Monday, September 17, 2012

Marriage: a blessed vocation

Msgr. Pope, whom I greatly admire, has a post up today about marriage:

Marriage statistics today are very alarming. In 1974 there were just over 400,000 marriages in Catholic Parishes. In 2004 there were 197,000 marriages. Currently of women under 35, only 40% have ever been married [1]. Seventy percent of African American women and fifty-one percent of Hispanic women are currently unmarried. Forty-five percent of white women (non-Hispanic) and forty percent of Asian women are unmarried [2]

These alarming statistics don’t mean they aren’t having babies and nationally more than 40 percent of all children are raised by single mothers. The numbers are higher in most minority categories.

Explanations vary, from the higher economic independence of women, to (seemingly endless) college study programs, to poverty etc. Few of the studies I tracked reference promiscuity,which I think is a big factor. Why get married when when of the important reasons to do so (respectable recourse to a great physical pleasure) has been “put on sale” for cheap and is considered “respectable” under almost any circumstances by a promiscuous culture?

Another factor, as I have discovered in some 24 years of priesthood is that, despite our over all cynicism about most things, most people, especially women, remain highly idealistic about marriage and think it should be a kind of perfect society. Yes, wine and roses, candlelight dinners, high romance, the storybook, “happily ever” after version. Crying babies, dirty laundry, weight gain, frayed nerves…please, we’ll have none of THAT in this fantasy.

But the problem with unrealistic expectations is that they breed resentment, when the reality does not measure up. There is an old saying, “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.”

Read the whole thing here.

Now, I hate to disagree with the good monseigneur, and I don't completely disagree. But I do think that for faithful single Catholics who attend Mass every Sunday and wish to pursue the vocation to marriage, the problem is not necessarily one of having too high or unrealistic expectations. The problem is in finding a potential spouse who shares one's view of what marriage is, what it is for, and how to live it.

For instance, most good Catholic young men and women would agree that the vocation of marriage includes the vocation toward becoming parents under most circumstances (God may say otherwise through the cross of infertility, but this is not something most young men or women would know before marriage anyway). But how many young Catholic couples see eye-to-eye when it comes to children, parenting, etc.? When I was a student more than two decades ago at two different uber-Catholic colleges, I was shocked at how many good Catholic Mass-going college boys openly expressed the desire for wives who would "work," insisting that child-care was no big deal and that stay-at-home mothering was nothing more than a refuge for the lazy. (To be fair, one gentleman of Italian heritage said the opposite: that he would want his wife to quit working the minute they got married, because it's hard enough to run a household even before the children came along--I sincerely hope he found his true love!) As I said, the attitude of the other Catholic gentlemen shocked me, because the view that raising children is such an unimportant task that it can be outsourced to the cheapest "help" one can hire so one's wife can help one achieve the dream of wealth and financial success is not exactly the view of the Church.

This view, of course, is not limited to men; many Catholic men express a desire to find a wife who would be willing to put her career ambitions on hold for a time for the sake of children, only to learn that the women he meets have been told so often that even if they marry, the marriage will probably end in divorce, so they have to "protect" themselves by having a good career and can't "afford" to be stay-at-home moms that they aren't even willing to consider a life for their potential children that doesn't include daycare from six weeks of age followed by very early preschool. Some of these women have the attitude that devoting themselves to raising their children would be "wasting" their lives, an attitude that is certainly prevalent in the secular culture.

Another issue is that some young men and young women don't seem to realize that marriage (like every vocation) is for the salvation of the couple themselves and for that of their potential children as well as for those whom their lives touch. Marriage, in other words, is not a mere combining of households, goods, and routines, but is fundamentally rooted in the shared Christian life of the couple entering it. Two people are called, essentially, to stop being mere autonomous individuals and to learn to put the Beloved Other first in all things. Marriage is not, by any means, an instantaneous or magic cure for selfishness or self-centeredness, but it is ordered toward helping each member root those vices out of themselves as they work toward becoming what the act of marriage itself points to: two becoming one. A husband or wife who remains selfish and insists on having the world revolve around himself or herself is not experiencing the fullness of the vocation of marriage, but is holding back some integral part of himself or herself from the totality of the gift of self to other. That, I think, is at the root of many (if not most) marital problems, whether on the surface those problems seem to be about money or children or extended family or sex or work or any other thing: in reality, what is going on is that one spouse is demanding that his or her whims and wishes be catered to in some area without any real effort made to understand or appreciate the wishes of the other. For young people who have yet to enter marriage and who live in a world that tells them ceaselessly to put their own interests first, even laying aside the "self" long enough to get to know the "other" in a real and authentic way can be a daunting task.

To look at this issue another way, here's the reality for many serious young Catholics today:

--Many of them would prefer to marry a fellow Catholic;
--Many of them would prefer that fellow Catholic to be living the faith, attending Mass and going to Confession, and not living a life at odds with morality or virtue;
--Many of them wish that potential Catholic spouse to share their ideas about what marriage is, what it is for, and how to live it;
--Many of them, even if they meet these first criteria, struggle with the world's ideas about children and child-raising, what marriage is, how to root out selfishness and learn to live as a truly united couple instead of two wholly autonomous people struggling for mastery, etc.

It's hard enough to find a potential spouse who takes the faith seriously, is not at odds with the Church about fornication or contraception, understands what the Church means when she speaks about marriage as a vocation, etc. To add to that the importance of being on the same page with what marriage is and how to live it is to add, some would say, the impossible.

But it's not impossible. Many of the Catholic couples I know are happy to be living marriage as a blessed vocation (myself included). Young single Catholics should know that even if they have to learn to lay aside their "ideals" about what their husband/wife should look like or do for a living etc., they should never settle for someone who doesn't share the Church's ideas about the vocation of marriage.


Anonymous said...

This is on my mind so much lately. So many of my childhood friends (and family) have recently filed for divorce. I desperate to pinpoint why so I can immunize myself. ;)

Regarding your last paragraph, I think taking faith seriously in marriage desperately needs to be addressed more thoroughly in Catholic schools. It was something that my husband and I grew into after marriage upon further education ourselves. In our (shared) local Catholic high school our Baptist health teacher taught us all about contraceptives. Is it a coincidence that almost all of my girlfriends from that school are now divorced?

Bathilda said...

I would add another potential reason for women not getting or remaining married. Domestic Violence. Women don't put up with it like they used to. It used to be legal to beat the crap out of your wife, or the police wouldn't even intervene. Now, it's against the law, and in many states, the woman doesnt have to press charges if there is a witness.

John Frank said...

Part of the problem is not necessarily the high standards, but the avenues for finding a person that meets those high standards. You are unlikely to bump into a devout Roman Catholic, adoration-attending, scapular-wearing, First-Friday going Catholic at the supermarket. So many young people that I know are doing just that - hoping to bump into Mr. Right as they browse for tomatoes at the store or get a workout in at the gym. In this day and age, if you want to find a Catholic mate - someone who truly believes in their faith and strives to follow it, you have to take matters into your own hands and go get them. You have to go to where the Catholics are - whether it be an "Uber-Catholic" college or a young adults group, or even a Catholic dating website. The point is that you can't just sit back and wait for Mr. or Mrs. Right to fall into your lap.

sdecorla said...

That article seemed a bit sexist to me - only women have unrealistic expectations?!

People also have to understand that people and circumstances change. My husband and I had originally planned that I would be a stay-at-home mom, but it turned out we couldn’t afford it. I am thrilled to be only working part-time now after several years of working full-time.

Also, when I married my husband he was a devout Catholic, and now he’s an agnostic. I have no idea what to do about this and worry about how it will affect our kids. No one EVER mentioned the possibility in marriage preparation that one spouse could lose their faith; it’s just assumed that both spouses will stay Catholic. It never occurred to me that this could happen.

To be honest, I think the Church is partially to blame for the “unrealistic expectations” people have about marriage. Over and over and over when I was growing up, I heard from Catholic writers and speakers that avoiding premarital sex leads to a great sex life after marriage, that NFP is great for marriage, that marrying another Catholic will make marriage much easier, that not cohabitating before marriage will protect you from divorce, and on and on. I have found that many of these things are simply not necessarily the case. There are NO guarantees. And what if your spouse changes AFTER marriage, like mine did? All the talking and communicating in the world BEFORE marriage will do no good in that case.

Lucerna said...

As a 46 year old single woman whose life has not turned out the way she planned it, I appreciate your article. I include myself among a generation of accomplished Catholic women who were not able to find a suitable Catholic spouse--and not for lack of trying! Any one of us would have loved to have made a life out of diapers and tricycles if we could have found a Catholic man who would lead us and our family closer to Christ. I could have been married a few different times, if I'd been willing to settle for less than that. I was open to a lot of complicated situations. I stayed with some men too long, hoping that they would grow into it. They didn't. Should I have gone ahead and gotten married anyway? I don't think so. Scripture teaches us that as woman we are to submit to our husband, and to be able to do so, it was important to me to find someone for whom I had a deep respect (and vice versa).

At 46, believe it or not...I'm still hoping. If you have any ideas, let me know!

Mary said...

Great post Erin. I totally agree with you. Lucerna, you are a wise woman. Keep your standards in place.