What makes marriage work?

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the third column in a series on Pope Francis’ post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love).

Whenever celibates start talk­ing about sex and marriage, there are inevitable guffaws and yawns. The presumption is that one who hasn’t walked the walk has nothing to contribute to the talk.

There is another side to that, how­ever. When one has been in active ministry for a long time, an awful lot of listening, cheerleading, counsel­ing, and occasional intervention has gone on. Confessors have heard it all, but they, of course, can’t tell. But priests, deacons, brothers, sisters, and lay ministers often find them­selves in an advisory role. And they have taken in stories of the good, the bad, the ugly, and the beautiful which they can share.

After a while, it becomes clear where Scripture, moral theology and good counsel intersect people’s everyday lives. The fact that Pope Francis is one of those who has had a listening heart, as well as a listening ear and a pastoral mind, lends great credibility to his marital advice. Because he is a practical man who has spent countless hours with real peo­ple, he knows, and mentions repeat­edly, that people’s lives are complicat­ed. He also notes, in “Amoris Laetitia,” that people bring old wounds into their adult lives. Knowing that, he offers rich insight into those things which cause a marriage to falter and those things which strengthen it for the long haul.

What makes marriages fail? The worst things, of course, are bru­tality, violence, marital rape, and addiction. The Holy Father also notes that immaturity and selfish­ness generate severe marital rifts. Tugs-of-war come from competition and a struggle for dominance in the relationship. Rude behavior about and toward each other belittles and devalues the relationship. The pope notes that things start out poorly when a couple spends more time planning the wedding than prepar­ing spiritually and emotionally for the marriage. Superficiality and unreasonable expectations assail marriages, and that can start with bride and groom, their parents, and their friends.

What makes marriages work and really achieve what the sacrament of matrimony is all about? One of the most important things, the Holy Father notes, is that “spouses as­sume an active and creative role in a lifelong project.” The two realize that each one individually and the two together are “an unfinished product, needing to grow, a work in progress.” That entails patience, sacrifice, and cooperation. The pope notes that freedom and fidel­ity go hand in hand. Confidence in the commitment actually makes for greater freedom—not freedom to wander but freedom to stay.

We’ve already mentioned how often Pope Francis talks about the importance of tenderness. He also speaks of mutuality. When couples plan and decide together, when they share goals and household chores, when they cherish their children and their extended families, and when they invest themselves in gen­erous service and pray, the marriage works.

Not surprisingly, His Holiness invokes 1 Corinthians 13. That famous passage from St. Paul says it all about what love is and what love is not.

The press has gleefully reported that the young Jorge Bergoglio did the tango. The mature Pope Francis understands very well that it takes two — two, that is, in sync and recep­tive to grace.

About Sister Pamela Smith, SSCM 130 Articles
SISTER PAMELA SMITH, SSCM, is the Director for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the Diocese of Charleston. Email her at psmith@charlestondiocese.org.