Tuesday, August 18, 2015

For the Sake of the Kingdom (continued)

In his now famous conclusion of the Opinion of the Court in Obergefell v. Hodges (6/26/2015), Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

"No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

Justice Kennedy's conclusion that the Constitution therefore somehow mandates same-sex marriage may in fact be an unjustified legal and logical leap. But the sentiments which Justice Kennedy expressed so evocatively in his opinion's concluding paragraph certainly suggest how many - maybe most - people have experienced marriage and family and how seriously they feel about it even now. It is something people typically want - indeed strongly desire. What they want is not necessarily the stylized nuclear family of 1950s sitcoms, but people do definitely desire connectedness, family feeling, mutual emotional and economic support, and love. And this desire perdures despite the varied social and institutional forms family structures have assumed over time. Family life is certainly not stress-free and often involves disappointment and heartbreak. But by and large people for the most part still want it. And family life remains still the bedrock foundation for society. (Hence the intensity of the controversies concerning problematic new definitions of marriage and family.)

Long before Justice Kennedy discovered the universal hope "not to be condemned to live in loneliness," biblical revelation recognized this desire for connection and communion, this desire to love and be loved, the widespread human feeling that it is not good that the man should live alone (Genesis 2:18). On the other hand, the New Testament explicitly recognizes that, for some, circumstances may preclude this natural fulfillment, while still others may freely embrace an alternative to the natural family for the sake of the kingdom (Matthew 19:12).

The alternative vocation of celibate religious life simultaneously affirms and transcends the natural human desire for family. It recognizes that the latter remains the ordinary way to live in this world. It is a way of life which not only contributes to human beings' natural fulfillment and the common good of society but also expands people's moral horizons - as the young Saint Augustine famously learned from the experience of having a son (cf. Confessions, IV, 2, 11).  And, inasmuch as nature is inherently oriented beyond itself to the order of grace, the faithful living out of any ordinary state of life in the world is itself a life of devotion and a way of perfection. For God "has likewise commanded Christians, who are the living plants of his Church, to bring forth the fruits of devotion, each one in accord with his character,his status, and his calling" (Saint Francis de Sales, Introduction to the Devout Life, chapter 3).

That is why I think that certain statements in the First Things article I mentioned yesterday (calling for an increased emphasis in the Church on the celibate vocation) may unfortunately be somewhat overstated and misleading and thus counter-productive. Moreover, in this present era, when the wider world no longer serves as a social and cultural support for faith as it once (actually until relatively recently) did, it seems to me that mediating institutions like the family are inevitably challenged to step up and do that much more to provide that supplementary social support. All the more reason, therefore, to highlight the family's vocation to holiness and to encourage couples and families in its conscious pursuit! All the more reason to highlight examples of heroic familial sanctity and to canonize more married people and more married couples!

All that having been said, however, God's revelation of himself in Jesus ultimately points to a final human fulfillment far more complete than the limited temporal horizons of family and society and a destiny more permanent than the generation-after-generation continuance of the human story which marriage and family life make possible. Hence, the highest, most special vocation of all - martyrdom. And, hence also the special vocations of consecrated and apostolic life in the Church, which today also need to be more consciously valued and energetically promoted.

The chastity "for the sake of the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 19:12) which religious profess should be counted an outstanding gift of grace. It frees the heart of man in a unique fashion (cf. 1 Corinthians 7:32-35) so that it may be more inflamed with love for God and for all men. Thus it not only symbolizes in a singular way the heavenly goods but also the most suitable means by which religious dedicate themselves with undivided heart to the service of God and the works of the apostolate. In this way they recall to the minds of all the faithful that wondrous marriage decreed by God and which is to be fully revealed in the future age in which the Church takes Christ as its only spouse (Vatican II, Perfectae Caritatis, 12)

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