Ask a person what they think about marriage in society today, and they’ll probably say that the institution isn’t looking too pretty.
Yes, the divorce rate has steadily declined over the last thirty years in the U.S., but so has the number of people getting married in the first place. More and more couples are choosing to live together unwed, while domestic partnerships and gay-marriage initiatives challenge the traditional purpose and place of marriage entirely.
Various versions of this same story are unfolding throughout the world. Earlier this week, for instance, The Catholic Thing covered the state of marriage in France, particularly following civil-union legislation ten years ago. The upshot of the article was that marriage rates have declined in France for decades and the option of civil unions has only steepened the downward slope.
I tweeted about the CT piece earlier this week. Someone took issue and pointed out that France has a lower divorce rate than does America, which is true enough. “[T]he ones who get married are serious,” he said. “Here [in the U.S.] they divorce like crazy. Which model is worse?”
My response? Both. Marriage is suffering in different ways in both countries.
Why? Theology precedes sociology. We do what we believe. The primary concern is not that we are abandoning the institution of marriage; I think we go wrong when we focus our attention here first.
The primary concern is that we have abandoned the mystery of marriage—that marriage exists in the Church and for the world as a picture of Christ and the Church. More than a picture, it is by God’s grace a transformative reality, a sacrament.
That’s what Paul says at the end of the fifth chapter of Ephesians. Yet we discuss the text’s statements about spousal obligations in marriage and miss the whole point of the passage.
Our behavior about marriage comes from our beliefs about marriage. We are losing the institution because we have already lost the mystery. The latter is the foundation of the former. And the former without the latter is nothing more than a mutual-aid agreement.
Maybe it’s a mutual-aid agreement over which a minister presides. But as the widening array of alternatives to traditional marriage attests, the minister is superfluous without the mystery. Any agreement will do if it’s just an agreement.
But marriage is more than an agreement, even more than a solemn vow.
I am the worst of sinners. I have no room to talk. I am divorced and now remarried. I entered my first marriage without understanding the mystery, lived in that marriage without the help of the mystery, and left it without regard to the mystery. It’s no wonder that it all fell apart. But allowing for the particulars of my story, it’s the same as that of many men and women I know, all of us data points on a disastrous societal trend line.
My conviction is this: The institution of marriage doesn’t need defense so much as its mystery needs restoration. Only by fixing one will save the other.