Marriage today


Marriage today is in a new era much different from that of our ancestors, even up to mid-20th century days. People who study these things see a significantly changed marriage culture in modern societies like the United States and European countries.
For couples who can make what one researcher calls an “all or nothing” investment of time and money, marriage can be better than ever. One of the consequences, though, is that people who must struggle for a livelihood barely have the surplus energy needed to meet today’s expectations. Among poor Americans who married between 1990 and 1994, the 10-year divorce rate was 46 percent while the rate was only 16 percent among those with a college degree and better-paying jobs.
In this as in so many other areas of life, the economically secure and comfortable are doing well – and separating themselves from the poor and near-poor.
This is part of the challenge facing the Catholic Church as we anticipate a world Synod of Bishops called by Pope Francis for this fall. The synod topic is marriage and family.
Is there really a new 21st-century context requiring a new vision of marriage, with possible new rules that recognize how common failure in attaining the vision will be? How culpable are individuals for such failure when society starves them of what they need to succeed? Or are we finding new ways to excuse selfishness?
The Church says that marriage requires only a man and woman who accept each other and commit fully to each other for life. When they do that, we say, standing on the vision of the Bible, they become one unity of life-giving love reflecting God. What the Scripture passages do not say explicitly of marriage is that such becoming happens neither instantly nor easily. The becoming is lifelong work that builds on self-sacrifice.
This should be possible whether we make a lot of money or not; whether we have college degrees or stop at high school. A great many people do it. But today’s trend is away from self-sacrifice in favor of self-expression – or self-actualization, in the terms of psychology. This is what marriage today is supposed to offer. When it doesn’t do that in timely fashion, the marriage “fails” and one is free to try again.
Self-expression and self-actualization are not bad things. We need them for healthy development as persons. But everything depends on the meaning of “self.” If it is only the consciousness or sense of ourselves that we have at any moment, this is a self with a shifting, unstable foundation. Religious mystics call it the small self. Willful young children are full of it.
The true self we want to grow into, or “actualize,” requires a constant aim beyond our small self. If we have a model and goal beyond even what we can imagine, but which seems to rise from deepest desire, the small self won’t control us. Failure to meet its relatively small desires will only mean moving more toward the goal, not personal failure at all.
For Christians this means growing into the body of Christ. In the Gospel we find Jesus as the model and his way as the goal. The Christian self is formed with the cross of Christ in view. This is why a Christian marriage is vowed in the shadow of the cross, not on the shifting sands of a Caribbean beach.
The bishops who meet for the synod on marriage and the family in October have a hard challenge. Our vision of marriage is threatened by powerful social trends and by the absence of just and humane economies. Don’t expect the bishops to dim our vision of the Gospel ideal or make it seem easier. Do pray for them that they find a way to make the vision more inviting, more compelling in terms that excite a 21st-century people. Such praying is good for all of us.
Frank Wessling

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