The synod meeting in Rome, convened by Pope Francis on October 5, seeks ways to meet the pastoral needs of marriages and families.One objective of the summit, which runs for two weeks, is to find ways to better communicate the meaning of marriage, and its value.
I have been working on that myself for years, and I can attest to the difficulty.
I am a physician, and I teach sex-ed to hundreds of eighth graders every year. I like to think it’s the most vitally important class they’ll attend that year, and maybe the most important during their careers at school.
My husband says "Chastity Day," the morning program organized by our local archdiocese and attended by all the Catholic school eighth graders, is unattractively named. Certainly the term “chastity” is almost universally misunderstood, and causes hysterical titters in our middle school audience.
He thinks “Marriage Day” would be more apt. He may be right.
What I teach to all those captive school children is the concept of marriage. Marriage as it was understood in the West over the last hundreds of years: a sacred, indissoluble bond, where each spouse seeks the good of the other, and together they welcome and nurture their children.
We teach them that sex inside that bond of marriage is good and even holy, but outside that bond it brings nothing but trouble and heartache.
We even stage a wedding for them, with a young blushing bride in a beautiful white gown, and a proud groom standing bravely by her side. The children listen, fascinated, to the words of the couple as they promise to stay together until death parts them, no matter what the future may throw at them.
When I’m talking to them about saving sex for marriage, when you can be sure that your loved one treasures you above all things and if a baby comes along you’ll both be overjoyed (if a little scared), I know I’m telling them something they won't hear anywhere else.
On TV, in the movies and in music lyrics, they are told all the time that sex is a great pastime, with no sad consequences, and that if you abstain you must be a real loser. In that world, condoms always work perfectly and STD’s never happen.
Chastity, or sexual self-control, is something they’ve been told they don't have. They have urges, needs, and desires, and those should be satisfied.
When a “wanted” baby comes along, a guy may step up to the plate and marry the mother, or he might not. Either way the baby will do great, because fathers are overrated. And in that world, marriages automatically end when one of the spouses says: “I’m just not in love anymore. I deserve to be happy.”
The version of marriage the Church promotes couldn’t be more different. It’s based on Christ’s words that a married couple must be regarded as a single person, or, as He said:“one flesh.” So marriage is for life.
This is a terribly romantic idea, easily understood by any one who has ever been truly in love. Lovers have always promised eternal love to their beloved, and the Christian ideal is fidelity to that tremendous promise.
The promise is not to “be in love” perpetually, but to“love” perpetually, seeking the spouse’s good as earnestly as we seek our own good, and never walking away.
This exalted vision of Christian marriage was something everyone aimed for, just a generation or two ago. Not everyone succeeded of course, but mothers and fathers everywhere taught their children that they were worthy of that kind of commitment, and that they should wait for that magnificent love to come along, and not settle for less.
If the children I teach only have the popular culture to go by, then they do not know that kind of love exists. Everywhere around them they see people settling for less than nothing. To quote C.S. Lewis, nowadays we are “like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea.”
Now, I know, and the bishops at the synod know, that marriage is no day at the beach!
My husband and I have been married for 20 years, and he likes to say they’ve been the six happiest years of his life. But the Christian vision of marriage has pulled us through, and has given us the conviction we’ve needed to hold on during the rough patches.
The Church, at the aynod, is trying to get that Christian concept of the marriage sacrament back into the mainstream.
It may seem more merciful, given the situation on the ground, to accept divorce, cohabitation, and remarriage as the new normal. The truth is, real mercy lies in proclaiming the fidelity and commitment humans are really capable of.
It’s going to be real tough. But if they succeed, it’s possible that millions of people will look up from their muddy puddles and head out to the sparkling sea. That would be a marvelous thing.