Every healthy and enduring society depends upon family. We may not like this truth but it is self-evident. The union of husband and wife in a lifelong, enforceable covenant not only of affection but of service and care, is key to the survival of society. We depend upon family not just for thriving nuclear households but also in the rather complex network and detailed shape of the extended family -- even with the dispersed and mobile character of our society. The health of the whole is dependent upon the health of its component parts. The health of the whole is also dependent upon the relationships of those component parts, especially upon their strength, resilience, and efficacy. It takes a village is not a political statement but a very real admission that we live in interdependent lives, beginning with the nuclear family but not ending there. So there is no relationship more significant and on which society depends more than the family and, at its base, marriage -- the relationship between husband and wife. This is the first and most basic unit of our society, the threads that weave together the fabric of our society, and the basic bond upon which every other relationship depends.
When marriage suffers and the family is in conflict, the end result will be that the government will end up taking over responsibility for the things that belonged once and primarily to the family -- from the raising of children and the instilling of moral values in them to health care to the care of the aged and infirm and so on. The weakness of the family contributes to the nanny state and the nanny state depends upon the weakness of the family. It is not merely a matter of stability but of the primary place where care extends to us from childhood to infirmity and old age.
For too long we have presumed that a strictly natural understanding and grounding of marriage – without the essential component of the Judeo-Christian ethos -- will suffice. We have not paid much attention to secular marriage vs ecclesiastical marriage (or, to use another term, between secular marriage and marriage that has at its root a sacramental component). This has led us down the path that has suggested civil marriage (which may include same sex marriage) and churchly marriage are pretty much the same and both contribute equally to the strength, structure, and success of our earthly society. This is clearly not true. Look only at the divorce rates of those who understand marriage in a more sacramental way (Roman Catholics and Lutherans, for example) and you can see the impact upon this in the lower rate of dissolution within these bodies. Note also that it is not merely a matter of preaching about marriage or else we would see the same statistic for denominations like the Southern Baptists but the reality is that they have a much higher divorce rate than either Roman Catholics or Lutherans.
By sacramental component, I do not mean only or even primarily that marriage is called a sacrament. Rather, I refer to the parallel between the marriage of Christ and His Church and the marriage between husband and wife -- what St. Paul refers to in Ephesians 6. Those churches in which the tie between and relationship of Christ and His Church are connected to the marriage of husband and wife offer something that civil marriage cannot -- a rational greater than the common good or the interest of either partner. Perhaps it could be said that once enough of the natural virtues were encouraged and lauded by society to obviate the gradual loss of the understanding of marriage greater than self-interest but that time has come and gone. We need now more than ever the Biblical witness and connection of marriage to a greater interest than self and to provide a framework in which sacrifice and service were not occasional burdens but an essential component of what love and marriage and family are. Societies are fractured and broken not by the constraints of an antiquated understanding of relationship but from relationships that have only one real need and good -- self-interest. Marriage is not and cannot only be what we make of it. The Biblical model and framework of marriage are not some far removed ideal to be admired but the essential and practical shape of what marriage is -- the marriage so desperately needed in our broken world of isolation, individualism, and self-interest.
As Christ is to us, so we are to others. That is the parallel between our lives of grace and faith toward God and our life in but not of the world around us. It is not optional for us to be Christ to our neighbor and for our neighbor and this is rooted and grounded first and foremost in marriage -- in the sacramental shape of marriage which is not an institution created and defined by society but given as gift and order from God Himself. To live together in a society means to live in the realm of a higher good than individual preference and self-interest yet neither can this be ordered by law nor can law spark the desire to exceed the realm of me and my happiness and contentment. This was and is always a force from outside, the realm of God and His grace evident in creation but distorted by sin. What it means to live in a society cannot be simply what we and I choose to make of it. And to live in a society begins with the most basic society -- with husband and wife and then their children and the extended family bounded together for better for worse, in sickness and health, for richer for poorer, till death parts. For these to be more than symbolic or idyllic words, they must be spoken in the context of grace, in the riches of a sacramentally shaped life, and this is the Church's gift to the world. Society may not appreciate it fully but it is clear from the troubles that have befallen marriage and family among us that it is more sorely needed now than for a long time.