In the Creator’s Likeness

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by Kate Henley Averett

Article 7: The Sacrament of Matrimony
1601 “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life, is by its nature ordered toward the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring; this covenant between baptized persons has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament.”[CIC, can. 1055 § 1; cf. GS 48 § 1]

It’s easy to be struck by the inseparability of childrearing and marriage in Catholic teaching.  Next time you’re at a Catholic wedding, try to count all of the times, in the liturgy and in the celebrant’s remarks, that children are mentioned – or better yet, sit next to a non-Catholic attending their first Catholic wedding and time how long it takes them to lean over and whisper, “what’s with all the talk about them having kids?”  The Church makes it pretty clear that marriage is supposed to go hand in hand with having kids, which is why one of the most-heard Catholic arguments against same-sex marriage is that a marriage between two men or two women can’t exist because there is no way of them producing children.  Children are not merely a suggestion for married couples or a happy side-effect of married life: the Church states that marriage is, by its very nature, “ordered toward…the procreation and education of offspring.”

Growing up Catholic I was taught that the beauty of conceiving a child is found in its nature as a creative act – that creating a life is our way of mirroring the Ultimate Creative Act, God’s original creation of life.  It’s easy to see, then, why the link between marriage and childbearing exists – we’re called to live in God’s image and likeness in any and every vocation we may have; why should marriage be excepted?

But honestly, as I prepare for my own upcoming marriage (one that, for the record, the Church will not view as valid for several reasons, one of which being it is a same-sex marriage and therefore lacking in the potential to create new life), I can’t help but marvel at how short-sighted this definition of marriage is.  Certainly, having and raising a child is a beautifully creative act, but I’ve come to realize how much marriage itself is a creative act, as well.  The definition of marriage given by the Church hints at this when it says that in matrimony the couple “establish[es] between themselves a partnership.”  Marriage isn’t something we simply consent to or even enter into, it’s something that we establish together with our spouse.  But the creative act of marriage, I think, extends well beyond the day the marriage begins. Marriage isn’t just about promising to love each other, but about vowing to create, together, a space that fosters love.  It’s not just about honoring and cherishing your spouse, but about building and continually nurturing a relationship, a home, a life, that is itself honored and cherished.

As my partner and I have read countless vows and readings searching for the perfect words to speak and hear during our ceremony, I’ve noticed two ways of thinking about marriage that predominate and that each leave something to be desired.  The first is the belief that upon marrying, we leave our selves behind and are joined together into a unit – the “two become one” philosophy.  Call me selfish, but I don’t want to think that I am forfeiting my identity as an individual, and my need to grow as an individual when I get married, and I know my partner doesn’t either.  The opposite way of thinking leaves me just as cold, however – call it the “two remain two” philosophy.  There’s a common wedding reading from Kahlil Gilbran’s The Prophet that compares the couple to two trees that must not stand too close to one another, lest one be in the other’s shadow and its growth inhibited.  Companions traveling side-by-side through life – the idea is appealing, but what if their individual natures lead them to grow in opposite directions?  What holds them together through this?

Instead of these, I’ve come to favor a different, less common philosophy, which to keep with the pattern, could be called “two become three.”  I like to think that, when a marriage is made, each person remains as an individual, loved and cherished and honored as an individual by their spouse.  But something new is born, too – the marriage itself – that is something of a third party in the relationship. It too needs love and support and nurturing.  That’s what makes marriage so tricky, is the balance of honoring all three parties – the two individuals and the relationship they have built – but also what makes it a beautiful, creative act.  A couple doesn’t need to have to conceive a child for their marriage to be creative, because they are already continuously creating as they live out their marriage.

This piece is the first in a series of four reflections on marriage that Kate Henley Long (soon to be Kate Henley Averett!) will write this summer in anticipation of her marriage this September.  The ideas she reflects upon in this post gave her a great “aha!” moment with regards to the Trinity (three persons, distinct yet sharing some part of their nature, simultaneously separable and inseparable? Oh!!!) which she decided was too lengthy a digression to go into in this post, but about which she would welcome thoughts if you have them.


7 Responses

  1. I always wanted the freedom to have that Gilbran reading read during my wedding ceremony; not for the tree part you mentioned, but because of the line about the pillars. The visual image of pillars supporting the structure (be it marriage, children, the relationship) always struck closer to home for me than the two become one (and in many of the accepted Catholic marriage readings, the woman becomes the property of the man, yuck!). I don’t really see the trees standing side by side as truly separate, because they appear separate on the surface, but the root systems tend to reach farther and deeper than what you see above ground. So it always seemed a private relation, while maintaining status as an individual to the visible world.

  2. One thing I insisted the priest change in our Catholic ceremony was the part in which the priest talks about man and wife. I wanted it changed to husband and wife (which he did), because man and wife makes it sound like I am my husband’s property. We were also very careful about which readings we picked exactly because of what Mary said, since many of them talk about how the woman must care for the man and do whatever he wishes and not care about her own self.

    My non-Catholic friend did comment after our ceremony that she started counting how many times the priest mentioned children and she thinks she got to eight or something. I didn’t notice because I was sort of in my own little world at the time, but I knew the concept was there and I understand the Catholic view on marriage and children. So what do Catholics who want to get married in the church but know they don’t want children say when they are asked if they will carry on the Catholic tradition by having children? Do they LIE in church? With witnesses?

  3. I love that Gilbran reading and I hope you’re willing to include it in officiating our ceremony Kate!

    In real response to your post though, I thought you last comment about the Trinity was really interesting. Especially because the Trinity also includes a non-bodily participant, the Holy Ghost. I don’t know as much about theology as you, but it seems to me to be a recurring theme in all religious thought that there are the physical cares of the here and now to worry about and then also the spiritual cares that no one can quite see/hold/touch but that are no less important. I wouldn’t be surprised if the original germ of this thought came from a philosopher’s realization that love for another human being can’t be seen/held/touched and that physical closeness to that other human was only a fraction (albeit an important and satisfying one) of that love.

    Hmm, I don’t know how clear I’m being…not used to writing about philosophy…

  4. Maybe I got lucky with the priest who did my wedding, but I just removed all mention of children from the traditional ceremony and replaced it with things like creating a family, welcoming the stranger, etc.

    Kate, I really like what you wrote about marriage being inherently creative, “two become three.” I think that’s right on the mark. Neither my spouse nor I were subsumed into the other (I don’t think I would have gotten married if that was the case!), nor did our relationship remain unchanged, just two together. When we decided to get married, we made something new with that commitment.

    Wonderful reflection, and congrats on your upcoming wedding!

  5. I really like your idea of marriage as creating a new entity, whether or not children are a part of it. You ought to read All the Names by Jose Saramago – he basically says the same thing, that every relationship has three people.

  6. thank you all so much for your replies! Mary, I really appreciate your perspective on the Gilbran reading…I think the biggest reason I didn’t love it was that I came across it on a lot of blogs/sites where people said things along the lines of “I like this because it’s all about us remaining individuals and not getting in each others’ way.” I’m glad that you offered the image of the root systems being intertwined; I really like that 🙂 (Lil, of course I’m happy to use it in your wedding!)

  7. Kate,
    That was, simply, beautiful.

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