So often in contemporary Catholic and Christian circles, there is a tendency to abandon any reference to Christ and his Church when debating thorny marriage issues in our culture. For those of us in Australia who have not suffered the judicial over-reaching that was witnessed in the US, the debate is still open. Yet, those who engage publicly in it are quickly eaten up and spat out by the media monster.
The predetermined terms of the discussion and the brazen sloganeering of same-sex “marriage” advocates have left any alternative voice struggling to be heard in the sound bite media culture.
This past Sunday’s Gospel (cf. Mk 10:2-16), however, is instructive on many counts (not least of which concerns the Synod, which began on the same day!) When the Pharisees tried to trip Jesus up over whether Moses was right to permit divorce, he reframed the discussion and used it as a teaching moment.
By pointing back to the beginning, Christ provides a tangible example that could perhaps be emulated by those of us engaging in discussion and debate on these matters either privately in our homes and workplaces, or in the broader public sphere.
In his reference to the Genesis story, that we also heard from the Old Testament reading (Gen 2: 18-24), Jesus reminded the Pharisees of our creatureliness, and of who made marriage in the first place—a point of discussion that is unfortunately sorely lacking from many of the more articulate public defences of marriage that have been made over the past 18 or so months.
In his teaching on this obviously contentious topic, Christ points out that the relative laxity of the Law of Moses in this regard was a concession for those living after the Fall and prior to his own Incarnation. His words here not only re-affirm the original vision for marriage, but efficaciously call us all to a redeemed and sacramental understanding of marriage.
In our discussions concerning the nature of marriage, we so often assume that, in order to be heard in a “secular” world, we should somehow bracket out of the conversation any reference to Christ or God, to the fact of creation, or the sacramental reality of marriage. The resulting arguments resemble little more than a kind of social consequentialism that redirect our attention toward freedom of conscience questions while leaving the meaning of marriage unresolved.
There is a certain dishonesty in this approach that is recognized even by those actively seeking to change the marriage laws, namely, that some defenders of natural marriage purposely avoid a complete discussion of what Christians and Catholics believe about marriage. More than this, I would suggest that such presentations in fact have something of a self-secularizing effect on the Christian faithful at large—reducing the faith to little more than a kind of moralistic pharisaicalism.
Instead of this approach, I propose that we model our effort on that of Jesus himself. Not afraid to reference our belief in the reality of our creation by a loving God, who became Incarnate in the person of Jesus, and elevated marriage to the level of a Sacrament—an efficacious sign of God’s invisible grace. While I am not advocating that we simply preface all that we say with the words “Jesus says…,” I am saying that a positive engagement on these issues has to at some point come down to what we believe are in fact first principles—or first things.
This is quite obviously the harder path, and it will be most effectively communicated via the witness of good Christian marriages, but it is also perhaps the most potent evangelically. After all, Christ did not commission us to defend natural marriage, but to make disciples of all nations.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “Creation of Eve” is painted by Paolo Veronese (1528-1588).