Edward Burne-Jones, "The Wedding of Psyche"

I am not usually controversial on this little blog. The commentary usually runs as follows: “insult some artists, praise von Balthasar, love everything Catholic, and express inordinate ardor for martial arts…and Michael Jackson.” Repeat that and we’ve got most of my website memorized. I’m about as predictable as knitting. But some recent real-life conversations have driven me to put the usual litany aside for now. It is time to be a bit controversial. Where else to begin but with marriage?

Marriage is a hot topic these days. If you’d like to get a black eye, raise the issue at a dinner party. You’re liable to make someone, or (if you’re lucky) everyone, angry.

Everyone loves marriage, of course, but they all disagree about what marriage is. This is no small debate: things like who is to be married, how, when, under what circumstances, and what married life constitutes are all at risk. It’s all under bitter scrutiny. Everything from courtship to vows to happily ever after.

Like all the really great arguments, everyone agrees that the argument is extremely important and everyone disagrees about basically everything else.

I have taken to watching these arguments with a curious silence unless otherwise forced. There are specific topics about which I am determined to acquire a silent attentiveness, and so I speak about them less and less. I find that, regardless of whether I change my opinion, I learn a lot more. Besides, I am single. It is presumed that I would have nothing useful to contribute about marriage anyway. I am often silenced, verbally or nonverbally, before it occurs to me to speak. It is not the most entertaining thing to consistently endure, but I understand it. Marriage is very personal, you see. When we argue about it, we risk something of ourselves. This is why you’ll get a black eye if you bring it up.

But none of us, even those married of us, really seems to know what marriage is. Among my theologian friends, fancy phrases like “icon of the Church and Christ,” “image of Trinitarian love,” and “covenantal bond” get thrown around as if we really understood them. These turns of phrase do mean something, but they get at it by not saying it out loud. Some would call them metaphors. I prefer to think of them as sacramental phrases. They bear the reality they indicate, and are overcome by that reality, too.

We know what we are talking about, among each other, and we do not. Married people live a reality that escapes them quite thoroughly. I have seen enough from the outside to know that much. And I know one thing more.

Whatever we might say marriage is, I am dead set on what it is not: marriage is not a right.

Let me be specific. By “right,” I mean that to which everyone breathing has an inviolable claim. It is that which, in order to be authentically human, I must have. Catholic rhetoric against abortion relies on the term “right” in a similar way – everyone has the right to life. When that is robbed from you, you are – well – you are a murdered human, regardless of how old you were. Other situations apply: everyone has the right to a living wage. Without it, the poverty into which you are forced demeans you. There are more, but I hope that suffices.

When I say “right,” I mean it in a rather irritatingly restricted way. I do not consider these rights, in the restricted sense, to be optional. I can choose a great deal about the manner in which I live out these rights, but they of themselves constitute the foundation of my life. So, I can be a tax consultant or I can be a theologian, but I must be permitted to live and I must be given a wage with which I can live reasonably. Anything less is a violation of my rights, whether I am a tax consultant or a theologian.

Marriage is not a right. Not in the restricted sense. I am not less authentically human because I am not married. Being married does not make me more authentically human, either, though that is a grace given to those whose privilege it is to be married. The grace itself is not restricted to marriage; religious life and single life receive a grace to be more authentically human, too.

Catholic parlance about marriage prefers the term vocation. Marriage is a vocation. It is that to which we are called, and unless we are so called, we may not lay claim to it. This is true of all vocations, including religious life. No one has a right to be a priest, though yes, some do walk around as if they had a right to it. That is annoying. Some married couples do the same. They are just as annoying.

A vocation is God’s. He is the one doing the calling. As far as Catholics are concerned, this call operates on two levels: the natural and the supernatural. The natural has to do with those inborn capacities of the person in question: interests, aptitudes, and so forth. The natural is also much more visceral than that. For Catholics, embodied gender also contributes to vocations: we greet the world shaped profoundly by our bodies.The natural extends to the flesh. So the ways in which I am meant to act in the world is formed by my body – and in countless respects. I am already made ready for certain potential vocations, motherhood being of course the most visceral that comes to mind.

I want to pause here to acknowledge that this is all very complicated, and I am aware of that. Practically every word I am using to describe anything at all needs careful definition, clarification over against contrary ideas, and so forth. I understand. But I think, for now, that we have fingered an artery. I would prefer to focus on that.

To focus, that is, on the fact that marriage is not a right. And that this does not make it unnatural. Catholics are disturbingly confident that God works through nature; and not only that he works through nature, but also that nature is never his enemy. He made it; it’s his. So marriage is not a right, but it is natural, and in both respects it is God’s. He calls some of us to marriage, and it is not ours until we are called.

We can see that there are strictures already in place. Those strictures for which Catholicism is so famous. The emphasis on a nature that helps to determine what we are meant for is, by necessity, a restriction. I am a woman, and so I might be a mother but I will never be a father. This very earthy and bodily restriction extends far into vocations, into who can do what – and with whom.

But vocations also work backwards, as it were. A vocation also determines the manner in which I live out my identity, even as my identity helps to determine my vocation. That is, vocations reserve certain things to themselves. For example, sex is reserved for marriage. Everyone is capable of sex on the natural level, but it is reserved to the vocation of marriage. It is reserved because it is good, and not because it is bad. Much in the way that a mother may never leave her small children to go serve the poor in India: serving the poor is a very good thing, but an act like that is reserved for those who are free to do it (the religious life is particularly free in that respect).

In this way and others, a vocation helps me to know in what way I am to be who I am. This means informing me of the ways I am and am not to live my life, which has to do with who I am, and who I am not. A vocation is about freedom; it helps me to see who I am not so that I can know who I am.

Who I am has been given to me by God, given at the most basic, natural level of my identity. And it is given supernaturally, too. Nature is not enough. There is grace; there must be grace. It is grace that really animates all this talk about what nature determines, and how our bodies shape us. It is grace that makes it possible to be authentic, holy human beings. It is grace that forms us each according to the specific character of our vocation. We need grace.

The supernatural call to a vocation elevates any vocation to the status of a thing wholly given over to God. No one with their head on straight wants to claim a right to what is God’s, and here most of all – here, where God meets us face-to-face in the way we give our lives to him each day – we can see that marriage is not a right. It is a grace. And for God’s sake, marriage needs his grace to work at all. (Indeed, I almost wrote a different essay than this, titled “Marriage Is An Act of Insanity And Only God Prevents Us From Killing Each Other.”)

What all of this does – this talk of marriage not being a right, of it being natural, of it being supernatural – is to reorder the conversation around marriage. It places those things most resented about the Catholic Church in a new context. Nothing that I have argued is going to go and change anybody’s mind. I’m not trying to do that. I would rather press the conversation back to the basic ground from which I think Catholicism operates. It is that ground that needs discussion. That one, and not a confusing shouting-match over human rights where no one means the same thing by “rights” or “human.”

Now I’d like to close my “controversial” essay with a unique and perhaps irritating defense of the Catholic point of view on marriage.

For all that the Catholic view is – and it is much more than the threadbare offering I gave just now – I think that it is rooted in an almost idiotic courage. I adore idiotic courage. Only things that are really worth it are worth idiotic courage. And I think, really, that Catholic sentiments about marriage revolve around the conviction that if a thing is to be done, it must be done as if you are to be jumping off a cliff. There can be no half-measures, no “let’s try it out before we do it” or “love will get us by.” None of that. You must jump, and you must jump knowing that your silly little parachute will rip to pieces. That parachute is your love getting you by.

So there it is. Marriage. An act of complete and total courage. No safety nets, no prenuptial arrangements, no cautious reservation of some part of your heart. That’s what makes it great.

You must leap knowing only God can catch you.

Marriage is not a right because it’s damn terrifying. It is not ours because it is too much for us. And if it is to be ours, it is to be so as a gift from God. This makes it more fearsome, because it is God’s; and more our own, because it was given to us. God does not take back what he gives. If it is to be yours, you were made for it, naturally and supernaturally. Made and called. A truth both intimidating and wonderful.

The Catholic view of marriage is a lot of things. It is hated for a lot of reasons. You may call it foolish, or unrealistic, or antiquated, or even hateful. I would disagree with you, but I would understand on some level why you might think those things. But you may never, ever call Catholic marriage spineless. This fact raises it to the level of a thorough and perplexing witness to what it means to be Catholic.

Because being Catholic is an act of courage.