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Archbishop Hickey on the Christian concept of marriage
The vision of Jesus of marriage and family life restored was a critique of the paganism of his time, and the redemption of marriage as transmitted by Judaism.
It is my contention that the very same vision of marriage is equally a critique of modern paganism, some concepts of which have found their way into the thinking of many Christians and, unfortunately, into the thinking of some Christian churches.
In what way is it a critique?
Fundamentally it is because the way Jesus called us to live is in itself a critique of society and its values.
He called all people, married or single, to change, to move out of their present mode of life and accept a new lifestyle that would be a personal transformation and a force for change in the world they had come from.
This is a fundamental concept, that of personal conversion, because Jesus did not talk first about changing social structures, about law reform, about challenging the dominant authorities. He implied that the world would be changed if his listeners changed from the way they lived to His way of living love.
When that way of life is transferred to marriage and family life, it can renew and transform marriage from a natural institution into a Sacrament.
Redemption needs to be proclaimed again.
Sociologists offer reasons for high marriage breakdowns, as the pace and stress of modern life, the disappearance of the extended family, unemployment and poverty, changing roles of men and women, and so on. All of these factors have an influence on marriage stability and should not be discounted.
Psychologists become more involved in the interpersonal interaction, the quality of communication, the personality factors of the spouses, their psychological ability for relationships and their level of commit- ment.
They have established marriage counselling as a profession where people can look at ways of improving their relationship or even move out of marriage altogether. Marriage counselling too has a valid place.
What religion has to say is different. It speaks of the central element in marriage, the idea of two people becoming - in the explicit words of Jesus - 'one flesh'. It says that if the Christian virtues and way of life of Christ are applied to marriage, then it is possible to become 'one flesh'.
Indissolubility becomes not a legal or moral straitjacket, but a consequence of living marriage according to the way of life that Jesus offered. Its exclusiveness of other partners is also a consequence of the true and lasting marital bond. Its openness to children is part of the vocation of marriage where spouses trust God implicitly.
What attacks and undermines the central union of 'one flesh'?
We can list all the sociological and psychological factors. We can also list the rejection of the virtues of Christian living. But there is one element that goes deeper than all those because it attacks the fundamental sign of love, union and fruitfulness - I mean the central sexual union that symbolises mutual love and deepens it.
What attacks that central expression of the union of love is contraception.
The world finds it very hard to understand the Church's opposition to contraception - even Catholics - because it does not seem that important. However, its destructive power is beginning to be recognised again.
In so far as contraception prevents the procreative outcome of the sexual union, it separates sex from marriage and encourages fornication and casual sex.
Casual sex before marriage makes it difficult for the man or the woman to be faithful to the one embrace. Fidelity is strained because of previous experiences.
It also makes it difficult to associate sex always with love - because previous experiences associate it with lust or selfish pleasure. Its meaning is totally otherwise in Christian marriage.
In marriage itself contraception can undermine trust to the point where partners begin to doubt whether the act is really an expression of love. It cancels the mutual gift of fertility and makes it a subject for negotiation and refusal. The worst part of contraception is that it creates an anti-baby mentality and predisposes both married and unmarried people to abortion.
It is a pity that the insistence on free choice, personal freedom and women's rights has deflected attention from the negative effects of widespread contraception. Of all the unpopular messages I need to communicate, this is one of the most unpopular because it is not understood.
But a US study has found that almost no couple that adopts Natural Family Planning ever divorces. There is a message there that should be heard.
Nothing in what I have said should imply criticism of or lack of sympathy for those who are separated or divorced. The local parish, the Church community, must reach out to those who suffer much in the bitter experience of separation and breakdown of family life.
This article is based on Archbishop Hickey's address in 1992 to the Australian Family Association's national conference in Perth and his 2003 Pastoral Letter on Christian Marriage.
Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 20 No 9 (October 2007), p. 20
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