Marriage as a Vocation, Wedding Traditions and Current Controversies

Over the past two articles, I have dealt with two key understandings regarding marriage. In the first column, the question of what makes a marriage a marriage was explored. Last issue, the question of what are impediments to a valid marriage was examined. Now, we examine, more broadly, matters related to marriage, notably, Marriage as a vocation, wedding traditions and current marriage controversies.

Marriage as a Vocation

The word vocation, I believe, should file suit against contemporary society, as it is misused and abused so very frequently. A vocation (from the root “voca”) means “a calling;” specifically a calling from one way of life to another; it is a permanent call. What vocation does not mean is a passionate love, personal zeal or avocation for something you do. Thus being a teacher, a doctor, a nurse, or a soldier, are not, in the truest sense of the word, vocations. This is not to diminish those jobs, but it is to make clear, they are jobs. Yes, they are often done out of deep passion, but ultimately they are chosen jobs, or careers.

So, then, what is a vocation? Motherhood and fatherhood are examples of vocations; you don’t do it for a living, you do it for life. A mother, for example, never ceases to be a mother; she might be a good mother or a bad mother – but from the moment of her child’s conception, she is a mother forever. Even if her child wanders far and wide, or passes away, the woman that bore that child remains a mother. Likewise, this is true for a father.


Call on Line One

At the moment of baptism we all receive a fundamental call to holiness; this is a call in life for all Christians from day one. From that “factory setting” imbued in all of the baptized, God may call us to specific ways of life to live out that baptismal call to holiness. In the realm of the Sacraments there are two vocations that are special callings of the baptized, two calls of God that help men and women fulfill that baptismal call to holiness: Marriage and Holy Orders (and in the ecclesial realm, there is the vocation to consecrated religious life). These vocations are calls from God, that, when answered, move a person from one state of life to another state of life for the rest of his/her life.


Made in Heaven?

Thus, marriage as a vocation has a special place in the life of the Church. In the vocation of marriage, a man and woman are called by God to a life together. This idea of God’s call in marriage traces back to Judaism. According to the Talmud (the exhaustive collection of Jewish law and commentary), 40 days before the conception of a male child, a Divine pronouncement is made as to whose daughter this man will marry. This Divine pairing, in the form of this perfect woman (a soul mate) for this man, is called a “bashert” (which means “destiny”). It is from this Judaic origin that we hear of the idea of a “match made in heaven.” In Catholicism, while we don’t tie ourselves to the “bashert” concept, we do hold that a man and a woman, strictly speaking, do not “fall in love” but rather are “called in love” to marriage. And we hold that in that call, they are called to be joined in wedlock for the rest of their natural life in this world. Thus as Huey Lewis and the News proclaimed, “And with a little help from above / you feel the power of love.”

Thus, marriage is a vocation, it is not “a job” (though it does require work). It is a way of life, every day, for the rest of one’s life. In 1969’s “Wedding Bell Blues” by the Fifth Dimension we hear a young lady saying to the man she loves, “I was the one who came runnin' when you were lonely / I haven't lived one day not loving you only /But kisses and love won't carry me -- til you marry me Bill.” Exactly right: kisses, love and romance are not enough – the two who God called together, are called to marriage. And since marriage is a way of life to which one is called, it is a vocation – not a passion, not an avocation. The vocation to marriage requires openness to God’s grace, openness to bringing forth life into this world, openness to strengthening one another in unity, and a commitment until “death do you part.”


Marital Traditions

Various traditions have crept into modern marriage rites over the years; I want to examine two of them. One is quite proper, but the other has no place in a Catholic marriage ceremony. To wit,

  • Placing flowers at the foot of the Blessed Mother. A common practice that is seen at weddings is the bride, together with her new husband, laying flowers before an image of the Blessed Mother. In this tradition, a new bride seeks the blessings of the Lord, through the intercession of the Blessed Virgin Mary; she honors Mary through prayer and the laying of flowers before an image of Mary. As this beautiful tradition is devotional (personal piety) and not liturgical (public worship), it is never to happen during the wedding Mass, but rather immediately after the priest announces that “the Mass is ended.”
  • The Unity Candle. This specious practice crept into wedding ceremonies in the latter quarter of the 20th century, much like Pauly Shore movies hit theatres in that same time frame. And neither has been good for us. The Unity Candle is not permissible in the rites of the Church; while you may sometimes see it happen at a Catholic wedding, it is nonetheless improper. The purpose of the Unity Candle, according to wedding planners and the Hallmark company (both of whom profit greatly from this), is to symbolize unity between the bride and the groom as they marry. But why would one need a symbol? The man and the woman who are uniting are “right there” – they are both the symbol and the actual reality of unity. To make a correlation, it would be like a Priest, after consecrating the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, putting a statue of Jesus on the altar to make clear who is now present. The unity candle is a disdainful practice that, dare I say, should be snuffed out. It is not proper at a Catholic wedding ceremony.


Current Controversies

The two controversies of the day in the realm of marriage are; cohabitation and so-called “gay marriage.”

Cohabitation is not in and of itself a moral wrong; that is to say, two people sharing a house or an apartment is not intrinsically wrong. However, two people cohabitating, and living as if married, is a problem; it damages the institution of marriage and simulates a marriage that is not actually present. The greater problem with cohabitation is the implicit compromise it makes on consent and marital love. What living together expresses is, as the Partridge Family sang in 1970, “I think I love you… but it worries me to say, that I’ve never felt this way.” Basically, one partner is saying to other, “I think I love you, so let’s try out living together, and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.” That kind of hedging is okay for trying out a pair of shoes at Payless Shoes or a trying out a new flavor at Baskin-Robbins; it isn’t okay as a pretext to simulate marriage. The true power of marriage is consent: In good times, in bad, for better, for worse, until death do us part. Marriage is for “as long as we both shall live” while cohabitation seems to be for “as long as we both shall love – in the romantic sense.” As the Catechism (CCC 1646) teaches, “Love seeks to be definitive; it cannot be an arrangement ‘until further notice.’”

So-called “gay marriage” is a greater threat to the institution of marriage, as it uses the very word and framing of “marriage” without the key constitutive parts: a man and a woman. Whatever anyone thinks of the homosexual issues in today’s society, the marriage issue should be a no-brainer. Marriage is, and has been for the better part of 5,000 years, an institution that, by covenant and contract, binds a man and a woman in a lifelong union. It has to be open to unity between the man and woman, and to the possibility of children. Even an older couple that marries, has to be open to the creation of human life within their union, just like scripture’s Abraham and Sarah, who at an advanced age were blessed miraculously with a son, Isaac. Marriage is also about complementarity: God created man and then created woman to complete man; the two genders are complementary to one another. In the Tom Cruise film Jerry Maguire, Cruise’s character looks at the woman he loves and says “you complete me.” That is the relation between a man and a woman in marriage: one completes the other, and in the fullness of marital love they draw close in experiencing the love of God in its fullness.

With all of this in mind, single-sex couples may, in some states, be joined legally; they may live together; and they may even express a spouse-like affection – but they are not married and can never be. A single sex couple lacks the male-female complementarity, they are not able to complete the marital act and they are closed to very act of procreation. Thus, a single sex couple is incapable of being married in the same sense that a fish cannot climb a tree: it is more than just something that isn’t permissible, or something that the Church doesn’t allow, rather it is simply impossible. Marriage, by definition, by the nature of creation, and by constant teaching of the Church requires a man and a woman.