Sixth in a Series on Catholic Marriage and Parenthood
Fr. Thomas J. Gerrard
There is a very old Hindu legend in which the making of the first woman is described in this wise. When the creator Twashtri had made man, he gathered together a million contradictory elements, and out of them he made a woman whom he presented to the man. After eight days the man became dissatisfied. "My lord," he said, "the creature you gave me poisons my existence. She babbles unceasingly, she takes all my time, she grumbles at nothing, and is always ill." So Twashtri took the woman away. But after another eight days the man became again uneasy. "My lord," he said, "my life is very solitary since I returned this creature." So Twashtri gave him the woman back again. This time, however, only three days had gone by when the man came once more to the god. "My lord," he said, "I do not know how it is, but somehow the woman gives me more annoyance than pleasure. I beg of you to take her away." But Twashtri would not. "Go and do your best," he said. "But I cannot live with her," cried the man. "Neither can you live without her," cried the god. " Woe is me!" mourned the man," I can neither live with nor without her."
Since that story was written, thousands upon thousands have felt the conflicting experience which the story expresses. The underlying truth is that, when man and woman are joined together in matrimony, neither of them is perfect. It is their mutual life and constant adjustment of mind and heart, under the influence of matrimonial grace, which is to make them perfect. Marriage is one of the means of their salvation. Let us refer to St. Paul to see how the grace acts. He touches two sensitive nerves when he says: "Wives, be obedient to your husbands as you should be in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives and be not bitter toward them."
Doubtless, the Apostle was writing to correct certain abuses prevalent among the people to whom he wrote. He was not necessarily giving a full and comprehensive description of the marriage ideal. Forgetting this, many people have misunderstood the Apostle's words, especially that portion of them which speaks of the obedience of wives. How many women there are now who, reading the epistle in the light of present day abuses, "cannot stand that man Paul!" Let our consideration, then, be confined to these two virtues of conjugal relationship, love and obedience, for it is the failure to appreciate their true nature which issues in multitudes of other evils, affecting not only individual families, but communities, nations, nay, the whole human race.
"Husbands, love your wives."
The Apostle is evidently referring to a neglect on the part of the husbands. He is not talking as if love were to be a one-sided affair. The very nature of love requires that it should be reciprocal, and should exist at least between two persons. The ideal love requires three persons. In God, it is the love of the blessed Trinity. In the religious, it is the love of God and of one's neighbor. In the family, it Is the love of husband, wife, and child. The love between two is the inchoate and root love which issues in the perfect love between three. The love of the Father and the Son issues in the personal Spirit of Love. A religious must love God before she can love her neighbor. Husband and wife must love each other before they can love their children perfectly. It often happens that a wife who is without a husband's love can take refuge in the love of her children. But she can love her children more when she knows that she possesses also the love of their father.
The nature of man and woman, however, is such that the love of the man toward the woman needs a more careful watching, a more careful cultivation. A woman's love is as a torrent which is always flowing. It has been used even by God as one of the most forceful analogies by which to make men realize His love for mankind. It is of its nature so generous and so constant as to overshadow that other endowment of woman: her intelligence.
The difference, however, between the two faculties - the faculty of loving and the faculty of thinking - is not so great as has been frequently supposed. In our endeavor to emphasize the quality of a woman's love we may not undervalue her intelligence. We must ever remember that woman is essentially a rational being just as man is. She herself is beginning to realize this all the world over. One of the most remarkable phenomena of the age is the movement for the emancipation of women. While admitting and asserting then the claims of woman's intelligence, we cannot overlook the fact that it is in affairs of the heart that she is the stronger.
On the other hand, it is, ordinarily speaking, the lot of the man to be the breadwinner of the family. He it is who must use his brains in the learned professions, in commerce, in the arts, and in the crafts.
There are exceptions. Oftentimes the wife is the brains of the family. Half of the teaching profession consists of women. But the lady doctor, the lady dentist, and the lady professor, usually find it more convenient to retire from their professions whenever they enter the state of matrimony. And simply because man is the working brains of the family, his faculty of loving needs a special culture. He has so many outlets for his attention that, if he does not take the greatest care, his love which should be devoted to his wife and family is absorbed in his business or other intellectual pursuit.
The lines upon which the cultivation of a husband's love should take place will be decided according to the character and dispositions of the wife. Generally, however, it must have the three qualities of being affectionate, practical, and exclusive.
It must be first of all affectionate. The double affection of a woman for her children and her husband springs from the same affectionate nature. If it is to flourish, it must be fed. The need must be satisfied or it will shrivel away. There is a tendency among men to regard the time of courtship as the time of poetry, and the time of marriage as the time of prose. And there is an axiom among women that they are to expect about half as much affection after marriage as before. It is very sad that it should be so, although it may be excusable. There are far more cares in the married state than in the single, which, of their very nature, tend to take the poetry out of life. It has been divinely foretold that such shall have trouble in the flesh. But it need not be so bad as it is. Nay, the very cares which tend to lessen the affection ought to be the occasion of its increase. To cultivate such affection requires an active will and a keen intelligence. The man ought to be a man. That is, he ought not to allow himself to be moved merely by his passions and feelings. He ought to use his intelligence to find out what little acts of sympathy, kindness, interest, and attention affect his wife's feelings toward himself. Then he ought to put forth a strong will in the frequent repetition of such acts. It is extremely beautiful when an old Darby and Joan can look back on a married life of, say, forty years, and tell you with a knowing smile that they have not yet finished courting. They have learnt the secret of cultivating affection, of seizing upon adversity only as an occasion for deeper sympathy, of studying each other's likes and dislikes, of saying the word which gives pleasure, of avoiding the word which gives pain.
Secondly, a husband's love must be practical. Here, again, it is a question of external attractions against the attraction of the wife at home. Some men there are so absorbed in their business or profession as to regard their wife and home as a mere accident in life. Their business is not, as it were, a means of keeping one's self, wife, and family in comfort, but rather the wife and the family are the means of carrying on the business. Or, again, the counter-attraction may be only low pleasures, the pleasure of company, the pleasure of the club, the pleasure of the public-house. All are violations of the practical love due from husband to wife. Frequently the wife can just tolerate them, provided she gets the affection. But that is only because by nature she has such a strong affection. Nevertheless, a prolonged neglect of the practical side of a husband's love must wear out a wife's affection, and then there is an end of all love, the family life is broken and the strength of society is sapped at its foundations. The husband's practical love of his wife, therefore - his care for her dress, her housekeeping, her health, her pleasures - has consequences reaching much further than would appear at first sight. His affection must be translated into action, else he fails in one of the greatest duties of his manhood.
Thirdly, a husband's love must be exclusive. The Christian dispensation in forbidding polygamy shows how much more it is in conformity with the laws of human nature than the other religions which allow plurality of wives. If there is one instinct which is paramount in woman it is that the love given to her by her husband must be exclusive. And what the law of nature demands the law of revelation confirms and sanctions. The Christian wife cannot for a moment tolerate the idea which prevails in the Mormon or the Mohammedan social systems.
Even more peremptory is the law of nature against the crime of adultery. Nowhere, however, are these laws of nature more carefully protected than in the Catholic Church. She has had twenty centuries' experience of human nature. She knows quite well that those laws cannot be observed by merely forbidding the grosser sins of adultery or polygamy. One does not fall into those sins suddenly, while leading an otherwise pure and blameless life. The way is prepared by a series of seemingly less harmful sins, the unchaste thought, the unchaste look, the unchaste word. Therefore it is that, in the matter of purity, the Church brands as mortal sin even the lesser faults when deliberately committed.
The true Christian husband, then, will not be content with merely guarding against sin. He will strive all he can in the opposite direction. He will avoid even innocent attentions to others which may possibly give displeasure to his wife. He will make it a special study and effort that his wife shall realize that she is the only one who has any attraction for him. If this habit of thought and action be sedulously cultivated it will bear fruit on both sides. The mutual love between husband and wife will be so strong and constant as to leave no room for jealousy, for such love is strong as death, and actually is the death of that jealousy which would be hard as hell.
What has been said of a husband's love applies equally to a wife's love. It must be affectionate, practical, and exclusive. Although these qualities are ordinarily found more pronounced and more natural in the wife than in the husband, yet even the wife cannot afford to leave them to natural impulse. She also must cultivate them, must watch them, must seek out opportunities of giving them free and healthy exercise. There is only a slight difference in their order. Bending to the nature of the man, instead of making her love first affectionate, then practical, then exclusive, she will simply reverse the order, so that her love shall be first exclusive, then practical, and then affectionate.
"Wives, be obedient to your husbands in the Lord."
Like all other social movements, the movement for the emancipation of women is fraught with the danger of rushing into the opposite error of that which is to be remedied. Impotent of discernment, the agitator will purge away both the dross and the gold together. Especially in this question of the obedience of wives to husbands will he, or rather she, persist in confusing the true obedience with false, in condemning an obedience which no Christian wife is supposed to render.
Let us see then what is conjugal obedience. No one will deny that in some sense the husband is the head of the family. Man was made first, and made lord of the earth. In his overlordship, he was lonely and had need of a helpmeet for him. To this end was a woman taken from his flesh and bone and given to him to be his wife. She was not to be reckoned, among the rest of creation, as part of the man's goods and chattels. Nor yet was she to be reckoned above man. Nor yet again was she to be reckoned as fulfilling the same office as man. She was to be his complement, helping him in those things for which by nature he was unsuited. He was to be the strong element, she the gentle. He was to be her protector; she was to find her joy in the sense of the security of his protection. Obviously, then, she was meant to yield, at least to some extent, to his overlordship. The only question is as to what extent.
We all know the distinction between servile and filial obedience. The one is the obedience of slaves, informed by the motive of fear; the other is the obedience of sons, informed by the motive of love. So, likewise, there is a distinction between servile obedience and conjugal obedience. The obedience of wives is as much raised above that of sons as that of sons is above that of slaves. Doubtless there have been many husbands who have demanded of their wives the obedience of a slave. And doubtless such husbands are largely responsible for much of the present misunderstanding of the nature and limits of wifely obedience. Broadly speaking, we may say that the obedience of the wife is due to the husband only within certain limits. It is not absolute. It is due to him in all those matters where it is evident that he must rule. It is not due to him in those matters where it is evident that the wife must rule.
All matters of business, everything which seriously affects the income of the family, the choice of trades or professions for the children: these evidently belong to the judgment of the husband. The wife may be, and ought to be, frequently consulted. But, having expressed her opinion, she ought to abide by the decision of the head of the family. On the other hand, the interior domestic arrangements pertain to the judgment of the wife. The management of servants and babies, for instance, are points upon which the husband should have nothing to say, except perhaps when he is asked, or when he divines that his suggestion will meet with his' wife's approval. And a wife would be acting well within her rights were she to resent any interference in these matters.
Hard and fast rules, however, cannot be laid down. Much depends upon the temperament of individuals and the force of circumstances. If a man has failed in business, say three times, and eventually has to depend on his wife's dowry for a livelihood, or upon another business built up by his wife, then he cannot expect to have the same authority as one possessing the full complement of manhood.
Again, no obedience is due to him when he is obviously demanding something contrary to divine law. To require a wife to give up any of her religious duties as a Catholic, to ask her to do something which is against any of the Ten Commandments: these are occasions when she not only may, but must disobey. In all cases of doubt, however, the presumption is in favor of the husband.
Above all things, however, the obedience must have its foundation in mutual love. Unless there is present that determination to love each other through thick and thin, through success and through adversity, through life and through death, it will be useless to try to decide by argument who has the right to command and who the duty to obey. The love in marriage is a great mystery, and he who would reduce it to mechanical laws must possess a higher knowledge than that ever yet possessed by mere man.