With few exceptions, we humans grow up to want an intimate companion in life. Nearly all of us discover that we need this. So we marry someone.
And roughly half the time the marriage is not sustained. Something made that relationship intolerable for one or both of the people involved, and they weren’t able to make the changes needed. This happens among religious people, including Catholics, as well as the nonreligious.
Why aren’t we notably different? We talk about marriage as a lifetime commitment. We teach and preach a meaning of love that goes far beyond the good feelings of romance. In Jesus we promote a model of love that absorbs suffering and turns it into good. But we don’t do much better at suffering through the differences that two people bring to marriage. We think we know the other person, we think we know ourselves, and it turns out that what we thought is only a small part of reality.
The person we live with five, 10, 20 years down the road of marriage doesn’t seem to be the same person we started with. Nor are we the same. If we haven’t changed in complementary ways during that journey of years, we will be growing apart.
An honest look at the reality of marriage suggests that it can’t work without faith. If the love that two people believe they share doesn’t include a real faith, their life together will not produce a mature joy. If love means only feel-good times and the self-satisfying hopes we already know, some shattering growth must happen for the marriage to escape mutual or one-sided selfishness and be good.
Early this year an important Catholic leader said we aren’t better at marriage because so many of us are really “baptized pagans” rather than Christ-bearers. In other words, we take our instructions for living more from the secular culture than Christian sources; less from the Church and more from the influence of advertising, the entertainment industry, the priorities of a competitive economy.
German Cardinal Walter Kasper made the “baptized pagans” remark in a recent talk to his fellow cardinals. They were together thinking about marriage and family, the subject of an extraordinary world synod of bishops that will begin this October.
Cardinal Kasper has taken bold stands about marriage. As head of a German diocese he said there should be a way for divorced and remarried Catholics who have not gone through the annulment process to be accepted for holy Communion. He has continued promoting that idea even in public arguments with fellow cardinals.
How that might be done is the hard question, since reception of Communion is a sign of our full commitment living the Catholic faith. That faith includes a belief that marriage between Christians cannot fail, can’t end before death, and is an unbreakable bond like the bond of love between God and us. The coming synod of bishops will surely hear thousands of words on the question, and Cardinal Kasper has already suggested a direction they might take: better formation in the faith required for marriage. Better communication of Christian fundamentals.
He told the editors of Commonweal magazine in an interview, “Many canon lawyers tell me that today in our pluralistic situation we cannot presuppose that couples really assent to what the Church requires … We must do much more in prematrimonial catechesis … because we cannot presuppose that everybody who is a formal Christian also has the faith. It wouldn’t be realistic.”
We can do better with marriage, in other words, as we do better with faith. Good marriages show this. The future will be influenced by what the synod of bishops does, but it is already affected by the faith that makes our marriages. We are the primary teachers, for good or ill.