I have just been reading Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership: God, Science and the Search for Meaning. He asks a key question: “When we lose God what else do we lose?” and provides one answer, among many, in his chapter on “Relationships”. Lord Sacks, the outgoing Chief Rabbi, talks here about the breakdown of marriage. He writes: “What made marriage unique was the way it brought together in a single institution a whole series of essential human activities: sex, reproduction, companionship, love, responsibility for the welfare and nurture of those we have brought into being, and responsibility for their education.”
He warns that “when marriage breaks down, as it has done throughout the west from the 1960s onwards, human bonds splinter and fragment into a myriad of component parts, so that we can have sex without reproduction (birth control) and reproduction without sex (techniques from artificial insemination to cloning). We can have both without love, love without companionship, and children without responsibility for their nurture. Each of these can be further fragmented, so that even basic biological facts of parenthood become a complex set of options: genetic mother, host mother, commissioning mother, genetic father, mother’s partner, same-sex partners and so on.”
He concludes this passage with the conviction: “What is lost when faith is lost is marriage as the supreme moral commitment that lifts humanity from biology to poetry.” Catholics would not disagree with anything in the above analysis (with the exception of sex as an essential human activity; Jews do not have a tradition of virginity or celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven). Christians call Sacks’s “supreme moral commitment” the sacrament of marriage, which elevated the ancient natural relationship, ie “biology”, into a special kind of “poetry”.
Cardinal Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh defined this “poetry” thus in his pastoral letter last Sunday, (designated “Marriage Sunday”), which was read out in all of Scotland’s 500 parishes. He wrote: “In circumstances where the true nature of marriage is being obscured, we wish to affirm and celebrate the truth and beauty of the Sacrament of Matrimony and family life as Jesus revealed it…”
Since he first spoke out in defence of marriage, Cardinal O’Brien has been attacked on all sides (including a few Catholic ones, unfortunately) for his supposedly “homophobic” attitudes. I don’t read him that way. To my mind he has only shown strong Catholic and Christian leadership just when it is badly needed. His “Message for Marriage Sunday” is a case in point. He begins by quoting “Jesus Christ… our model and teacher” on “why a man must leave his father and mother and cling to his wife…” For Christians therefore, there is nothing equivocal about the nature of marriage. The cardinal continues by emphasising the role of the family “founded on marriage”. Alluding to his “deep disappointment” that the Scottish government has decided to redefine marriage, he reminds Scottish Catholics that both “the common wisdom of humanity” and “the revealed faith of the Church” uphold the conviction that marriage is “a lifelong union of a man and a woman”.
The phrase “common wisdom of humanity” does not deny that there have been historical aberrations, such as the practice of polygamy or decadent fashions in ancient Rome; it simply means that the common sense of generations of people gave a privileged place to the male/female bond because it was so obviously central to the future of the whole community.
As Cardinal O’Brien states, the revealed faith of the Church made this natural bond into a sacrament. Because in the past it was never under attack as it is today, marriage has been taken for granted; it has not been given the pastoral support that struggling couples have needed. This is implicitly suggested when the cardinal writes that the bishops wish “to do something new to support marriage and family life in the Catholic community and in the country”. This is the establishment of a new Commission for Marriage and the Family, led by a bishop but composed mainly of lay people, with the purpose of “engaging with those young men and women who will be future husbands and wives”.
This initiative comes not a moment too soon. Last Sunday at Mass our own parish priest preached on marriage, a subject which he admits he rarely raises. He told us that in his eight years as our parish priest he had only officiated at eight marriages: one a year. Marriage, he told us, is in decline. Cardinal O’Brien realises the Church has to reach out to the next generation and persuade them that marriage should be their natural and supernatural goal: the challenge and adventure of a faithful union for life that also welcomes new life.
Lord Sacks, leader of the main body of Jews in this country, has a similar commitment to defending marriage within his own tradition – though as far as I know he has not yet been accused of “homophobia”. He has much influence as a wise and learned voice within the wider Establishment. Jews and Christians need to join forces in the coming months and years to defend their Judeo-Christian heritage which is their combined gift to the civilised world.