When a ‘white paper’ that brought about changes in the Marriage Act was published in October 1991, the document was entitled ‘Sħab Indaqs fiz-Żwieġ ‘ (Equal Partners in Marriage). A friend of mine with a great sense of humour likes to say that it was more a case of ‘Indaqs fis-Sħab’! Literally translated, this means ‘Equal in the Clouds’. A more accurate translation would be ‘Not Really Equal’. There is a play on the Maltese word ‘sħab’ which translated into English has two meanings: ‘ equal partners’ and ‘clouds’.
This anecdote came to me as I was reflecting upon a similar reality concerning marriage as it exists in today’s society. Two new laws which have been enacted by the Maltese Parliament in recent times – divorce legislation (some years ago) and the more recent legislation regulating civil unions – have reduced marriage as we have always known it, to a mere shadow of its real self. Both legislations have changed marriage from an understandable and recognizable institution to a free-for-all arrangement that bears little recognition to its original definition.
At the heart of conjugal relations, which have always been understood as being between a man and woman, there have always been two conditions – permanence and fidelity – both essential properties designed to sustain the two ‘goals’ of marriage, which are the mutual love and support of the spouses and the procreation and rearing of children. With the introduction of divorce legislation, both permanence and fidelity were seriously undermined. The legal recognition of civil marriage for couples of the same gender has now put paid to the natural procreation of offspring. This new version of marriage has indeed stripped marriage of its telos which makes it what it is. After all, if it’s not about gender, not about children and not about permanence and fidelity, then what is marriage?
There are those who would say that ‘love’ is what marriage is all about. One certainly cannot deny that love and affection are an important part of the conjugal relationship, but love (as sentiment) is not enough to understand and partake of the richer, deeper meaning of marriage. What really makes marriage is a combination of all the above elements: a deep bonding of a man and woman, for life, faithful to each other and to provide the optimal environment for the procreation and upbringing of children. Together all these persons form a family, which helps to create and build a strong society. Anything less is just a cheap version of the real thing. It’s little wonder that in all the nations of the world who have abandoned the idea of ‘real’ marriage, there has been a progressive weakening of civil marriage, which is gradually being seen as insignificant in society.
Where does this leave us? I think that as a country with a history of Catholic heritage, this poses an opportunity rather than a stumbling block. Maybe the time has come for us to delve deeper into our Catholic roots and discover the intrinsic beauty and permanence of marriage celebrated as a sacrament, marriage as it was created to be, in all its sanctity and not marriage “fis-sħab”. In a recent statement, the Episcopal Conference announced that although the vision of the Creator on marriage and sexuality is different from that presented in the Law, the Christian community retains the duty to show pastoral love to all – and rightly so. Yet it also remains our duty to increase our efforts to promote sacramental marriage as the ideal way to start building a family. It is up to us as Christians to call upon society to continue to give preference to the natural family and to strengthen families borne of of unity between man and woman in marriage, in conformity to God’s will.