Accompanying, Discerning, and Integrating Weakness in Marriage


Chapter eight and its footnotes of Amoris Laetitia begins with the above title and has been pilloried extensively by much of the people of God’s thinkers due to some ambiguities in light of sacred Tradition. However, the title is a marvelous way to understand what it means to be husband and wife, and mother and father. The sacrament of matrimony brings with it many assisting graces precisely to accomplish the effects of these three important aspects of the Christian married life found in the title. While the present essay is not about the meaning Pope Francis intended in the title, yet it lends itself from another point of view to understand the challenges of the marital state and the call to holiness in it.

If marriage is a call to holiness and an apostolic adventure of bringing the faith alive to each other and their potential offspring, beyond being merely a good husband and wife, then each of the partners are called to find God through the ups and downs, and the difficult patches of their relationship, unlike the religious or the diocesan priest of the West. In other words, husband and wife seek God through each other in a one-flesh union from time to time, as well as in the ordinary daily grind of running a household and working at a job. The physical intimacy of deep love also includes communication about many other aspects of the common good of the family. Finances, household chores, meals, entertainment, neighborliness, practical concern (when possible) about the common good of the society (voting, joining voluntary associations, etc.) are also in the mix of living and organizing a family, with or without children. Growing in faithful love takes place in the concrete settings of the home and outside the home. Each partner must learn to shoulder the burdens or resentments that emerge from the occasional conflicts with the other. This “accompanying” requires large doses of patience, dialogue, forgiveness, humility: all of which are the means that shape the couple in order to grow in character with the help of God’s grace. This journey to holiness (the way to heaven) is arduous and requires courage. This accompanying is more than following the “right reason” of ordinary natural virtue, but has the need of infused virtues (theological and cardinal) together with the presence of the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit. In other words, husband and wife are meant to move together toward God through each other, as an adopted son and daughter of the Father.

Religious and priests of the Western Church also seek and find intimacy with God (the meaning of holiness) as their ideal more directly, since they lack a human spousal partner. So they rely more on the grace of God in their solitude from the good and not-so-good world, yet remain connected somewhat with others. The cloistered, semi-closured religious interact and are aided by their communities, but not to the intensity of husband and wife. They, proportionately, according to the charism of their institute, withdraw from society to enable them to spend more quality time directly with God. On the contrary, the diocesan priest stays in the world, and, in addition to his communion with God, has multiple duties to his parish or other responsibilities given to him by the bishop and the canon law of the Church. One can say he, as a pastor, is “married” to his parish and diocese, as a religious sister is “married” to the Lord Jesus. The religious man is bound to his dearest friend, Jesus. All have their scourges of purification to go through but they are accompanied by their daily rule of life, confessors, spiritual guides, friends, and often superiors.

Familial Prudence

Discernment is a key word in contemporary Church language when it comes to making decisions about all the challenges of any way of life, and that includes marital life. A more traditional word is prudence or specifically spousal prudence for the married, which must take into account understanding the plethora of circumstances that surround the couple in all the areas mentioned above, when making more important decisions for family life. Therefore it is necessary that the couple seek counsel not only with one another, but also other families, friends, and people who know better from experience. One does not ask an investment broker on matters of fixing a car, for example, or a doctor on what kind of paint to use for a house. When it comes to moral decision-making, then one seeks Sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition of the Fathers and doctors of the Church, as interpreted by the sacred Magisterium, when decision-making is not so clear. Prudence, however, demands that other virtues be in place that have come from making personal sacrifices for the good of the family and the common good of society, as well as obeying the commandments of God. The latter depends on prayer and receiving the sacraments often, and living the spiritual life.

Integrating weakness, that is, tolerating disagreeable outbursts of imperfection and sin, is the long-term challenge of married life. Each partner has manifest and hidden weaknesses that become manifest, and so easily grate on the other’s nerves. Everyone has to learn the consequences of Original Sin and personal sin (weakness of will, error in the mind, emotions not always integrated with reason and faith, and the imagination and memory which often harbor wounds of past sins and hurts). It was only both Jesus and the blessed Mother who were impeccable, that is, without sin in this life. All the saints in heaven were sinners who cooperated with the grace of God either in their lifetime or only at the end of their lives. Even the Council of Trent declares:

For although in this mortal life men, however just and holy they may be, fall, sometimes at times, into those slight and daily sins, which are also called venial, they do not on that account cease to be just. For the petition of the just, “forgive us our trespasses” (Mt 6:12), is both humble and true. (DS 1537)

While fraternal correction through marriage between husband and wife often becomes mandatory, it is not always effective when it comes to changing human imperfection and the venial sins of partners. So, each has to bear with the other’s burdens (Gal 6:2). The many upsets of the other can become sources of purification and grace to grow in a deeper love of the other, because the primary love endures primarily for the love of God. This is what it means to integrate weakness into a faithful marriage, a continuing love, a fidelity to one’s spouse with all his or her imperfections.

The Trials of Parents

Due to the sexual revolution and the breakdown of religious practice, currently, among many Americans, children are no longer considered a blessing or gift from God from the perspective of the secular culture. Medicine, which was always meant to cure or relieve illnesses, has been inverted to prevent nature from activating children, so that contraception and abortifacients are looked upon as solutions to women’s “health.” This euphemism of health has hidden underneath the notion that children get in the way of intimacy, a career, or more income for material things, and should be avoided. In addition, a false meaning of marriage as a short-term vocation has imposed a dark cloud on the natural desire for a life-long and faithful marriage between a man and a woman. Nevertheless, where sin and error abounds, grace and truth abound even more to those who are willing to trust in Divine Providence and be open to new life and love under prudence.

From the womb, to infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, a mother and a father are doing what the title of this essay means. Each phase of having children, from pregnancy to becoming a young adult, requires vigilance for the physical health and spiritual welfare of one’s offspring. Welcoming new life begins in the way both mother and father treat the fetus, from loving touches given outside the womb and on to proper diet, avoidance of excess tobacco and heavy lifting, and also avoiding estrangement by arguing over secondary issues of life which may introduce much tension and fear into their relationship, which can affect the fetus.

The baby and infant need loving caresses, breast feeding when possible, and patience as they cry for food, attention, or as alerts to health issues requiring a doctor. The primary loving presence of a mother in infancy and childhood, especially, and from the father afterwards until young adulthood, is necessary for early human life so that the child, and then teenager, before and during adolescence, feels itself loved and knows experientially that it is good to exist, and trusts its parents. Otherwise, social problems emerge at the beginning of its ability to reason. Moral problems surrounding chastity often become overwhelming later in adolescence, leading to drug or alcohol abuse, sexual expression leading to the neglect of acquiring a good and strong character. Parents, together with schools, if the latter are genuinely in agreement with the values of the parents, are the foundations of persuading the child to acquire virtue, such as politeness, respect for elders, fidelity to responsibilities, self-respect, and self-possession. Growing in the virtues (maturity) needs the wise voice of one’s parents and extended family (a solid societal culture as well) to put into practice the truth of human and graced nature when peers and culture do not adhere to right reason of truth and faith. Otherwise, a false conscience is developed. All of this encounter is the accompaniment of one’s offspring so that it eventually chooses its personal mission and vocation in life.

To accompany rightly, however, parents need constant growth in regnative or parental prudence to know how and when to recognize when the child or teenager has physical or moral problems that need wise attention (discernment) and loving correction. At the heart of wise accompaniment and discernment is the overarching value of religion, which becomes soaked into the heart and mind by the offspring seeing and feeling its immediate family praying, receiving the sacraments, and learning how to forgive. It is not enough to be a good child on the natural level, but to be an adopted child of God, which has a much higher ideal to aim for, namely, to become a close friend of the Lord Jesus. So prudence dictates that the home exude a supernatural sense from the sacramentals in the household and family prayer, together with a spirit of welcoming neighbors and friends. The Faith is not simply learned by studying a book and memorizing doctrinal formulas, but also by the osmosis of daily prayer, sacramental practice (especially monthly confession), and the observance of example. This requires much discernment or prudence on the part of parents.

Finally, children and teens commit sins, fall into weaknesses, experience fears, anxieties, make mistakes because of taking undue risks. They often express anger to their parents through insulting language and action, neglect their responsibilities, complain, manipulate, waste time, often blame others for their own blunders, demand impossible material things, lie, and cheat. Parents, then, are engaged in the work of merciful love that is also linked with tough love so that the sinful seeds of Original Sin and personal sin become lessened, and the seeds of virtue and grace become predominant. No parent is ever perfect, either individually or in guiding a family to heaven. The journey on the road has many detours, missteps, sometimes curves away from the road on both parts, parents and offspring. If parents and children only go to confession twice a year, then integrating human weakness, which means getting back on and staying the right course, becomes relatively impossible after falls. At a certain point, parents often feel like renouncing their role and letting their children do as they like. However, that temptation for parents is overcome when they redouble their efforts by attempting to control every aspect of their offspring’s life, which leads to rebellion. Reality means “staying the coarse” and adjusting the plan for educating their children in virtue.

Conclusion

In the heart of every parent there must be the sense that they are preparing their offspring to face reality both here and in eternity as it is, bliss or eternal loss of happiness. This really means reminding children that their ultimate home is in heaven and this life is a temporary setting, real but not the final homeland in its present condition. There is death and judgment, and one can throw his or her life away from virtue into the garbage bin, or to the wild beasts of sin and vice. At the same time, parents are supposed to be always readying their children for a vocation and mission, which they do not choose, but rather assist their sons and daughters in making a choice of life and work. This work is all based on their personal talents, circumstances of their society, and the inspirations of the Holy Spirit. A heart of merciful love can, with some difficulty, discern how to integrate all of these challenges — because it requires more than ordinary virtue and prudence. It is consoling to read what the Council of Trent says in this regard:

No one, however much he may be justified, should consider himself exempt from the observance of the commandments; and no one should say the observance of the commandments of God is impossible for the man who is justified. . . . For God does not command the impossible, but when he commands he admonishes you to do what you can and to pray for what you cannot do, and he helps you to be able to do it. (DS 1536)

Rev. Basil Cole, OP About Rev. Basil Cole, OP

Fr. Basil Cole, OP, is Ordinary Professor of Moral, Spiritual, and Dogmatic Theology at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. He has authored Music and Morals (Alba House, 1993) and co-authored with Paul Connor, OP, Christian Totality: Theology of Consecrated Life (St. Paul’s Editions, in Bombay, India 1990; revised in 1997, Alba House). He has written for The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, Reason and Faith, and Angelicum. He has also been a long-time collaborator for Germain Grisez’s four-volume series of moral theology, The Way of the Lord Jesus.

Comments

  1. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Fr Cole,

    Thank you for calling attention to the reality of married life and acknowledging the many challenges we face. This past weekend, a relative married in the Catholic Church. The pastor gave a homily using the image of salt. The young people listened. One of them in his toast quoted the Pastor. The other toasts were clear about the desire to find true love. Often the critics of contemporary culture, seem to ignore this deep desire of the heart which of those living in the world. What I thought as they during the toasts at the wedding: How good it would be if we really listened to their desires and pointed the way to love, forgive, and pray contemplatively. What would happen if as missionary disciples, we were formed in the way of living and speaking as light shining in the darkness? Thanks for pointing to the WAY.

  2. Avatar Francis Etheredge says:

    In the mystery of marriage there is, from the first, the marriage feast of Cana; and, in this mystery, Christ turns water into wine. Just, then, as the Church goes through her constant process of renewal, ever recovering her youth from God so marriage, the Domestic Church, is constantly renewed through Christ turning our sufferings into joys.

    When, therefore, the temptation arises to reject either wife or children, there is the constant prayer of the heart which teaches: Lord, have pity on me a sinner; and, in the ways known to God, we discover and renew our recognition of the gift of our spouse and children. When we begin to “judge” the other, to regards their faults as if we are without our own, the wisdom of God recalls us to remember where He brought us from. In other words, if we remember how slow we were to respond to the grace of God – how much easier is it to be patient and persevering in prayer as God has been patient and persevering with us!

    Peace. Francis.

All comments posted at Homiletic and Pastoral Review are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative and inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.

Speak Your Mind

*