Does marriage mean exactly what we want it to mean?

A question that hung around the edges of the recent debate on same-sex marriage was this: when it comes to marriage and the family, what do Irish people, especially the young, want? Of course, they would like a lot of different things, including winning the Lotto, but what essentially do they want?
The first thing they want, I suspect, is a close and intimate relationship with a high level of communication at its core. It’s only when that foundation is secure, and as the years pass by, that they begin to attach other elements to it: children, economic partnership, civil legal status, church legal status.
Not so long ago society determined the essentials and set out a definitive sequence: courtship, engagement, church (and civil) wedding, honeymoon, accommodation, children. It was, even a few decades ago unconscionable, not to follow the norms the Church (and society) had laid down: the practice of couples living together was frowned upon, having children ‘outside of wedlock’ was a no-no, and so on.
Now an acceptance of the variety of couple relationships in Irish society allows individuals to ‘mix and match’ both priorities and sequence. Couples live together, have children, buy a house, go on honeymoon, decide to get married (or not) in whatever sequence they decide and, in the modern world, an acceptance of variety, the existence of the contraceptive pill, and so forth allow for that freedom to shape their own ‘marriage’.
The reason, I suspect, why people found it difficult to understand the concept of the re-definition in law of marriage in the recent referendum debate was that the re-definition was already in existence in practice in Ireland in the variety of relationships already accepted by society. Regardless of legal definitions or constitutional protection the revolution in personal relationships has already happened in Ireland.
And, I suspect too, the reason why the concept of every child having a father and a mother didn’t get much purchase (apart from the emotional tug of the idea) was that in people’s experiences children in Ireland were already in a great variety of parenting situations.
Parenthood in Ireland is now a moveable feast. Once most parents in Ireland, it could be taken for granted, were genetic parents but that’s no longer the case. As Bishop Kevin Doran discovered, parenthood in Ireland is now a broad concept: single parents, adoptive parents, married step-parents, unmarried step-parents, gay parents, lesbian parents, grandparent parenting and are all now above criticism because more parenting (no matter what the circumstances) is always regarded as better than less or no parenting.
For example, children now can have multiple parents: natural parents or if a relationship breaks down, possible step-fathers or step-mothers or mother’s boyfriends or partners or father’s girlfriends or partners. And, with the legislation for same-sex marriage now pending, parents can include mother’s wife or father’s husband. And, with surrogacy still unregulated in Ireland, the list of parents can also include a sperm donor, an egg donor, the woman whose womb was rented for nine months, the couple who will raise the child.
Not too long ago family in Ireland was based on a very clear template: a relationship between a man and a woman that was legal, permanent, exclusive and reproductive. The woman was the home-maker; the father, the provider.
All of those categories have been challenged in recent years and marriage and family have become less clear or definitive social constructs as a variety of relationships, garnished by personal choice and circumstance, present themselves as, de facto, ‘marriages’ and ‘families’. While no one would question the existence of children, a case might well be made for saying that marriage, like words for Humpty Dumpty speaking to Alice in Through the Looking Glass, really only means what we want it to mean.
Part of the problem is that by calling something by a respectable word we give it an elevated status without actually describing it accurately in terms of what its traditional meaning was.
The Catholic Church, it could be argued, has a similar problem. It makes a distinction between two kinds of marriage: ‘sacramental’ and ‘natural’.
A ‘sacramental’ marriage describes one between two baptised Christians: say, between two Catholics or a Catholic and a Protestant (of whatever denomination) or, say, between two members of the Church of Ireland. For example, if a marriage between two Church of Ireland parties breaks down, and one of them wishes then to marry a Catholic the inaccurate presumption is that the Catholic Church has no problem recognising the second union because the first was between two Church of Ireland parties and therefore not a ‘Catholic’ marriage. That’s not the case.
A ‘natural’ marriage is what is described as ‘contractual but not sacramental’. Examples of natural marriage are those between a Christian and an unbaptised person or between, say, two Muslims or two Buddhists. All of those marriages are recognised by the Catholic Church as ‘natural’.
Teasing out this distinction between sacramental and natural marriages, in terms of a possible way forward for the Church in view of the expected discussion on divorced Catholics who have remarried and the recent referendum, Clifford Longley writes in The Tablet: ‘One way forward for the (Catholic) Church would be to accept in theory what is the case in practice, that not all marriages which Catholics may enter into need necessarily be regarded as sacramental. Those whose marriages are recognised by the state but which do not conform to canon law would be seen as non-sacramental ‘natural’ marriages. That is how society regards them. And experience tells us that the presence or otherwise of the sacramental character of matrimony often makes little discernible difference’.
That distinction between sacramental and natural marriages may be an important one to remember when the October Synod reassembles in Rome. In short, marriage doesn’t have to be sacramental to be accepted by the Catholic Church.
Note: My new book, Tracing the Stem, traces the history of bishops in Killala diocese from earliest times. It’s available widely at €40 or can be ordered post free by emailing: bhoban@eircom.net

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  1. Cornelius Martin says:

    The sociological review here is accurate and comprehensive but consideration of sacramental marriage being a source of grace, holiness and salvation is not included. Sacramental marriage has a context. Saint Paul starts his letter to the Romans by greeting “all the beloved of God in Rome,” “called to be holy.” The community is called to be holy – the whole reason for the letter and for the existence of the Roman community in the first place. Sacramental marriage is part of the process.
    Paul claims he has “the grace of apostleship” and he offers the Gospel, which “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” Salvation, meaning freedom from sin and union with God, includes becoming holy through God.
    The various forms of cohabitation and parenting described here would not have been regarded by St Paul as neutral, but rather as man’s thoughts, words, and actions marred by sin: “all have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God.” Notice “all.” After which Paul offers the answer to this situation: “in [the Gospel] is revealed the righteousness of God.”
    Through the Gospel comes righteousness for mankind. In fact, a human “who is righteous by faith will live.” He/she can unite with the righteous God. The Letter to the Hebrews says: “my just one shall live by faith, and if he draws back I take no pleasure in him.” (Hebrews 10:38) This is the same idea, namely that the relation with God is interpersonal, that mankind’s side of the relationship is based on faith, uniting the just in Heaven with those who live by faith on earth. The alternative to a faith relationship is the prospect of men and women “holding back,” and thus becoming unjust, body and soul.
    Certain aspects of the life of every human being born into the world have been good, but the “certain aspects” often do not justify the whole.
    None of the truths of God is a human construct and so not a single one of them is open to the treatment of “what I would like it to be,” but rather rests on “what can be known about God [and] is evident. . .because God made it evident.”
    In short, those with the “grace of apostleship” and others do best when they preach the evident truths of God, in season and out of season.

  2. Joe O'Leary says:

    Paul is a strange authority to invoke here, since all the principles you rehearse prompted him to treat the Torah in a creative and dynamic way that was shocking at the time. Extension of married status to gay couples is mere child’s play compared with the moral revolution brought about by Paul.

  3. Mary Wood says:

    FRom an a/c of a very recent CTSA meeting
    The need for reception of teachings by the People of God is a counterbalance to this modern need for certitude, Burkhard said. “In some situations the real question is not ‘Is it true?’ but ‘Is it life-giving?’ ” he said.

  4. Cornelius Martin says:

    # 2 and 3
    I have no expertise on St Paul. I go by the Vatican II document Dei Verbum which in paragraph 11 states “since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully and without error that truth which God wanted put into sacred writings (5) for the sake of salvation.”,
    Despite lacking the expertise of Joe O’Leary or Mr Burkhard, I find correlation between Romans 1 and John 8: 31 -34:
    [31] Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, [32] and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” [33] They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham, and have never been in bondage to anyone. How is it that you say, `You will be made free’?” [34] Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin.
    On foot of Dei Verbum I think St Paul is an instrument of the Holy Spirit proclaiming “my word” while retaining his personal traits. The opposite of the wisdom of the Holy Spirit is folly.
    Christ is also extolling the value of truth, but not as a need of some modern poor “down and out.” The combination of “Way”, “Truth” and “Life” in John 14:6 suggests that the Truth is the source of all that is “life-giving.” The pursuit of Truth is the pursuit of Christ; it is the “Way” of the life of faith rather than of certitude. St Thomas was told “be not faithless but believing.” (Jn 20: 27) Did Christ ever assume certitude apart from in the case of His Mother? “I have prayed for you Peter that your faith fail not.” (Lk 22:32).
    If Christ is the Truth and the Life, then Truth and Love are inter-reliant. The opposite of love is selfishness which is not “life-giving.”

  5. KevinWalters says:

    We have only ONE Master and we are led by His example. The full richness of “church teaching” emanates from the living Word of God and we walk on safe ground when we revert to the simplicity of His Word within our hearts.
    ‘Is it life-giving?’
    “He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day”.
    There is no more awful utterance than this where the irresistible power of a searching inviolable Law is vindicated
    Christian marriage as defined by Jesus Christ. “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother, and the two shall become one flesh”. The TRUTH of this statement can be seen in any offspring they may be blest with and this statement is truly life-giving.
    In short, those with the “grace of apostleship” and others do best when they preach the evident truths of God, in season and out of season.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ.

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