Marriage and The Serpent’s Call

serpent

Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried.” – G.K. Chesterton

The Serpent of Genesis — long identified as The Father of Lies himself, Satan — is unmistakably clever. So much so, in fact, that he is described by the sacred scriptures as “more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made.” His mode of operation is not to call God evil, but to make us question His law, and the eternal wisdom in which it is rooted.

In the narrative of The Fall, Satan applies what one might term a “hermeneutic of continuity.” He first seeks to identify the old doctrine, asking Eve, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

Undoubtedly a bit nervous, Eve responds to her wily interlocutor with a recitation of the law: “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’”

Imagine her discomfort. Imagine her standing, still as stone, riveted by the hypnotic eyes of the beast, its entire shape and movement carrying with it the threat of malice. Imagine her furtive glances through the trees, wondering where her husband was, the man she was made by God to help, and whose divinely-assigned task it was to protect her. Imagine, too, that despite her discomfort, she finds herself undesirably curious about the line of inquiry of this creeping horror. She has wondered why the Lord has made such a stark prohibition about that one tree, even if she would rather not admit it, and certainly not to this…thing.

The serpent raises its head, extending his body up to match the vulnerable woman’s height, and then rises above her to condescend. He is not content with this doctrine. He has her reiterate it not so that it can be honored, but so that he show her a way to subvert it:

You will not die;” the words of contradiction hang laden with both threat and promise, a sharp hiss amidst the sudden stillness of the usually busy environs, the animal and insect noises having receded into the dead silence induced only by the presence of a true predator.  

The creature speaks again, reassuringly: “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

He does not outright say it, but the subtext is clear: God asks too much. He is seeking to limit you, to take away your freedom. He fears you. He does not wish to share His power with you. But it is there for the taking, if you only make up your mind that He cannot control you. Do not limit yourself by obeying Him. Do what you will, and whatever you want will be yours… 

 

In his 1930 Encyclical on Christian Marriage, Castii Connubii (CC), Pope Pius XI spoke beautifully about what marriage is meant by God to be (all emphasis mine):

Therefore the sacred partnership of true marriage is constituted both by the will of God and the will of man. From God comes the very institution of marriage, the ends for which it was instituted, the laws that govern it, the blessings that flow from it; while man, through generous surrender of his own person made to another for the whole span of life, becomes, with the help and cooperation of God, the author of each particular marriage, with the duties and blessings annexed thereto from divine institution. (CC 9)

On the same theme, the text of Amoris Laetitia (AL) — the post-synodal apostolic exhortation of Pope Francis — sounds disconcertingly different:

The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction. We need to remember that authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other, to accept one’s own vulnerability and needs, and to welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union. (AL 157)

On the one hand, Castii Connubii speaks clearly about the obligations of marriage:

Now when We come to explain, Venerable Brethren, what are the blessings that God has attached to true matrimony, and how great they are, there occur to Us the words of that illustrious Doctor of the Church whom We commemorated recently in Our Encyclical Ad salutem on the occasion of the fifteenth centenary of his death: “These,” says St. Augustine, “are all the blessings of matrimony on account of which matrimony itself is a blessing; offspring, conjugal faith and the sacrament.” And how under these three heads is contained a splendid summary of the whole doctrine of Christian marriage, the holy Doctor himself expressly declares when he said: “By conjugal faith it is provided that there should be no carnal intercourse outside the marriage bond with another man or woman; with regard to offspring, that children should be begotten of love, tenderly cared for and educated in a religious atmosphere; finally, in its sacramental aspect that the marriage bond should not be broken and that a husband or wife, if separated, should not be joined to another even for the sake of offspring. This we regard as the law of marriage by which the fruitfulness of nature is adorned and the evil of incontinence is restrained.” (CC 10)

This very notion is one Amoris Laetitia obfuscates and contradicts:

The divorced who have entered a new union, for example, can find themselves in a variety of situations, which should not be pigeonholed or fit into overly rigid classifications leaving no room for a suitable personal and pastoral discernment. One thing is a second union consolidated over time, with new children, proven fidelity, generous self giving, Christian commitment, a consciousness of its irregularity and of the great difficulty of going back without feeling in conscience that one would fall into new sins. The Church acknowledges situations “where, for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate. (AL 298)

In such situations, many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living “as brothers and sisters” which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, “it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers (AL 298, footnote 329)

Castii Connubii leaves no doubt about the principal good of marriage and its importance:

Thus amongst the blessings of marriage, the child holds the first place. And indeed the Creator of the human race Himself, Who in His goodness wishes to use men as His helpers in the propagation of life, taught this when, instituting marriage in Paradise, He said to our first parents, and through them to all future spouses: “Increase and multiply, and fill the earth.”As St. Augustine admirably deduces from the words of the holy Apostle Saint Paul to Timothy when he says: “The Apostle himself is therefore a witness that marriage is for the sake of generation: ‘I wish,’ he says, ‘young girls to marry.’ And, as if someone said to him, ‘Why?,’ he immediately adds: ‘To bear children, to be mothers of families’.”

How great a boon of God this is, and how great a blessing of matrimony is clear from a consideration of man’s dignity and of his sublime end. For man surpasses all other visible creatures by the superiority of his rational nature alone. Besides, God wishes men to be born not only that they should live and fill the earth, but much more that they may be worshippers of God, that they may know Him and love Him and finally enjoy Him for ever in heaven; and this end, since man is raised by God in a marvelous way to the supernatural order, surpasses all that eye hath seen, and ear heard, and all that hath entered into the heart of man.[15] From which it is easily seen how great a gift of divine goodness and how remarkable a fruit of marriage are children born by the omnipotent power of God through the cooperation of those bound in wedlock. (CC 11-12)

Amoris Laetitia complains that this is the wrong focus:

We need a healthy dose of self-criticism. Then too, we often present marriage in such a way that its unitive meaning, its call to grow in love and its ideal of mutual assistance are overshadowed by an almost exclusive insistence on the duty of procreation. Nor have we always provided solid guidance to young married couples, understanding their timetables, their way of thinking and their concrete concerns. At times we have also proposed a far too abstract and almost artificial theological ideal of marriage, far removed from the concrete situations and practical possibilities of real families. This excessive idealization, especially when we have failed to inspire trust in God’s grace, has not helped to make marriage more desirable and attractive, but quite the opposite. (AL 36)

Again and again throughout Amoris Laetitia, we see the “ideal” of marriage (which is, in actuality, God’s design for marriage as described by His Holy Church) portrayed as some unattainable ideal, some fantasy which can never be achieved. And so instead of calling spouses to take up the challenge to live lives of heroic virtue and to endure the sufferings that marriage sometimes brings for the sake of our perfection, the pope and his brother bishops who contributed to this work now seem to offer us an “easy out”; an opportunity for us to resign ourselves to the impossibility of the task.

It is as though we are being told: Dear Catholics: you can’t do it. Living the Christian ideal is too hard. All that strain and struggle you’re going through? For what? God isn’t asking that of you. He loves you so much, you don’t have to make all this effort. Just give up. Rest. Don’t be so hard on yourself. There there. Take a load off. We won’t judge you. We’ll accompany you without expectation.

When I find myself confronted with this theme, all I can hear are the Serpent’s words: “You will not die…”

The purposes and nature of marriage are not playthings, not even for a pope. They are designed, instituted, and willed by God. Marriage is, as St. Paul tells us in Ephesians 5, an image of the love of Christ for His mystical bride, the Church, for whom he “gave himself up”. Could we imagine if Christ instead took up the approach outlined in paragraph 157 of the exhortation? What if Our Blessed Lord decided that “the ideal” of His love for the Church could not “be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice” where He would be expected to “renounce all personal needs and seek only the other’s good without concern for personal satisfaction”?

If He took that attitude, one wonders how He ever could have found it within Himself to suffer such a cruel death on that cross.

Marriage can be hard. Excruciatingly so. I know this from not only my own experience, but those of countless friends and family members. Inasmuch as marriage mirrors the love of Christ, it follows too His passion, death, and resurrection. Lived selfishly, marriage is a sure path to misery and damnation; lived well, it offers the redemptive suffering of death to self, mutual help in matters both practical and spiritual, and the joys of the intimacy of love and the fruitfulness of children.

I say this not as a man who has mastered these things, but as one who desperately needs my Church to exhort me to this higher calling, especially when I am weak and want to give up.

It is nothing less than an insult to those untold millions of Christian men and women who endure (and have endured) great difficulties in honor of not just of our mutual vows, but our covenant with almighty God, to sneak in close like the serpent, whispering fetid lies that would excuse us from the solemn duties of this sacrament or confirm us in our sin. We deserve better from those to whom God has entrusted the governance of His Holy Church.

We demand it.

It would have been well for the drafters of this exhortation to spend more time with the text of Castii Connubii — footnoted just twice in the former’s needlessly loquacious text. Everything today’s couples need to hear about marriage was already there, and in a fraction of the space:

Let then, those who are about to enter on married life, approach that state well disposed and well prepared, so that they will be able, as far as they can, to help each other in sustaining the vicissitudes of life, and yet more in attending to their eternal salvation and in forming the inner man unto the fullness of the age of Christ. It will also help them, if they behave towards their cherished offspring as God wills: that is, that the father be truly a father, and the mother truly a mother; through their devout love and unwearying care, the home, though it suffer the want and hardship of this valley of tears, may become for the children in its own way a foretaste of that paradise of delight in which the Creator placed the first men of the human race. Thus will they be able to bring up their children as perfect men and perfect Christians; they will instill into them a sound understanding of the Catholic Church, and will give them such a disposition and love for their fatherland as duty and gratitude demand. (CC 113)

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