I have been quite critical recently of the efforts by some segments within the church to pass MN’s marriage amendment, and of the entire “culture wars” approach to engaging and forming culture in general. Since my concern over these efforts revolves around the use of political tactics that tend to foster alienation and resentment rather than unity and charity, I thought I would offer a few thoughts on where I see space for positive, common ground for Christians on this issue.
Two personal stories to illustrate my point: My wife and I very much believe our marriage to be a sacrament, a tangible sign of God’s grace in our lives. As such, we moved through the marriage preparation process through our parish at that time (which is not here in the St. Paul-Minneapolis Archdiocese), and were married at that same parish. Part of our marriage prep involved taking the PREPARE inventory, attending a weekend long retreat (both of which we found very enriching), and attending a mandatory presentation intended to inform us about the canonical rules regarding marriage in the Roman Catholic Church. We were happy to engage in each of these activities.
The informational presentation, put on by the office for Family Life of that particular diocese, involved approximately an hour of a very well-intentioned couple speaking to us about how the only way to truly have Jesus and the Holy Spirit in our marriage is to follow the church’s teaching on contraception. Now I respect the right of the diocese and local magisterium to teach as they sees fit. At the same time, I found myself asking “what was missing from this presentation?” Having attended a Catholic university, I can speak from experience that the vast majority of my friends no longer place much importance upon practicing their faith within the church, as they see it as mostly irrelevant for their daily lives. But when big life-events arise – such as marriage, birth and baptism, death – I find that “cultural Catholicism” begins to pull at their heartstrings and they briefly turn to the church, even if only for the ritual marking of such important events.
What this suggests to me is that these kind of events – marriage and baptism preparation in particular – are some of the most significant opportunities for (re)evangelizing the faithful. And yet, here we were in a room full of young couples asking to be married in the church and we were told that the most important aspect of this sacrament was contraception. This was a missed opportunity to speak to us about the beautiful sacramental theology of the church, to invite us as couples to live the mystery of the sacraments on our journey through life, and to see how our lives could be enriched by engaging more deeply in the sacramental life and community in which we had already asked to be married.
A second story: When my wife and I began to experience struggles in communication a few years into our marriage, we decided to look for outside help. We did go and speak with the priest who married us (who was not the pastor of our church, but a member of a nearby religious community). We did not, however, even consider going to anyone in our parish for help. Why? Because there was none offered (at least that we knew of). There were marriage prep retreats and marriage renewal retreats (both of which are wonderful things), but there was nothing offered to reach out to struggling couples. Studies have shown that couples considering divorce who seek help (usually therapy), are significantly more like to stick together and this has certainly been true in our case as our marriage is stronger than either of us could have imagined.
Having been married less than five years, here are two missed pastoral opportunities for us to feel even more supported in trying to live out a sacramental marriage in the life of the church. But, what, you may be asking yourself, is my point? My point is this: there are creative and alternative models for supporting marriage, and for finding common ground that avoid Christian engagement in the culture wars, that build up the body of Christ, and that tend to foster less alienation and resentment. It is this kind of constructive building up of culture that will be most effective in evangelizating a new generation of Catholics or Christians. It is also this kind of witness that demonstrates a truly compassionate image of the Kingdom of God that will be most enticing to those who are seeking something more in our culture. I am not claiming that Christians should avoid direct engagement in the civic and legal aspects of culture – indeed, much of my research in my short career has been focused on this topic – but rather that there are other pastoral concerns that should not be overshadowed by the attempt to win the culture wars.