July 13 is the wedding anniversary of Blesseds Louis and Marie-Azelie Martin, who married three months after meeting in 1858. The union would produce nine children; the five girls who survived to adulthood all became nuns — their best-known daughter is St. Thérèse of Lisieux. While many beatified by the Church are members of religious communities, Louis and "Zelie" demonstrate that marriage, too, can be a path to holiness.
Marriage, however, has long been in a state of decline.
Rates of divorce and cohabitation are high, many children grow up in one-parent (usually fatherless) homes, and there is a widespread push to redefine marriage.
Since the family unit is the building block of society, as marriage suffers, all of society suffers.
Perhaps the most effective way married Catholics can respond to today’s challenges is by living their marriages well, following the example of Louis and Zelie.
As the Church marks the fifth anniversary of their beatification and the 155th anniversary of their marriage, what advice can help Catholics live their married lives better?
Anger and selfishness are key culprits that undermine and destroy marriages, according to Rick Fitzgibbons, director of the Institute for Marital Healing (MaritalHealing.com), a Philadelphia-area organization whose mission is to heal and strengthen Catholic marriages.
Unresolved anger is often brought into a marriage from previous relationships, he said, and then "misdirected at the one you love the most."
Another example of selfishness that harms marriage, he noted, is artificial contraception: "Contraception leads to divorce. It fuels selfishness; wives feel used by their husbands. When married couples are intentionally not having children, there is something missing in the marriage."
Making use of the sacraments can greatly help couples overcome selfishness. "People are too self-reliant," he said. "They need to rely on God."
A common complaint he hears when he counsels women is that their husbands are "emotionally distant."
"They say, ‘I want my husband to be more emotionally giving, to praise me more and praise the children more.’ This is a major weakness in men who are otherwise good fathers and good husbands," he said. "They need to show positive emotions outside of the bedroom. It’s something they should pray for."
A common issue men note about women is their "tendency to control."
Fitzgibbons suggests couples "give control over to Our Lord, realizing that it is his love, not human love, which sustains us in our marriages. It leads to less stress, and everyone feels better. Human love is wonderful, but it isn’t enough."
Greg and Julie Alexander of San Antonio were once unhappy in their marriage and planned to divorce. They both had high-powered corporate jobs, and their focus was on material things, said Julie. "We were interested in money, rather than how we were going to live out our vocation."
A priest they met asked them, "What do you think God’s plan is for your marriage? Go and find out the answer."
So Greg stayed home from work for two days, reading Scripture, the Catechism of the Catholic Church and papal encyclicals (which he hadn’t previously known existed). At the end of the two days, he and Julie prayed together, a new practice for the couple.
As Greg recalled, "We asked God to come into our lives and promised him we’d spend the rest of our lives working on our marriage."
Part of the couples’ education was reading Pope Paul VI’s 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae and understanding that artificial contraception is opposed to Church teaching. This revelation prompted the couple to increase their family, from two children to seven.
Julie recalled, "We had no idea that the Church taught that contraception was wrong. When we removed this block in our marriage, we were able to communicate better and better able to forgive. I didn’t feel like an object being used; I felt like a wife being cherished by my husband."
Their marriage revitalized, the couple launched an apostolate to help save troubled marriages, Alexander House (TheAlexanderHouse.org), 14 years ago. They offer workshops and presentations that "proclaim the beauty, goodness and truth of marriage," said Greg. They’ve also offered counseling to 1,400 couples, the vast majority of whom they’ve helped save their marriages. They work in conjunction with dioceses, Julie said: "Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller [of San Antonio] has told us, ‘Thank you so much for this much-needed work’ that you provide for the Church."
Greg said that a common problem among the couples they’ve met has been infidelity and the use of pornography. The primary culprits are men, he said, but an increasing number are women. Healing these problems begins with a spouse taking responsibility for wrongdoing and seeking forgiveness from the other spouse.
Greg also stresses the importance of having a right relationship with God. He advises spouses to regularly make use of the sacrament of confession. Once the obstacle of sin has been removed, the couple opens themselves up to receive grace from God. Greg said, "If you’re not in the state of grace, you can’t do the things God calls you to do in your marriage relationship."
Julie has observed that many couples, like she and Greg once were, are unaware that God has a plan for marriage: "This ignorance among both young and old is the biggest stumbling block to happy marriages. People get their education about marriage from TV shows, movies and music; it doesn’t go past the feelings."
She likes to challenge husbands to "become the spiritual leaders that God created them to be."
She remarked, "When we first began to repair our marriage, Greg called me into the room, told me what God’s plan was for our marriage and set my heart on fire."
For women, she counsels them to pray daily: "Heavenly Father, help me to become the wife you created me to be. Help me to love my husband the way you do."
Regular church attendance and faith participation is a proven way to keep marriages together, according to Pat Fagan, senior fellow and director of the Marriage and Religion Research Institute (MARRI.us) with the Family Research Council in Washington. He studies social-science data to better understand how family, marriage and religious practice affect society.
"The data is clear," he said. "Adults and children who are part of intact married families are the best off in every category: education, health, income, savings, longevity, mental health … you name it."
"The same holds true for religion," he continued. "The more families worship God, the better the outcome."
There has been an attack on marriage and the family for centuries, Fagan noted, and the artificial-contraception industry has been a significant contributor to the breakup of marriage and the family most recently.
Only 45% of 17-year-olds live in an intact married family, he said. Additionally, 48% of first births are outside of marriage. Among those hardest hit by the breakdown of marriage are those who live in the inner city, where "marriage has virtually disappeared."
Societies that allow the family to break up disappear, he said, pointing to the example of ancient Rome.
"In the first, second and third century, the pagan Roman family was disappearing, as society suffered from the same diseases as today, including abortion, homosexuality and divorce. Caesar Augustus himself was worried about the Romans’ decline in fertility."
Attempts by some today to redefine marriage are "insanity," he believes, because only God’s plan of marriage transmits life.
He hopes the Supreme Court won’t vote for redefinition. The Supreme Court already did much to harm marriage in 1972, he said, by its Eisenstadt v. Baird decision, which stated that unmarried persons had a right to contraceptives. "That decision took the sexual act outside of marriage, overturned millennia of commonly held belief and ignored the child and his right to a mother and father," he said. "Its effects have been disastrous on society, particularly the inner city."
Fagan’s organization provides federal data to a variety of pro-life, pro-family groups working against the cultural trends, with the belief that "the core strength of this nation is the intact married family that worships God weekly and has children."
Jim Graves writes from
Newport Beach, California.