I just returned from a three-day gathering of the Tribunal personnel of our province. For those of you who are new to this blog or who don't remember, I serve as the Defender of the Bond for the Appellate Court for the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis. This means that I work, in the "annulment" process, to uphold the bond of marriage. It is my job to point out the factors which indicate the validity of a particular marriage (i.e. why it should not be "annulled" or declared invalid).
I had many interesting discussions with my colleagues, especially regarding the effects of American culture on those entering and living the vocation of marriage today. Scary observations were made: Freedom in our country has been reduced to license. Natural law is no longer a given. Permanence means "I'll stay with you as long as I'm happy." Fidelity means "You look good to me now, but if something better comes along ...." And openness to children? "Of course ... as long as I can decide if and when and how many."
And people wonder why they are not happy in their marriages, why more than fifty percent of our marriages fail.
And then I look at our gospel readings for this week. "Jesus said, 'Peace I bequeath to you, my own peace I give you, a peace the world cannot give, this is my gift to you. Do not let your hearts be troubled or afraid.'" And today: "Jesus said ... 'Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love ... and your joy will be complete." A peace the world cannot give. Complete joy. in following commandments.
For some reason, our fallen human nature can't grasp the fact there may be an authority greater than our own. As Americans, especially, we find it hard to believe joy could be found in obedience. Rather, we set ourselves as arbiters of truth. We decide what's right "for me" must be right objectively. We make choices based on what feels good or what's easy. We get defensive or feel judged when we're told we're wrong. And then we wonder what's missing from our lives.
Every day I read about broken marriages and broken families and broken suffering people. Every day I see the poor choices people make in the name of freedom, out of a sense of entitlement, because it makes them feel good, because of what it does for them. And I am not immune. But every day I am thankful for the Church, our Mother, for an authority greater than my own. I am grateful that I am aware that I don't have to rely on myself and on my limited experiences, that I can turn to an authority with over two thousand years of life experience.
I didn't always rely on the wisdom of the Church, however. There was a time in my life when I saw little value in the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of Reconciliation. There was a time in my life when I thought the Church's teaching on contraception was unfair and unrealistic and annulments were just "Catholic divorce." But, slowly, as I learned more about my faith, and as I came to understand how right the Church was about most things, I had to accept that it was my own selfishness and pride that was keeping me from accepting all of what She had to say. And when I finally gave in, I found a great freedom. (Not that living the Christian life is easy, but no one said it was supposed to be!)
In discussing why so many marriages are invalid, we invariably return to the question of marriage preparation programs. But, really, it starts even before that. It's almost too late to change what a person believes about marriage by the time he or she is engaged and approaching the Church. How to convince a person of the truth about marriage remains a mystery, especially when not even appeals to natural law and reason seem to have any effect. If people don't care about statistics that show that cohabiting couples are at a greater risk for divorce than non-cohabiting couples or about studies that indicate the effects of voluntary sterilization on marital satisfaction, what is going to convince them of the truth of the Church's teaching and Our Lord's desire for our real happiness?
What needs to happen is radical. A new evangelization. A cultural revolution. And it starts in our homes, with our children. It starts by living the Love we want our children to imitate and imparting to them the Truth we embrace. Beyond that, our mission extends to all those we meet -- our families, our friends, the stranger who stares as all. those. children. climb out of our vehicles. We must live the joy and the peace we experience for others to see. We must rise above our fatigue and resist complaining. We must pray. for all to experience the peace the world cannot give. the joy that is complete.