Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
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THE MYSTERY OF MARRIAGE
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
We might begin by saying that this is the most fundamental truth of our faith in Christian marriage and the family. What is it? That, unlike all other marriage either before the coming of Christ or now in the world, two baptized people when they receive marriage - notice they are not only marrying and actively exchanging their mutual consent, they are, as the late Archbishop Sheen said and he has a book on the subject, Three to Get Married- it is husband, wife, and Christ who enter into the sacramental bond of marriage. What is that fundamental truth? That what had not been true before and is not true outside of Christianity, two baptized people receive grace; special extraordinary grace which they both need and not just, mind you, not only at the time when they marry. They receive graces, in the plural, all through their married lives.
Still by way of introduction, we assume that Christ's teaching on chastity and charity is a strict mystery. Let me backtrack. We speak of the mysteries of our faith as truths that could not be comprehended before revelation and even after being revealed. The sacrament of marriage remains a mystery. However, when we speak of mysteries even though the immediate focus of our statement is that the mind does not fathom, does not fully understand whatever He has revealed which we call a strict mystery. However, and let's look at number two, Christ's teaching on chastity and charity is a strict mystery and, therefore, because His teaching on chastity and charity is a mystery, therefore, Christian marriage itself is a mystery. In other words, what human beings need, and how they need, they need the light to know how and the strength to be able to practice and remain faithful in marriage in the two humanly impossible virtues to practice in any state of life. But, as I may say, supremely impossible in marriage unless God had provided the means for a married couple to live together faithfully and fruitfully until death.
A mystery then is, to repeat, inconceivable before revelation, incomprehensible after revelation, and impossible naturally for human beings to practice. What is inconceivable before revelation? It is inconceivable that two human beings would enter into a monogamous marriage and remain faithful to each other and accept the children that God wants to give them; that human beings can live that kind of life by their own strength. Impossible. Incomprehensible even after revelation. That's why we are talking about this here. It's a mystery. We do have the faith. We have the grace to believe, but even after being revealed we may, as we must, accept it on God's words but our minds cannot grasp how it is possible for two human beings to remain thus wedded to each other unless God provided them with the light and strength they need. And then to summarize, impossible naturally for human beings. Promiscuity, infidelity, fornication, and adultery are all natural to human beings. Am I clear? Fornication, sexual promiscuity, adultery, homosexuality - these are natural. So people are just, well, behaving like human beings. That is why Cardinal Ratzinger on one occasion said if he had only one truth to teach for the rest of his life, he would spend whatever years he has got left in teaching original sin. We are all human beings who had lost God's friendship already in our first parents and, even though we are baptized and the grace of God is restored but the dullness of mind and the weakness of will which are the result of original sin make, I repeat, make fornication, adultery (I don't want to go through the bad litany again) natural. Elizabeth Taylor was only natural when she made the front page of most of the big papers in the country when she entered into, and she had the gall to call it, her eighth marriage. It is simply publicized, legalized, and highly praised prostitution. It is impossible to exaggerate, before we go any further, the importance of knowing we've got a fallen human nature and ever we need grace. Without grace we are all the same. Without grace we would all be fornicators, adulterers, and homosexuals. And they would not have to have, and may God forgive them, and I understand one of those sessions either was or will be in greater Detroit, a program on homophobia by a priest and a nun. Dear God! Dear Triune God! And the psychological and psychiatric sciences, as I am sure you know, look on us who believe that chastity is a commandment of God; we're all strange; we're all psychopathological.
The graces, still on the introduction, assured Christian marriage are primarily for the spouses but they are also given to the children. In fact, they are graces for the whole family. A word about the adversary - this, by the way, is a standard way of teaching theology over the centuries - you first state your theses, you explain what you're talking about, then you identify some adversaries who deny what you're out to prove, and then, in this case we've got some terminology, and then the proof, and then the implications. I would like to cover everything in these two pages today.
The Adversaries. The non-Christian world which does not, on principle, believe in a supernatural destiny and, therefore, in the need for supernatural means to reach that destiny. So the non-Christian world knows nothing about what we call Christian or sacramental marriage. You don't talk about getting graces. There is no sacrament to begin with. You cannot speak of getting graces from, well, marriage unless you first believe it's a sacrament. And then, secondly, among Christians the foundation of historic Protestantism is the denial that we have been elevated to an above natural destiny. Grace, therefore, meant God's mercy to those predestined to be saved. That's the meaning that was for the Protestants who began what we call the Protestant revolution and is still their official teaching. However, having taught Protestants, I've told you, in their seminaries, having lectured to Protestant groups, there are not many bona fide Protestants left in the world. Only a fraction I would hazard to guess, maybe twenty percent, maybe ten percent of professed Protestants still profess Protestantism. They don't know it. That's why my book, my first book on Protestantism, on The Protestant Church in America, became a best seller. And one reason was because so many Protestants bought the book to know who they are. I love Protestants. I am kind. I think I told you about the two Protestant girls, Judith and Susan, who were borders that my mother got, and they remained until I was sixteen-years-old. I was brought up in an ecumenical household. Did my mother ever make it clear to me, "Now, Johnny remember Judith and Susan are Lutherans. Don't forget that. We're Catholics." I think I also told you when I grew up and asked about why don't we eat meat on Fridays and my sisters, as I called them, do. Mother took them aside and told them, "Look, you get permission to abstain from meat on Fridays or you have to leave. My boy is wondering why you don't fast or abstain from meat like we do." And they both came to my ordination years later. I know Protestants. I love them. Wonderful people, but I sure know that Catholicism is not Protestantism. So there is no sacrament of marriage among Protestants. And this is the danger, I have to use the word, in mixed marriages even with believing Protestants. Because, according to their faith, they do not believe that when they marry they get special, distinctive, sacramental graces for that marriage to, first of all, survive and then to thrive.
Now some terminology. The graces assured sacramental marriage are first an increase of sanctifying grace for the spouses. In other words, two professed Christians who have been baptized, their marriage makes them more holy just because they've married. The sacrament of marriage increases, therefore, first and most fundamentally the sanctifying grace in their souls then gives them the title to a lifetime of actual graces. Remember what actual graces are? Actual graces are those transient illuminations of mind and inspiration of will which God keeps giving us so that we might know what to do with our mind and the strength to do it with our wills. Married people need light, illuminations for the mind to know what is God's will, to see why, and the understanding of how to do what God expects of the married spouses. And the younger a couple are when they marry the more grace they need. Again, the more educated they are having gone, say, through college they need more grace then if they hadn't gone to college. Much more grace because they have been exposed to so much learned error. I think I've told you, the most dangerous people in the world are the educated unbelievers, and they in many ways control our academic life in America. And that's just to illustrate.
Take now when a couple, say, marry and the wife conceives her child it is assumed, just assumed, that, well, their must be some, some testing of that, that unborn child, right? Including even pictures, right? You know the purpose behind that, don't you? If the child shows any abnormality, well what else? It may be the same doctor who discovers the abnormality then says, "Well, it would be most wise for you that you want a burden in your life to terminate your pregnancy." The longer we live in this homicidal country, youngsters, children now coming into the world, wouldn't you become accustomed to crime? Crime becomes commonplace. And to still talk about the virtues that as believing Christians we believe in - strange - until now, and this is now, again, commonplace. As a priest I become involved in people's marriages, marital problems so I would not be just theorizing but deal with concrete, specific situations. And now our courts, our judges, our legal profession just assume that if either one or the other finds, well, any difficulty - what do they do? Well, what else should you do? As the expression goes, you divorce and would've even talk about remarrying. Again, the supernatural graces, and these now are graces for the will. We call them inspirations for the will to live up to the difficult expectations of Christ. It is impossible to exaggerate how clear we should be on the necessity of, first of all, receiving the sacramental grace of a sacramental marriage. Because if two people marry and either one is not in the state of grace, even though they should receive the sacrament of marriage, is it possible to receive the sacrament of marriage and not have been in the state of grace in receiving that sacrament? Yes! Is the marriage valid? Yes. Is it binding until death? Yes. Is it a sacrament? Yes. Do husband and wife get the grace from the sacrament of marriage? No, unless both are in the state of grace when they marry. And if they married and they were not in the state of grace, although validly, nevertheless they do not then begin to receive the graces from their sacramental union unless and until they restore God's friendship in their souls.
These actual graces are not only remedial for our human ignorance and weakness. What are we saying? This is, well, a course on marriage but we are talking about Christian marriage which means that two baptized people marry and receive the sacrament which then confers on them the graces which they need. However, (and since we have I think good chalk now. I was told it was good chalk. Yes, we have a good chalk) the grace has two basic functions. In other words, we receive grace from God first as a remedy, as a remedy for our darkness of mind and weakness of will. And the more we have sinned in the past the darker are our minds now in the present, and nobody cheats you, nobody! People may know nothing about grace, may not know even how to spell the words in our vocabulary. No matter, we need grace first of all from God in order to know what God wants us to do. And the first function of grace, therefore, is, as we say, remedial. And it's remedial, and I keep repeating, twice over, remedial for the mind and remedial for the will. For the mind to be able to know what is good, and what is good? Whatever God wants is good. That's the simplest and worth a billion dollars. What is good? That is good in our lives which God wants. Period, close the book. The course is over. But my mind must recognize what is good. My mind must be able to recognize what God wants me to do. Did God want me, when I was to have classes in Chicago last Thursday (I have classes two Thursdays each month in Chicago), did God want me to stay overnight Thursday, add twenty-five dollars to my plane fare to get back from Chicago to Detroit on Friday instead of what I had planned originally on Thursday? Our lives are constantly faced - should I do it or shouldn't I? For with that we need light from God called then illuminating grace, but we also need grace for the will. My mind may know what God wants, but my will, to say the least, may not be happy. So we need grace first for the mind to know what God wants and then we need strength for the will. In fact, the more grace you get from the mind to know what God wants you need a lot of strength for the will. "Lord, give me more strength. I didn't know you wanted me to do this too." "Yes, my dear." "Lord, I need more strength." All right, keep asking, keep asking.
Okay, however, and this is for marriage, where do you begin? Whom can you go to you married people? Questions, all kinds of questions that come up. Where do you go to find out what is God's will in this or that situation? Most of my telephone calls in a given day or in a given week are from married people; many of whom I will never meet. "What do I do now?" And, of course, not knowing the background I say a prayer, "Lord, let me say what you want me to say." However, when we speak of grace we may not only notice remedial graces for our human ignorance and weakness. The graces we need and that married people receive from God are all sent primarily sanctifying for the spouses. A husband and wife are to be channels of grace to each other. They are to sanctify each other, and we sanctify other people only in the measure that we ourselves possess God's grace. Let me repeat, God wants all of us - it's our primary duty in life to be a channel of grace to other people. Everything else is secondary. And we shall be as effective channels of grace to others as we ourselves possess God's grace, as we ourselves are united with God. To use a word, and I've got to talk this way, the more holy we are the more grace we bring to other people. And nobody cheats you. And only God knows how holy they are, and if you think you are getting really holy you're in trouble. People think, "My gosh, I never realized, why do they wait until people die to canonize them?" I'm not exaggerating, husband and wives have told me each about the other. "Whatever I do is wrong." "She never does anything wrong." Or she about him, "Nothing I do is right." In other words, as you know the temptation in all of us to think of ourselves as better than others. And we need grace, therefore, to open our eyes, say, to our own a need of light, need of strength. That's why God allows us to sin. Did you know that the sins in our lives are meant to be channels of grace? Did you know that? "Father, are you serious?" Very serious, because most people need (what a verb), need to have sinned to be humiliated. In other words, we are naturally so proud that God then would allow us to sin to humiliate us. And the graces, therefore, that we need, and we are talking about marriage and not, mind you, not only, dear Lord no, not only when the sacrament of marriage is received. But, there is nothing, and I mean every syllable, there is nothing that married people need more on earth than to grow in the grace of God; to receive more and more grace; to become more holy. And by now Americans are spending billions, and the word is billions, of dollars to go to counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, you name it. If only, but they've got to believe, they've got to have the faith. They've got to believe the most important thing that they need as married people is God's grace. And where do you get the grace? Three sources of grace: prayer, the sacraments, and cooperating with the grace you've got. This is business. You cooperate with grace A you get grace B. If you get Grace A and admire it, "My what a wonderful sight," and don't use it you will never, never get grace B, never!
I don't think you mind my saying this, after I had my classes on Thursday the doctor who has kept me alive for over twenty years called me up earlier in Detroit. Could I come to his office and have a thorough examination then we'd have dinner after the examination. Eight children - by now twenty-seven grandchildren - and he is happy. As you can imagine both married people and their family to be, and, of course, every time we meet I tell them, "Do you realize you are being specially blessed by God?" But I know husband and wife, and their not pious, I mean in the cheap sense. He is a medical practitioner and has been for years, successful. And his wife, a registered nurse, very active in the pro-life movement, but getting to mass and Holy Communion daily for years. So the graces that are needed and are promised by God are not only to overcome our ignorance, our weakness, but to provide us with being channels of grace. And in marriage, marriage is not an isolated sacrament. It is a social sacrament. It takes two people to marry. You cannot marry, well, a name you've got to marry a person. Then children - these graces are promised through the parents to the children. And here I could then go on literally for hours expending on the importance of living a holy life.
Nothing else in marriage, nothing, zero, nothing, is to be compared with the importance of husband and wife trying with God's grace to live a holy life. And, as you know, that doesn't mean wrapping yourself in the papal flag or wearing a rosary around your neck as you'll see how pious .... no. Doing God's will which can be very demanding but then having access to the grace, I repeat, through prayer, the sacraments, and cooperating with the graces that had been received. The graces of Christian marriage are both individual and social, personal and collective. In other words, the graces that a married couple receive, provide they cooperate with the graces that they are getting, are not only for them as individuals but for them as channels of grace to others.
Now the proof. First Christ's elevation of marriage to the dignity of a sacrament implies His conferral of sacramental grace. Christ did not have to elevate marriage to a sacrament unless He had done what? Unless He had laid on His followers, and hear it and memorize it, the practice of such chastity as no one else had ever been told you must practice. And Christ laid on His followers such charity as, again, had never been expected of any human beings. And these are the two virtues which when a couple marry they must practice marital chastity and marital charity. And as you married people know, in one sense from experience better than I, but from observation and more than observation; forty-six years in the priesthood have told me a lot about how hard it is in a country that has gone mad with sexual indulgence; and a country that not only does not practice charity or justice but a country that has legalized murder. To practice charity and practice that in a state of marriage requires extraordinary grace. Christ, therefore, once He told His followers to practice chastity and charity as those two virtues were not even known before He came into the world. Christ, in sheer justice, had to institute a sacrament to provide the graces necessary to live these two humanly impossible virtues of Christian chastity and charity.
Second, St. Paul's teaching on Christian marriage as a mystery, no less than Christ, sustains the Church so He provides His married faithful to become holy. In other words, people marry to become more holy. Whatever else you husband and wives forget, don't forget you men married a woman so that she might help you become more holy. And women in turn marrying a husband so that he can help you to become more holy. And by the Church's universal teaching, and it's especially in two documents - in Lumen Gentium of the Second Vatican Council and the present Holy Father's Familiaris Consortio. In other words, there is no question in any one who knows the teachings of the Church that Christ established this sacrament in order that His married followers, hear it, might be channels of grace to one another as no one else can be but also, and with thunderous emphasis, that married Catholics might be a witness to God's grace in the world that no one else can provide. And that's why God knows how we need dedicated, faithful priests and religious - oh, how we need them! But we also need dedicated and faithful husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Why? Because the world needs to learn that Christ came into the world and established the sacrament of marriage in order that His followers might witness, which means give evidence, of Christ living on earth today by giving those of His followers who are married the grace that no one else but Jesus Christ can provide. And provide how? In the sacrament that He instituted.
Now some implications. I've got five implications of this doctrine. Christian marriage is a sacrament to give the graces that married people, and they alone if they are baptized Christians, receive. First, graces of Christian marriage imply that the sacrament is received in the state of grace. As we have been saying, can two baptized people who are not in the state of grace, can they receive the valid sacrament of marriage? Yes. Do they receive the graces? No, unless they are in the state of grace when they marry and remain, by the way, in the state grace. A husband is a channel of grace to his wife and vice-a-versa as long as and if each remains in the state of grace.
Secondly, the state of grace should be maintained; hence the absolute necessity of prayer, mass, and the sacraments. And for some married people, what word shall I use, in the name God start getting up earlier so you can get to mass. And stop watching television and wasting your time at night so you get a good night sleep and then be able to in the morning to get mass and receive Holy Communion. You need the grace. And, of course, that means we remain in the state of grace if we pray and receive the sacraments.
Number three, the graces must be cooperated with. As we believe, every time that God wants us to do something He gives us an illumination in mind or an inspiration of the will. That's what we call God giving us holy thoughts and holy desires. But, and this is the way we were trained from the first weeks of the novitiate, and told to teach others, examine your conscience every night, every night. We have said the equivalent before, but if you don't examine your conscience before you retire I'm going to ask my guardian angel to tell your guardian angel to keep you awake so you won't be able to go to sleep. And then, "Oh no, that Father Hardon no wonder I can't fall asleep. I did not make my examine of conscience." Make it. The one thing we should examine our consciences on is what graces did I get during the day and did I respond to them. And graces, remember, are channeled by people. How did I react to a person who was unkind to me? How did I react to a person, say, who was late when I was on time or was on time when I was late? Our days are flooded, I use that verb deliberately, our days are flooded with graces. So, God gives, we are speaking about two married people, gives you graces. Be sure to recognize a grace when you see it and examine your consciences. I have been doing this all my Jesuit life and I recommend this to you. It's great!
Number four. I beg you to go beyond stray duties. Whatever else you married people should never ask yourselves: do I have to do it? No! If you really love someone then what do you do? The proof of love, if I love someone I want to unite myself in will with that person. I want what that person wants. Over the years I have distinguished between what I call volitional love and manual love. Manual love is pawing. You can embrace, oh gosh, anybody; in fact, you can embrace anything. It doesn't even have to be a human being. Some weeks ago in the doctors I never thought I would live to see this. There is a magazine called A Dog Digest. If only more Americans gave some of the love which they give to their animal pets; husbands to their wives and vice-a-versa; parents to their children and children to their parents, we'd be a happier nation. Love is in the will. I love someone when I unite my will with the person I claim to love.
And Five. Graces are to be apostolic. In other words, husbands are sources of grace, channels of grace, to their wives and wives to their husbands. Now remember, I've said this before but I want to make sure you don't forget. Let me ask a question. Are all the graces that God sends us are they always pleasant? (No.) Is there such a thing as a painful grace? (Yes.) Now you don't tell the wife, "My dear, I didn't realize it; you are the most painful grace in my. . ." No, no! Parents to their children - if only parents realized, and you young parents - the most important thing you can do for the children that you are, say, bringing into the world is to be as holy as you possibly can yourselves. Now your children can still, of course, resist the grace but at least you then become a channel of grace for them. And over the years I didn't realize when I was back home but I've realized now; oh, the mother that God gave me; the channel of grace. Never once do I remember a single day, ever, that she missed Mass - never. And it's not just example it's being a channel of that grace for which there is not substitute. And children, of course, to their parents - the parents are channels of grace to their children and the children are channels of grace to you parents. You'd never again, you parents, never again lose your temper if you realize your children are channels of grace. Does that mean you may never use your temper? Oh no, you can use your temper but never lose it. And, of course, the children can they be painful graces in your lives? Yes, but you love them. Families to families - and this is something we could spend two semesters on this subject. The Holy Father, present pope, talks about the apostolate of families to families. Strong families, believing families, being a source of grace to other families who need, and this I'll repeat not merely example; God gives grace to a family by its contact with a strongly believing family. Choose your friends, choose your acquaintances, be selective. And when you say be selective that means there are some people, because God wants it, you do not cultivate their friendship - you just don't. There are some people in our lives that may be good business. All right, but then distinguish between people in your life that may be good business and people who are channels of grace. And having said that, I will answer some of your questions.
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