Monday, August 25, 2008

Whither Marriage

The Edwards affair once again brings social notions of marriage and its obligations to the fore, all of which leave me uncomfortable and intellectually unsatisfied. People mean different, disparate and often contradictory notions while using the same word.

Ask the average man or woman on the street about marriage and you'll get answers such as "a sacrament," "a commitment," and "a contract." What do these mean?

I still have the actual illustrated Baltimore Catechism no. 1 from way back when the dinosaurs roamed, which Sister Catherine Agnes used to teach us in second grade that "Matrimony is the sacrament by which a man and woman bind themselves for life in lawful marriage."

Sister also used one of her classic and mildly scary illustrative stories -- which I later learned had not been her own invention, but part and parcel of a U.S. catechetical teaching method devised in the 1930s -- to drive home the point. Here's how I remember it:
There was once a little girl who was very sick. Her family and the parish and everyone prayed and prayed and prayed so she would not die. She lived. Years later, she died in a car crash. She had been married three times and went straight to hell. Better that she had died when she was young and pure.
Save your gasps for the comment box.

One need not have been a child in a pre-Vatican II American Catholic school to agree that, traditionally in the West, marriage has meant that a man and a woman publicly committed to mutual and exclusive sexual congress, with childbearing and rearing in mind, along with a series of social and economic obligations that flowed from parenthood, for as long as both would live.

Social mores have amended that commitment in almost every respect. A man and woman? To have sex? Exclusively? To have children? To rear children properly? For life? No, no, no, perhaps (say some economic studies), and ha-ha!

Perhaps that's because marriage is a contract.

Traditionally, again, in marriage a propertyless woman was conveyed to a man for the purpose of bearing an heir and keeping house, in exchange for economic benefit. In the Cinderella scenario, the aspiring, talented, voluptuous woman provided sexual, childbearing and house-managing services to the handsome, well-heeled man, a prince of a fellow.

Some view marriage, then, as the sole surviving universally legal and respectable form of prostitution. In exchange for unnecessary, ephemeral promises in ceremonies whose luster barely survive the very day they take place, a man gets sex and a woman gets money -- even though in contemporary society, marriage is utterly unnecessary for either.

I mean, if it is a contract: who is selling and buying what, why and how do the terms make sense?

If not, why then, marriage?

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