Treat the Marriage Vow with the Solemnity It Deserves

“If only I had been there with my Franks!” said the warlord Clovis when he heard the story of how Jesus, innocent of all wrong, had been condemned to death and crucified.

It’s easy to be the hero in your own imagination. Eleven men eager to get out of the jury room and get on with their business vote to convict, but you, more attentive than they are, hold out and demand that they examine the evidence again. You do what you have sworn to do. Most of the men in town want you, the marshal, to leave while you can before the bad men arrive by train at high noon the next day. A few men promise to stand by you, but one by one they fall away, and they beg you to get out. But you stay, and you do what you have sworn to do. You are the president of a nickel-and-dime lending company, left to you by your father. You don’t like the work, and you’ve had to set aside your dreams of world travel. Your father’s inveterate enemy, seeking to swallow you up, offers you a lucrative job; it would mean no more worries about how to pay the bills and no more worries about your old home in constant disrepair. You are sorely tempted, but you refuse. You do what you have sworn to do.

“If only I had been there with my Franks!” But we are there, with every temptation to be a trimmer: temptations to indifference, negligence, self-serving compromise, breach of promise, the shut of the door against a friend down on his luck, and the “human respect” that causes us to fear ridicule from men more than we fear to be judged by the Lord. “He will understand,” we say. “He will forgive.” Yes, he will forgive. But how can he forgive when you are not sorry? If you were sorry, you would not do now what you presume he will forgive later. You are playing with a Jesus-puppet.

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Most people will not be Henry Fonda in a steaming back room, with a boy’s life on the line. Or Gary Cooper standing alone in the street when even Grace Kelly, your new bride, believes you are doing the wrong thing. Or Jimmy Stewart, rising in anger against the temptation to worldly contentment and venality. What would we do?

Consider the one sacred vow that the great majority of people will make: the marriage vow. Apologists for annulments sometimes suggest that we are now so selfish and puerile that it is difficult for men and women to contract sacramental marriages. I might be more likely to take these same people seriously if they then said, “Therefore we cannot abide any pretension to new wisdom that our slack and silly generation may have about sexual morality.” But they don’t say so. We are to believe simultaneously in stupidity and perspicacity unprecedented in Christian history, and the absence of stupidity and perspicacity from the same people, concerning the very same thing.

No, I take a common-sense approach to the vow. A young soldier swears to defend the flag of the United States. He does so while knowing nothing of barbed wire and trenches. We hold him to that vow, and do not accept ignorance or immaturity as excuses. In time of war we subject deserters to a court-martial, with the firing squad ready at hand. A young man in business signs a contract. We hold him to it, and do not accept ignorance or bad fortune as excuses. If he reneges, he may be hauled into civil court for damages.

Neither the military oath nor the business contract is as solemn as the marriage vow. Neither the soldier nor the businessman swears for life. Neither the soldier nor the businessman enters a union that is the foundation for all human society, and that reflects the inner life of the Trinity. Neither the soldier nor the businessman commits to love, which implies the gift of one’s entire self. And yet, if we are to judge by divorces everywhere, and those many additional dissolutions of sexual liaisons that have assumed the appearance of marriage and that have resulted in children, we are a nation of runaways, deserters, turncoats, promise-breakers, liars, and bankrupts.

If we had been there with our Franks, we would have found perfectly reasonable ways to shift our loyalty to the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and their Roman overlords, and we would have dutifully gone like lackeys to the nearest blacksmith to order the spikes for our Lord’s hands and feet. We would then have written self-stroking accounts of the experience: of how we came to see that “extremism” and “rigidity” in religious commitment were vices and of how the Lord wanted us to be happy, and we could never have been happy and zealous at the same time. Lukewarm water is best for washing.

I hear the objections. Chief among them is that I am subjecting women to physical danger by opposing divorce. Far be that from me. I am no feminist. I am a realist when it comes to the sexes, and that is why I believe it is absurd and unmanly to expose women to enemy fire on the battlefield. But most people running away from marriages are not in such danger. They are unhappy, true enough. The spouse is difficult to live with. Sometimes there are shouting matches. The spouse spends too much. Or the spouse gets angry when the complainer spends too much. The spouse is too harsh with the children. The spouse is too easy with the children. The spouse works too many hours. The spouse works too few hours. The house is messy. The yard is overgrown. The car is a bucket of bolts and nuts. The meals are lousy. He doesn’t go to church. He goes to the wrong church. He goes to the right church, but he takes it too seriously. Anything, everything.

I have lived long enough to know that troubled marriages are almost always the fault of two ordinary human beings, beset with ordinary human vices. Allowing them to divorce, besides doing considerable harm to the children and to the society roundabout, frees them up to be miserable and misery-making at large. The cure is a conversion of heart. But I am still not talking about the vow. We do not need a cure for that. We do not need to make the soldier brave. We need to keep him from running away.

And yet it might do us well to help our weaker brethren to imagine fidelity in an unhappy marriage. To this end I highly recommend the novels of the liberal Catholic, Heinrich Boell, writing in the decades after the Second World War. In And Never Said a Single Word, the narrators of each chapter in turn are husband and wife, Fred and Kaete, Catholics both, whom any “sensible” person would send straightaway to the divorce court.

They are separated. Fred served in the war and it left his spirit in ruins. He tries to scramble up a pitiful living, working as an ill paid telephone operator for the diocese, teaching Latin on the side, and begging for money from old friends and priests. His wife and their three surviving children live in a single room, partitioned from their landlady’s by little more than a curtain and a screen. They cannot live as man and wife there, though the landlord and landlady make their share of amatory noises, which the older children are beginning to notice and to understand. The squalor and the pressure of it all cause Fred one day to snap. He beats the older children, a boy and a girl, though he has never raised a hand against them before.

From that time he has been sleeping elsewhere, homeless. The children long for him to come home, but he is afraid that he will snap again. He gets drunk once or twice a month, he smokes cigarettes, he eats very little, and he saves up a little money for a rendezvous every week with his wife, on a Saturday night, in places that the better class of whores would not endure. Kaete is now pregnant. Every worldly interest instructs them to divorce. They are resigned to it. But they do not do it.

We led Jesus off to be crucified, but he never said a single word. God does not promise us happiness in this life. He promises us what is better: peace and joy and eternal life. Let us heed the words of Saint Paul, rebuking the complaisant in the church at Corinth:

Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I have been beaten with rods; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked; a night and a day I have been adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brethren; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Cor. 11:24-27).

“If only I had been there!” We are there. Will we run away?

Editor’s note: Pictured above is “The Wedding Register” painted by Edmund Blair Leighton in 1920.


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