Recently, I was asked to participate in a discussion group about marriage. The question posed to me was, “What are some of the biggest marriage issues you see in your therapy practice?” I could have talked for hours about communication issues, money issues, unrealistic expectations, family-of-origin issues, gender differences, etc. But, since it was a Catholic group with limited time, I decided to go more to the heart of the matter. So, I began by saying that I believe three things are being extracted from marriage by society: vocation, sacrament and covenant. One thing is being injected to replace these three things: self-centeredness.
Many people do not think of marriage as a vocation. Rather than a divine calling, marriage becomes just another item on a list of “Things That Will Make Me Happy.” A vocation is something to devote one’s life to. It transcends feelings and emotions and relies on work, sacrifice, priority and commitment to bear the fruit of genuine joy and happiness that people long for. Self-centeredness says, “This marriage is about making me happy.” Vocation says, “We are in this marriage to serve God and each other. It is our primary calling, not just our desire.”
Some non-Catholic Christian denominations ordain both women and men to the ministry. I have seen it cause conflict in a marriage when both spouses feel called to the vocation of ministry. The marriage and family becomes something to “work around” while they pursue their vocations. There are essentially three vocations competing for attention and devotion in this scenario. Even when only one spouse is called to the ministry it can be difficult for that person to devote enough time to both vocations.
I love that the Catholic Church regards marriage as a Sacrament. It is “an outward sign, instituted by Christ, to give grace.” Marriage is a vehicle by which people receive God’s grace. The “outward sign” is the couple. The marriage reflects Christ as the Groom and the Church as his Bride. From the beginning, “a man leaves his mother and father, a woman leaves her home, and the two become one.” Christ and his Church are united as one body. A happy marriage requires lots of grace.
It’s not surprising that the secular world has lost sight of the sacramental aspect of marriage. Unfortunately, so has much of Christendom. A few years ago, I attended a wedding where the minister actually made a point of saying, “This is not a sacrament, as some might think.” I knew that some Christians disagreed that marriage is a sacrament, but I was surprised to hear that rejection stated as part of a wedding ceremony. I was also saddened by the reminder that so many fellow Christians have been denied the graces available through the sacramental life of the Church because of the Reformation.
Most folks these days think of marriage as a contract rather than a covenant. A contract says, “We have a deal, at least, unless one of us breaks the deal.” Covenant says, “We’re family now. We are blood relatives.” Both the Old Covenant and the New Covenant of God were sealed by blood. The family of God is a blood relationship. A blood relative is always a blood relative, regardless of legal proceedings. This is why the Catholic Church says that if a couple is validly married in the eyes of the Church, they stay married for life. A legal divorce does not change the blood relationship. A covenant is not a legal state of being, but a relational state of being. A contract protects people from each other. A covenant embraces people as family.
A self-centered approach to life does not fit well with the ideas of vocation, sacrament or covenant. The Church, of course, has always known this. As society becomes increasingly “me” oriented, marriage and family life feels the strain. Generally speaking, as the family goes, so goes the society. Although I can’t discuss the concepts of vocation, sacrament and covenant with all of my marriage therapy clients, I can help them to see the toxic character of self-centeredness and the joys of true commitment. Hopefully, some of God’s grace enters the relationship that way.
Quite frankly, many couples would spend a lot less money on marriage therapists if they only took advantage of the Sacrament of Confession. But that’s a topic for another day.
For another interesting article about marriage as a vocation read this.