October 31, 2011

Even 400 years ago, the business of Church weddings was a rocky one.

"Would to God that his well-beloved Son were invited to every marriage as he was to the marriage at Cana," wrote St. Francis de Sales, bishop, theologian and evangelizer. "Then the wine of his compassion and blessing would never be lacking to it.

"The supreme reason why there is little of that wine at the beginning of married life is because Adonis is invited instead of Our Lord and Venus instead of Our Lady."

Today, of course, Venus, the Roman goddess of sexual love, and Adonis, the great hunk of Greek mythology, are regularly wed in our churches, sometimes having co-habited for a period of time.

For Karol Wojtyla, the future Pope John Paul II, writing in his 1960 book, Love and Responsibility, any non-marital sexual relationship involves the reduction of each person to the level of an object for the use of the other. "The woman in particular is in danger of becoming a mere object of enjoyment for the man."

In co-habiting relationships then, each person, even if there is mutual consent, is being treated as an object by the other. People may choose to call this love, but it is really a form of slavery.

It should come as no surprise when, some time after these relationships of co-habitation have been solemnized as marriages, they collapse and the couple are filing for divorce. The sacrament of Matrimony provides grace, but it doesn't work magic. It can't transform a relationship of mutual exploitation into one of mutual self-giving.


The next step may be to seek a Church annulment, which may well be amply justified since there was little mature judgment at the time of marriage. Perhaps someone noticed the lack of maturity before the marriage, but the ceremonies went ahead.

None of us, of course, were so mature on our wedding day as we were apt to be 20 years later. There is always the hope that the trials and tribulations of limited finances, crying babies and rebellious teenagers will knock some sense into the couple.

However, if we start the journey in an exploitive relationship and call it love, we are less likely to know that love is something different and that it is built on self-giving rather than self-seeking. If we could convince Adonis and Venus to live apart during their courtship and get themselves to a confessional, it might do them - and their progeny – a world of good.


Francis de Sales says there are three types of love: natural love (that of turtle doves), human love (that of the pagans) and Christian love. What is Christian love? Francis answers by turning to the much-abused Ephesians 5: "'Husbands, love your wives as Christ also loved the Church,' and you wives, love your husbands as the Church loves her Saviour."

Few women today are much enamoured with the notion of viewing their husband as the Saviour and few men would have a clue what it means for them to love their wives as Christ loved the Church.

Expanding on the male side of that description, one could say that not only was Christ self-sacrificing in his love for the Church, he gave the Church his body. He gave that body, not for one night, but as an everlasting presence of love.

When we recall how Christ is contained, offered and received in the Holy Eucharist, we can see how he loved the Church. The sacrament of Matrimony, like that of the Eucharist, is marked by presence, sacrifice and receptivity.

Marriages founded on mutual exploitation do not have enough gas to go the distance.

Marriages founded on mutual exploitation do not have enough gas to go the distance.

Wives, says Francis de Sales, must deal with a man who is "a severe, harsh, rough creature" and who needs to be softened with "the sugar of devotion." Husbands, he says, must provide their wives with similar devotion for without it, "a woman is very frail and apt to decline in virtue or lose it."


The language may be dated, but the sentiment is accurate. Marriage is a relationship in which man and woman raise each other to a greater humanity by their mutual affection. It is the opposite of the exploitation found in non-marital co-habitation.

Wojtyla made a further point: The institution of marriage is not the same as the institution of the family. The family is built on the self-giving love of marriage and society is built on the family.

Families become a school of love because of the communion between a man and a woman on which they are founded. If there is goodness in society, it too is founded on the love between husband and wife.

This is why it is so crucial, not only for individuals, but for society as a whole that the sexual union between man and woman be non-exploitive, exclusive, permanent and an institution. When the love between man and woman is distorted and misunderstood, society is in grave jeopardy. The rancorous gods of mythology are running the farm.