Sunday, October 7, 2012

Silent Treatment

   Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time   B 

A married couple
drove down a long country road
in complete silence;
they’d been in a heated argument,
and neither one of them was willing to budge.
As they passed a barnyard 
full of mules, goats, and pigs,
the husband asked sarcastically, 
“Relatives of yours?”
“Yep,” the wife replied.  “In-laws.”

When I have the opportunity to counsel couples
who are either prepping for their wedding day
or experiencing a rough patch in their marriage,
the “silent treatment” is something 
I always urge them to avoid.
A breakdown of genuine communication
is often one of the chief problems 
underlying marital spats,
so how can cutting it off fix anything?
Sure—there are times when things get so tense
that it’s only prudent
 to step quietly aside for a short spell…
…but just for a short spell.

If the “silent treatment” 
is bad policy within a marriage,
then we shouldn’t be surprised that it’s also a bad policy
when applied to the Sacrament of Marriage in general.

The Catholic Church has a rather vast body of teaching
on sex and marriage.
Oh, I’ve heard about that, Father, you might be thinking.
You hear about that stuff all the time.
It’s a long, long list of things you shouldn’t do.
There’s no silent treatment!
Lots and lots of people express their opinions
about the Church’s teaching on sex and marriage.

But if that’s all you’ve heard…then you ain’t heard nothin’ yet.

Following the sexual revolution 
of the 1960’s and ’70’s,
many things once taken for granted 
were suddenly called into question.
Nonetheless, the Church continued—
as she had for 2,000 years—
to stand by her understanding 
of the sacred nature of matrimony,
holding up—
as Jesus did when tested by the Pharisees—
a high ideal before the world:
the way God had envisioned marriage
from the first days of creation,
where man and wife 
are inseparably joined as suitable partners,
not just because their personalities are compatible,
not just because it feels good when they cuddle,
but because, by God’s design,
they compliment and complete each other—
are meant to be “rejoined at the rib,” you might say.

At least, that’s what happened on an official level.

But what’s happened here on the ground level?
In Catholic parishes and homes, at high schools and colleges—
if we’ve heard anything said at all—
we’ve been told by priests and parents and professors
(mostly off the record and in quiet whispers),
You’ve got a pretty good idea
of what the Church has to say about sex and marriage…
…but you’ve really just got to follow your heart.
So be careful, be safe, and do your best to see no one gets hurt.

The result of this long “silent treatment”?
Lots and lots of people have gotten hurt.
The number of Catholics getting married continues to decline—
and the majority of those have lived together beforehand,
which study after study has shown to put marriages at greater risk.
Divorce has become culturally acceptable and rather common—
although the divorce rate is now dropping…
…but only because fewer couples
bother with a wedding in the first place.
This steady weakening of marriage
endangers our children, even before they’re born,
as we’re sadly reminded during this Respect Life Month.
Life and love, after all, are intimately tied together.
As we learn from Jesus’ own example,
it’s only when the sanctity of marriage is upheld
that children will be unconditionally loved and embraced.

So…what to do?
A good first step is to follow the lead of the Pharisees
and ask, What is lawful?
We need to educate ourselves
on what the Church really has to say
about human sexuality and the vocation of marriage.
We can’t be satisfied with the characterizations made by those
who have a very different agenda
from the one Christ articulates in the gospel.
There’s never been a time in our history
when more books—and very good books, at that—
were being published on the subject…
…not to mention websites, DVDs, and the like.
Check some of these out—
and I’d be happy to make recommendations—
and you’ll quickly discover that the message
isn’t a long list of heavy-handed don’ts,
but is instead marvelously good news.
Catholic teaching on sex and marriage is based
both on a longstanding tradition,
and a wealth of accumulated experience—
and exists, not to place harsh burdens upon us,
but to protect us from danger in body and soul.
If God invented marriage,
then who better to tell us how to best make it work?

Painful but unavoidable in all of this is the realization
that divorce is clearly contrary to God’s original plan…
…and no one understands that better
than those whose lives have been directly affected by it.

Once you’ve made the effort and learned a thing or two,
the next step is to spread it around.
It’s high time to end the silent treatment!
Way too many people have already been hurt!
There’s a method to this, however,
which can only help our cause—
and it’s one we learn from Jesus himself.
Notice how, out in the crowd,
Jesus boldly proclaims God’s plan for marriage
as good news, a positive vision, one which is attractive.
It’s only when he’s gone inside the house
that he then puts forth his instruction on divorce—
a more challenging teaching, which even his disciples question.
We do well to do likewise!
Getting in somebody’s face and announcing
why cohabitation or contraception, why adultery or abortion are sinful
rarely—if ever—coverts someone to a new way of life.
But sharing the beauty of God’s design
and the joy which cooperating with it brings
is a far, far better way to begin.
Then later, away from the clamor of competing voices,
the nitty-gritty implications of this healthy and holy perspective 
can be better heard and questioned—
ultimately, understood and accepted.
Remember that what makes this all a bit complicated
are not so much the intricacies of Catholic doctrine and discipline,
but the twisting pathways of the human heart.

Our faith tells us that,
in sexuality and marriage as in all other things,
we are so much more than well-domesticated animals.
Our relatives are not out in the barnyard!
By nature, God has made us in his own image and likeness—
with inalienable rights, duties, and dignity.
And by grace, we have been adopted as “brothers” of God’s beloved Son—
children of God whom he longs to bring to glory.
So let’s end the silent treatment
and share the good news!

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