What Do Love and Marriage Mean Today?

COMMENTARY: The dominant understanding today of the relationship between men and women no longer includes as an essential element the possible bearing and raising of children; hence, marriage has taken on many forms.

A love that can end is not a completely true love, because a gift that can be revoked is not a true gift.
A love that can end is not a completely true love, because a gift that can be revoked is not a true gift. (photo: MDV Edwards / Shutterstock)

A few weeks ago, on Nov. 16, Catholicism lost one of its greatest scholars and educators: David L. Schindler of the John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C. I was fortunate to be friends with Dave for the last 25 years of his life, and I was terribly sad to see him go. However, his passing also brought back wonderful memories. He was a generous soul and, like all real truth-seekers, very humble. Despite his enormous erudition in philosophy and theology, he never felt that it was beneath him to engage in dialogue with less knowledgeable people such as myself.

The week Dave died, Congress was debating the so-called Respect for Marriage Act, which passed yesterday. This coincidence reminded me of a dinner 10 or 15 years ago, at one of the John Paul II Institute’s annual conferences, when the conversation drifted toward the topic of same-sex civil marriage. The sentiment around the table was of opposition, but I felt that the group was not fully grasping the cultural context. So I made a remark to the effect that “the important thing to understand is that same-sex marriage is perfectly consistent with the way our culture understands opposite-sex marriage.”

Dave’s response was characteristic: He simply reflected for a few seconds, and then approvingly repeated my thought, as if he had not fully articulated it before and was happy for a new insight. In his memory, let me briefly elaborate on that observation.

In a nutshell, for most people today, “marriage is about love.” The precise meaning of the word “love” is never spelled out too clearly, but most people seem to simply agree with President Barack Obama, who said that “love is love.”

In previous times, people thought that marriage might be enough of an independent reality, founded on something other than a feeling, to motivate or even demand love, but today, generally speaking, the former is viewed as almost entirely contingent on the latter. As a cousin of mine once explained — charitably trying to bring me up to speed with the modern world — “when love ends, marriage ends.”

Within this conception, civil marriage is a legal formality designed to “protect” or “respect” love, by ensuring appropriate inheritance or hospital-visitation rights and so on. Precisely because marriage flows from love, and not the other way around, civil marriage affords rights but cannot impose obligations — except perhaps child support, which, however, is not in principle linked with marriage. Hence the paradox of a supposed “legal contract” that essentially cannot be enforced.

Few people today seem to appreciate how novel this understanding is. We need not go back to St. Thomas Aquinas’ axiom that “the essential and primary end of marriage is the good of children” to realize that until very recently not only was “marriage” not identified with “love,” but there was a serious tension, or even an opposition, between the two. Whereas the 19th century was perfectly familiar with the idea of “free love” — meaning a free sexual-romantic union, dissolvable at will — even secular thinkers like Hegel, the great German philosopher, thought that marriage meant the “ethical” subordination of subjectivity, feeling and “personal happiness” (in short, “love”) to the goal of a stable family for the raising of children.

On their part, 19th-century advocates of free love viewed marriage as oppressive, but at least they clearly understood the distinction. Today, on the contrary, the concept of marriage has mostly been absorbed into the concept of a free union. Both in law (no-fault divorce) and in practice (universal cohabitation), our society has clearly embraced the free-union model, except ironically we now call it ... marriage, out of cultural nostalgia or for the sake of bourgeois respectability.

Circling back to my conversation with David Schindler, our culture sees it is rather pointless to insist that “marriage is between a man and a woman” when the dominant understanding of the relationship between men and women no longer includes as an essential element the possible bearing and raising of children (and thus sexual difference).

Of course, there are many reasons to critique the couple-centric conception of marriage. For example, in recent years, it has become abundantly clear that the free-union model does not serve well the welfare of children. It has also become clear that when civil marriage is tailored for the “protection” of free unions, it loses much of its significance: In the eyes of more and more people, it becomes “just a piece of paper.” But the most radical criticism is, in my mind, that “free love” reflects an inadequate understanding even of love itself.

Ultimately, if one reflects deeply about the experience of love, one discovers what Servant of God Luigi Giussani called “the law of life”: Life is fulfilled only in making a complete, unconditional gift of self. This is what people really, albeit confusedly, seek in affective relationship. A love that can end is not a completely true love, because a gift that can be revoked is not a true gift. “Free love” relies on the constant repetition of a “Yes” that can be suspended at any time. It is the equivalent of an ongoing commercial transaction in which the two parties remain ultimately separate.

This is the deeper reason why the bearing of children (at least as a possibility, which may not come to fruition, of course) is intrinsically part of the definition of marriage, making it a “natural” institution rather than a mere legal fiction. The birth of a child cannot be undone and literally “incarnates” the parents’ love. A love that culminates in the generation of new life cannot be revoked, no matter how many times we betray it.

The history of marriage in the West over the last 200 years or so has been the progressive replacement of this traditional ideal by the transactional, “bourgeois” idea of free union. As the logic of that idea has unfolded, civil marriage — which, not coincidentally, was introduced in Europe after the French Revolution — has entered a very deep, possibly terminal crisis. Understandably, more and more young people do not see why their sexual-romantic commitments need to be “respected” by the state, and the number of civil marriages has been steadily declining.

If this trend continues, Catholics will have little interest in defending the institution of civil marriage per se. A more fruitful strategy will be to keep advocating for public policies that support childbearing and reward parents who live with their children, whether civilly married or not.

The more fundamental task, of course, is to give witness (in a society that has largely forgotten it) to the “great mystery” of the natural coming together of man and woman in a fruitful, indissoluble union.