Chapter 4 - Love in marriage part II
“The Lord was wit-ness to the covenant between you and the wife of your youth, to whom you have been faithless, though she is your companion and your wife by covenant… Let none be faithless to the wife of his youth. For I hate divorce, says the Lord” (Mal 2:14-16).
124. A love that is weak or infirm, incapable of accepting marriage as a challenge to be taken up and fought for, reborn, renewed and reinvented until death, cannot sustain a great commitment. It will succumb to the culture of the ephemeral that prevents a constant process of growth. Yet “promising love for ever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love”.123 If this love is to overcome all trials and remain faithful in the face of everything, it needs the gift of grace to strengthen and elevate it. In the words of Saint Robert Bellarmine, “the fact that one man unites with one woman in an indissoluble bond, and that they remain inseparable despite every kind of difficulty, even when there is no longer hope for children, can only be the sign of a great mystery”.124
125. Marriage is likewise a friendship marked by passion, but a passion always directed to an ever more stable and intense union. This is because “marriage was not instituted solely for the procreation of children” but also that mutual love “might be properly expressed, that it should grow and mature”.125 This unique friendship between a man and a woman acquires an all-encompassing character only within the conjugal union. Precisely as all-encompassing, this union is also exclusive, faithful and open to new life. It shares everything in constant mutual respect. The Second Vatican Council echoed this by stating that “such a love, bringing together the human and the divine, leads the partners to a free and mutual self-giving, experienced in tenderness and action, and permeating their entire lives”.126
Joy and beauty
126. In marriage, the joy of love needs to be cultivated. When the search for pleasure becomes obsessive, it holds us in thrall and keeps us from experiencing other satisfactions. Joy, on the other hand, increases our pleasure and helps us find fulfilment in any number of things, even at those times of life when physical pleasure has ebbed. Saint Thomas Aquinas said that the word “joy” refers to an expansion of the heart.127 Marital joy can be experienced even amid sorrow; it involves accepting that marriage is an inevitable mixture of enjoyment and struggles, tensions and repose, pain and relief, satisfactions and longings, annoyances and pleasures, but always on the path of friendship, which inspires married couples to care for one another: “they help and serve each other”.128
127. The love of friendship is called “charity” when it perceives and esteems the “great worth” of another person.129 Beauty – that “great worth” which is other than physical or psychological appeal – enables us to appreciate the sacredness of a person, without feeling the need to possess it. In a consumerist society, the sense of beauty is impoverished and so joy fades. Everything is there to be purchased, possessed or consumed, including people. Tenderness, on the other hand, is a sign of a love free of selfish possessiveness. It makes us approach a person with immense respect and a certain dread of causing them harm or taking away their freedom. Loving another person involves the joy of contemplating and appreciating their innate beauty and sacredness, which is greater than my needs. This enables me to seek their good even when they cannot belong to me, or when they are no longer physically appealing but intrusive and annoying. For “the love by which one person is pleasing to another de-pends on his or her giving something freely”.130
128. The aesthetic experience of love is ex-pressed in that “gaze” which contemplates other persons as ends in themselves, even if they are infirm, elderly or physically unattractive. A look of appreciation has enormous importance, and to begrudge it is usually hurtful. How many things do spouses and children sometimes do in order to be noticed! Much hurt and many problems result when we stop looking at one another. This lies behind the complaints and grievances we often hear in families: “My husband does not look at me; he acts as if I were invisible”. “Please look at me when I am talking to you!”. “My wife no longer looks at me, she only has eyes for our children”. “In my own home nobody cares about me; they do not even see me; it is as if I did not exist”. Love opens our eyes and enables us to see, beyond all else, the great worth of a human being.
129. The joy of this contemplative love needs to be cultivated. Since we were made for love, we know that there is no greater joy than that of sharing good things: “Give, take, and treat yourself well” (Sir 14:16). The most intense joys in life arise when we are able to elicit joy in others, as a foretaste of heaven. We can think of the lovely scene in the film Babette’s Feast, when the generous cook receives a grateful hug and praise: “Ah, how you will delight the angels!” It is a joy and a great consolation to bring delight to others, to see them enjoying themselves. This joy, the fruit of fraternal love, is not that of the vain and self-centred, but of lovers who delight in the good of those whom they love, who give freely to them and thus bear good fruit.
130. On the other hand, joy also grows through pain and sorrow. In the words of Saint Augustine, “the greater the danger in battle the greater is the joy of victory”.131 After suffering and struggling together, spouses are able to experience that it was worth it, because they achieved some good, learned something as a couple, or came to appreciate what they have. Few human joys are as deep and thrilling as those experienced by two people who love one another and have achieved something as the result of a great, shared effort.
Marrying for love
131. I would like to say to young people that none of this is jeopardized when their love finds expression in marriage. Their union encounters in this institution the means to ensure that their love truly will endure and grow. Naturally, love is much more than an outward consent or a contract, yet it is nonetheless true that choosing to give marriage a visible form in society by undertaking certain commitments shows how important it is. It manifests the seriousness of each person’s identification with the other and their firm decision to leave adolescent individualism behind and to belong to one another. Marriage is a means of expressing that we have truly left the security of the home in which we grew up in order to build other strong ties and to take on a new responsibility for another person. This is much more meaningful than a mere spontaneous association for mutual gratification, which would turn marriage into a purely private affair. As a social institution, marriage protects and shapes a shared commitment to deeper growth in love and commitment to one another, for the good of society as a whole. That is why marriage is more than a fleeting fashion; it is of enduring importance. Its essence derives from our human nature and social character. It involves a series of obligations born of love itself, a love so serious and generous that it is ready to face any risk.
132. To opt for marriage in this way express-es a genuine and firm decision to join paths, come what may. Given its seriousness, this public commitment of love cannot be the fruit of a hasty decision, but neither can it be postponed indefinitely. Committing oneself exclusively and definitively to another person always involves a risk and a bold gamble. Unwillingness to make such a commitment is selfish, calculating and petty. It fails to recognize the rights of another person and to present him or her to society as someone worthy of unconditional love. If two persons are truly in love, they naturally show this to others. When love is expressed before others in the marriage contract, with all its public commitments, it clearly indicates and protects the “yes” which those persons speak freely and unreservedly to each other. This “yes” tells them that they can always trust one another, and that they will never be abandoned when difficulties arise or new attractions or selfish interests present themselves.
A love that reveals itself and increases
133. The love of friendship unifies all aspects of marital life and helps family members to grow constantly. This love must be freely and generously expressed in words and acts. In the family, “three words need to be used. I want to repeat this! Three words: ‘Please’, ‘Thank you’, ‘Sorry’. Three essential words!”.132 “In our families when we are not overbearing and ask: ‘May I?’; in our families when we are not selfish and can say: ‘Thank you!’; and in our families when some-one realizes that he or she did something wrong and is able to say ‘Sorry!’, our family experiences peace and joy”.133 Let us not be stingy about using these words, but keep repeating them, day after day. For “certain silences are oppressive, even at times within families, between husbands and wives, between parents and children, among siblings”.134 The right words, spoken at the right time, daily protect and nurture love.
134. All this occurs through a process of constant growth. The very special form of love that is marriage is called to embody what Saint Thomas Aquinas said about charity in general. “Charity”, he says, “by its very nature, has no limit to its increase, for it is a participation in that infinite charity which is the Holy Spirit… Nor on the part of the subject can its limit be fixed, because as charity grows, so too does its capacity for an even greater increase”.135 Saint Paul also prays: “May the Lord make you in-crease and abound in love to one another” (1 Th 3:12), and again, “concerning fraternal love… we urge you, beloved, to do so more and more” (1 Th 4:9-10). More and more! Marital love is not defended primarily by presenting indissolubility as a duty, or by repeating doctrine, but by helping it to grow ever stronger under the impulse of grace. A love that fails to grow is at risk. Growth can only occur if we respond to God’s grace through constant acts of love, acts of kindness that become ever more frequent, intense, generous, tender and cheerful. Husbands and wives “become conscious of their unity and experience it more deeply from day to day”.136 The gift of God’s love poured out upon the spouses is also a summons to constant growth in grace.
135. It is not helpful to dream of an idyllic and perfect love needing no stimulus to grow. A celestial notion of earthly love forgets that the best is yet to come, that fine wine matures with age. As the Bishops of Chile have pointed out, “the perfect families proposed by deceptive consumerist propaganda do not exist. In those families, no one grows old, there is no sickness, sorrow or death… Consumerist propaganda presents a fantasy that has nothing to do with the reality which must daily be faced by the heads of families”.137 It is much healthier to be realistic about our limits, defects and imperfections, and to respond to the call to grow together, to bring love to maturity and to strengthen the union, come what may.
136. Dialogue is essential for experiencing, ex-pressing and fostering love in marriage and family life. Yet it can only be the fruit of a long and demanding apprenticeship. Men and women, young people and adults, communicate differently. They speak different languages and they act in different ways. Our way of asking and respond-ing to questions, the tone we use, our timing and any number of other factors condition how well we communicate. We need to develop certain attitudes that express love and encourage authentic dialogue.
137. Take time, quality time. This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say. It requires the self-discipline of not speaking until the time is right. Instead of offering an opinion or advice, we need to be sure that we have heard everything the other person has to say. This means cultivating an interior silence that makes it possible to listen to the other person without mental or emotional distractions. Do not be rushed, put aside all of your own needs and worries, and make space. Often the other spouse does not need a solution to his or her problems, but simply to be heard, to feel that someone has acknowledge their pain, their disappointment, their fear, their anger, their hopes and their dreams. How often we hear complaints like: “He does not listen to me.” “Even when you seem to, you are really doing something else.” “I talk to her and I feel like she can’t wait for me to finish.” “When I speak to her, she tries to change the subject, or she gives me curt responses to end the conversation”.
138. Develop the habit of giving real importance to the other person. This means appreciating them and recognizing their right to exist, to think as they do and to be happy. Never down-play what they say or think, even if you need to express your own point of view. Everyone has something to contribute, because they have their life experiences, they look at things from a different standpoint and they have their own concerns, abilities and insights. We ought to be able to ac-knowledge the other person’s truth, the value of his or her deepest concerns, and what it is that they are trying to communicate, however aggressively. We have to put ourselves in their shoes and try to peer into their hearts, to perceive their deepest concerns and to take them as a point of departure for further dialogue.
139. Keep an open mind. Don’t get bogged down in your own limited ideas and opinions, but be prepared to change or expand them. The combination of two different ways of thinking can lead to a synthesis that enriches both. The unity that we seek is not uniformity, but a “unity in diversity”, or “reconciled diversity”. Fraternal communion is enriched by respect and appreciation for differences within an overall perspective that advances the common good. We need to free ourselves from feeling that we all have to be alike. A certain astuteness is also needed to prevent the appearance of “static” that can interfere with the process of dialogue. For example, if hard feelings start to emerge, they should be dealt with sensitively, lest they interrupt the dynamic of dialogue. The ability to say what one is thinking without offending the other person is important. Words should be carefully chosen so as not to offend, especially when discussing difficult issues. Making a point should never involve venting anger and inflicting hurt. A patronizing tone only serves to hurt, ridicule, accuse and offend others. Many disagreements between couples are not about important things. Mostly they are about trivial matters. What alters the mood, however, is the way things are said or the attitude with which they are said.
140. Show affection and concern for the other person. Love surmounts even the worst barriers. When we love someone, or when we feel loved by them, we can better understand what they are trying to communicate. Fearing the other person as a kind of “rival” is a sign of weakness and needs to be overcome. It is very important to base one’s position on solid choices, beliefs or values, and not on the need to win an argument or to be proved right.
141. Finally, let us acknowledge that for a worth-while dialogue we have to have something to say. This can only be the fruit of an interior richness nourished by reading, personal reflection, prayer and openness to the world around us. Otherwise, conversations become boring and trivial. When neither of the spouses works at this, and has little real contact with other people, family life be-comes stifling and dialogue impoverished.
Passionate love 142. The Second Vatican Council teaches that this conjugal love “embraces the good of the whole person; it can enrich the sentiments of the spirit and their physical expression with a unique dignity and ennoble them as the special features and manifestation of the friendship proper to marriage”.138 For this reason, a love lacking either pleasure or passion is insufficient to symbolize the union of the human heart with God: “All the mystics have affirmed that supernatural love and heavenly love find the symbols which they seek in marital love, rather than in friendship, filial devotion or devotion to a cause. And the reason is to be found precisely in its totality”.139 Why then should we not pause to speak of feelings and sexuality in marriage?
The world of emotions
143. Desires, feelings, emotions, what the ancients called “the passions”, all have an important place in married life. They are awakened whenever “another” becomes present and part of a person’s life. It is characteristic of all living beings to reach out to other things, and this tendency always has basic affective signs: pleasure or pain, joy or sadness, tenderness or fear. They ground the most elementary psychological activity. Human beings live on this earth, and all that they do and seek is fraught with passion.
144. As true man, Jesus showed his emotions. He was hurt by the rejection of Jerusalem (cf. Mt 23:27) and this moved him to tears (cf. Lk 19:41). He was also deeply moved by the sufferings of others (cf. Mk 6:34). He felt deeply their grief (cf. Jn 11:33), and he wept at the death of a friend (cf. Jn 11:35). These examples of his sensitivity showed how much his human heart was open to others.
145. Experiencing an emotion is not, in itself, morally good or evil.140 The stirring of desire or repugnance is neither sinful nor blameworthy. What is morally good or evil is what we do on the basis of, or under the influence of, a given passion.
But when passions are aroused or sought, and as a result we perform evil acts, the evil lies in the de-cision to fuel them and in the evil acts that result. Along the same lines, my being attracted to some-one is not automatically good. If my attraction to that person makes me try to dominate him or her, then my feeling only serves my selfishness. To believe that we are good simply because “we feel good” is a tremendous illusion. There are those who feel themselves capable of great love only because they have a great need for affection, yet they prove incapable of the effort needed to bring happiness to others. They remain caught up in their own needs and desires. In such cases, emo-tions distract from the highest values and con-ceal a self-centredness that makes it impossible to develop a healthy and happy family life.
146. This being said, if passion accompanies a free act, it can manifest the depth of that act. Marital love strives to ensure that one’s entire emotional life benefits the family as a whole and stands at the service of its common life. A family is mature when the emotional life of its members be-comes a form of sensitivity that neither stifles nor obscures great decisions and values, but rather fol-lows each one’s freedom,141 springs from it, enrich-es, perfects and harmonizes it in the service of all.
God loves the joy of his children
147. This calls for a pedagogical process that involves renunciation. This conviction on the part of the Church has often been rejected as opposed to human happiness. Benedict XVI summed up this charge with great clarity: “Doesn’t the Church, with all her com-mandments and prohibitions, turn to bitter-ness the most precious thing in life? Doesn’t she blow the whistle just when the joy which is the Creator’s gift offers us a happiness which is itself a certain foretaste of the Divine?”142 He responded that, although there have been exaggerations and deviant forms of asceticism in Christianity, the Church’s official teaching, in fidelity to the Scriptures, did not reject “eros as such, but rather declared war on a warped and destructive form of it, because this counterfeit divinization of eros… actually strips it of divine dignity and dehumanizes it”.143
148. Training in the areas of emotion and instinct is necessary, and at times this requires setting limits. Excess, lack of control or ob-session with a single form of pleasure can end up weakening and tainting that very pleasure144 and damaging family life. A person can cer-tainly channel his passions in a beautiful and healthy way, increasingly pointing them towards altruism and an integrated self-fulfilment that can only enrich interpersonal relationships in the heart of the family. This does not mean renouncing moments of intense enjoyment,145 but rather integrating them with other moments of generous commitment, patient hope, inevi-table weariness and struggle to achieve an ideal. Family life is all this, and it deserves to be lived to the fullest.
149. Some currents of spirituality teach that desire has to be eliminated as a path to liberation from pain. Yet we believe that God loves the enjoyment felt by human beings: he created us and “richly furnishes us with everything to enjoy” (1 Tim 6:17). Let us be glad when with great love he tells us: “My son, treat yourself well… Do not deprive yourself of a happy day” (Sir 14:11-14). Married couples likewise respond to God’s will when they take up the biblical injunction: “Be joyful in the day of prosperity” (Ec 7:14). What is important is to have the freedom to realize that pleasure can find different expressions at different times of life, in accordance with the needs of mutual love. In this sense, we can appreciate the teachings of some Eastern masters who urge us to expand our consciousness, lest we be imprisoned by one limited experience that can blinker us. This expansion of consciousness is not the denial or destruction of desire so much as its broadening and perfection.
The erotic dimension of love
150. All this brings us to the sexual dimension of marriage. God himself created sexuality, which is a marvellous gift to his creatures. If this gift needs to be cultivated and directed, it is to prevent the “impoverishment of an authentic value”.146 Saint John Paul II rejected the claim that the Church’s teaching is “a negation of the value of human sexuality”, or that the Church simply tolerates sexuality “because it is necessary for procreation”.147 Sexual desire is not something to be looked down upon, and “and there can be no attempt whatsoever to call into question its necessity”.148
151. To those who fear that the training of the passions and of sexuality detracts from the spontaneity of sexual love, Saint John Paul II replied that human persons are “called to full and mature spontaneity in their relationships”, a maturity that “is the gradual fruit of a discernment of the impulses of one’s own heart”.149 This calls for discipline and self-mastery, since every human person “must learn, with perseverance and consistency, the meaning of his or her body”. 150 Sexuality is not a means of gratification or entertainment; it is an interpersonal language wherein the other is taken seriously, in his or her sacred and inviolable dignity. As such, “the human heart comes to participate, so to speak, in another kind of spontaneity”.151 In this context, the erotic appears as a specifically human manifestation of sexuality. It enables us to discover “the nuptial meaning of the body and the authentic dignity of the gift”.152 In his catecheses on the theology of the body, Saint John Paul II taught that sexual differentiation not only is “a source of fruitfulness and pro-creation”, but also possesses “the capacity of expressing love: that love precisely in which the human person becomes a gift”.153 A healthy sexual desire, albeit closely joined to a pursuit of pleasure, always involves a sense of wonder, and for that very reason can humanize the impulses.
152. In no way, then, can we consider the erotic dimension of love simply as a permis-sible evil or a burden to be tolerated for the good of the family. Rather, it must be seen as gift from God that enriches the relationship of the spouses. As a passion sublimated by a love respectful of the dignity of the other, it becomes a “pure, unadulterated affirmation” revealing the marvels of which the human heart is capable. In this way, even momentar-ily, we can feel that “life has turned out good and happy”.154
Violence and manipulation
153. On the basis of this positive vision of sexuality, we can approach the entire subject with a healthy realism. It is, after all, a fact that sex often becomes depersonalized and unhealthy; as a result, “it becomes the occasion and instrument for self-assertion and the selfish satisfaction of personal desires and instincts”.155 In our own day, sexuality risks be-ing poisoned by the mentality of “use and dis-card”. The body of the other is often viewed as an object to be used as long as it offers satisfaction, and rejected once it is no longer appealing. Can we really ignore or overlook the continuing forms of domination, arrogance, abuse, sexual perversion and violence that are the product of a warped understanding of sexuality? Or the fact that the dignity of others and our human vocation to love thus end up being less important than an obscure need to “find oneself”?
154. We also know that, within marriage itself, sex can become a source of suffering and manipulation. Hence it must be clearly reaffirmed that “a conjugal act imposed on one’s spouse without regard to his or her condition, or personal and reasonable wishes in the matter, is no true act of love, and therefore offends the moral order in its particular application to the intimate relationship of husband and wife”.156 The acts proper to the sexual union of husband and wife correspond to the nature of sexuality as willed by God when they take place in “a manner which is truly human”.157 Saint Paul insists: “Let no one transgress and wrong his brother or sister in this matter” (1 Th 4:6). Even though Paul was writing in the context of a patriarchal culture in which women were considered completely subordinate to men, he nonetheless taught that sex must involve communication between the spouses: he brings up the possibility of postponing sexual relations for a period, but “by agreement” (1 Cor 7:5).
155. Saint John Paul II very subtly warned that a couple can be “threatened by insatiability”158. In other words, while called to an increasingly pro-found union, they can risk effacing their differences and the rightful distance between the two. For each possesses his or her own proper and inalienable dignity. When reciprocal belonging turns into domination, “the structure of communion in interpersonal relations is essentially changed”.159 It is part of the mentality of domination that those who dominate end up negating their own dignity.160 Ultimately, they no longer “identify themselves subjectively with their own body”,161 because they take away its deepest meaning. They end up using sex as form of escapism and renounce the beauty of conjugal union.
156. Every form of sexual submission must be clearly rejected. This includes all improper interpretations of the passage in the Let-ter to the Ephesians where Paul tells women to “be subject to your husbands” (Eph 5:22). This passage mirrors the cultural categories of the time, but our concern is not with its cultural matrix but with the revealed message that it conveys. As Saint John Paul II wisely observed: “Love excludes every kind of subjection whereby the wife might become a servant or a slave of the husband… The community or unity which they should establish through marriage is constituted by a reciprocal donation of self, which is also a mutual subjection”.162 Hence Paul goes on to say that “husbands should love their wives as their own bodies” (Eph 5:28). The biblical text is actually concerned with encouraging everyone to overcome a complacent individualism and to be constantly mindful of others: “Be subject to one another” (Eph 5:21). In marriage, this reciprocal “submission” takes on a special meaning, and is seen as a freely chosen mutual belonging marked by fidelity, respect and care. Sexuality is inseparably at the service of this conjugal friendship, for it is meant to aid the fulfilment of the other.
157. All the same, the rejection of distortions of sexuality and eroticism should never lead us to a disparagement or neglect of sexuality and eros in themselves. The ideal of marriage cannot be seen purely as generous donation and self-sacrifice, where each spouse renounces all personal needs and seeks only the other’s good without concern for personal satis-faction. We need to remember that authentic love also needs to be able to receive the other, to accept one’s own vulnerability and needs, and to welcome with sincere and joyful gratitude the physical expressions of love found in a caress, an embrace, a kiss and sexual union. Benedict XVI stated this very clearly: “Should man aspire to be pure spirit and to reject the flesh as pertaining to his animal nature alone, then spirit and body would both lose their dignity”.163 For this reason, “man cannot live by oblative, descending love alone. He cannot al-ways give, he must also receive. Anyone who wishes to give love must also receive love as a gift”. 164 Still, we must never forget that our human equilibrium is fragile; there is a part of us that resists real human growth, and any moment it can unleash the most primitive and selfish tendencies.