The other day it occurred to me that a blog post on matrimony would not be amiss... There are all too many people that encourage only looking into the priesthood and the consecrated life, without encouraging young men or women to pray about matrimony, and I have recently encountered "Catholics" who are absolutely convinced that marriage is harmful to the spiritual life, but, as it were, a necessary evil. This is erroneous, fallacious, and dangerous. This conclusion is reached because the fact is acknowledged that the consecrated life is a higher calling than matrimony. (This is what the Church has said all along, so I won't get into it in any depth now, maybe later.) If this is true, it must be better for attaining salvation, and so a married person has given up his best shot at getting to Heaven. However, a vocation is that state in life for which a person is made. Practically by definition, it is through a person's vocation that the best and surest rout to Heaven is for that person. If you are one of those persons for whom I am writing this blog post, you're thinking right now: "Clearly, there is a contradiction... he just said that the best vocation is the consecrated life, but that the best vocation for anyone is their own vocation and that many people are not called to the consecrated life." So please, if you see this apparent contradiction, bear with me.
The religious life may be a higher calling than the married life, but the married life has a wholly different kind of glory. Only the consecrated life requires perpetual virginity, but marriage is still a sacrament which includes literally the fulfillment of chastity. Whereas the consecrated life takes a human faculty that brings joy and offers it to God pure and unused, matrimony takes that same faculty and uses it unto the end for which God made it. The sanctification of this faculty involves chastity, ordered to the love of the spouse and the good of the children; because marriage is so good, the abuse of chastity is so wrong. The consecrated life is a way of rising above our fallen nature in order to be brought as close to God as is possible in this life; marriage raises our fallen nature up, and brings it closer to what it was supposed to be in the beginning, when God blessed man and woman, and said "Be fruitful and multiply". In the one you may spend your whole life living God and praying to God for your fellow man, but in the other you devote your life still to God in a different mode. In the cloister you pray to God that the right people may come into the lives of sinners that they might convert; in matrimony you are on the front lines, coming into the lives of people and being used by God for the sakes of the sinners. In the cloister a person prays that good parents may give birth to and raise children to be the next generation; when you are married, you receive the graces from these prayers, because you are those parents.
It is only in matrimony that procreation is permitted because matrimony was made to sanctify the only way that humans can procreate. In this sacrament, a couple becomes a mother and a father, through mirroring God's trinity in the best way humanly possible: In matrimony two become one, and from their loving oneness children spring forth. A wise man once said that lust is wrong not because a person takes too much but that he settles for too little. This is why. Marriage carries with it great responsibility, great graces, great love, great symbolism, great joy, and humanity in its fullest.
So why is it that the consecrated life can be both higher objectively and worse for a certain person? Because both are so good, because individuals are given talents ordered to their specific vocation, to make the most out of it that can be made out of it, and because goodness comes exclusively from fulfillment of a thing's purpose. Just as a good knife is the one that cuts well, a good man is he who fulfills his calling. When a man is called to marriage, he will be holiest when he is married.
The principle of non-contradiction is that a thing cannot both be and not be at the same time and in the same respect. Because every change is the beginning or cessation of being in a certain respect, any change must be accompanied by a progression from one to another time.
There are other things, however, which are different in different places and countries [...] In regard to these and all other variable observances which may be met anywhere, one is at liberty to comply with them or not as he chooses; and there is no better rule for the wise and serious Christian in this matter, than to conform to the practice which he finds prevailing in the Church to which it may be his lot to come. For such a custom, if it is clearly not contrary to the faith nor to sound morality, is to be held as a thing indifferent, and ought to be observed for the sake of fellowship with those among whom we live. Augustine, Book I of Replies to Questions of Januarius, Par 2.
This is a counter-intuitive teaching. One would think that it would be more important to give God the highest form of worship, regardless of what others are doing, than to fit in with everyone else. St. Augustine does not seem to be of this opinion, however. In fact, he followed this passage immediately with the example that a person ought not to fast on Saturdays when in a community whose custom is not to fast on Saturdays. To fast is good by its very nature. Voluntarily accepting hunger in order to be more wholly detached from worldly pleasures and more totally given to God will bring us closer to God. This counter-intuitive teaching is driven further by Augustine in Par 5, in which he speaks against the condemnation of one place’s custom as a response to finding an apparently better practice elsewhere, saying that such condemnation "would show a childish weakness of judgment against which we should guard ourselves, and which we must bear with in others, but correct in all who are under our influence."
Although this clearly does mean that whether we follow a custom should chiefly be determined by what the community is doing, this is not a license to relativism. One practice may very well be better than another, but it is more important that we are humbly united in Christ under our bishops than that our customs are perfect. St. Augustine is not saying that no custom is better than another, but is saying that it is more important for a community to be united in a good worship than it is for an individual to perform the best worship. St. Augustine very clearly viewed acceptance of a custom by the universal Church to be authoritative proof that it is good (pars. 1, 5, 6, 8), going so far as to say, "If the universal Church follows any one of these methods, there is no room for doubt as to our duty; for it would be the height of arrogant madness to discuss whether or not we should comply with it." (Par 6)
We can learn from St. Augustine our proper place as the laity in regards to disciplines of the Church. We ought to abide by local customs, even when another custom may be better, for the sake of unity. Acceptance by the universal Church authoritatively proves a custom to be good, to such an extent that St. Augustine referred to mere discussion of whether we ought to comply with it as "the height of arrogant madness". We ought to accept the disciplines of the Church then with docile humility, only going beyond the customs when doing so would not be disruptive.
noun | au·thor | \ ˈȯ-thər \