John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. He is especially interested in moral theology and the thought of John Paul II.
One of the undercurrents in the debate over legalizing homosexual “marriage” in the United States was the question of reality: was marriage a reality in itself, or did marriage simply mean whatever it was defined to mean? Was “marriage” like a “triangle,” whose very reality—a three sided polygon—makes four-sided triangles nonsense and not “polygonal equality?” Or did marriage have merely a conventional meaning, like the three-sided sign we have chosen to signify “yield,” but about which nothing inherently says “consider applying the brakes?”
Because politics and, increasingly, law are not as susceptible to deep debate as to soundbites and slogans, we know how that debate came out. But I want to flesh out the underlying question of inherent meaning to marriage, because I think this problem keeps coming back in varying forms, with baneful consequences for a Catholic vision of marriage. The common vision of marriage is being increasingly privatized.
Case-in-point: an experimental policy of the Archdiocese of Baltimore, adopted this year, allowing “outdoor weddings.” The archdiocese implemented the policy ostensibly because Archbishop Lori was interested in outreach to millennials, who are increasingly seeking such nuptials. The policy, subject to review at year’s end, sets conditions whereby the archdiocese will allow such outdoor weddings for Catholics.
The archdiocese wants to have a “meaningful” ceremony, aware that many outdoor venues in Maryland are “lovely.” The archdiocese does set some limits. No matter how potentially “meaningful” or “lovely,” Catholic weddings cannot occur in casinos, bars, nightclubs or places serving alcohol. They should not occur on boats – not because the Chesapeake is not “lovely” but because boats can drift and thus affect the civil license.
While the archbishop deserves recognition for “reaching out to young people,” I still suggest that the outreach is misplaced.
My problem is with this focus on “meaningful.”
“Meaningfulness” can be objective or subjective. Our culture is increasingly prone to conflating reality with the subjective (which is why we officially deem sexual differentiation irrelevant to marriage). And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of folks—including bishops today—ready to say “It’s not all about you.”
From a Catholic perspective, marriage has an objective meaning. Pope Pius XI addressed that question in Casti connubii almost 90 years ago, and that teaching remains valid. In no. 6, the Pope clearly delineates what is and is not subject to human will:
“This freedom, however, regards only the question whether the contracting parties really wish to enter upon matrimony or to marry this particular person; but the nature of matrimony is entirely independent of the free will of man, so that if one has once contracted matrimony he is thereby subject to its divinely made laws and its essential properties.”
In other words, I am free to say I want (or don’t want) to get married and I want to marry Mary or Anne. I am not free that I want to marry six people or for 10 years, subject to renewal, or with the exclusion of children or the inclusion of swinging. I can choose whom to marry, not how to define marriage.
And it is that distinction that is under stress today, including from a subjective viewpoint of “love” and “meaningfulness.”
What, from an objective viewpoint, makes marriage “meaningful” for a Catholic? That it is a sacrament, i.e., a grace-filled and grace-entitling act. That it specifies the primordial sacrament of vocation, baptism, by joining my life vocation with yours. That it mirrors the union of Christ to His Church and embodies the Church in miniature. That it is part of my vocation as a Catholic Christian. That it mirrors the union of Christ to His Church and embodies the Church in miniature. That it is intended to lead us to the nuptial feast of heaven.
That’s pretty heady. It’s pretty meaningful.
And that is why marriage should occur in a church.
So what is it about an outdoor wedding that would trump that ecclesiastical location for marriage? That there is some family connection? (The archdiocesan chancellor suggested “grandmother’s field, behind the family home” as a possibly significant reason. Really?!) That we “find God in nature?” That it’ll provide prettier pictures? That we’ve watched too many movies of garden weddings?
Yes, God is found in nature, but marriage is an image of Christ and His Church. Just as, once upon a time, some people found God on the Sunday morning golf course rather than in church, so today’s gauzy “spiritual-but-not-religious” orientation (which commands a certain influence among young people) is likewise abetted by policies like Baltimore’s.
The archdiocesan policy also specifies that, when celebrated outdoors, a marriage should take place according to the Rite of Marriage outside of Mass, i.e., a liturgy of the Word followed by exchange of consent.
Vatican II made clear that the Eucharist is “the source and summit of the Christian life” (Lumen gentium, # 11). The two sacraments have an intrinsic relationship to each other, both as sacraments and as expressions of communion personarum. So, deviating from the norm that sacraments should be celebrated within Mass seems unjustified.
Baltimore says its “preferred location” for weddings is either spouse’s parish church. Today’s Church has a long history of “preferred” meaning “this really is no obstacle.” We “prefer” earth burial to cremation, but Catholic cremation rates mirror the general population. We “prefer” Catholics observe Friday as a penitential day by self-imposed self-denial rather than mandatory abstinence, but don’t ask the typical restaurant how much prime rib they buy for Friday nights. We “prefer” Catholics marry in churches, but we open the door not to. And, by setting by rule the norm of a non-Eucharistic outdoor marriage rite (since we probably believe the Eucharist still has some intrinsic relation to a church), we practically subvert Vatican II’s “preference” about what the “source and summit of the Christian life is.”
All in the name of a subjectively “meaningful” experience.
Well, let’s consider how the larger culture reinforces that idea. “Garden weddings” are in vogue, as are “destination weddings,” i.e., wedding-cum-vacation. Some locale is “meaningful” or “lovely” to the couple, so the (generally well-heeled) fly off to a Caribbean island or the Outer Banks or the Grand Canyon or the next destination du jour for a wedding that has no inherent ecclesial relationship. But a wedding should be grounded in a natural and supernatural community, with a past and present, not a weekend reservation as a resort.
I am not suggesting that the Archdiocese of Baltimore is in league with Maryland Tourism, but there’s lots of “lovely” spots in that state. Before World War II, Maryland used to be a wedding destination, not because it was “lovely” but because its minimal requirements for marriage made elopement easy. Recently, the Old Line State’s had some economic hard times; maybe if “Virginia is for lovers,” Maryland can be for marriers.
In the broader culture, destination or garden weddings often are accompanied by self-written vows. Again, if our criterion is subjectively “meaningful,” such exercises in the often maudlin can be argued for (especially given that it is the couple that ministers the sacrament to each other—which again raises the fact that this is an ecclesial act of Christians). But such subjective “meaning” also opens the door to future annulment, because a subjective understanding of “what we are getting into” may very well run contrary to the understanding and agreeing to the objective and essential elements of Christian marriage, e.g., indissolubility, openness to life, etc.
Finally, some states are already experimenting with “designation” weddings. True, Catholic theology identifies the couple as the minister of the sacrament and the priest as a necessary but still mere witness. But Protestant America is used to the vision of a minister who solemnly intones “by the power invested in me by God or the State, I pronounce you man and wife.” So, we attribute magic marrying powers to the officiant.
In Massachusetts, one can now apply to the Secretary of State for a “designation wedding,” i.e., even if you are not a minister but the couple thinks you are important, the Commonwealth will give you a one-time-good-for-October-1-for-John-and-Mary” authority to marry them. So, not only can you decide what marriage means, where it should happen, and what should be said to effect the marriage, but now you can get the state to authorize anybody you want (for $25 plus $3.50 expedite fee) to be the agent of your marriage.
This privatization of marriage goes hand-in-hand with the secularization of marriage. Theological causes abetting the secularization of marriage (the books of Schillebeeckx, Martos, and Michael Lawler come to mind) also deserve critique, but that is beyond this essay.
In 2014, Burger King dropped its 40 year old advertising slogan, “Have it your way” (albeit in favor of an even more subjective “Be your way”). I guess that’s now the slogan for marriage in America – and, perhaps, in the Church in the United States as well.