June (the height of wedding season) is long gone, but the synod deliberations in Rome as well as the Supreme Court’s recent decision not to hear the same-sex marriage cases keep marriage and its competing meanings in mind. I recently squandered a few hours watching episodes of “Say Yes to the Dress.” In case you have never done likewise, this is a reality TV show set in an upscale New York City bridal shop where fiancées and their families can spend the cost of a down payment on a house for a pricey piece of clothing that will be worn once.
As I watched, I fell to wondering whether a bride’s investment in her wedding-as-performance-art is inversely proportional to her investment in the marriage as a real and lifelong act of mutual self-donation and generous love of spouse and children. It’s hard not to feel that the dream weddings of these brides more closely resemble the fantasies of a five-year-old (“I’m a princess!”) than the joyful entrance into the married state of a young woman.
That’s a gross generalization, of course. Even now, many people struggle mightily against the Spirit of the Age. And a good many more attempt to walk what seems to them a reasonable line between that self-absorbed Spirit and a more self-giving one. It is hard, after all, not to want more than the Spirit of the Age has on offer. And even in our ailing culture, it is difficult to fall in love and not will the good of the beloved, or to have children and not desire their happiness enough to at least episodically sacrifice one’s own happiness to achieve it.
Shows like “Say Yes to the Dress” focus on the extreme cases, the ones with high drama and entertaining levels of family tension. On the other hand, it does appeal to the five-year-old princess in many a viewer (as well as drawing cranky critics like me). And it does, in an extreme way, highlight a certain contemporary tendency not just to cast ourselves as the stars of our lives (that’s no new fashion, but an ancient product of the Fall), but to transform key moments of our lives, ceremonious transitions such as sweet-sixteen parties, proms, comings of age, graduations, and weddings, into events out-glitzing the Ziegfeld Follies.
But no matter how glamorous the wedding day, what follows is life as a married man or woman. Maybe many of these newlywed couples, scarred by their parents’ divorces or the culture’s cynicism and mixed messages, still yearn for marriage to be something enduring and significant. Maybe, without understanding what they are doing, they strive to make it so by sacrificing to the god of weddings a holocaust of cash.
Despite this, the secular institution of marriage, though recently redefined to accommodate more categories of human pairings and re-pairings, has sadly shrunk in its perceived meaning and power. The marriage bed, for example, is no longer the sanctuary in which human beings mysteriously cooperate with God to create human life. Instead, couples (married or unmarried) themselves choose when and whether to open their acts of intercourse to possible conception.
So maybe, to a greater extent that heretofore, marriage becomes a “big deal” for the couple largely to the extent that husband and wife treat it as such. But that turns the whole idea of marriage into a kind of fantasy. It’s drama, it’s hype – it’s a reality TV show.
For marriage to truly matter, it must have an inherent meaning that evokes a response in us. The meaning must come from what marriage is about and not from how we feel about it. Take this almost brutally honest excerpt from post-Revolutionary French political philosopher Louis de Bonald’s book On Divorce, written to revoke France’s liberalized divorce law:
Divorce transforms domestic society into a struggle between strength and weakness, between power and duty; which constitutes the family as a temporary lease, where the inconstancy of the human heart stipulates its passions and interest, and which ends where other interests and new passions begin. . . . And if man sometimes bears with regret a chain he cannot break, does he not suffer at all moments of his life, from his passions which he cannot subdue, from his inconstancy which he cannot settle; and is the entire life of man anything but a continual struggle against his penchants?
Here is reality with a vengeance! But, in its solidity, in its objectivity, oddly comforting.
One thing the bishops gathered in Rome got right: The crumbling of marriage and family life has produced a multitude of casualties. These are disoriented people, with distorted experience of human relationships. Many or most, whether or not they acknowledge it, are objectively guilty of serious sin. For such people, groping about in a fantasy world of self-made meaning, part of encountering the mercy of Christ can be discovering (but “How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard?”) the angular but reassuringly solid contours of Truth.