A few days ago, a young engaged woman, Emma Smith wrote a piece on Catholic exchange called Marriage is Work. The take-away, as it came across to me and, apparently, others, was that failed marriages indicate a failure of the spouses to work, and that the primary advantage of a Catholic marriage is that Catholics do a lot of marriage prep, and that the sacramental nature of marriage gives you a sort of supernatural guarantee that, as long as you work on it, you'll have the kind of loving, faithful, happy marriage that we all want.
I read it. I shrugged my shoulders and kept going. How could I say anything without sounding like sour grapes trying to pop the bubble of a sweet and joyful bride?
Fortunately for me, Simcha took on the task with the aptly named post God is faithful, but we're not marrying God. She admits that she would have written very much as Ms. Smith did when she was a young bride. She goes through and praises or endorses every true, good, and beautiful aspect of Ms. Smith's article. And then she makes short shrift of the presumption at the core of it. God is faithful, so my marriage will never fail? We'll work hard, and that will make us different, because our marriage is like that of God and the Church, is the message Ms. Smith has for her readers.
"Ever hear of Hosea's wife?" Simcha asks. "Ever hear of Israel?"
What will she say to the woman whose husband is cheating? Or to the man whose wife won’t stay sober, or won’t stop gambling, or won’t stop browbeating him in public? What will she say to the spouses who do work hard, and have found themselves sinned against? Maybe “Let’s put our heads together and figure out how you could have worked harder to prevent this. Good marriages aren’t just a matter of luck, you know.”
Ms. Smith wrote in response, asking forgiveness for any appearance of conceit or hubris. Unfortunately, she then followed this promising beginning up by earnestly insisting that still, she can know that her marriage will never fall to serious sin. She can know because she has a special insight, a special kind of knowledge, just like her mother who knew her daughters would never get in any serious trouble--and, look, they never did, ergo there's no element of chance in a Good Catholic Marriage. After all, God wouldn't make marriage a sacrament if He wasn't going to give us His promise that It Will All Be OK. Besides, she didn't mean that you only had to have a sacramental marriage to have this guarantee of fidelity--she just knows that she and her husband will always turn to God every day for the graces they need.
It is beautifully written...and wrong.
I appreciate that she clarified that God's graces are available to us to enable us to live out our vows, even when they are hard. I believe God's graces are sufficient to enable us to live our vows when they seem impossible. Which is a good thing, because we, none of us, can possibly have the kind of knowledge into the future of another human being's choices that Ms. Smith is claiming for herself (and her mother).
We can have some sense of the probabilities, we can know what we hope for, we can know someone well enough to be pretty confident in the short term...but certainty isn't possible. Not certainty of the pessimistic, despairing, "all men cheat" kind, the sort that prompted Ms. Smith to write on this topic initially. And not certainty of the sunshine-and-roses, I know it will be hard but I know we will always turn to God and find our way through kind, either.
Theologians argue over whether it violates free will that God has perfect knowledge of our actions, past and future. That God exists outside of time makes it possible to fit all of that together, so that we are truly free and yet truly, perfectly known, all without contradiction. It's complicated and cool and I've probably horribly mangled even that little snippet of explanation of that particular interplay.
It doesn't really work for people, though. We have to live in the moment we are in, and at this moment, the future is full of possibilities, some of them unpleasant. More to the point, the future is filled with choices, which we are always free to make or not make.
There's no mechanism for handing our free will over to God and just letting Him steer, relieving ourselves of the effort of discerning and choosing and willing. If there were, we wouldn't need vows. We wouldn't need to make solemn and public promises before a crowd of witnesses to do what it is inevitable we do.
It is much easier to face the acknowledged 'hard work' of marriage when you feel assured of the outcome, of the natural rewards of such a state, of having all of the consolations of being the object of these beautiful promises, as well as one bound by them. This is certainly what we all hope for in marriage, and Christians hope, in addition, to share in the kind of community of love God IS as three-in-one, and the holy domestic peace of Nazareth.
But we should not forget the other marriages God models for us. He knows His bride perfectly, and yet wills that She (that's us, folks) should be capable of willing to violate and betray His love. Were we not free not to love, we would not be free to love.