Freedom to Bind Oneself: Benedict XVI on Engagement and Marital Love | Fr. James V. Schall, S.J.
“If freedom is understood to be an uppermost kind of active indifference and mastery, whoever finds ‘free love’ and ‘free union’ good enough for him is but one who has chosen not to exercise mastery over the lower impulses of his nature? That love is most truly an act of freedom which is strong enough to stay alive and remain in control when sensuous desires have become inert or have changed their way.” — Yves Simon, A General Theory of Authority
“Precipitating matters ends by ‘missing out’ on love, which instead needs to respect timing and to be gradual in its expression; it needs to make room for Christ, who can make human love faithful, happy and indissoluble.” — Pope Benedict XVI, “The Fullness of Human Love,” September 11, 2011.
“They have invented a phrase, a phrase that is a black and white contradiction in two words—‘free love’—as if a lover ever had been, or ever could be, free. It is the nature of love to bind itself, and the institution of marriage merely paid the average man the compliment of taking him at his word. Modern sages offer to the lover, with an ill-flavoured grin, the largest liberties and the fullest irresponsibility; but they do not respect him as the old Church respected him; they do not write his oath upon the heavens, as the record of his highest moment. They give him every liberty except the liberty to sell his liberty, which is the only one that he wants.” — G. K. Chesterton, “In Defence of Rash Vows,” The Defendant, 1905.
On September 11, 2011, Benedict XVI was at the Piazza del Pletiscito in Ancona in Italy. There, as part of the Italian National Eucharistic Congress, the Pope gave a talk, “just a few guidelines,” to engaged couples. Benedict noted the unfortunate effect unemployment could have in getting married. He then referred to the marriage feast at Cana. The last recorded words of Mary in the Gospels were spoken there: “Do whatever he tells you.”
The pope added: “A culture that tends to ignore clear moral criteria also lacks the festive wine: in the confusion everyone is urged to act in an individual, autonomous manner, often solely on the perimeter of the present.” To “celebrate” anything, especially a marriage, we need order in our souls.
The time of engagement is a particularly important period in a couple’s lives. “It opens you to the wonder of the encounter and enables you to discover the beauty of existence and of being precious to someone, of being able to say to each other, you are important to me.” Benedict is not afraid to urge the couples to follow “a high ideal of love.” This requires understanding, discipline, and grace. “Love requires a process of maturation: from the initial attraction and from that ‘feeling good’ with the other, learn to ‘love’ the other and ‘to want the best’ for the other. Love lives by giving freely, by self-sacrifice, by forgiveness and by respect or the other.” These are welcome words. No doubt many of these young couples know these things, but they also like to hear them spoken by someone as wise as the Holy Father. They seldom hear them elsewhere.
If we are created ultimately for eternal life, as we are, we can have little doubt that the most natural analogue to this destiny is the love that binds. “All human love is a sign of the eternal Love that created us and whose grace sanctifies the decision made by a man and a woman to give each other reciprocal life in marriage.” That is a striking phrase—“giving reciprocal life,” as if to say that the giving and receiving of life is what it means fully to live.
In the three citations found at the beginning of these comments—from Simon, Benedict, and Chesterton—the same point is made in different ways. Freedom and fidelity are necessary to each other. Love cannot exist without both. If we do not do things right, we will “miss out” on what is most important. In this area, the only freedom we want is the freedom to bind ourselves. Anything less, the “freedom” to bind ourselves again and again and again simply evaporates the whole meaning of fidelity and hence of that permanence to which love leads.
Marriage, of course, has to do with children—anticipating them, welcoming them, caring for them. “The fidelity and continuity of your love for each other will also enable you to be open to life, to be parents: the permanence of your union in the sacrament of Matrimony will allow the children God bestows upon you to grow up trusting in the goodness of life. Fidelity, indissolubility and the transmission of life are the pillars of every family, the true common good, a precious patrimony of society as a whole.” Marriage cannot be defined away; it is between a man and a woman. Any other relationship, no matter what it is called, is not and cannot be a marriage. To pretend that it can be only leads to disorder both of society and soul.
Benedict concludes by going “back over an essential point”: “The experience of love contains the quest for God. True love promises the Infinite.” Of its very nature, marital love is ordained through its dynamism to something beyond yet also to something within. The notion that it is “made in Heaven” is not mere talk. A marriage that seeks to avoid children contradicts itself. It can only end in isolation and death. This was really the teaching of the famous opera Tristan und Isolda. And it is the experience of all imitation marriage, all “marriage” that is not intended to be one, to be permanent.
And finally Benedict ends with some simple advice: “Do not underestimate the vital importance of this meeting; may the Sunday liturgical assembly find you fully participating: the Christian meaning of existence and a new way of life flows from the Eucharist.” If engaged couples make that initial promise to each other, to attend Sunday Mass together, faithfully, they will have taken a basic step. They will realize that the “until death do you part” is indeed what it is they want, the freedom to bind themselves. The weekly witness of Christ’s love even to the Cross reminds them that all marital love is also sacrificial, that we are to love one another as Christ has first loved us.” Nothing less.
Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown University. He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture, and literature including Another Sort of Learning, Idylls and Rambles, A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning, The Life of the Mind (ISI, 2006), The Sum Total of Human Happiness (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), The Regensburg Lecture (St. Augustine's Press, 2007), and The Mind That Is Catholic: Philosophical and Political Essays (CUA, 2008). His most recent book from Ignatius Press is The Order of Things (Ignatius Press, 2007). His new book, The Modern Age, is available from St. Augustine's Press. Read more of his essays on his website.
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