Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Consistent Ethic of Love: Marriage

I intend this to be the first in a series exploring the interrelations between poverty and the choices we make every day.

Joseph Cardinal Bernadin, the late Archbishop of Chicago, spoke about a "Consistent Ethic of Life" in which the Church's position on abortion, capital punishment and war stem from the same principle. It has always inspired me. There has been criticism of his ideas (to which Fr. Pavone has compiled a list of responses) but they are, I believe, from people who misunderstand his underlying message.

In like manner, I wish to explore a "consistent ethic of love" as it relates to the poor. Just as respect for human life is at the heart of Catholic teaching on many modern political issues, so should love for humanity at the heart of the choices we make as individuals. I truly believe, and it is the foundation of this blog, that my choices and actions from day to day have an impact (hopefully positive!) on the downtrodden, the defenseless, the hungry, the sorrowing and the needy.

Since it is my vocation, and the primary means by which I serve the Lord, I will start with marriage and its fundamental corollary: motherhood.

I did not set out to help the poor when I got married. In fact, as I've written in the past, I sometimes feel as though my desire to marry got in the way of a different call to help the poor. What happened, really, was that I fell totally in love and couldn't imagine a future that didn't include my husband.

But if I reflect on it, I have actually been given more opportunities to serve the poor through my marriage than I could have imagined. First and foremost are my children, of course, who came to me utterly helpless and lacking every basic need. I have fed, clothed, comforted, taught, and cared for them, these little lambs of the Most High. I have this poem by my bathroom sink, so every morning I can remind myself to take pride in my service as a mother, and to treat my kids with gentleness and patience, knowing that they are standing in for Christ.

I have also been given the chance to spread the Gospel, since I married an unbeliever. Whether or not he ever accepts Christ, he nonetheless is gaining most of his knowledge about Christianity from me and my example. If that's not a humbling, frightening prospect, I don't know what is.

Finally, my marriage has given me an opportunity to suffer for the poor. It's an uncomfortable concept, but I think it's a critical one. There is suffering in the submission of oneself to one's vocation, where my desires and interests must come second to the needs and good of my marriage. I have a wonderful marriage, yet even though I love and respect my husband, it is hard to put him first. It is hard when I don't get what I want, or when I have to change my plans because we are not in agreement about them.

No marriage is perfect. I would not trade my husband for anyone, but sometimes he is cruel, thoughtless, stubborn, petty, and selfish. I'm fortunate that these moments are very few and far between, but of course I can remember each one of them with soul-crushing clarity, much as I try to put them from my mind. There is suffering in marriage, as there is in any real relationship. There is humility, too, because whatever he has said and done to me, I have said and done to him twice over. He is the better partner, the better lover, the better provider, the better parent, and the better person. And oh, does it stick in my craw that he's a more patient and cheerful bearer of ills than I, who have Christ and His Spirit to sustain me! Buh.

As a child, whenever I was faced with an unhappy situation, whether from teasing at school or problems at home, I consoled myself with the same promise: someday, I will be free of all this. I had the good fortune to be born in a democratic, Western nation, and to have access to education and the likelihood of a future where I could make my own decisions. I clung to the promise of freedom; I imagined the day I could simply walk away from any situation I disliked, and from any person whose company didn't please me.

Most of the poor do not have such promises in their future. If they are born into poverty, there is no access to education to raise them from it. Girls often go from the tyranny of their fathers to the tyranny of their husbands without a choice in the matter. There are more than 12 million slaves in the world, some of them right here in America. A mother in a refugee camp cannot change her situation, and must simply watch and weep as her children starve.

I don't for a nanosecond intend to imply that being married is at all like being sold into slavery, nor do I think I can even comprehend the feelings of someone married against her will. All I am saying is that there is a permanence in the condition I have chosen for myself, and that through it I have learned about submission to the pains of reality in a way I could not have understood before I took a vow for "all the days of my life."

My marriage is one way I serve the poor, both those in my family and those for whose lives I offer my small and petty sufferings. Foremost among these, I offer the sufferings of my pride and independence, because in most places around the world, it is freedom the poor lack most.