What is Marriage? Marriage is a sacrament: an outward sign instituted by Christ to give grace. Marriage is the commitment pledged, freely given before God and community, of a man and a woman to live faithfully – one to the other – for life.
Catholic teaching on marriage is one of the most inspiring parts of all of our theology because it is a part of our very existence. It is through marriage that lives are created in love and families are formed. In a sacramental marriage the couple commits to welcoming children, raising them in the faith, as they strive to be examples of Catholic life.
The Church rejoices when couples seek a sacramental union and recognizes that marriage as a vocation often reaches highs and lows that present great joys and difficult challenges. Marriages are oftentimes tested daily with family strife, job advancements or losses, problems with the children, illnesses, financial strain and deaths of extended family members. A marriage may be imperfect and yet, couples seek to endure and remain faithfully committed to each other and to their divinely decreed purpose.
In contrast, abusive relationships are not built upon respect for the inherent dignity of the other person, but upon domination and fear. These relationships are anything but supportive of the human person. They involve emotional abuse or physical violence. Hardly a day goes by when we do not read, hear or view reports of domestic abuse. The relationship involves an abusive partner member, typically the man. Victims so used to being abused may even be unable to recognize the need for protection from the danger in which they live. The abuser may apologize manipulatively after an episode of abuse, promising "never" to repeat it. And yet, they do.
The Church neither ignores the reality of domestic violence nor minimizes the human tragedy in those relationships. We all have an obligation to care for the vulnerable. Clergy and others trained in family ministry, in particular counselors at Vermont Catholic Charities, Inc., assist marital/domestic abuse victims by offering help to rebuild damaged self-esteem, as well as to secure other forms of additional assistance.
Beyond the physical and emotional pain, social and economic hardships are inflicted as well. The isolation to which the abuser subjects the victim prevent her from maintaining healthy friendships with others. Such actions serve to increase the victim's vulnerability and increase their reliance upon the abuser.
A victim leaving the abusive situation is often without a place to turn, even a place to live and to focus on moving ahead. In fact, about 25 percent of all homeless individuals are victims of domestic abuse attempting to start over again.
Throughout Vermont social service agencies work with abuse victims. Most of these agencies are able to provide a "safe house" on short notice. This is an excellent resource for people trying to escape abuse.
A key step towards helping victims is to recognize signs of domestic violence and emotional abuse. These go far beyond an unexplained bruise. They usually include chronic isolation. There may be verbal hints of being belittled or needing permission from their abuser to do anything.
Long term resources are often needed to help a victim to get settled and to make a fresh start. As a Church, we need to consider carefully what more we can do to assist victims. Are there resources such as vacant housing that could be deployed to help on an interim basis? Are there other resources that can be deployed to minister to victims?
There is a world of difference between a happy, holy and fulfilling marriage and an abusive marriage or domestic relationship. The difference is respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.
Can we more effectively proclaim the message of human dignity both to adults and to young people? Prevention through effective education is a powerful deterrent. Long before they are ready to date, children need to know that emotional and physical abuse of another is gravely wrong and cannot be tolerated.
We should ponder this during the upcoming celebration of National Marriage Week, Feb. 7-14 and World Marriage Day on Feb. 7. The result of this reflection should be a positive and engaged response as the only merciful response.
Deacon Pete Gummere, M.S., M.A. serves at Corpus Christi Parish. He is a bioethicist and an adjunct faculty member at Pontifical College Josephinum, where he teaches courses in medical morality and moral theology in the Josephinum Diaconate Institute.
- Published in Hungering for Justice