The Personalist Project

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.

One cannot be denied without denying the other.

Comments (7)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Mar 23, 2014 12:16pm

Kate, you're right that her correction doesn't go far enough. She hasn't grasped the mystery of human freedom.

She says that if we stay close to prayer and the Sacraments, God will give us the grace we need.  Right. But lots of people know that and then proceed to fail to stay close to prayer and the Sacraments.

She reminds me of the Protestant evangelists who begin by asking people whether they are "100% sure they're going to heaven."  

Unless we keep an element of "fear and trembling" about ourselves and our ability to fall from grace by our own free acts and omissions, we are setting up ourselves up for bitter disillusionment.

I love Philip Neri's prayer: "Lord, keep your hand on Philip today, or Philip will betray you."

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#2, Mar 23, 2014 12:42pm

Katie, this is the first I've heard of that particular prayer of St. Philip Neri, and I love it! I think fear and trembling is exactly the attitude we need to have about our own weakness and need for God, and that mercy is rooted in a deep awareness of our own capacity for sin.

What it reminds me of is something a little different--the utopianism of the liberal project of the twentieth century, when the presumption was that 'education' could cure all ills. Surely, if people *know* better, they will *do* better, right? And while to whom much is given, much is expected, our sins and failures are probably as often due to lack of vigilance as to ignorance. 

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Mar 23, 2014 12:59pm

One thing I wish that young woman understood is how much pain her naivete must cause couples whose marriages are struggling, or spouses who were betrayed.

In the last year, while someone close to me is going through divorce, my eyes have been opened to a lot of suffering marriages.

In many cases, we are speaking of couples who were full of the same kind of hope and confidence that she has when they started out.  

There is an ineradicable tragic dimension to human life.  

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Mar 23, 2014 1:51pm

When you're open about a topic like this—share a personal experience, or just (like Simcha) demonstrate awareness and empathy for a particular kind of suffering and situation—the candor and openness you reap in private is beautiful and heartbreaking. 

Rhett Segall

#5, Mar 25, 2014 9:05am

In terms of the science of marriage I do think the concept of work is needed to balance the idea of falling in love. One of the problems I have with DvH's science of marital love is the seeming absence of the necessity of this dimension. But as is so accurately noted, even with the best of intentions on both sides Gordian knots slip in.



Matt D

#6, Mar 25, 2014 6:33pm

 Kate, you are correct, God does exist outside time. God, uncreated and eternal existed before time. Your mangled explanation,like mine, is due to trying to explain the supernatural in the language of the natural. We do have free will and God does know the past,present and future of all our actions. God created time and all the laws of the universe. Everything within the universe is knowable and explainable. Nothing can be known of that which is outside the universe. Explaining that which is Divine is therefore mangled.

 Alice v H. taught me the meaning of "good". Good can mean "pleasurable" or "beneficial". Many people define marriage as good,meaning pleasurable. In the long history of marriage; the institution has always been defined as beneficial. I believe there is a serious intentional corruption of the definitions of words like marriage, love, family,person, man, women, life... God/god. Words that were ez to define are now very complected. The confusion is everywhere. To combat this we must live the good life with the understanding that good means beneficial. We need to think less short term self-interest and more long term best interest for all.             

Katie van Schaijik

#7, Mar 26, 2014 3:57am

Wait!  Don't forget that, according to von Hildebrand, there's an even more important sense of good than "beneficial", there's "valuable".

Marriage is just pleasant; it isn't just good for us; it's good in-itself.

The distinction between "beneficial goods" and "intrinsic value" is one of von Hildebrand's most basic and important contributions to the perennial philosophy.

Carry on.

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