Marriage in the Public Eye

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?”
“No way!”
“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.

Rev. Dwight Longenecker


Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book is The Romance of Religion published by Thomas Nelson. Check out his website and blog at

  • Deacon Ed

    the Church considers the Sacraments of Holy Orders and Marriage as Sacraments of “service.” They are established by Christ for the good of the community. Hence, they are inextricably tied to public acts.

  • kkollwitz

    While each marriage is contracted individually, collectively marriage is an institution (and for Catholics also a sacrament), probably the foundational institution of society. Being an institution, it is a public thing, like the Church, although managed more or less on a private basis. And public things being public, how they appear is unavoidably conflated with how they are.

  • Ann

    I understand and accept the reasons the Catholic Church opposes gay marriage, but I can’t get on board with all of the political action trying to stop it until we fight equally to against to outlaw the real threats to “hetero” marriage: divorce, p*rn, etc.

  • Christian

    Ann is right. As I said recently at another blog (, “…modern straight ‘marriage’ (no-fault divorce, serial marriage, contraception, abortion, vasectomies, etc.) has decontented the institution to the point that denying ‘marriage’ to homosexuals has become politically impossible. So while I may hear “gay marriage problem,” I think “straight marriage problem.”

  • Bruce

    …who lived 2,000 years ago, but He’s still quite popular, Who said something about sowing and reaping.

    Sow contraception as a responsible act and reap abortion.

    Sow no-fault divorce as a sensible approach and reap most kids in single-parent homes.

    Sow pornography as freedom of speech and reap sexual assault and STD rates over 25%.

  • Anon
  • RK

    “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.”

    I think this is a terrific paragraph, Father. Modern notions of marriage have redefined freedom as licentiousness rather than the gift of free will assenting to virtue and Christ. Love has become a goal for the purpose of self-fulfillment. Any idea of giving oneself for something greater than self seems to have disappeared with elevation of John Rock and Gloria Steinem as the great saviors of marriage.

  • TJ

    With all due respect, Ann and Christian couldn’t be more wrong in their approach. Both are correct that the cultural/political war against contraception, pornography, and no-fault divorce appears lost. That means the front for fighting those battles right now is located primarily in the church and family. However, simply because the political realm is not currently a fruitful place to fight those evils does not mean we shouldn’t oppose the push for same-sex marriage. That battle is current, and political, and NOT lost. It’s a peculiar form of defeatism to withdraw from the fight simply because we can’t cure all our ills at once.

  • Jennifer

    I know at least 12 couples that are divorced, of all ages. Out of them all it was the women who filed for divorce. When I hear people talking about some one getting divorced, I ask who wanted the divorce? I have yet to hear any one say it was the man who wanted the divorce.

  • Christian

    “That battle is current, and political, and NOT lost.”

    We do disagree. The battle is indeed lost unless the straights get their own house into better, though imperfect, order. I am simply proposing to move the battle to where it can be fought and won instead of where people would like to fight it while losing.

  • R.C.

    Fight Gay Marriage.

    Fight Normalization of Homosexuality, Generally.

    (Fight those who would assault or intimidate those who wrestle with homosexual urges, too,)

    Fight Divorce.

    Fight Contraception.

    Fight Abortion.

    Fight Porn.

    Those who feel they can contribute best on one front, ought to contribute there; those who’re most drawn to contributing on another, ought to contribute to that other. And lets not bash our brothers, or form circular firing squads, just because the battles we’re most passionate about fighting don’t perfectly overlap with the battles our brothers are fighting.

    It’s not as if they’re mutually exclusive.

    Or, given the viewership of “American Idol” and other such frippery, as if we lack time to do them all.

  • Jeannine

    Father, you are so right to point out the power of the bad example. Catholic friends of ours have three children. The children’s uncle lived with a woman for 12 years before marrying her. The son, the eldest in his family, lived with his girlfriend before marriage. The couple married outside the Church several years ago in a nondenominational ceremony on a boat. The youngest, who was always close to (and admiring of) her brother has been living with her boyfriend for a couple of years. At first they had separate bedrooms. Now they don’t. And they are getting married this summer, also outside the church, which they both now attack as a hostile institution. (Where is the hostility, really?) My daughter, who was once very close with this young woman, tells me that now the parents don’t go to church, either. How the effects of our choices live on in the lives of others!

    Ann and Christian: I don’t see how we make marriage better by allowing so-called gay marriage to go forward. Shouldn’t we be working on “both-and”? Let’s strengthen marriage AND resist its further redefinition!

  • Micha Elyi

    …we fight equally to against to outlaw the real threats to “hetero” marriage: divorce, p*rn, etc.

    Who’s “we”?

    Feminist Shere Hite once bragged that 91% of divorces were initiated by women. Even today over 2/3rds of divorces are the choice of women and not because, as those who rely on sexist stereotypes insist, her man cheats on her or beats on her. Rather, all but a tiny number of women who present their man with divorce papers report that their reasons are such things as “I fell out of love,” “I need to find myself,” and “I love him but I’m not in love with him anymore.”

    The other threat to marriage Ann specifically mentioned, “p*rn,” also has a share of female fingerprints all over it and I’m not counting the types of p*rn that females prefer and that tens of millions of North American females consume every month. There’s a certain kind of feminacentric moralizer who waggles a finger at men who look at “dirty pischers” yet has little or no scolding for the females who tart themselves up into strutting dirty images themselves. Cosmo and Glamour magazines each outsell Playboy by about 10 to 1.

    So, if women would find some self-control enough to cut the rate at which they bail out of marriages for self-centered reasons down to the rate at which men initiate divorces for all reasons combined the divorce rate would immediately fall by over 50%. If women could also find the self-control to not put on sexual displays at the office, in the shopping mall, and at church and to scold the women who do with the same vigor that they sneer at men for looking at p*rn (or even for having roving eyes when Ms. Oolala Lookit-Me struts by), why then there would be less unashamed consumption of their favorite p*rn by men. The respect for women men once had could make a comeback. And over time divorce might return to the small rate and scandal it once was.

    Or do women prefer the let’s-blame-men-and-only-men-for-it attitude that is the current status quo?

  • Karl
  • Christian

    Go here for some fine thinking on this subject from The Witherspoon Institute:

    The Social Costs of Pornography
    A Consultation of the Social Costs of Pornography Project
    Princeton University | December 11 – 13, 2008