truths about marriage planted deep in the deposit of faith.
But not only in the faith. For the natural moral law contains the same truths. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear: “The natural law, present in the heart of each man and established by reason, is universal in its precepts and its authority extends to all men” (1956). And it includes the moral law of sex and marriage.
Indeed, the great thinkers of ancient Greece began to develop a tradition of moral philosophy long before Christ came to earth. They came so close to Hebrew and Christian moral insights that some early Church Fathers wondered whether some Greeks had received private divine revelations; a contemporary secularist historian of ancient philosophy once wrote that almost the same sex ethic was espoused by Plato and Paul VI. Drawing on these Greek origins, Christian thinkers through the centuries have written on natural law, developing its insights to this day.
On marriage and everything else, the moral law is not meant to limit us; it guides us in the way of truth and love. Far from being arbitrary, it reflects the truth about the human person and in that way helps build communion. To break it is to invite confusion and division, as we can see from the natural law vision of the family.
The synod preparatory document asks: what vision of the human person lies behind that natural-law understanding of marriage?
Let’s begin with the human person. We are not spirits in bodily costumes: as persons, we are our living bodies, in two varieties: male and female. For this reason, spousal love – which seeks total union with the beloved – calls for a union of bodies as well as of hearts and minds.
But what makes for bodily union? It isn’t emotion alone or pleasure alone – platonic bonds can give us that. Rather, it requires bodily co-operation towards a single bodily end. After all, you are personally “one flesh”, one body, by the fact that your physical systems co-operate towards a single end: your life. A “one-flesh” union is also possible between two adults in one specific way.
In the marital act, a man and woman are co-ordinated towards a single bodily end: new life. In this way, the life-giving act becomes the love-making act – a seal of their committed union of heart and mind by a true bodily union. In fact, marriage is uniquely deepened by family life precisely because the act that makes marital love is also the kind that makes new life. This all-encompassing union, and its orientation towards bringing new human beings to maturity, requires an all-encompassing commitment: permanent and exclusive.
So many features of marriage – its commitments to permanence and exclusivity, its openness to life, its unitive value – are grounded in our bodies, as male and female. But, as polls indicate, many Catholics today (and many more outside the faith) doubt that embodiment and sex (or gender) matters much in marriage. They ask: isn’t it enough that two people are in love? Yet those who ask this question should ask a few more.
Why, for instance, should a union set apart by deep emotional fulfilment be pledged to permanence – as opposed to lasting only as long as the sense of fulfilment does? Why should marriage be a union of two, if three can be united emotionally? Why should the spouses “forsake all others” if a sexually “open” union enhances emotional fulfilment? Why should the bond be sexual at all, if its promise lies in its emotional satisfactions?
These questions make it clear that the moral truths about marriage, available to reason and faith alike, form a very tight web indeed. To pull out a thread is to unravel the whole. That is why the bishops must affirm that consummated covenantal marriage is indissoluble. For one thing, this is a definitive teaching of the Church. We cannot deny that, like the Church’s whole marital ethic, it has been a great burden on a great many. But Our Lord foresaw that and spoke of it with maximum clarity, as he did of the Eucharist and other “hard sayings”.
“Many Catholics ask: isn’t it enough that two people are in love? Those who ask this question should ask a few more”
Besides, embracing remarriage would be a concession to the spirit of the age that the pain of unmet desire for sexual companionship is too great for God really to want anyone to have to bear. And that concession, as we have seen, would eclipse the Church’s whole vision of marriage and family – a vision that ultimately serves the needs of children, the internal requirements of marital love, and the dignity of every person in her or his bodily integrity. Not to mention that, in the context of the West’s current turmoil over marriage, making such a concession in the case of remarried but not of gay couples would be capricious.
The Synod’s task, then, will be to offer pastoral solutions to those suffering from loneliness, or from broken hearts and homes – solutions that illuminate rather than obscure the values to which their hardship gives radiant, poignant witness.
Those values are natural, but not only natural. Some of the ancients knew that to honour marriage was to affirm the goodness of the body, of embodied love and new human life. But we know, as they could not, that honouring the natural law of marriage can lead us, by grace, to the eternal banquet where all are made “one flesh” – one body, one spirit, in Christ.
By so reminding us that marriage is ultimately a temporary sign of that union with Christ which lasts for ever, the Gospel gives us the most hopeful of all perspectives on marital hardships. For it tells us that celibacy or single service, as well as marriage, points to our ultimate union in heaven – marriage to its comprehensiveness, and the former to its all-inclusiveness. It tells us that there is no “normal” vocation for those who can, with contingency plans for those who can’t or have “failed”, but unique calls to each one of us, willed in love from the foundation of the world and offering us a way of bearing fruit at every moment, however tragic.
And it tells us, finally, that everyone’s most basic identity is not as single, married or divorced; as gay or straight; as member of this or that family or household – but as son or daughter of God, made in his image, destined for his household, and for the glory of his kingdom.
Sherif Girgis is a law student at Yale and a doctoral student in philosophy at Princeton. He is also co-author of “What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense” published by Encounter Books.