The scene: Worcester, Massachusetts, Spring 2002. My former student, Meg Cullen, is marrying John Somers in a Russian Orthodox rite. The accent is on begetting and the authority of the husband. The priest remarks that the best advice on marriage comes from the experience of his own parents, married fifty-one years. Very early in the marriage, he said, his mother told his father “You’re the boss.” Then, he said, “she proceeded to instruct him on how to be the boss.”
And that, I thought, encompassed everything. What suddenly brought this scene back was the release of the Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (On Love in the Family). People in my circle had been bracing for the worst, anticipating that some moves would be made, springing from the Synod, to alter the doctrines of the Church on marriage and divorce.
But what came out – at least in part – was a plea for “tenderness,” while at the same time trying to find ways of holding people within the arms of the Church even if they are not taking Communion.
The Holy Father sought to treat the family from every angle, including the parents and the children, as a reflection of the Trinity and even “the love of the crucified Christ.” At times, the advice seemed to be stuff of the “advice columns” in the local papers, as in: never “let the day end without making peace in the family.”
But at times even that kind of advice touches something that runs more deeply because it touches something painful, something likely to be heard by priests in a confessional: “My wife no longer looks at me [when she talks to me], she only has eyes for the children.” Or: “Those who know that their spouse is always suspicious, judgmental and lacking in unconditional love, will tend [more] to keep secrets, conceal their feelings.”
Francis invoked St. John Paul II to deny that the Church tolerates sexuality only because it is necessary for procreation. “Sexual desire,” wrote Francis, “is not something to be looked down upon,” and citing John Paul II again, there’s no attempt “to call into question its necessity.”
Pope Francis persisted: The openness to the begetting of new life “cannot be denied,” he wrote, “without disfiguring that love [marked in marriage].” And yet he noted, in a turn freighted with meaning, that “no genital act of husband and wife can refuse this meaning, even when for various reasons it may not always in fact beget a new life.”
And there was the key to the argument in the courts over same-sex marriage. It was the point on which that accomplished lawyer, Charles Cooper, suddenly found himself tripping when he was defending the laws on marriage in California in Hollingsworth v. Perry in 2013.
Justice Kagan put the question: If the matter of begetting is central to the idea of marriage, why do we permit the marriage of people in their 50’s and older, when they may be well past the time of begetting. Cooper had to fall back on the report and conjecture that many men in their 50’s were still capable of siring children. Kagan was essentially asking why the male-female form of coupling was the only form that would qualify as a marital act, while that coupling may be as sterile as the coupling of gays and lesbians.
What had to be explained was precisely the point made by Pope Francis, but left unexplained even by him.
In leading into this problem, we might put the question of just why we would consider a rape a rape – and not merely just another form of assault, if we heard that the victim was sterile or incapable of begetting children.
This is not an assault just like all others. It marks a penetration that would claim access for the male to the possibilities of begetting children – a franchise that a woman would not offer to strangers. It involves a willingness to see one’s love embodied, given form in a new life that does in fact combine the genes and features of both partners. It is the love incarnate.
We do not need the ties of legal commitment to mark just any friendship. That sense of commitment made firm in the law has a special relevance as a framework for the begetting and nurturance of children. For it marks the understanding that the partners have foregone their freedom to quit each other, and their children, as it suits their convenience.
If the laws of marriage have that rationale, then yes, the coupling distinct to men and women must ever mark the most morally coherent form of marriage, where reason and purpose find their ground in acts most natural.
As Maggie Gallagher once noted, with her usual knack of seeing to the core, it is not free love that is most adventurous and daring, but the vow: To commit ourselves to a life-long love is the most audacious thing that any of us could ever do. And along the way, we are jostled out of our routine with a gentle reminder.
The scene: A synagogue in Boston, September 3, 1978. The daughter of a friend is getting married this day, on Judy and my 17th anniversary. Judy had misplaced weeks earlier the wedding ring I’d given her. But I had found it. I hadn’t told her, though, that I’d found it. When the moment came in the ceremony for the groom to place the ring on the finger of his bride, I slipped the ring back on Judy’s finger. What happened after that. . .I keep under the veil of marital privacy.