I believe that it is necessary to make a clarification of terms, so as to be able to indicate with conceptual rigor what precisely is the theme of my reflection.
Faith: by this I mean the fedes quae concerning marriage. It is synonymous with the “Gospel of marriage,” both in the objective sense — what the Gospel proposes concerning marriage — and in the subjective sense — the Gospel, the good news that is marriage. It is to be emphasized that I will not reflect on the doctrine of faith concerning marriage considered in and of itself, but as it is communicated in a precise cultural setting, that of the West. In brief: I will reflect upon the communication of the Christian proposal concerning marriage within Western culture.
And moving on to the second term: culture. By this I mean the shared vision of marriage today in the West. By vision I mean the manner of thinking about marriage, above all as it is expressed in the juridical structure of states and in the declarations of international bodies.
My reflection will be divided into three sections.
In the first I will seek to sketch an outline of the cultural condition in which marriage finds itself today in the West.
In the second I will seek to identify the fundamental problems that this cultural condition presents to the Christian proposal concerning marriage.
In the third I will indicate some fundamental ways in which the Gospel of marriage must be presented today.
1. Condition of marriage
“Rari nantes in gurgite vasto.” (“Rare surviving swimmers in the immense sea”). The famous verse of Virgil’s is a perfect snapshot of the condition of marriage in the West. The edifice of marriage has not been destroyed; it has been deconstructed, dismantled piece by piece. In the end we have all the pieces, but there is no edifice anymore.
There still exist all the categories that constitute the institution of marriage: conjugality; paternity-maternity; filiation-fraternity. But these no longer have any uniform significance.
Why and how was this deconstruction able to take place? Beginning to look deeper, we note that what is at work is an institutionalization of marriage that dispenses with the biosexual determination of the person. It becomes ever more thinkable to separate marriage completely from the sexuality proper to each of the two spouses. This separation has even come to be applied to the category of paternity-maternity.
The most important consequence of this debiologization of marriage is its reduction to a mere private emotion, without any fundamental public relevance.
The process that has led to the separation of the institution of marriage from the sexual identity of the spouses has been long and complex.
The first phase is constituted by the way of thinking about the person’s relationship with his own body, a theme that has always accompanied Christian thought. I would like to describe how matters have progressed through a metaphor.
There are foods that when ingested can be metabolized without creating any problems, either immediate or remote; they neither cause indigestion nor raise the cholesterol. There are foods that, when ingested, are difficult to digest. Finally, there are foods that are harmful for the organism, even in the long term.
Christian thought has ingested the Platonic and Neoplatonic vision of man, and this decision has created serious problems of “metabolism.” As the medieval theologians liked to put it, the wine of faith was at risk of being turned into the water of Plato, rather than the water of Plato into the wine of faith.
Augustine saw very clearly and profoundly that the difficulty lay in the humanitas-humilitas Verbi, in his having become flesh, body.
The properly theological difficulty could not help but become also an anthropological difficulty concerning precisely the person-body relationship. The great thesis of Saint Thomas that affirmed the substantial unity of the person did not turn out to be victorious.
Phase two. The separation of the body from the person finds a new impulse in the methodology characteristic of modern science, which bans from its object of study any reference to subjectivity, as an unmeasurable quantity. The process of separating the body from the person can be said to have been substantially concluded: the reduction, the transformation of the body into a mere object.
On the one hand, the biological aspect has been gradually expelled from the definition of marriage, and on the other, and as a result in terms of the definition of marriage, the categories of a subjectivity reduced to pure emotionalism have become central.
I will dwell on this for a bit. Before the debiologizing transformation, in substance the “genome” of marriage and family was constituted of the relationship between two other relationships: the relationship of reciprocity (conjugality) and the intergenerational relationship (paternity). All three relationships were interpersonal: they were considered as relationships rooted in the person. They certainly could not be reduced to the biological aspect, but the biological aspect was taken up and integrated within the totality of the person. The body is a person-body and the person is a body-person.
Now conjugality can be either heterosexual or homosexual; paternity can be obtained through a technical procedure. As Pier Paolo Donati has correctly demonstrated, what we are witnessing is not a morphological change but a change of the genome of the family and of marriage.
2. Problems raised for the Gospel of marriage
In this second section I would like to identify the fundamental problems that this cultural condition raises for the Christian presentation of marriage.
I think that this is not in the first place a problem of ethics, of human conduct. The condition in which marriage and the family find themselves today cannot be addressed in the first place with moral exhortations. It is a radically anthropological question that is situated within the proclamation of the Gospel of marriage. I would now like to specify in what sense.
The first dimension of the anthropological question is the following: it is well known that according to Catholic teaching the sacrament of marriage coincides with natural marriage. I think that there can no longer be any theological doubt about the coinciding of the two, even if with and after Duns Scotus — the first to deny it — there has long been discussion in the Latin Church in this regard.
Now what the Church meant and means by “natural marriage” has been demolished in contemporary culture. If I may put it this way, the “matter” has been removed from the sacrament of marriage.
Theologians, canonists, and pastors are rightly asking about the faith-sacrament relationship of marriage. But there is a more radical problem. Those who are asking for sacramental marriage, are they capable of natural marriage? Has there been such devastation, not of their faith but of their humanity, that they are no longer capable of marriage? Attention must certainly be paid to canons 1096 (“For matrimonial consent to exist, the contracting parties must be at least not ignorant that marriage is a permanent partnership between a man and a woman ordered to the procreation of offspring”) and 1099. Nevertheless, the praesumptio iuris of § 2 of canon 1096 (“This ignorance is not presumed after puberty”) must not be an occasion of disregard for the spiritual condition in which many find themselves with regard to natural marriage.
The anthropological question has a second dimension. This consists in the inability to perceive the truth and therefore the preciousness of human sexuality. It seems to me that Augustine described this condition in the most precise way possible: “Submerged and blinded as I was, I was not capable of thinking of the light of truth and of a beauty that was worthy of being loved for its own sake and was not visible to the eyes of the flesh, but within” (Confessions VI 16, 26).
The Church must ask itself why it has in point of fact ignored the magisterium of Saint John Paul II on human sexuality and love. We must also ask ourselves this: the Church possesses a great school in which it learns the profound truth of the body-person: the liturgy. How and why has it been unable to draw upon this also with regard to the anthropological question of which we are speaking? To what extent is the Church aware that “gender” theory is a real tsunami that is not aimed primarily at individual behavior but at the total destruction of marriage and the family?
In summary: the second fundamental problem that is raised today for the Christian presentation of marriage is the reconstruction of a theology and philosophy of the body and of sexuality capable of generating a new educational effort in the Church as a whole.
The anthropological question raised by the condition in which the Christian presentation of marriage finds itself has a third dimension, and this is the most serious.
The collapse of reason in its straining toward the truth as spoken of in the encyclical Fides et Ratio (81-83) has brought along with it the will and freedom of the person. The impoverishment of reason has generated the impoverishment of freedom. As a result of the fact that we despair of our capacity to know a total and definitive truth, we have trouble believing that the human person can really give himself in a total and definitive way, and receive the total and definitive self-donation of another.
The proclamation of the Gospel of marriage has to do with a person whose will and freedom have been deprived of their ontological substance. This lack of substance gives rise to the person’s incapacity today to think about the indissolubility of marriage except in terms of a law exterius data: a measure inversely proportional to the measure of freedom. This is a very serious question in the Church as well.
The transition in civil law from divorce by fault to divorce by consent institutionalizes the condition in which the person finds himself today in the exercise of his freedom.
With this last observation we have entered into the fourth and last dimension of the anthropological question raised for the Gospel of marriage: the internal logic of state legal systems concerning marriage and the family. Not so much the quid juris, but the quid jus, as Kant would say. On the question in general Benedict XVI expressed the magisterium of the Church in one of his fundamental discourses, the one he gave before the parliament of the German federal republic in Berlin on September 22, 2011.
Legal systems have been gradually uprooting family law from the nature of the human person. It is a sort of tyranny of artificiality that is being imposed, reducing legitimacy to procedure.
I have spoken of the “tyranny of artificiality.” Let’s take the case of the attribution of conjugality to homosexual cohabitation. While until now the legal system, starting from the presupposition of the natural capacity to contract marriage between man and woman, limited itself to determining the impediments to the exercise of this natural capacity or the form in which it had to be exercised, the current laws of equivalency attribute to themselves the authority to create the capacity to exercise the right to marry. The law arrogates to itself the authority to make artificially possible that which is not naturally so.
It would be a grave error to think — and act accordingly — that civil marriage has nothing to do with the Gospel of marriage, which would be concerned only with the sacrament of marriage. [This would] abandon civil marriage to the tendencies of liberal societies.
3. Modality of the proclamation
In this third and final point I would like to indicate some ways in which the Christian presentation of marriage must not be made, and some ways in which it can be made.
There are three ways that must be avoided.
The traditionalist modality, which confuses a particular form of being family with the family and marriage as such.
The catacomb modality, which chooses to return to or remain in the catacombs. Concretely: the “private virtues of the spouses” are enough; it is better to let marriage, from the institutional point of view, be defined by what liberal society decides.
The neighborly modality, which maintains that the culture of which I spoke above is an unstoppable historical process. It therefore proposes to come to terms with it, preserving that which seems recognizable in it as good.
I do not have time now to reflect longer on each of these three modalities, so I will move on to indicate a few positive modalities. I will begin with an observation. The reconstruction of the Christian vision of marriage in the individual conscience and in the culture of the West is to be considered a long and difficult process. When a pandemic hits a population, the most urgent thing is certainly to care for those afflicted, but it is also necessary to eliminate the causes.
The first necessity is the rediscovery of the original evidence concerning marriage and the family. To remove from the eyes of the heart the cataract of the ideologies, which prevent us from seeing reality. It is the Socratic-Augustinian pedagogy of the inner teacher, not simply of consensus. That is: recovering that “know yourself” which has accompanied the spiritual journey of the West.
The original evidence is inscribed in the very nature of the human person. The truth of marriage is not a lex exterius data, but a veritas indita.
The second necessity is the rediscovery of the concurrence of natural marriage and the marriage sacrament. The separation of the two ends up on the one hand with thinking of sacramentality as something extra, extrinsic, and risks on the other the abandonment of the institution of marriage to that tyranny of the artificial about which I spoke above.
The third necessity is the recovery of the “theology of the body” present in the magisterium of St. John Paul II. Christian pedagogy today finds itself in need of a theological and philosophical effort that can no longer be pushed back or limited to a particular institution.
As you see, this is a matter of taking seriously that superiority of time over space of which Evangelii Gaudium speaks (222-225). I have indicated three processes rather than three urgent interventions. I too, finally, am of the opinion of George Weigel that at the foundation of the synod discussion is the relationship that the Church wants to have with postmodernity, in which the wreckage of the deconstruction of marriage is the most dramatic and unmistakable reality.