Letters: The Essence of Marriage; Funeral Customs

Consenting Adults

Thanks for your editorial “The Truth About Marriage” and the three views on “The Court and Marriage” in the August 16 issue. For most of us—Jews and Christians alike—marriage has been shaped by our ancient religious culture, a culture largely founded on the biblical mandate to “increase and multiply,” and has developed over centuries of tradition. Yet marriage has also been shaped by a Roman culture and domestic world where true marriage—matrimonium—was a partnership in which a couple consented to live together as equals with mutual affection and respect: affectio maritalis. To raise a family, so central to thinking about marriage, was one of the benefits (bona) of marriage, but not its essence. Whether for Jew, Christian, or Pagan, the heart of the matter was consent to live together with marital affection. As that world became increasingly Christian, marriage remained a domestic partnership based on consent; indeed, Christian leaders like Augustine (the only church father to write extensively about sex and marriage) were faced with childless marriages and infidelities that severed the sacred bond. To be sure, infidelity or infertility could and often did destroy marriages, but neither fidelity nor fertility made a marriage.

Consent alone made marriage matrimony in Christendom, be it ancient or medieval. With the rise of the universities in the late twelfth century, their masters—the early Scholastics—sought to determine how marriage in the secular world fit into their sacramental world. A sharp debate arose among them about what constituted true marriage. One group argued that marriage truly exists at the moment of consummation, because consummation embodied that union between Christ and the church addressed in the Epistle to the Ephesians: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two will become one flesh. This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church” (5:31–32). A second group argued that it was consent given by a couple to one another to live together as equal partners with mutual affection and respect, because mutual consent embodied the Word who became flesh and “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave the power to become the children of God” (John 1:12–14). By the end of the century the “consentists” had won the debate, largely through the work of their leader, the prominent Parisian theologian Peter Lombard. So, for some sixteen hundred years what made a marriage a true marriage was consent, from which the benefits of fidelity, children, and sacred bond flowed. If it is consent to live together as equals with mutual affection and respect that creates a marriage, then consent makes marriage true for both same-sex and opposite-sex couples. Now, some same- and opposite-sex couples cannot have children. Yet each can have and raise children and live faithfully in a sacred Christian bond because it embodies the consent of the Word to become flesh and dwell among us.

Thomas M. Finn

Norfolk, Va.

 

Who Are We To Judge?

Tradition has held that marriage is defined as the union of a man with a woman for the purposes of conjugal love and procreation. Yet recently we have come to realize that some people are born with homosexual desires. What if procreation is impossible—as in the case of an older man and a woman beyond childbearing age? Certainly they can marry on the basis of conjugal love and share in the sacramental grace of matrimony. Scripture refers to celibacy as a higher state that is not for everyone. After all, following air, hunger, and thirst, sex is our most powerful drive. In other words, the practice of celibacy takes heroic virtue. According to traditional thinking, however, gay people, unlike the rest of us, are required to exercise not just virtue, but heroic virtue and remain celibate. Why? Because they are God’s mistakes and not deserving of the graces available to the rest of us? Not likely. As the gay community’s needs have become better understood and more public, we find beautiful examples of gay couples in life-long monogamous relationships—many adopt children. Why should they be denied the sacramental grace of matrimony? Some argue that a child needs a mother and father. But in a world populated with so many orphans, isn’t a loving home preferable to life in an orphanage or on the streets? It’s time for fresh thinking. More love, less anger.

Philip V. G. Wallace

Larchmont, N.Y.

 

Funeral Directions

Paul J. Schaefer’s article “Looking Away” (August 16) provided an opportunity to think about my own disappointment with funeral services. Like Schaefer, I am “reasonably healthy, but in my late seventies.”

My dad was a funeral director. I remember the familiar Sunday mornings, hurrying from church to be sure that all was in order for a visitation. The mourning family would arrive at 11 a.m. and remain for eleven hours. My mom would cook a meal so nobody had to leave for fear that they would miss any visitors. This was our normal. I recall families asking to have the body in state for a night or two or three. People walked to funeral homes in those days and stayed to share stories and have a drink in the back room. People took their time. Today it is common for grievers to have but a minute or two to express sympathy because there are so many in line—scheduled events intervene. Now people spend more time watching football than they do greeting friends at the viewing of their loved ones.

My mom’s funeral was very special. She lived all her married life in the funeral home upstairs, and outdid all of us by dying after a hundred and a half years. She could joke about not needing a hearse for the “pickup.” It was doleful to see her laid out just downstairs from where she lived and cooked all those meals for others.

My funeral: I’m thinking “green.” No embalming, no casket, no hearse, wrapped in dry ice for a short time for people to view and then buried in a shroud. Five years later, rototilled.

Donald E. Sass

Milwaukee, Wisc.

Published in the September 27, 2013 issue: 
Also by this author
Catholicism & Same-Sex Marriage

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