Mexico City lawmakers are currently considering a further redefinition of the meaning of marriage. They are proposing to implement a policy that would allow couples to decide on the length of their commitment. The minimum contract would be two years, after which a couple could “re-up” if they decide they are happy with one another and their living situation. The contract is similar to any other contract, with provisions on what happens to possessions and children.
While it’s laudable that lawmakers are attempting to do something about the nearly 50% divorce rate, as well as attempting to spare people of the pain of divorce, they’re going about it the wrong way. The fact that this is happening in a historically Catholic country leads me to believe some major catechesis on marriage is needed.
To paraphrase presidential candidate Rick Santorum, a paper towel is not a napkin. No matter how many times we say that a paper towel is a napkin, it can never be a napkin. A paper towel has essential properties and qualities, and once we change those properties, it ceases to be a paper towel.
What does this have to do with marriage? Namely, we can’t redefine marriage into anything we want it to be. Once a person, group, lobbying organization or government begins to change the definition of marriage, it ceases to be marriage. Certainly, it may appear to have some qualities of a marriage, but in reality it’s simply not a marriage. Just as two men who want to get married can’t because they’re unable to fulfill the essential nature of marriage, when we begin putting a time limit on marriage, we essentially render it meaningless.
Among many things inherent to the definition of marriage, is that it is to be until death. The whole notion that we can decide how long our marriages should be is a fruit of the no-fault divorce fiasco that has produced the mentality that when difficulties abound we should just call it quits. Too many of us have seen our parents, family members or neighbors split up and think this is normal. But the cost of divorce – emotionally and financially – is just too high for all of us.
When we enter into marriage, we never know what we’re going to get. We may have a spectacular marriage with beautiful children and a lifetime of health and wealth. Or, God forbid, the morning after we consummate our marriage, our car may be cut in two in an accident, and one of us may be a quadriplegic. We just never know. But if we’ve had it planted in our mind (or worse, signed a two-year contract) that if things go belly up we’ll just part ways, then when problems arise (and they always do), we’ll make a beeline for the exit without ever questioning if a greater good could come from working through the difficulties.
As a married man, I know experientially the power of believing marriage is forever: My wife and I are far from perfect. We encounter difficult moments that test our love for one another. The knowledge that we’re committed — not just to one another, but to marriage itself — has helped us recommit to our vows in those very moments. In truth, it has helped us love one another through those difficulties. I like to think that 50 years from now, our marriage will be stronger for all these “battle scars.” In a certain sense, if we don’t set our face like flint and decide to stick it out through hell and high water, our marriage is inevitably bound for the divorce court.
On a human level, a marriage that is not decidedly permanent is contrary to the deepest desires of our hearts. Every one of us, if we’re honest, wants permanence. We want to know that someone’s going to be there for us when we’re having a rough day. When we screw up, we want to know that he or she is going to forgive us. Most importantly, our children need to know that Dad and Mom are going to be there for them, together. Isn’t this what you wanted growing up?
Catholics, on a sacramental level, believe marriage to be, not a contract, but a covenant. It is a total exchange of myself with another that profoundly images Jesus Christ’s love for the Church. Our Divine Bridegroom gave everything of Himself to His Bride. What if He just decided He’s had enough with us pathetic sinners and that He’s walking away? We’d be eternally divorced from Love Himself and destined for eternal separation from our heart’s desire.
Because Christ will never leave us, even going to the depths of love by shedding His blood for us, we too must re-examine what marriage is supposed to be. We need to learn to take the attitude with our spouses that He does with us, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
The Good News is the Sacrament of Marriage actually gives us the power to say YES unconditionally with the whole of our lives. If we’re having struggles, we need to come together as spouses and beg Him to unlock the graces He initially poured out to us on that day that we promised our sacred vows to one another. If we don’t remember what those vows were, we need to relearn them and recommit to them – daily. And we need to ask Christ to help us believe that living out these vows has the power to make us the persons he created us to be. He desires to help us to carry our crosses so that we can be an even brighter reflection of His love for humanity.
If we’re not happy with the number of divorces, we should not try to redefine reality. We should not strip a good thing of exactly that which makes it good. Instead, let’s make a real change, and start in our own hearts. Let’s rediscover what permanency all about, that it’s not a hindrance to our freedom, but instead frees us to make a complete, life-long self-donation to the ones we promised to love forever.