I was instructing some eighth graders on the sacrament of marriage some time ago, and they wanted to know why it was wrong to live together with someone before marriage. I explained about the sacredness of the marriage act, but one girl insisted, “But what if you just live with a guy, but you’re not sleeping together?”
“It’s still wrong,” I replied, “because what you are doing is setting a bad example.”
“But if you’re not doing anything wrong, it’s nobody else’s business.”
“Wait a moment,” I said, thinking fast, “It does matter what other people think. What would you think if you picked up the phone one evening and it was me, and I asked to talk to your mom? What if she went into the other room and laughed and chatted on the phone with me for 30 minutes?”
Girly giggles all around, with a few “yuck”s.
“Okay,” I continued, “what if the next night I show up at your place with flowers, dressed in a suit. Your mom comes down the stairs in a nice outfit, we go out to dinner, and she tiptoes in late? Are you good with that?”
“But your mom and I are just friends! We’re not doing anything wrong! What’s the problem?”
Red faces and silence.
“So appearances do matter. We have to avoid not only the sin but the appearance of sin, because other people are watching us. If you live together chastely with a boy, how is anyone to know? Are you going to hang a sign over your door saying, ‘It’s ok. We’re living together, but we have separate bedrooms’? In this day and age, people will assume that you are sleeping together, and that sets a bad example for younger people — not to mention that it gives you and the other person a bad reputation.”
What is often neglected in our individualistic, freedom-loving age is that our actions — especially in the moral sphere — influence others. When one couple cohabits, it gives silent approval for all couples to cohabit. We forget that marriage (or lack of it) is a public statement. That’s why we have witnesses at every wedding: because they represent the wider community. Marriage is not just for an individual. It’s not just for a couple. It’s for everyone.
This is one of the reasons why Catholics are opposed to homosexual “marriage.” We are opposed not just because it violates the natural definition of marriage, but because it erodes marriage for everyone. When a man “marries” another man, or a woman “marries” another woman, their action is public. It affects the whole of society. What’s more, the proponents of homosexual marriage want marriage to be public and to affect society — otherwise why campaign so stridently for it?
If marriage is a public action, so is divorce. Friends of mine went through marital difficulties some time ago, and when the wife wanted a divorce I asked who would benefit from such an action. She admitted that she would, but when I asked about anyone else, she couldn’t answer. Her decision to divorce would have had a negative impact on her husband (who did not want it), her children, her brothers and sisters, the members of her community, her parish, and virtually everyone she knows. Divorce is a public action that hurts children, wounds marriage, offends society, and damages everyone.
The public aspect of marriage is validated and deepened within the Catholic understanding of the sacrament. For a Catholic marriage to be valid, it needs to be celebrated in a Catholic church, by a Catholic minister, according to the Catholic rite. In an age when couples can write their own vows and be married by anyone with a license on a beach, a mountaintop, or in a hot air balloon, the Catholic strictures seem narrow and needlessly old-fashioned. After all, what’s wrong with being married at the beach?
But what is wrong is that a wedding is not essentially about the individual, or even the couple getting married. It is a public sacrament in which the couple is supported not only by their families but by the whole faith community. It is a sacrament of the Church — therefore, Christ, through His Church, celebrates the sacrament. In other words, the Catholic marriage not only involves the whole community, it involves the whole communion of saints.
The fact that eighth-grade girls in a conservative Catholic school had vital questions to ask on this topic only goes to show how eroded traditional morality already is in our society and in our Church. Those who hold to Catholic teaching must be prepared for an increasing split between the understanding of society and Catholic moral teaching.
Not too long ago, most Christian folks believed what Catholics believe. The rest are shifting fast, and the only thing those who wish to stand firm can do is to make sure they’re standing firmly on the Rock.