By Marie and Adrian Reimers
Ever since Pope Paul VI released his encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” reiterating the Church’s traditional teaching that contraception is morally wrong, many observers and even theologians have complained that the Church needs to listen to the voices of married people themselves and not only celibate clergy. It is a good point: What do married couples want? What do we really want? What we really want, even if we don’t say it out loud or even recognize it, is to be saints.
Writing for his fellow Polish clergy in 1961, the future Pope John Paul II, Archbishop Karol Wojtyła, proposed that Catholic pastors should stop looking at married people “from the perspective of sin.” Instead, he advised, pastors serve married people best by regarding them from the “perspective of perfection.” Like priests and religious, husbands and wives are called by God to holiness, even if they don’t live in a consecrated “state of perfection,” but instead live busy lives in the world. Dare we think of ourselves as saints?
What did the future Pope John Paul II mean by the “perspective of sin?” It is not hard to understand. Married couples live and work in the world, spending most of their time in secular activities. They engage in sex and have children. They party with their friends and root for sports teams. Their lives are full of opportunities for sin. They need to know the rules so that after their fairly sinful lives they can get into heaven after all. Presumably what married people need is help to get to heaven in spite of their secular lives.
The “perspective of perfection” is different. The Second Vatican Council teaches (in “Lumen Gentium”) that every Catholic is called to sanctity (or holiness), which means the perfection of love. This kind of perfection is realized by a life of love for Christ and in Christ. We might say that we married couples don’t so much want “holiness” as we want to live with Jesus — knowing Him, loving Him, and welcoming Him into our homes.
From this perspective, holiness is not about “do’s” and “don’ts,” — the rules for staying out of hell while keeping purgatory to the minimum. Jesus invites His followers to love one another as He has loved them (John 13:34). And “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1), and He showed this love by giving His life for them on the cross. This is Christ’s love — the love that is self-gift — and this is the kind of love that married couples are called to. At the altar, the bride and groom promise each other an unconditional love by which they will belong to each other as long as they both shall live. And as they celebrate that love in the physical gift of themselves to each other, they share in God’s creating love by bringing new lives into being.
Marriage is the creation of a communion of mutual self-giving that exactly imitates God’s gift of Himself to His people — of Christ’s gift of Himself for and to His Church. Husband and wife do for each other what Christ and His Church do, and by doing this they enter into the communion of the Blessed Trinity itself. This changes everything about our perspective on what married couples want.
Maybe the saddest thing we hear said at weddings is, “This is the happiest day of your life.” If this were really true, it would be sad. The wedding day and succeeding honeymoon are indeed wonderful — a celebration opening onto a new life — they are not an end in and of itself. The joys of marriage do not lie in the beauty of the ceremony and the exuberance of the wedding night, but in the lifelong growth in a love that imitates God’s own love — a love that increasingly looks like Christ’s own love.
Married life is hard. Children come and soon turn into teenagers. The wedding night endorphins fade, and romance becomes a memory. The moral demands of married life can become burdensome. In his 1961 article, John Paul II wrote that it is necessary not so much to strive for fidelity to nature —obeying the natural law — but to be faithful to grace. The ethos of conjugal life is not one of obedience to abstract or incomprehensible prohibitions — the marital ethos is one of perfection in love.
Besides the married state, of course, the Church does recognize the “state of perfection” — the consecrated religious state — which is marked by vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. By its very nature, marriage excludes these vows. Nevertheless, the spirit of these vows, the attitudes lying behind them, can and should be an intrinsic part of every Christian’s life. Married people must own property — only in a spirit of austerity, avoiding consumerist attitudes. Husband and wife should frequently express their love physically — only in a spirit of reverence for their bodies and not in lust. They are responsible, obedient not to someone outside the marriage, but to the responsibilities they have to each other and to the children they have brought into the world.
St. Augustine famously prayed, “You made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” We marry for love, because we want love — not just the gift of human love, but the perfect Love that human love points to and participates in. God gives wife and husband to each other to share His love on earth in their life together and in their joint witness to His love. What married people want more than anything is God.
Marie and Adrian Reimers are parishioners at St. Matthew Cathedral. Adrian is a philosophy professor at Notre Dame and a specialist in the thought of John Paul II.
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