America is famous for its sense of personal freedom, which is interpreted in a strictly libertarian fashion. From the Pilgrims who sought to worship as they sought fit, to the early settlers who left the established towns and headed West, this country has held an abiding admiration for singular souls. It’s not only the Independent Man atop Rhode Island’s State House that illustrates the point—we have long delighted in heroes and entertainers who bucked convention and did it their way.
While courage and integrity are to be admired in the right context, it may be that the rugged individualism at our core has undermined a proper understanding of the sacrament of marriage. Although marriage does involve a man and a woman who vow to undertake a singular mission, there is more to it than that. In the Old Testament, we learn about covenants, and we see that when God graciously bound himself to Abraham, it was not for Abraham alone but for the good of the community. When the Chosen People were faithful to the covenant, the community prospered, but when infidelity or irreverence crept in, everyone suffered. Covenants are, by their nature, communal.
This view appears to run at cross-purposes with the freedoms we imagine are for our own good—especially when freedom is confused with license to act in ways that run contrary to our nature. This topic was addressed by the Second Vatican Council, which summarized : “The well-being of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of conjugal and family life” (Gaudium et Spes, 47).
If we look at this “intimate partnership” as a layered reality, perhaps it will help in creating a stronger foundation for all who undertake it. Rather than entering into a marriage for the sake of individual happiness, the first step is to remember that this sacrament is a means of “[rendering] mutual help and service to each other” in pursuit of holiness and perfection (GS, 48). The next layer embraces the children, who naturally broaden the intimate circle, and then that shared mission becomes a wondrous source of joy—and purification!
The next layer of the circle encompasses extended family, neighbors, the parish and school communities, but as the demands grow it is essential to remember the first principles: the children’s well-being is paramount, depending on a healthy bond between the parents, and only with that stability in place can the wider community benefit. We are not just individuals but persons made for communion with others, and partners in a covenant in which God is an active participant. Surely this is not easy, as John Paul II reminded us: “Love between man and woman cannot be built without sacrifices and self-denial.”
It is common for people to dismiss previous generations who rejected divorce “for the sake of the children,” but we must look honestly at the results of such disdain. Has society benefited by our individualistic approach to “freedom?” Are we more satisfied by having pitted our happiness against the needs of the wider community? Have the children benefitted by a looser approach to marital bonds? Fidelity to our vows is certainly a challenge, but John Paul II explained: “As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.”
God has promised adequate graces to help us in the challenges intrinsic to marriage, and countless spouses have benefited by them. If prayer has changed the impossible into the possible in your life, now is the time to share that hard-won wisdom with others thirsting for solid advice. If the accumulation of time and suffering have transformed your understanding of what is really important, pray about how to spread that particular insight with those who need to hear it. And if someone turns to you to share such a treasure, be sure to listen—for they know whereof they speak!