Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Birds of a Feather

We all know the story of Romeo and Juliet. Two kids from two totally dissimilar backgrounds, whose families are mired in ethnic or class or religious prejudice, fall madly in love but are torn apart by....

Wait a minute. That is not the story of Romeo and Juliet at all. Romeo and Juliet were both Italians from the same town. They were both children of rich men. They were both Catholics. Their fathers' opposition to such a match was based in nothing more than a irrational dislike for each other. And this was Shakespeare's point: irrational petty grievances are stupid and even tragic.

The unfortunate impact of Shakespeare's powerful play on our own times is twofold. First, because Romeo and Juliet's parents were irrational about hate, Western youth suspect their cautious parents of being irrational about love. Second, because we mistake Romeo and Juliet for West Side Story, we think it a much more romantic thing if we fall in love with someone completely different from ourselves and our families than if we fall in love with "one of us".

And maybe it is. When we fall in love with someone supremely different from ourselves, with differences almost as vast as the differences between man and woman, it shows that romantic love can transcend boundaries. But if those boundaries can't keep love out, are they necessarily able to keep love in?

I have an American friend who will be a university professor. She is marrying a not-American plumber. They are madly in love. And their friends are greatly pleased. For one thing, bride and groom are both Catholics. For another, the professor is descended from a line of plumbers. She has a great respect, a familial respect, for the hard work and pragmatism of plumbers. Her domestic values are their domestic values. And he, knowing firsthand the value of hard work, deeply respects the hard work that goes into being a professor.

My favourite metaphor for a successful marriage is that of the fire in the grate. Character and shared values are the logs. Passion is the match and the tinder. Match, tinder and logs together add up to a warm fire that will keep a marriage going for decades. And I imagine even the ashes can keep the widowed warm.

I think Catholics should date only Catholics. But that is because I assume that the principal value of Roman Catholics is their Roman Catholic faith. This is not always true, of course. There are Catholics whose supreme value is something else, like the American Democratic party, or art, or capitalism, or their ethnic group. And as far as marriage goes, that's fine.

I believe that you can marry someone much different from yourself and be happy as long as you are agreed on your core value or values. A Filipino left-winger can be happy with an Filipina right-winger, so long as they both agree that what really counts in life is that they were both so blessed by God that they were born Filipino. And by that token, a Catholic who believes with all his soul that hell will break out if the British Labour Party falls from power will be eternally smitten by the intelligence of his non-Christian wife who believes with all her soul the same. And, no doubt, there are married couples with nothing discernably in common except their mutual love of amassing capital for Mr & Mrs Enterprises, Inc.

Anyone attempting marriage simply has got to know what their core values are. I worked with a man who had been recently left by his wife. Although they were well-off and had two children together, the wife just wasn't happy. What made her unhappy was that her husband was not Ukrainian. This could not have come as a surprise to her; he wasn't Ukrainian when they married. But the wife began to fuss about her Ukrainian identity and the Ukrainian identity of the children. Her husband's ethnicity mattered not a whit to her. Indeed, it was a threat. So off she went, taking the children with her. Subsequently, her in-laws walked out of My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding, furious at the portrayal of the groom's parents, shown to be dopey in their WASPness. It is a tragedy that my co-worker's wife did not know herself before she married him. I wonder what the children make of it all.

Friendship is not the same as marriage. We can and should make friends with all sorts of people, people radically different from ourselves, so long as friendship with them does not lead us away from friendship with God. But marriage is where friendship is turned into family, and marriage is not just a personal decision affecting two people alone. It affects two families, it affects the Church and it affects wider society.

Marriage is the way in which a complete stranger is introduced into the very heart of personal family life. I have a sister-in-law, and by marrying B.A., I presented my parents with a son-in-law, my siblings with a brother-in-law and my nephews with an uncle.

Fortunately for everyone involved, B.A. is nice to have around. Indeed, when I was falling in love with B.A., the thought that he would delight everyone in the family at Christmas Dinner popped into my mind. We still have not had Family Christmas Dinner together, but that's not the point. The point is that he adds to, not detracts from, the joy of our shared family life. (My sister-in-law, by the way, is a precious jewel loved by all of us, and I think marrying her is the best and most important thing my brother has ever done.)

When B.A. and I were being interviewed by my parish priest, the parish priest kept harping on our ethnic differences. Now, as B.A. is a Scot and my mother identifies as a third generation Scots-Canadian, we were not inclined to take this very seriously. But it turns out after all that a 21st century Scot has cultural values different from those of a Canadian descendent of 19th century Scots. These differences, though slight, do indeed cause friction. For example, I feel the ghost of B.A.'s grandmother at my elbow every time I do something in the kitchen, and she makes me cranky. (That said, I have submitted to her way of washing the dishes, which does, after all, make more sense, given the sink.)

But our way is made smoother by all the things a certain 21st century Scot and a certain descendent of 19th century Scots have in common. The principal one is belief to the teachings of the Catholic Christian Church as we understand them and, as we both understand them in the way Chesterton (and not Chittister) seems to have understood them, we should be fine.

ANSWER TO LOUISE'S COMBOX QUERY: When you say "you've fallen for a non-Catholic man", do you mean someone who has made a promise to marry that non-Catholic man? OR do you mean someone who has a crush on a non-Catholic man?

I, personally, have dated all kinds of non-Catholics, and even married one (and that marriage was annulled), but when push came to shove I knew I would be unhappy, deeply unhappy, unless my husband were Catholic.

But that's me. One of my super-Catholic friends recently married a very nice Protestant in the Catholic Church, and he presumably is okay with any kids they might have being Catholic. I hope he is, since to marry him she had to swear an oath to bring any kids up Catholic.

Officially, and according to the Baltimore Catechism, the Church discourages mixed marriages and considers them dangerous to the faith of the Catholic party. But in the 1994 Catechism, the writers bend over backwards to say they might not be hideous errors if certain conditions are met. See 1633-1637 in the CCC. Meanwhile, if you marry a non-Christian, I don't believe the marriage can be sacramental. But check the CCC on that.

Some men and women lie their brains out to marry the person they want to marry. "I'll become a Catholic"/"I respect Catholicism" and then not becoming a Catholic/bitching about the spouse's Catholicism before the ink is dry on the register is a dodge as old as the Reformation. I fell for it myself once upon a time.

The first thing I would ask a nice Catholic girl wanting to marry a nice non-Catholic boy is what the boy REALLY thinks of Catholic beliefs. If he says he's okay with them, I'd want to know exactly what he meant by that. I'd want to know if he'd be okay with Catholic beliefs about marriage, including no artificial birth control, no sterilization, no IVF, no swinging ever. I'd want to know if he'd be okay with wife and kids (and hopefully him) going to Mass every Sunday and on holy days of obligation. I'd want to know what he thinks about his kids being brought up to believe in God, the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity, the special place of Mary in heaven, the primary option for the poor, the works. I'd want to know that Catholic school is okay by him.

I'd want to know what kind of non-Catholic this guy is, and how his family feel about Catholics. If they're Greek or Russian Orthodox, I'd shake in my boots. They tend to hate our guts. Not all of them of course, but---whoa! Where I come from, and it's not Corfu, even merely nominal Greek Orthodox people sneer at Roman Catholics every chance they get. I make an exception for one particularly ecumenically-minded Greek guy I knew in college; he had a lot of Evangelical friends too.

I'd want to know what this guy's religious beliefs really were. No sense in hiding from this thorny question. Maybe he doesn't really have any, or that he sort of believes in God but the rest is hazy---and in a way, that would make things less complicated.

Then I'd want to know how this guy is going to help this girl become a better Catholic Christian. Is he, perhaps, a model of patience and charity? Does she wish she could be more like him? That would be a good sign, in my books.

Then I'd want to know what is going to keep Catholic Girl from hating Non-Catholic Boy's guts when the chips are down and she is tempted to kill him. Will she admit to herself that because he is an X (X being one of her core values) he is worthy of respect and love even though right at this moment she hates his guts. Is X going to be enough?

Finally, Catholic girl should pray for non-Catholic husband, that he convert to the same faith as his wife and kids. This actually happens from time to time. Really, I think whoever has the strongest faith is the one who converts the other. From an orthodox Catholic point of view, this is great if the non-Catholic becomes Catholic but a massive tragedy if the Catholic lapses. It's interesting to see how many women convert to Judaism or Islam to please their husbands.

Meanwhile, if the deed is done, and Catholic girl has married non-Catholic boy, what I would suggest is a life that stresses the values the two have in common. If they both love the poor to distraction, that's great: they can volunteer in a soup kitchen or "Out of the Cold" program together. If they both love opera, to the opera they must regularly go. If they are both Christians, they should decorate the house and celebrate like crazy for major Christian feast days.

Also, both people must go into the marriage determined to do 100% of the work. Of course neither can actually do 100% of the work, but if both are determined to try, they should be okay.

For more information, I heartily recommend talking to a priest or spiritual director and finding a book on the subject of ecumenical marriage.

There will be challenges. Guaranteed.

P.S. One of the happiest Hollywood marriage (Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft), which ended only in the wife's death, was a mixed marriage.


Louise said...

Obviously, the situation is not ideal, but once you've already fallen for a non-Catholic man, what steps do you suggest? Beyond the obvious steps of agreeing to marry in a Catholic Church, and raise any children Catholic, what can you do to make such a relationship work but also maintain its sacramental nature?

Seraphic said...

Answer too long for the comm box, so I've put it in the post.

Seraphic said...

Answer too long for the comm box, so I've put it in the post.

Alisha said...

"Finally, Catholic girl should pray for non-Catholic husband, that he convert to the same faith as his wife and kids. This actually happens from time to tie. Really, I think whoever has the strongest faith is the one who converts the spouse."

I think it's very important to point out that the Catholic party going into the marriage must accept completely from the beginning that her spouse may never ever convert and that she may be living a hope that will constantly be thwarted, and that it is extremely hard not to be resentful - of your spouse or God - if you don't see the "results" of your strong faith.
Also, it is never "values" that hold a marriage's Grace, imparted by the Person of Christ, whether it's recognized or not.
In answer to Louise's question, the best thing you can both have is a genuine desire to know truth - cultivate an interest and desire for truth, and then the faithful party must fast and pray. Perhaps even the non-faithful party will be willing to join in this (yes, I've experienced this) Souls are, after all, costly.

theobromophile said...

The problem with Romeo and Juliet (and other tragic couples) is that the story ends at marriage (or with tragic death).

What the reader does not see is the years that pass - the years that may make the couple grow apart. The reader does not see the teenage fire die. All that is there is what is akin to a young person's experience - fall in love and, perhaps, get married - but nothing beyond that to show them why marrying certain people can be such a bad idea.

I've dated men whose views were very different from my own on things that mattered (them, pro-abortion or sometimes pro-choice; me, pro-life; me, ambitious; them, not so much, or at least hostile to my ambition.). It ended in rather predictable disaster.

Dominic Mary said...

I love your comment about both being determined to do 100% of the work : so true.

Do you know this wonderful quote from Ogden Nash ? (it's another useful tip for a good marriage) :

'To keep your marriage brimming
With love in the marriage cup :
Whenever you're wrong - admit it;
Whenever you're right - Shut Up !'

Seraphic said...

Alisha, marriage is also a human institution, and not all marriages have Grace, although, yes, it is by the grace (will) of God that they don't fall apart. The Grace of the sacrament (in sacramental marriages, which only a Christian married to another Christian can have) does help married people wear their burdens lightly. I'm not talking necessarily about Christian marriage, but about all marriage.

Believe me, if people don't go into a marriage with similar values, they are in serious trouble. When I say values, I am not talking about a substitute for virtues, but a whole host of un-PC things to mention like Class, Ethnicity, Education, Tribal Loyalties, Religion, Ambition, Political Views, Artistic Taste, Feminine Genius, you name it.

Meanwhile, yes, I know some spouses never convert, but since my answer was so gloomy, I was trying to add some cheer. Despair is not a great way to begin a marriage. Obviously if a woman marries a man she has to accept that he is who he is. If she wants him to be someone different, she shouldn't marry him.

Seraphic said...

Virtue is imporatant, too, of course, and when I talk about the fire logs of characters, I'm talking about virtuous characters.

It basically comes down to compatibility. I believe that is the words that sums it all up in women's magazines.

Claire Christina said...

I know little about mixed marriages save for the sacramental theology connected there, so I thought I'd confirm that, for a sacramental marriage can only be between two baptized persons (one man + one woman, and that whole spiel). A marriage between a Christian and a non-Christian is (usually) recognized as a natural marriage, and no less worthy of respect, but without baptism, no one can receive any sacrament.

Louise said...

Thank you so much for the amazing response! That is precisely what I was hoping for - a practical list of things to talk about first, really. I am a big fan of your blog, it has been an immeasurable help to me!

Seraphic said...

Louise, I'm very glad to have helped you! Catholics are just a big wee family, are we not?

Louise said...

Yes, it's one of the reasons I love being Catholic. I meant to say before, if it helps with advice, that while he was rasied Christian, he's now Agnostic-y. But one thing that definitely gives me hope is that I do indeed wish I were more like him. He's far better than me at accepting the little harships in life, is extremely patient and more forgiving of people's foibles.

Obviously, there will be issues but I find that with him, I'm far more forgiving and patient than I ever was before. I'm certainly hoping that's a good sign!