Why Fidelity? What Every College Student Should Know about Love, Order, and Vows

Anyone who spends time with today’s college students may be struck by two of their most prominent characteristics. First of all, they are bright and attractive, with engaging manners and clean-cut good looks. The girls make an effort to be pretty and many look tastefully spiffy. The boys wear conservative short hair and button-down shirts from the Lands End catalogue. These are good-looking young people, smiling, forthright, diligent — a pronounced contrast to the surly, unkempt students who slumped across campuses in the 1960s and early 1970s.

But if their first characteristic captivates, their second causes dismay. For, as Allan Bloom and others have pointed out, these pleasant, bright young people are mostly relativists. They think that truth is something they decide for themselves. As part of their succumbing to the idea of truth as man’s invention, they likewise have accepted — almost by osmosis — the most pervasive current manifestations of relativist doctrine, the twin ideologies of feminism and Marxism. Such basic ideas in our Western tradition as the notion of truth as normative, of the giveneness of human nature, of distinctions between human beings, of degrees and orders of knowledge are among those that are rejected out of hand.

It is a puzzle why so many smart young people have almost universally agreed, with such equanimity and good cheer, to throw aside the animating principles of a civilization, apparently without realizing that they have discarded anything. One might hope that even if some have been taken in by relativist theory, a few might spot holes in the argument. One would hope, too, that girls intuitively would be the first to reject feminism as alien to their very nature. Yet, although many girls do turn away from radical feminist planks, it is one of the great weaknesses of this generation that a large number of girls readily embrace feminism in its milder and more disguised but scarcely less lethal versions.

When one ponders why our young people have so easily and thoroughly fallen prey to efforts to make truth subjective and to make mankind the subject of a wholesale program to reform human nature in a utopian vision, we have to conclude that the problem has not originated with this generation.

Perhaps the greatest of all spurs toward young people’s acceptance of relativist theory has been the crippling effect on youth of divorce and serial monogamy — or more accurately, serial polygamy — among their elders, a phenomenon that has shaken the confidence of young people in the possibility of a stable family life. This factor of the broken home is related to an even more basic difficulty, the failure of one generation to make a cultural transmission to the next.

Not only one generation — my own generation of parents — has failed to transmit our civilization to our college-age students, but also it is surely true that we failed to inherit the essentials from our parents, the present generation of grandparents. Two generations at least have failed to make a cultural transfer. As a result what remnant of principle still lives in American society is mostly residual, showing up in certain practices of manners, morals, religion and politics, but largely devoid of the original content of meaning.

Thus our college students arrive in their classrooms indoctrinated with the bland relativism that since their infancy has surrounded them. Although the causes of these students’ stunted condition are essential to know in order to try to correct, my own hope for these young people centers on what they now should be taught. In other words, what is to be taught to students who have inherited virtually nothing? Without an inheritance what can they receive?

Though I am not a teacher, I sometimes imagine, if I had the chance to teach only one course, what I would hope my students might carry away with them. If I could teach a class of students for just one semester, what would I want them to know? In my mind’s eye I would teach a classroom of students in a typical Catholic college, a college likely to be little more than nominally Catholic but one where students might have some bare, residual knowledge of their tradition. In my one course I could do no more than sketch an outline of what the students ought to know. What I would hope to do is simply to provide some framework on which these students might begin to hang their intellectual and spiritual hats.

My course would proceed according to three points — first, an introduction to knowledge of reality, of what it is we speak when we talk of reality; second, an idea of order as the basis of love; and, third, the principle of the vow as the foundation of love in a Christian life.

Getting Real

First of all, then, I would begin with a bit of elementary metaphysics. When a teacher teaches a student, he brings the student into intellectual contact with a reality that includes both teacher and student but is also outside them and beyond them. What is beyond teacher and student is reality, what exists, and it exists independent of both teacher and student. Reality is what things are, regardless of what anyone wants them to be. The teacher presumably knows more about reality than the student does. Thus his task is to explain to the student what kind of world we really have been given; in other words, what is true. The task of the student is to try to receive what is being given to him, to concentrate his mind, and to try to digest the truths of reality. If teacher and student are looking at things as they really are, at the truth of things, then they are trying to see not what is illusory or frivolous but what is permanent. Moreover, they are looking at a world which is given to us; we are not creators of our world.

The basic fact of our existence is that we are creations of uncreated being. Our human nature is given to us; we did not invent ourselves. As creations of uncreated being, furthermore, we bear in ourselves something that reflects our creator, so that we can partially know our creator. Our creator can communicate with us. Most of our knowledge of this uncreated being is indirect through the reality of the created world, which includes us. When our minds recognize or correspond to reality — to God and His world — then we know the truth. To know reality, to understand it as it really is, to see the world with clear eyes, to “get the picture” is our primary task. Because God is perfect intelligence and because the instrument He has given us to communicate with Him is our intelligence, then our foundation for understanding God is our intellect.

The modern world rejects on two grounds the primacy of the intellect for knowing God: Either because (a) the existence of God cannot be scientifically proven and therefore He probably does not exist or (b) the existence of God cannot be scientifically proven and therefore we must depend not on intellect to know God but on emotions and feelings; an intellectual basis of faith is too cold.

Can Reason Be Trusted?

The great minds of the classical-medieval synthesis insisted, however, that the way to know God — indeed the only way, since our reason is the tool of understanding we are given — is to apply our minds to the study of His created order of reality. Even though original sin has clouded our vision, we still are able to see something of that order and to understand it.

Since God is the perfectly intelligent creator, we expect His creation to be orderly. Order is the way God has put together His creation, organizing it toward its end. The end of creation, of course, is God. Creation comes from God; its end, too, is God, the only end that we might expect a perfect and omnipotent creator to arrange.

Order is the creation of God, the uncreated. We do not create order; we are subject to it. Our great and wonderful — and terrifying — gift from God is our freedom, the faculty that God has given us so that we might love Him not by coercion but by our own choice. Given our freedom and given also our natural tendency to want to be our own creators, we often rebel at order. Our choice to rebel is our sin. What we cause is disorder, confusion and irrationality. Sin, the opposite of order, is always irrational. Hence we can never really explain sin in the way we can explain goodness and happiness, which are rational.

How do we actually sin? We disrupt order by treating creation in ways other than with respect for the end for which it was created. We treat persons, for example, not with the respect and dignity due them as having their origin and end in God but as objects for our own use; or we use objects other than for the purpose for which they exist in this world, making them not simply instruments in the order of being but idols. In sin we act unjustly. Our sin, which causes us so much unhappiness, upsets order, sowing chaos and unreason. Our strange compulsions and misuse of our power are unexplainable by reason. Therefore our redemption is restoration of order and reason. That is what God’s forgiveness really is —restoration of order. The peace that comes through forgiveness is the tranquility of order.

The definition of peace as the tranquility of order unfolds into the second point of my proposed course. This second point is that order is the basis of love. Love is a precious word in our vocabulary, the single word that we all want most to hear someone use in reference to us. It is the word which expresses our deepest and most tender emotions. Love is the word that St. John says is synonymous with God. As love is synonymous with God, so is order. Love is the orderly emanation of God’s mind. Order is the way in which God reveals His love for His creation. Through order God shows us what love means. In creating us for him, God established us in order. Establishing each of us in the plan of His creation is the way in which He loves us. Thus order is the framework within which love can be. Order draws us the blueprint for love; it shows us the end toward which it aims, which is union with God. Order tells us the path love should take to its end.

Orderly Beings

In His great and boundless love for His creation, this orderly God has created beings that are intended to be orderly. If God is God, He could not create disorderly beings. Only man in his free choice of sin has chosen chaos. What God has created is a human being meant to love his creator and to be loved by him. He therefore has created a human being with a specific nature that will find its happiness, its fulfillment, only when it acts in harmony with the end toward which it is ordered. As human beings we are created to love and serve God, and it is only in doing so that we find happiness.

Though we have complete freedom to obey or disobey God, we are so created for loving God that when we choose not to love him, which is what sin is, when we become disordered, then we are so miserably unhappy that the effect upon us is that of slavery. Slavery is our own doing; it is our choice not to love God. Because our whole being desires God, yearns to be with him, our choice to reject His love for us denies our very nature, binding us to slavery. Only His forgiveness restores in our souls the tranquility of order. As Dante said, in God’s will is our peace.

Because human love reflects God’s love, human love also reflects order. Human love, to be love, must be orderly. The closer our loves approximate order, the closer they reflect God’s own love. When our love does not respect the order of creation, it soon withers and dies. When we fail to respect the end for which another is created, seeing him as an object rather than as a person, then our love for him and his for us evaporates.

Yet it is our Achilles heel that we resist order and ignore it. Does that ugly trait of ours mean, then, that we ordinarily destroy our love for each other? In this world we have scarred with our own flaws can there be such a thing as a love that is permanent? Is there any way that we can subdue our human tendency to ruin our own loves? Can we somehow unite our love, which is a reflection of God’s own love for us, with the permanence of God’s love? What can make our human love more like God’s own love for us? What can make our human love eternal?

There is an answer that God and man together have devised. This bridge between human and divine love is the vow. And, finally, we arrive at the third point of my imagined course, the vow as the foundation of love in a Christian life. If we love someone, our greatest and most pressing desire is to bind ourselves forever to that person. To declare our intention to be faithful forever is the very nature of love. A man and woman in love cannot bear the thought that they will not always love each other. Likewise, anyone whispering a prayer of devotion to God cannot conceive of a life severed from God’s eternal love. Love is permanent. Every momentum of love strains toward eternity. Its essence is fidelity.

Red Cheeks

Any evidence we see of its temporariness — and we see much in this world — mostly indicates we mistook the primary seat of love as the emotions rather than as the will informed by the intellect. Nobody would deny the racing heart, the rush of blood to the cheeks, the clammy palms, the overwhelming tender sweetness, or the sudden surge of attraction that lace the emotions into our experience of love. And our emotions are part of love, put in us to make us aware that we do love. Yet the real movement of love is the quiet, sure decision of the will to say, “I love you,” I love you, I myself, I in my deepest identity as a specific, incarnate I created by a God whose essence and existence is love.

When emotions ebb away, when perhaps our beloved becomes so ill or afflicted that he becomes other than the person we first loved, or when a dryness of spirit engulfs us so that God seems lost to us, when emotions ebb away to a parched desert, we yet persevere in our decision to love, knowing that if we lose our fidelity, we lose our very selves. Without fidelity the order of our souls is lost. Like a clump of dry earth squeezed in the hand, we shatter into particles of dust blown to the winds.

If God is faithful to us, then we who are made in His image are made likewise to be faithful. If we are unfaithful in our love, we deny life and hope; we deny that we are anything more than a shattered earthen clod. Sin in any form is always an unfaithfulness, perhaps to another person and always to God. Forgiveness brings our renewal of our promise of fidelity and therefore a restoration of our very identity as creatures called to be faithful.

The wonder of the Church is that in 2,000 years it has established a tradition of seven sacraments that minister to every human condition and need, that give us grace to preserve our fidelity. The beauty of our sacramental inheritance lies in the completeness of the sacraments. No human condition is left untended by at least one of the sacraments. Of these seven sacraments two, marriage and holy orders, are tied by vows to a state of life. The vows are promises of fidelity in one case to a spouse, in the other to God Himself. The special graces given in the sacraments are strength to remain faithful to the other person or Person. In both cases God is intimately involved. In holy orders Christ is the direct partner. In marriage He is the third partner. A union between two people includes Thou, Christ Himself. Thus, as Gabriel Marcel has said in Homo Viator, “to despair of us is essentially to despair of Thou.”

The Gender Gap

As always the grace given through the sacraments is intended to build upon nature, our human nature. The human nature we are given is either male or female, one complementary to the other and incomplete without the other. For that reason the highest relationship between man and woman is a spousal one of husband and wife. Their relationship to each other is to be one of utter spousal fidelity. Their spousal character, however, their tenderness toward each other, meant forever, is not their own invention. On the contrary, their spousal unity reflects the very spousal relationship of God to His creation.

God relates to His creatures not as a capricious pagan god, not as a deistic clockmaker, not as a force willed by a modern Nietzchean mind, not like any of these. Instead He loves us as we all want most to be loved, as treasured and loved spouses. When St. Paul describes the love of Christ the bridegroom for His bride the Church as forming the model for the relationship of husband and wife in a Christian marriage, he is simply drawing into the Christian order the logical extension of Hosea’s Old Testament affirmation that the love of God for His creation is as faithful, as tender, as intimate as the love of a husband for his wife. To the love of Christ the Church responds in the way that creation responds to God’s love, just as a wife responds to the love of her husband, by loving him in return. Thus the spousal love between man and woman is not something of their own making. Rather it is a reflection of the very order of creation and of Christ’s love for us, the members of His mystical body, the Church.

The figure of Mary is essential to this spousal order of creation. Just as Christ represents the masculine element in the economy of salvation, Mary signifies the feminine. Without her Christ could not have come to us. She is the bride of the Holy Spirit, who becomes, through her own free response to the divine invitation, the theotokos, the God-bearer. Her freely-given, dignified yes to the Holy Spirit sets the standard for our own response to the Spirit’s invitation to us to live His life as members of His Spirit, His Body, in the Church. For us Mary represents the Church and our life in it. As intimately as she is linked to her Son, bearing Him into the world for us, so are we joined to Him through His Holy Spirit that lives in the Church.

As St. Paul suggested, the Christian revelation ushered in a deeper understanding of the spousal nature of creation. Building upon and amplifying the elemental union of God and His creation, Christianity introduced the love of the bridegroom Christ for His bride the Church. Because Christ as divine spouse to His Church enhanced and confirmed the fundamental spousal order of creation, the stage was now set for the elevation to their highest rank in history of the two states in life, marriage and priesthood, the two orders that bind their members in spousal ties.

These two states in the Christian order are complementary, just as is the nature of man and woman. Because they bind the members in a spousal tie that reflects the order of creation, they are unbreakable and permanent. Once made they cannot be broken. And, further, as consecrated states, these two states in life are sealed by vows. Though our end, union with God, is the same for all of us, the paths we take to holiness are different. When we define the fundamental states of the Christian life as two, either marriage or priesthood and the religious life, we do not denigrate the single unvowed state, which can be as high a route to holiness as any other. Yet the single state, since it is an unvowed state, can theoretically, at least, change at any time to a decision either for marriage or priesthood and religious life. Thus its character is not sealed in permanence; and the single person can decide at any time to join either of the other states.

Marriage and priesthood, however, are ordered in specific, spousal vows of consecration. The vows taken by religious, although not specifically sacramental vows, are nonetheless similar in effect to priestly vows and may be considered as producing a state of life of the same type. Through these vows of marriage or priesthood the members promise fidelity either to a human spouse or to God Himself. Fidelity then establishes an order within which life can be lived. The order produced by the two states is in sum two reverse sides of spousal love. Marriage is a mirror of Christ’s love for His Church, in which the husband mirrors Christ and his wife mirrors the Church, the bride of Christ. The priesthood, too, is a mirror of Christ’s spousal love for His Church. In this case the priest mirrors Christ, the husband who binds himself to all the people of the Church. When the priest prays the consecration in the Mass, he stands not as simply an imitation of Christ, an ambassador or a surrogate, but as Christ Himself. In the Mass the priest puts on Christ.

Renewing the Covenant

Moreover the two sacraments incorporate every facet of human being, including our sexual desire. Each time a husband and wife love each other in the marital act, the act specifically and exclusively reserved for marriage, they renew the covenant that Christ has made with His Church and thus reenact the sacramental order of creation. It is a solemn requirement that they preserve the chastity and integrity of their act by not defiling it with artificial barriers or obstructions that would disturb the true reenactment of Christ’s spousal love for His bride.

On the other hand, the young man entering the priesthood uses the gift of his sexuality in a different way, by refraining from the sexual act and living celibately. In his actual putting on of Christ in the act reserved exclusively for the priesthood, the reenactment in the Mass of Christ’s sacrifice for us, the priest acts as Christ, the husband not of one woman but of the whole Church. He marries not one woman but with Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass, in behalf of the whole Church, the priest offers himself on the cross.

This is the highest and noblest condition in life, to be with Christ in His sacrifice. Though we all participate in the sacrifice of Christ, and we all share in His redemptive suffering, the priest is consecrated to do what no one else is called to do — to reenact the sacrifice of Our Lord in the Eucharist, to bring Christ to His people in an objective and definitive act. There is no act higher than the Mass; it is God’s supreme reminder of His love, celebrated in response to His own command, and so the priestly state, through which the Mass is celebrated, is the highest state. Like Christ, the priest is a priest forever, in the line of Melchizedek.

The end of marriage is to found a family, to carry on God’s work in the world; its end, the family, is realized in this world. Marriage, then, is a noble state. The end of priesthood is to bring Christ directly to us and us to Christ. Its end, bringing us together with the Lord, is fulfilled partly in this world but finally in another. Priesthood, then, is a nobler state. The bedrock of both states, however, is the spousal love of God for His people. Without a foundation in spousal love neither vocation can be properly understood.

Though many of us are called to the vocation of marriage and a few men are called to the priesthood, the two states are not only complementary, but they are essential to each other. Because the divine spousal love on which they are founded is the same in both states and only reflected differently in how it is lived, then the health of one state is locked into the health of the other. Marriage and priesthood and religious life rise or fall together.

Marriage or Celibacy?

In our day neither state is in good health; neither is esteemed. But neither will recover without the aid of the other. For even though the two states are complementary, they represent two clear-cut distinctions in the path to holiness in the Christian life. Only when the choice is clear, when the distinctions between the two are sufficiently visible, can anyone make a good choice between the two. When the distinctions become blurred, as they are today, when it may seem possible to incorporate aspects of, both into each other, when the monastery becomes a home and the altar becomes a stage full of lay people, then the reasons for choosing either state dissolve. As a consequence, because neither state seems worth living for, people choose neither. If they enter either state, they enter only with the proviso of calling it off.

Chesterton eloquently described the complementary Christian states and how intimately they touch each other. He said in Orthodoxy:

It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. It has always had a healthy hatred of pink. It hates that combination of two colours which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty gray. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized in the statement that white is a colour: not merely the absence of a colour. All that I am urging here can be expressed by saying that Christianity sought in most of these cases to keep two colours coexistent but pure. It is not a mixture like russet or purple; it is rather like a shot silk, for a shot silk is always at right angles, and it is in the pattern of the cross.

The beauty and wonder of the Church is that she never asks of us what we cannot do. If she asks anything of us, she provides a channel of grace to match the need. Thus when we embark upon the path either of marriage or of priesthood and religious life, we are given the corresponding grace to live those vocations. Our grace comes to us through the vows that are part of the sacraments of marriage and holy orders. These vows, which are the structural foundations of love in our Christian life, which give our love form and concreteness, fix us to the permanent.

The very meaning of a vow is that it is forever. Even if it is broken by our infidelity, it goes on nonetheless, still binding us to it even beyond our death. When we take a vow, we fling ourselves into eternity. Chesterton called it a “moment of immortality.” Not even death can entirely dissolve our will to bind ourselves in a spousal love to a husband or wife or to God Himself. The vow is the only human act that can satisfy our longing to cast ourselves into the forever. It is the supreme act of love we can make; it is the furthest stretch of will possible to us. Thus the highest act of our will is to bind ourselves in a consecrated vow.

Chesterton knew that the “transfiguring self-discipline” of a vow is what “makes the vow a truly sane thing.” It is exactly the vow, by which we freely limit ourselves, that gives us the freedom to love one person or One Person above all others. In the “rule and order” which Christianity established, “the chief aim of that order was to give room for good things to run wild.” Within the limiting boundary of a vow a good thing can run wild.

Yet our act of will is only part of our vow. Grace is the real force of the vow. Amazingly, because God is either the other partner or the third partner in our vow to be faithful, the vow we repeat actually signifies what the words say. Rather than our promise of fidelity being a statement simply of our human intention, our words actually do bring into play the grace of fidelity that they declare. Not we but Christ infuses our words with the power of grace. And so our vow is a covenant with Christ, in which He promises to send the grace of the Holy Spirit that will give us strength to be faithful to our vow.

We human creatures long to know more than anything that our lives and loves are not in vain. More than all else we want to know that when we love and are loved, that love is not tied to our finitude but can be the very thing that catapults us toward eternity. No matter how we fail, we know almost instinctively that fidelity is the mark of human character that God has branded gently but irrevocably into our foreheads. That we are able to be faithful, that we are expected to be faithful, in spite of our failure, is our sure sign that God loves us, that He wants our love to be like His own. As Gabriel Marcel said, “The truth is that humanity is only truly human when it is upheld by the incorruptible foundations of consecration — without such foundations it decomposes and dies.” Thus our vows are the visible sign that we want to link ourselves to the fidelity that is the order of creation.

When we try to tell our young people about life and love, we hope to teach them that there is something to live for, something to hope for, and in the end something to die for. If we can teach them that the order of this created reality forms the structure of fidelity within which we love; if we can teach them that in the Christian life love centers on our vow to be faithful, then we will have given our young people an alternative to the lifeless, unbearable creed that we make and determine our own world.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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