I was recently struck by Ross Douthat’s Twitter essay contra the Pope’s recent claim that most modern marriages are invalid in the eyes of the Catholic Church. Not being Catholic, I can’t comment on the specific stakes of the argument, which Douthat outlines well here. But I think the key claim in the argument, that modern people lack a sufficient commitment to the permanence of marriage, is really worth investigating in pursuit of an understanding of the modern world. The Pope’s claim is that most marriages are invalid “because couples do not enter into them with a proper understanding of permanence and commitment.” Douthat interrogates that claim with demographic information and theological reasoning in the links above, so I won’t rehearse those arguments. Instead, I’d like to further investigate the idea that people in the modern world tend to get into marriage thinking “well, I can get out of this later if I like.” That’s an idea that seems right on the face of it given the loosening of divorce laws and corresponding rise in prevalence of that unfortunate event. But I’m not sure I buy it. People today are not only more likely to divorce, they are more likely not to get married at all. It seems much more likely to me that those who think they will want out just cohabit rather than ever getting married in the first place. Douthat seems to agree.
Moreover, the Pope’s stance seems predicated on the idea that the permanence of marriage is a really uniquely Catholic idea—that it’s essentially part of special revelation rather than natural revelation, to use the theological jargon. And yet I think it’s hard to see that this is the case. The desire that love should be permanent, even eternal, is inherent to the experience of eros itself, as Charles Taylor argues here:
One of the things which makes it very difficult to sustain a sense of the higher meaning of ordinary life, in particular our love relations, is death. It’s not just that they matter to us a lot, and hence there is a grievous hole in our lives when our partner dies. It’s also because just because they are so significant, they seem to demand eternity. A deep love already exists against the vicissitudes of life, tying together past and present in spite of the disruptions and dispersals of quarrels, distractions, misunderstandings, resentments. By its very nature it participates in gathered time. And so death can seem a defeat, the ultimate dispersal which remains ungathered.
“Alle Lust will Ewigkeit.” I interpret Nietzsche’s famous line to mean, not: we’re having such a good time, let’s not stop; but rather: this love by its nature calls for eternity. Taylor demonstrates that the desire for love to last forever isn’t just an emotion bred by Catholic teaching—it is rather a fundamental human impulse, celebrated in poetry, philosophy, and pop music alike. It is a desire shared, not universally, but widely, across the vagaries of creed and culture. To claim that modern people are so depraved that we have largely thrown off this basic human impulse is to fall into the trap of being reflexively antimodern.
This suggests as well that the position—somewhat common to Christian intellectuals and promulgated by Stanley Hauerwas, among others—that romantic love is basically irrelevant to Christian marriage is a half-truth at best. Though romantic love should never be taken to exhaust Christian marriage, Taylor suggests that at the least the experience of love—the desire for it to be permanent—gestures toward the full Christian teaching on marriage.
Instead of viewing modernity as fundamentally destructive of marriage, a more constructive approach would be to think with modernity, to recognize the ways in which people still seek eternity and to show them how they can enter into it more fully.