Sunday, October 04, 2015

Marriage: Preserve It, Protect It—and Defend It!

(Twenty-seventh Sunday of the Year (B): This homily was given on October 4, 2015 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Genesis 2: 18-24; Mark 10: 2-16.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-seventh Sunday 2015]

Before a newly-elected President can begin to exercise his office, he has to swear an oath—an oath in which he promises to do all in his power to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States.

And why is that?

Well, very simply, it’s because the Constitution is at the foundation of our life as a nation.  The structure of our government, the responsibilities of the various branches of government—and all of our civil laws—are supposed to be rooted in the guidelines given in that document.  Some of us, of course, would argue that many of our current laws are NOT rooted in the Constitution—but they’re supposed to be.

Which brings us to today’s first reading and gospel, both of which are about marriage.  In today’s first reading we hear about the creation of Eve, whom Adam immediately recognized as his equal (that’s the meaning of the phrase “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh”).  He also affirmed her uniqueness and her complementarity to him.

Thus it’s clear from Sacred Scripture that Adam and Eve were equal, but different—and because of their physical difference they were able to engage in the marital act through which new life could come into the world.  As the author of Genesis put it: “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one flesh.”

This one-flesh union, incidentally, is only possible between a man and a woman (just in case anyone is unclear about that!).

And then we have Jesus in today’s gospel giving the Pharisees a lesson on the permanence of marriage.  They appeal to the Law of Moses to try to justify divorce, but Jesus tells them that God only tolerated divorce among the Israelites for a time because of their hardness of heart.  Then our Lord brings them back to the time of Adam and Eve and to God’s original—and perpetual—intention for marriage, which was for it to be a permanent bond.  He then concludes with those famous words: “Therefore what God has joined, no human being must separate.”

It’s no secret that the institution of marriage has suffered greatly in recent decades.  But that really shouldn’t surprise us, because the priesthood has also suffered greatly during the same period of time.  I remember a professor of mine at Providence College making a statement once that really struck me.  He said, “There’s always a parallel between marriage and the priesthood.  In the last 2,000 years of Christian history, whenever you come upon a time when the institution of marriage was strong, the priesthood was also strong; and by the same token, when you come upon a period of history when the institution of marriage was weak (as is the case today), you’ll also find that the priesthood was weak.”

That made a lot of sense to me, because both marriage and the priesthood are rooted in permanent, lifelong commitments.

So what can we do to help to improve the situation with respect to marriage?  Can we do anything at all—besides pray—to help things get better?  Or is the situation hopeless?

Well, here’s where the parallel with the presidential oath of office comes into the equation.  I said at the beginning of my homily that when a President is sworn in on Inauguration Day, he promises to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution of the United States; and I said he does that because the Constitution is at the very foundation of our life as a nation.

Well, marriage and family life (as our Holy Father reminded us last week during the Festival of Families) are at the foundation of every good and stable society.  As the Catechism says, “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life.”  (CCC, 1603)

And so I would say that what the President pledges to do with respect to the Constitution, we need to pledge to do with respect to marriage: we need to do all that we can to preserve it, protect it—and defend it!

First of all, we need to do our best to PRESERVE it—and that applies not only to marriage as an institution, but also to our own marriage if we happen to be married. 

Those who are “in the know” tell me that marriage is work; they tell me that marriage isn’t easy; they tell me that marriage requires effort, and a willingness to compromise, and a willingness to forgive—and a host of other virtues.

And I believe those people.  They know—by experience—what they’re talking about!

Thus it should come as no surprise that in our society right now the pressures to give up and to “jump ship” when things get difficult in marriage are intense.  Now to be sure, some marital situations are intolerable—and dangerous—and that can make the separation of the spouses legitimate and even necessary (as the Catechism tells us in paragraph 1649); but in other cases reconciliation is possible—with the help of great programs like Retrouvaille, which I’ve spoken about in previous homilies.

And we need to support people as much as possible in making those efforts.

Marriages that can be saved, should be saved.  At this point I should mention the fact that we are blessed to have many couples in our community who have been married for a long time: for 40 or 50 or 60—or even 70!—years.  These are couples who can and who should inspire all of us—but especially those who are in difficult marriages at the present time.

These couples show us that lifelong commitments are still possible in this crazy world of ours.  Not easy—but possible (with a lot of work, and a lot of prayer, and a lot of patience, and a lot of forgiveness!).

Secondly, we need to PROTECT marriage.  We need to protect it, first of all, from those who want to change it into something less than a lifelong commitment (which is precisely what some people in our society right now are desperately trying to do!).  They want to have marriages that are like Major League Baseball contracts: you “sign up” for a few years, and then you become (for lack of a better term) a “free agent.”

So it’s more than just protecting marriage from those who want to change it into something other than the union of one man and one woman (although we need to protect marriage from that error as well!).  We also need to guard against those who want to destroy its permanence—and those who want to say that openness to having children in marriage is something that’s optional.

Not every married couple will be blessed with children, but every married couple must be open to the possibility that God will choose to bless them with children.

Now all of this means that we need to be ready, willing and able to DEFEND marriage whenever the “Pharisees” of our day attack it or try to undermine it in some fashion.  I ask you this morning, how would you answer the following questions: What is marriage?  Why is marriage important?  Why is it in the best interest of a society to protect and promote marriage as the union of one man and one woman?  How do children benefit from being raised in a home with a father and a mother who are married to one another?  What’s the difference between a divorce and an annulment?

If you don’t know how you’d respond to those questions, then the Lord’s message to you today is very clear: “You need to do some homework and learn how to respond important questions like these in a clear and reasonable way!”

Because if marriage is at the foundation of a stable society (and it is), then our society will not improve unless the institution of marriage improves.

And marriage will only improve if we do our best—our very best—to PRESERVE it, and PROTECT it—and DEFEND it.

Like Jesus did.