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BY Donald DeMarco
To the secular world, freedom and responsibility are divergent forces. Freedom is popularly envisioned as being independent of responsibility, while responsibility is believed to place restrictions on freedom.
Marriage in particular, it is commonly thought, by trying to unite these two antagonistic factors, lends itself to comedy. “Marriage is not a word,” one pundit says, “but a sentence.” “Wedlock is padlock.” “Socrates died of an overdose of wedlock.” “The plural of spouse is spice.” “Marriage ties the knot, divorce unties it.” Benjamin Disraeli once quipped that every woman should marry, but no man. The jokes are inexhaustible.
G.K. Chesterton was far wiser when he remarked, “It is most amusing to listen to the opponents of marriage on this subject. They appear to imagine that the ideal of constancy was a joke mysteriously imposed on mankind by the devil, instead of being, as it is, a yoke consistently imposed on all lovers by themselves.” Moreover, it may be added, the yoke is sweet, just as its burdens are light, because it nourishes both parties.
St. Paul's injunction, “husbands, love your wives” (Ephesians 5:25), challenges them first to view freedom and responsibility not as mutual enemies but as enriching cohorts and, secondly, to put this dynamic tandem into practice.
The deeper truths of our lives are often expressed in the form of a paradox. The poet Carl Sandburg once remarked, “Truth consists of paradoxes, and a paradox is two facts that stand on opposite hilltops and across the intervening valley calling each other liars.” Through the intermediary of love, freedom and responsibility cease calling each other liars and become united as productive allies.
Marriage, like all great truths, rests on the paradox that in being bound, one becomes free. We are not free unless we are bound.
Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (now Pope John Paul II) has shown, in his book Love and Responsibility, how love unifies freedom and responsibility. Love, which is the will to affirm and promote the good of the beloved, is, first of all, an act of freedom. We could not love if we were not free. But as soon as a man loves a woman, for example, he freely assumes the immediate responsibilities that his love for her entails. Freely loving another while rejecting one's responsibilities for promoting her good is self-contradictory.
As Cardinal Wojtyla wrote, “Love divorced from a feeling of responsibility for the person is a negation of itself, is always and necessarily egoism. The greater the feeling of responsibility for the person the more true love there is.”
Love, freely chosen then, expresses itself by the desire to affirm and promote the good of the other. In this context, freedom and responsibility coalesce. Freedom is the starting point, love is the amalgam and responsibility is the practical application. The “lock” in “wedlock” is not the same “lock” that appears in “padlock” or “grid-lock.” No locksmith is needed to preside at a wedding.
This “lock” is the liberating love that unites husband and wife in a way that is mutually beneficial. It might look like lock, but it lives like liberation. Marriage is not the dissolution of individuality but the loving cooperation of two individualities in the interest of enlarging their personalities.
How would a husband “count the ways” he would love his wife in a responsible way? Let us enumerate the following ways: protection, tenderness, comfort, encouragement, fidelity, attentiveness, support, affirmation, understanding and reassurance. The complete list, if there could be one, would be much longer, but this decalogue will serve as a good beginning for a long relationship.
A few years ago, John Whitaker, M.D., produced “A Personal Marriage Contract” for the “now” generation. It appeared in Woman's Day magazine as a more realistic approach to marriage than the traditional forms that seem to be failing at an escalating rate.
The new contract would be laughable if its author and editors had not taken themselves so seriously. It exemplifies not love but, as Pope Pius XII once commented, having fraudulent marital arrangements in mind, “a juxta-position of solitudes.” A bad marriage can make one lonelier than he ever was in the single state.
Narcissus x 2?
The “contract” could hardly be a more telling illustration of a complete rupture between freedom and responsibility: “I will put myself first.” “I cannot make you happy or unhappy, but I can make myself happy.” “Don't expect me to accept you as you are when you fail to maintain mental attractiveness and fail to take care of your mind.” “Don't expect me to accept you as you are when you fail to maintain physical attractiveness and fail to take care of your body.” “I understand that nothing is forever, that there are no absolute guarantees and that now is the only real forever.”
The time-honored fable of Narcissus tells us that narcissism results in the dissolution of the individual. Narcissism multiplied by two, even disguised as a “personal marriage,” must share the same tragic fate. Whitaker views marriage primarily in terms of selfishness. One hardly needs a marriage contract in order to practice this uninspiring vice.
He carefully excises commitment, trials, tests, turbulence and responsibility for the other from the marriage formula and then, having thoroughly emaciated his subject, pronounces it healthy. The poor, misguided doctor has simply capitulated to the times. For him, and for the zeitgeist that forms his mind, freedom and responsibility are sworn enemies and love is a splendid illusion.
“Husbands, love your wives,” St. Paul advises men, “even as Christ also loved the Church.” The Church is the mystical bride of Christ. His intimacy with his ecclesial bride is such that he will not abide heresies to separate him from his beloved. Selfishness, egoism and narcissism are the three great marital heresies that alienate husband and wife from each other. Love, responsibility and commitment are the great marital graces that preserve marriage and allow it to prosper.
Christian marriage, as St. Thomas Aquinas reminds us, has three blessings: “The first is children, to be received and raised for God's service. The second is the loyal faith whereby each serves the other. The third is the sacrament, which signifies the inseparable union of Christ with his Church.”
There is nothing so wrong with the sacrament of Christian marriage that it cries out to social engineers for reform. Marriage is an institution established and sanctified by Christ. Husbands and wives must be true to the prototype in order to enjoy its great promise.
Donald DeMarco is an adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.