Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
The readings from Mass this past Sunday (27th Sunday Cycle B, Ordinary Form) were a tour de force on biblical marriage. They set forth and emphasized God’s plan for marriage and family: one man for one woman in a faithful, stable, committed union, bearing fruit in their children.
But we in the modern world, especially in the West, have systematically dismantled every pillar of this definition. Let’s look at these basic pillars and see how we have demolished them.
1. The text says, It is not good for the man to be alone (Gen 2:18). But in our culture we have taken to significantly delaying marriage. Whereas most people married in their early twenties as recently as the 1980s, many couples today are well into their 30s before marriage is sought.
There are many reasons for this. Some of them are economic. A high school diploma was once adequate, while a college education was a ticket to prosperity. But today it seems that even an undergraduate degree is insufficient for many jobs and advanced degrees are pushed. This can leave young people with six-figure debt before even beginning their first full-time job. College is just too expensive. It appears more and more like a racket; it takes longer and longer to earn a degree, and the value of that degree seems to deliver less and less advantage.
Another factor in the delay of marriage is rampant fornication (and the widespread approval of same), which takes away an important incentive for people to marry.
One more reason for the delay of marriage also makes marriage is the frequency and acceptance of having children outside of Holy Matrimony. Once a woman has had children outside marriage, she appears less “marriageable.”
Yet another reason is the esteem of career over vocation. This is a big change for women in particular, who today often prefer to establish a career before getting married and having children. Being called “Ma’am” is more valued than being called “Mom.” Men, too, seem to want money and freedom more than they want a wife and children. And, as noted, they can usually get plenty of sex without bothering to getting married.
The bottom line is that we have largely set aside the truth expressed by Scripture: that it is not good that the man (or woman) should be alone. No matter what we moderns think, God teaches that it is not good for us to be alone. While not everyone can marry, when large numbers forgo marriage it is not a sign of a healthy culture; it does not contribute to maturity, responsibility, stability, or developing concern for others.
2. The text says, I will make a suitable partner for him. The suitable partner for Adam is one woman, Eve. But in our culture we have set aside what the text says and have concocted a vain and strange thing: that another man could be the suitable partner for a man, or that another woman could be a suitable partner for a woman. Not according to God!
The word “suitable” in the text is important. The Hebrew word kə-neḡ-dōw bespeaks a suitability rooted in complementarity. The suitable partner for the man Adam is a woman, Eve. It is not another man because a man does not have the complementarity that makes for suitability or fertility. The suitable partner for Adam is Eve, not Steve. It is only this suitability that solves the problem presented in the text: It is not good for the man to be alone.
Note, too, that it is a suitable partner (singular) not partners (plural). One woman is Adam’s suitable partner, not many women, or a committee, or any plural combination of women and men. The suitable partner is one woman. Polygamy (and/or polyandry) is not God’s plan. Today the polygamists are already knocking on the courtroom doors and our culture can say little to them in objection since we have already overthrown every other biblical and rational basis for marriage.
Again, note that despite our culture’s dismantling of what God (and nature) has set forth, His teaching is clear: the suitable partner for the man is one woman and the suitable partner for the woman is one man.
3. The text says, A man shall cling to his wife (Gn 2:24). What God has joined let no one divide (Mk 10:9). But we moderns divorce frequently; we are not shocked by it (as we ought to be) and are even supportive of it in many ways. Clinging is becoming increasingly rare and divorce, common.
Jesus, when asked if divorce is an option, says, plainly and simply, “No” (Mark 10, Mat. 5; Mat 19). He does not grant a lot of leeway in his response. A valid marriage enjoined by God cannot be broken by man. But we play fast and loose with this. In the U.S., beginning in 1969, “no-fault” divorce began to sweep through this land. Prior to that, getting a divorce was difficult and was quite rare. No-fault divorce redefined marriage. No longer was the premise that couples should cling to each other. Now they were culturally free to split, even encouraged to do so on the pretext that “God wants me to be happy.” Never mind that God might also have the common good in mind. “No,” says many a modern person, “My happiness is all that matters. God cares most about me and my happiness.”
But too seldom do many people today even consider that God might also have the happiness of others in mind; others such as children, grandchildren, and future generations who must inherit the cultural mess we have made through our narcissism and rejection of His plan.
Almost reflexively many people, when hearing the teaching of God against divorce, want to explain that their particular case is unique and merits special sympathy. There are certainly cases in which a person tried to save his/her marriage but his/her spouse was unwilling. There are also situations of physical abuse. As a mere author, I cannot opine on every possible case.
But in the end it is clear that as a culture we have rejected God’s insistence that divorce is bad and should be very rare. Instead, our culture facilitates it and uses it as an easy option instead of the hard work of resolving some differences and learning to live with others.
God says that a husband and wife should cling to each other.
4. The text says, May your wife be like a fruitful vine, your children like olive plants (Psalm 128:3). In other words, may your wife bear you many children.
But in the modern, Western world, children are seen more as a burden than a blessing. Olive trees are full of olives; fruitful vines are heavy with grapes. But the modern West prefers near sterility and fulfills Jesus’ sad prophecy that the days were coming when people would say, “Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!” (Lk 23:29)
God told Adam and Eve, “Be fruitful and multiply … fill the earth” (Gn 1:22). But to that we reply, “Are you kidding? Do you know how much children cost and how much trouble it is to change diapers? Do you know what that would do our careers and our lifestyle?” Today in the West we do not even replace ourselves, let alone multiply. God’s mandate to multiply need not imply fifteen children, but it surely does not mean the less than two that Westerner’s average.
The biblical world saw children as a blessing. And so did we, until about sixty years ago. So here, too, we have set aside God’s teaching on marriage.
And thus in these ways we have systematically redefined marriage. This redefinition has been going on for at least fifty years now. The strange notion of same-sex “marriage” is only the latest assault and largely flows from the previous errors, which have in effect reduced marriage merely to two (or more?) adults being individually happy and fulfilled with little or no connection to having children and raising them well.
The modern notion of marriage focuses on adults, on their needs and their happiness. We speak incessantly about the needs of adults and their rights; we seem to have little concern for what our misbehavior and ill-conceived notions do to our children.
Biblical marriage focuses on children and what is best for them: a mother and a father who commit to each other, conceive their children in chaste love, and raise them responsibly within a stable and lasting marriage. Parents are asked to make sacrifices for their children, not the other way around.
Has marriage been redefined? Unmistakably. It is hard to argue that anything at all of biblical marriage and God’s plan remains in what moderns call “marriage.” If there is Christ and antichrist, then there is what God calls marriage and the “anti-marriage” that the modern world proposes. This anti-marriage is actually fake, a mockery of God’s true plan. Anti-marriage is a hollow building, an empty façade, a structure which goes by the name “marriage but is nothing of the sort; all the pillars are removed and we are, in effect, walking on a movie set that is made to look like the reality but is just a collection of imitations and false fronts.