Rights and Catholic Marriage

by Peter Fournier

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The problem:

When I used to ask my wife "Cathy, do I oppress you?" she always said, "Don't be ridiculous!"
The conversation rarely ended there because it reflected a deep disquiet in me.
"Really? I mean, don't you think, sometimes, that having six kids is an imposition?"
"No" she'd say, "They're OUR kids."

That conversation was repeated over and over again for ten or twelve years and five children, as I tried to reconcile the increasing demands for 'women's rights' in society, in the work place and the media with what I experienced in our family life. I suspect that only fathers reading this will be able to understand the fierce pressure directed against them if they have even one child when they are poor, or more than two children at any time.

The vow:

Sometime after our fifth child was born I stopped asking these questions. After a decade of searching for answers I had to admit that my wife was telling the truth. She was serious when she said that the women's movement attacked her, her children, me, her family, and that somehow, trying to live a Catholic marriage made the questions themselves incomprehensible. I knew my realization - that the questions were wrong - had something to do with repeating our wedding vows on our fifteenth wedding anniversary.
"Peter, do you take Catherine to be your wife? Do you promise to be true to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love her and honour her all the days of your life?"
"I do."

That vow imposes nothing on my wife. In that vow I take on, before God and the Christian community, an infinite obligation. In that vow there is no listing of this or that right, no limitations. In that vow I leave behind all of my rights in favour of something much bigger. In that vow I grant this woman an unconditional claim on my LIFE; my mind, my body, my spirit.

Marriage is an exchange. Both the man and the woman promise to abandon the self to make room for that unconditional claim. Could I possibly be worthy of such a promise? Did I have a right to expect or demand her life in exchange for mine? No.

That's why the modern debate over rights makes little or no sense in the context of Catholic marriage. We have, each of us, man and woman, in Catholic marriages given up our individual rights permanently. If we, as husbands and wives, fulfill our obligations we will eventually all lose ourselves to become, in each individual couple, one mind, one body, one spirit.

When we were married almost 18 years ago I know this vision of what the marriage vow was about was very clear to me emotionally. At the time I could easily understand my making that vow because of my passionate love for Catherine. What was almost unbelievable in the ceremony, what was truly awesome, was to hear her make the same vow.

Making sense of "rights":

"So, Dad, what would happen if you and mom got a divorce?"

Another child in Tina's class has gone through the divorce experience and Tina fears that her life could be shattered just like her friend's. She seems to be most concerned for her younger brothers and sisters because she can see that they would not be able to 'understand'. She doesn't know yet that her friend's parents probably don't understand either and are unlikely to ever 'get over' the divorce.

So I said "Well you know, your mother and I can't get a divorce, we're Catholic."

"Yes, but so were the parents of my friend!"

She's too old now for simple reassurance. "That's not what I meant, Tina. What your friend's parents got was a civil divorce. They are probably still married in the eyes of the Church. If your mother and I got a divorce it would only be a civil divorce and since I didn't make any civil promises to your mother when we were married, it wouldn't count. I am still obliged, because of my vow, to grant her rights as my wife, and each of you as our children also have a claim on me. Those rights are pretty extensive. For example, what do you think would be a fair way to split my income and our property? How did your friend's parents split things up?"

"Well, they're still trying to do that! My friend says they can't even talk about it! But I think that 50/50 would be fair."

"Yes, that's the standard legal rights view of how to split things up. But, if I leave, I'm still bound by a vow, and I have to look at the family's needs. I doubt that would lead to a 50/50 split, especially if most of the children ended up living with your mother. If I left the family, I think you could claim something closer to 7/8 of my income, though you'd have to leave me enough for food, clothing, and lodging. In any case, because of my vow, I think that I would owe you all much more than you could ever expect to get through the legal system"

And later on in the conversation: "Look, let's take this to an extreme. Suppose your mother went insane and violent and started spending all our money so we were going to end up bankrupt and hungry with no house. If that happened I might get a civil divorce simply to protect you children physically and financially. But, and this is really important, I would still be in a Catholic marriage. Your mother would still have an absolute, unconditional right to expect me to be true to her in those bad times, even though she was sick. I would still have to try and love her and honour her for all the days of my life. The big problem would be to balance her rights against the rights of you children. Because she was insane I probably wouldn't have any rights at all. Fair according to a marriage vow is not the same thing as legal fairness at all.

"Do you promise to be true to her in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love her and honour her all the days of your life?"
"I do."

Living the vow:

In that answer I stepped out of my area of professional competence. I have no idea if what I told Tina is theologically 'correct' or ethically 'correct' or morally 'correct' according to modern Catholic theologians, ethicists or moralists.

I do know that fundamentally the answer I gave to my daughter fits very well with the vow I made when we were married. My biggest problem if the extreme situation did come to pass would be who I could turn to for advice. I would need to find a priest who still understood that I made a vow when I was married that imposes obligations on me. Unfortunately, priests like that can be hard to find.

Catholics couples have been largely abandoned by too many of the intellectual leaders in the Church. It seems to me that most of them have adopted a secular notion of 'rights' in marriage and have left real couples in real marriages bereft of any guidance on how to fulfill their vows.

That statement has nothing to do with issues such as papal infallibility or academic freedom. It is an indictment of their professionalism. I say this because at heart, their dissent from Humanae Vitae was an attack on those they claimed to serve, the millions upon millions of couples whose marriage vows indicated that the discussion of Humanae Vitae should have been based on questions such as: "Does Humanae Vitae support the vows we made when we were married?" "Does Humanae Vitae support us in our efforts to live out our vows?"

The most controversial aspect of Humanae Vitae of course is its condemnation of artificial birth control. Had most theologians focused on the fact that artificial birth control violates the marriage vow because being fertile is, for both the man and the woman, - a sign of health - and specifically covered in the marriage vow since both the man and the woman promise to love each other and to be true to each other in both sickness and health, then the Catholic debate today over artificial birth control would be centered on the question of when, if ever, couples could practice artificial birth control and not violate their vows. Is it possible for a husband or wife to have themselves sterilized and not break their marriage vow?

Because too many of our Catholic theologians, moralists and ethicists have refused to address these questions in terms of the obligations we place on ourselves when we marry, their view that Catholic couples have the right to dissent from Humanae Vitae results in attacking Catholic marriages, especially the women and children in those marriages. They seem, in a practical sense, to say that every husband and wife has a right to 'dissent' from the marriage vow with regard to reproduction. If either spouse can do that, then religious professionals can hardly object to a husband skipping out on child support payments after he leaves his wife to live with a younger woman.

In the end, it is unreasonable to expect coherency or consistency from people who discuss marriage without reference to the marriage vow. Because the debate is never placed in the context of a vow made before God, it is no longer about Catholic marriage at all.

A call to lawyers:

After a century of increasingly radical dissent from Catholic teaching perhaps it's time for the laity to start setting the agenda for Catholic religious professionals rather than the other way around.

Here again I will step out of my area of competence, this time into law.

I ask that lay Catholics, especially civil lawyers, start formulating the rights implied in the Catholic marriage vow. These would not be expressed as the rights one spouse can claim from the other, for as we have seen this is irrelevant to the vow itself. Instead, I believe that lay Catholic lawyers can legitimately challenge theologians, ethicists, and moralists by presenting a legal interpretation of the rights each spouse is obliged to grant because of the marriage vow.

In making such a challenge they would also provide an alternative practical Catholic view of what a marriage is, and what obligations and rights it entails. This is immensely important at this period in the history of the Church and Catholic family life. Current pressures to legitimize homosexual marriage for example, depend specifically on a non-religious, non-Catholic, and perhaps anti-Catholic view of human rights. Does proposing that there is no difference between a heterosexual marriage and a same-sex union in fact say that fertility has nothing to do with sexuality and marriage...the two are completely separate? Does this in turn weaken every child's claim to support from society since it turns children into the self-indulgence of couples rather than a natural result of love and marriage?

These trends are becoming more important as they come closer to becoming law. Unfortunately too many Catholic intellectuals have devoted themselves to dissenting from the teaching of the Church and haven't gotten around to a Catholic discussion of these trends. As a result, the average lay Catholic has never heard anything positive said about rights in Catholic marriage, in or out of his or her Church.

Worse, married couples are suffering a sustained attack on Catholic marriage that leaves them grasping at dimly remembered principles they learned before Catholic catechesis was corrupted by dissenters in the schools. How can parents teach their children what the Catholic view of rights is when it is hardly mentioned in our press, in our schools, in our churches, and never in the secular media?

We need the talents of Catholic lawyers at this time to interpret our Catholicism to us in the legal language of rights precisely because the attack on our families is conducted in those terms. We have no time left to wait for the religious professionals to sort out where their loyalties lay. We know well enough from now past international year of the family that the loyalties of too many religious professionals do not lie with us, Catholic fathers and mothers.

And, I suspect that in the end their opinions will be irrelevant. Give us a practical language to speak of our Catholicism and we will raise the next couple of generations of religious professionals based on the theology of our bible, our mass, our vows, our lives, and the children given to us to love. We will be able to change our view of the rights debate very quickly.

I believe that Catholic lawyers can, when others are focusing on children's rights, women's rights, homosexual rights, and on and on and on, recast the rights debate for Catholics in a language we can understand because it fits the intent of our marriage vows. Such a project would go a long way towards defending the truly human rights of all men, women, children and families. It might even show more people what a large part of Catholic teaching is really about.

In being educated at a University during the 70s I lost the ability to see that most of these 'rights' questions were indeed ridiculous. They were unanswerable in a Catholic marriage because they used the concepts and words of a non-Catholic language of rights. This why it took me more than a decade of questioning before I stopped asking questions like "Cathy, do I oppress you?"

I couldn't answer the question because I was focusing on her rights, not my obligations.

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