He stood on principle. He defended the Church. He refused to act against his conscience. He was stalwart in defense of marriage. And in 1535, the king chopped off his head.
Saint Thomas More, whose Feast Day we celebrated on July 6, was an ardent defender of the institution of marriage. Among the most admirable yet oft-overlooked qualities of Sir Thomas were his fidelity and love of his family; he was a true model of fatherly virtues. He loved his bride and he loved his children, and had a special place in his heart for his daughter, Margaret. He was a father in the fullest sense of the word, leading his family into deeper relationship with God the Father through a life of prayer, penance, and virtue. He was a man who understood the beauty of marriage.
The summer months are often filled with weddings, and anniversaries. Many dioceses and parishes across our nation this summer will celebrate anniversary Masses for couples who are marking 25 or 50 years together. With the exception of such moments, marriage is rarely spoken of with words of praise. It is more commonly made light of or derided as an outdated burden.
Consider an old “Close to Home” comic strip that shows a couple getting into a channel boat that is to traverse the proverbial “tunnel of love”—a classic romantic scene. The inscription above the tunnel reads “Tunnel of Love, then disillusionment, then mundane humdrum coexistence.” The young man, upon seeing the sign, clearly is not so sure he wants to climb aboard.
Can you blame him? Marriage is spoken of with such derision today that we can’t be surprised more aren’t prepared to make the commitment, and are instead choosing cohabitation at skyrocketing rates.
We face a cultural confusion that is deep-seated due to a failure to perceive and appreciate the beauty of marriage. Pornography, divorce, adultery, cohabitation, contraception, and attempts to redefine marriage are both culprit and consequence of the crisis.
If couples truly knew what marriage is, if they experienced the true beauty of marriage, surely the choice for marriage, to live it well, and to defend it in the public square would be more common. You cannot, as Saint Thomas Aquinas reminds us, love, embrace, or defend what you do not know.
Marriage is a natural institution created by God by which one man and one woman promise to be faithful and to be open to children. This institution was raised by Christ to a Sacrament, and as such, it confers Grace. Pope Paul VI emphasized in Humanae vitae that “Marriage … is in reality the wise and provident institution of God the creator” (n.8) and Canon Law reminds us that marriage is “ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses.”
Marriage, of course, is not only an institution; but is a relationship of love that must be “worked on.” It is built up, or consummated, through acts of self-gift for the sake of the beloved. Through mutual gift-of-self, spouses are submissive to one another out of reverence for Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:21). Blessed John Paul II emphasized, that spouses are called to grow in holiness together as they form an intimate communion of love that overflows to such a degree that, God willing, a new life, the “crowning glory and supreme gift” of their marriage, is brought into the world as a “living reflection of their love.”
Marriage is both a non-changing institution into which a couple freely enters, and a relationship of love that is gradually realized through sacrificial and life-giving acts. This is no easy task—permanence and sacrifice require commitment and God’s grace. But marriages are more likely to become what they are intended to be when a couple knows and appreciates this fuller vision. Furthermore, knowing what marriage is gives us a noble cause for which to fight.
The best way to evangelize is through the life we lead. Concrete examples are essential. Whether we find such examples among those celebrating landmark anniversaries, or in the great Saints of the Church, we ought to be affected by their beauty. Those who are married are called to unceasingly strive to be a witness to the beauty of marriage.