Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I.

Celebrating St. Valentine's Day, 2011: Do love and marriage "go together?"

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Valentine's Day celebrates romantic love, which used to be the theme of many popular songs and movies. It is beautiful to see a loving attraction bud and develop into a deep emotional attachment. It begins to transform the lovers' world. It's the heart of a happy Valentine's Day.

If love stops with romance, however, or if it stops at sexual attachment without love, there's not much to celebrate. Speaking to young people in Italian Catholic Action a couple of months ago, Pope Benedict XVI told them: "You cannot and must not adapt yourselves to a love reduced to a commodity to be consumed without respect for oneself or for others, incapable of chastity and purity. This is not freedom. Much of the 'love' that is proposed by the media, on the Internet, is not love but egoism, closure. It gives you the illusion of a moment, but it does not make you happy, it does not make you grow up, it binds you like a chain that suffocates more beautiful thoughts and sentiments, the true desires of the heart, that irrepressible power that is love and that has its maximum expression in Jesus and strength and fire in the Holy Spirit, who enflames your lives, your thoughts, your affections."

Beyond the lovely sentiments of true romance, love moves to a choice, a will to give oneself to the beloved and even to sacrifice oneself, joyfully, for him or her out of love. Married life is made of innumerable small sacrifices, acts that show one is thinking first of a husband or a wife. One of our Chicago deacons recently explained how his wife daily connects his cell phone to its charger, because he habitually forgets to do so. A love-filled life is full of small but deliberate acts that habitually put one's spouse first in one's life.

Love between a man and a woman brings them further out of themselves when they become father and mother to children born of their love, created physically from their becoming two in one flesh. Raising children, especially raising them in the Catholic faith, brings a family into a universe of love and meaning founded on God's love for the human family. Such a life, no matter the hardships and sacrifices, is filled with hope and joy.

Preparing for marriage in the church reminds a couple of this greater family they live in. It is a time to renew their lives as disciples of Jesus Christ, who took marriage as it has been common to the human race from the beginning and transformed it into a sacrament of the church, a means of sanctification. Studying the marriage rite and preparing to make their vows, an engaged couple contemplates how words change lives, their own and the lives of all who love them.

Married couples today face challenges that are both old and new. Mental or physical illnesses can test the love of a wife or husband. Economic hard times limit plans and sometimes make it difficult to establish a household. Looking at the increased number of calls to the Homeless Prevention Center run by our Catholic Charities, I understand better why couples deeply in love still might hesitate to marry. If a husband or wife is in the military, then married life is additionally strained by long absences from one another. A new form of infidelity has been created in the omnipresence of pornography. The high incidence of domestic violence has challenged our parishes to organize new ways to provide safety and advice to spouses (usually wives) and their children in danger. Nofault divorce means that marriage vows can be civilly dissolved almost at will, and divorce brings death to a formerly life-giving relationship. The suffering that touches the children of divorced parents sometimes makes it harder for them to learn to trust.

A new and historically strange challenge to the common understanding of marriage and its joys and sorrows is the civil creation of "marriage" between two men or two women. It is obvious that the sexual expression of attraction between same-sex partners is physically different from the sexual union of a man and a woman, based on the complementarity that constitutes male and female bodies. Our bodies show us who we are: men and women with relational and physical differences that are intrinsic to the nature of marriage.

Every thinking and loving human person is made in the image and likeness of God and must be respected, no matter an individual's sexual orientation. But respect for a person doesn't mean acceptance of every activity he or she engages in. It can seem "unfair" to recognize friendship between two men or two women as something valuable but insist, nonetheless, that their love for each other cannot be expressed sexually. That's the power of the argument for so-called "gay marriage." But the argument ignores the difference that makes all the difference in the world: sexual union in marriage demands sexual complementarity. That's what marriage is fundamentally based on. Civil and legal accommodations called for by friendship between people of the same sex can be and have been provided for in particular laws and regulations without calling a genital homosexual relationship "marriage." Words that don't correspond to reality poison public life.

Because some gay and lesbian people and others as well now believe that personal civil rights are violated unless the state recognizes homosexual unions as marriage, opposition to "gay marriage" must be rooted, they believe, in fear or prejudice. Because it opposes changing the public definition of marriage, the Catholic Church and her teaching, they say, should righteously be denounced, even in terms that sometimes border on hate speech.

I don't know what St. Valentine would make of all this, but I do know what Jesus taught and still teaches through his church: marriage is between a man and woman for the sake of family (Mt. 19: 4- 6). More, marriage between a baptized husband and a baptized wife represents the union between Christ and his body, the church. Human life is given and nurtured in human families, and Christ's life is given and nurtured in his church. The love-filled self-sacrifice that marriage demands is rooted, for Christ's disciples, in Jesus self-sacrifice for all those he loves and came to save. That's what our faith continues to tell us.

Happy Valentine's Day!

Sincerely yours in Christ,

Francis Cardinal George, OMI
Archbishop of Chicago