Marriage: God’s most stunning creation

Archbishop Aquila

Valentine’s Day is around the corner and many people are thinking about how they can best show their love to someone. Although it is countercultural, the Church holds up faithful, Christ-centered marriage as the most satisfying and complete answer to this question.

This past week Pope Francis paid tribute to spouses who live out their marriage with unity and fidelity. They give the world what he called “an example of true love” that serves as “a silent sermon to all.” As the Church joins numerous other churches in celebrating National Marriage Week, Feb. 7-14, the gift of marriage lived well must be at the center of our witness.

For instance, Pope Francis once told the story of a couple that he met who were celebrating 60 years of marriage. He asked them if they were happy and they responded, “We are in love.” Their love enabled them to persevere through the difficulties of raising children and the inevitable sorrows and sufferings of life, such that they could tell the pope that after 60 years, they are still in love. Is this the hopeful, positive vision of marriage that we are promoting?

Their beautiful witness is a sign that real, lasting love is possible despite the significant drop in marriage rates, the rise in divorce and the increasingly short-lived nature of relationships we see today. Through the graces offered in marriage, holiness and genuine happiness can be found, a fact that is supported by many numerous sociological studies.

At the same time, there are many signs pointing to marriage declining in the U.S. The rate of married people has declined from a high of 72 percent in 1960 to around 50 percent in 2016. Another sign of the health of marriage from a Catholic perspective is how open people are to children. The Center for Disease Control’s recently released 2017 data shows that the country hit a 30-year low this past year with a birthrate of 1.76 births per woman — 2.1 children per woman is considered the replacement rate. Colorado came in even lower at 1.63 births per woman.

These results should prompt us to question how much we are doing to support and encourage marriage and to foster a culture of life within them. We must help Catholics understand the three goods of marriage: fidelity to one’s spouse, a lifelong commitment and the gift of children. In addition to promoting understanding, we should ask what we are doing to encourage openness to life and to support those who have children in our parishes, neighborhoods and world.

Some practical ideas that parishes can consider include: hosting events that model good dating practices, recruiting mentor couples for accompanying engaged couples preparing for marriage, and providing financial, emotional and spiritual support for struggling families. I am sure there are many other innovative ways that faithful people can create to respond to this reality, some of which already exist, such as the Building Family Culture retreats offered by Dr. Jared Staudt, the Marriage Missionaries apostolate, Marriage Encounter retreats and Families of Character.

As people of faith, we should above all take hope in the truth that holiness and happiness in marriage are possible with God’s help. St. Therese of Lisieux offers us the example of her parents, who were declared saints in 2015. She wrote of Louis and Zelie Martin: “God gave me a father and a mother who were more worthy of heaven than of earth.”

“Marriage,” as Pope Francis has stated, “is the most beautiful thing that God has created,” since it reflects the unity and love of God. May we as a Church work to support and strengthen marriage so that the silent, daily witness of married couples reflects God in our midst and builds up our society.

COMING UP: Historical clarity and today’s Catholic contentions

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One of the curiosities of the 21st-century Catholic debate is that many Catholic traditionalists (especially integralists) and a high percentage of Catholic progressives make the same mistake in analyzing the cause of today’s contentions within the Church — or to vary the old fallacy taught in Logic 101, they think in terms of post Concilium ergo propter Concilium [everything that’s happened after the Council has happened because of the Council]. And inside that fallacy is a common misreading of modern Catholic history. The traditionalists insist that everything was fine before the Council (which many of them therefore regard as a terrible mistake); the progressives agree that the pre-Vatican II Church was a stable institution but deplore that stability as rigidity and desiccation.

But that’s not the way things were pre-Vatican II, as I explain at some length and with some engaging stories in my new book, The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books). And no one knew the truth about pre-Vatican II Catholicism better than the man who was elected pope during the Council and guided Vatican II through its last three sessions, St. Paul VI.

On January 25, 1959, Pope John XXIII, thought to be an elderly placeholder, stunned both the Church and the world by announcing his intention to summon the 21st ecumenical council. That night, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Montini (who would be known as Paul VI four and a half years later), called an old friend. An experienced churchman who had long served Pius XII as chief of staff, Montini saw storm clouds on the horizon: “This holy old boy,” he said of John XXIII, “doesn’t know what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up.”

That shrewd observation turned out to be spot on –– and not simply because of the Council, but because of the bees and hornets that had been buzzing around the ecclesiastical nest for well over 100 years.

Contrary to both traditionalist and progressive misconceptions, Catholicism was not a placid institution, free of controversy and contention, prior to Vatican II. As I show in The Irony of Modern Catholic History, there was considerable intellectual ferment in the Church during the mid-19th century, involving great figures like the recently-canonized John Henry Newman, the German bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler (grandfather of modern Catholic social thought), and the Italian polymath Antonio Rosmini (praised by John Paul II in the 1999 encyclical, Faith and Reason, and beatified under Benedict XVI). That ferment accelerated during the 25 year pontificate of Leo XIII, who launched what I dub the “Leonine Revolution,” challenging the Church to engage the modern world with distinctively Catholic tools in order to convert the modern world and lay a firmer foundation for its aspirations.

American Catholicism, heavily focused on institution-building, was largely unaware of the sharp-edged controversies (and ecclesiastical elbow-throwing) that followed Leo XIII’s death in 1903. Those controversies, plus the civilization-shattering experience of two world wars in Europe, plus a rapid secularization process in Old Europe that began in the 19th century, set the stage for John XXIII’s epic opening address to Vatican II. There, the Pope explained what he envisioned Vatican II doing: gathering up the energies let loose by the Leonine Revolution and focusing them through the prism of an ecumenical council, which he hoped would be a Pentecostal experience energizing the Church with new evangelical zeal.

John XXIII understood that the Gospel proposal could only be made by speaking to the modern world in a vocabulary the modern world could hear. Finding the appropriate grammar and vocabulary for contemporary evangelization didn’t mean emptying Catholicism of its content or challenge, however. As the Pope insisted, the perennial truths of the faith were to be expressed with the “same meaning” and the “same judgment.” Vatican II, in other words, was to foster the development of doctrine, not the deconstruction of doctrine. And the point of that doctrinal development was to equip the Church for mission and evangelization, for the modern world would be converted by truth, not ambiguity or confusion.

Over the past six and a half years, it’s become abundantly clear that more than a few Catholics, some quite prominently placed, still don’t get this history. Nor do the more vociferous elements in the Catholic blogosphere. Which is why I hope The Irony of Modern Catholic History helps facilitate a more thoughtful debate on the Catholic present and future, through a better understanding of the Catholic past.