The Idealization of Marriage: A Response to Joanna Moorhead


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Lest the Church should become too enraptured by the way things ought to be, Joanna Moorhead calls for its leaders to remember that real life sucks.

In a recent edition of TheTablet* Ms. Moorhead criticized the, “sepia-tinted movie version,” of marriage depicted by a series of videos produced by the Vatican.  She berates the films for portraying a naive and idealistic picture of marriage.  “The truth about real-life marriage,” she insists,

is that very often marriage is far from happy.  Most unions start, like the wedding scenes within the films, on a positive, upbeat note: the participants feel connected; together, ‘two become one‘ as one of the couples getting married [in the videos] puts it.  All is well and happy and right in their world.  But then–after a few weeks in some cases, a few months or years in others–come the trials, the difficulties, the disappointments, the surprises.  No marriage is without these ructions: there are no perfect marriages outside of Hollywood, or perhaps outside of the Vatican, where marriage only exists as a concept anyway.

Ms. Moorhead’s diatribe suggests that the Vatican is out of touch with reality, and insensitive to the real life struggles of regular people.  Discussing and promulgating information about the essence of marriage–depicting how things ought to be–only reenforces how detached the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is.  In short, she thinks the Vatican is frolicking in the idealistic world of make-believe and has forgotten that we common folk struggle and toil with the realities of real life (which is messy and disappointing).

But what type of videos would Ms. Moorhead have the Vatican produce?  Should they have hired Quentin Tarantino to direct a gritty short film about an abusive husband beating his wife (complete with blood splats on the camera lens)?  Or perhaps the producers of Fifty Shades of Grey to make a sensuous film about a woman caught in adultery?  The writers of Coronation Street could have created a soap opera about a young couple, savagely arguing over a utility bill, who divorce after a drawn out and painfully mundane court battle.  Or, in true Hollywood style, they might have produced a special effects driven remake of the 90’s thriller Sleeping With the Enemy . . . 

You see, Ms. Moorhead is right.  Real life is tragic; it’s full of struggle and toil and pain and suffering and sadness and heartbreak.  We’re all painfully aware that the actual world is not the ideal world that we long for.  But where, in this mixed up, dysfunctional, relativistic, utilitarian muddle of Western culture can we look to see how things ought to be?

Of all places, we should be able to look to the Church!

In spite of Ms. Moorhead’s pessimism, the Vatican understands the unfortunate condition of real life all too well.  Which is precisely why they have produced the films she so cynically mocks.  In a society in which it is extremely difficult to find happy, healthy, long-lasting, monogamous relationships–in a world struggling to understand what marriage is–it is absolutely necessary to depict the ideal.  It is precisely because the world is detached from the Truth and wallowing in a nightmare of its own making that the Church must portray marriage as it ought to be.

In real life people lie, cheat, murder, and steal.  Yet, when rearing our children, we don’t (one would hope) fail to teach them the way things ought to be.  We don’t, on account of the facts of real life, fail to teach them it is wrong to lie, cheat, murder, and steal or fail to encourage them to live a life of virtue.  We instill in our children moral values–ideals–so that they might live successful and healthy lives. We know that living out these ideals can be quite difficult; but we instill them nonetheless.

Likewise, the Church lovingly teaches its children what marriage is and shows them how it ought to look; it idealizes marriage knowing full well that it is not, “straightforward, or easy, or cozy, or even harmonious, in its living-out.”  But, if we pay attention to the teaching of the Church on marriage and sexuality, in spite of the difficulties we face, we may find our marriages looking closer to the idealization that Ms. Moorhead holds with such contempt.

*The article in question was published in the November edition of the monthly magazine.

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One thought on “The Idealization of Marriage: A Response to Joanna Moorhead

  1. I don’t know–the videos that Ms. Moorhead describes sound rather like contemporary Christian chick-lit to me, what with the sepia-toned idealization and all, and I can’t stand most contemporary Christian chick-lit. No grudge against those who like it, but it all seems so sweet and tidy that I just can’t relate to it; the stories that resonate most with me are the ones where people seriously grapple with sin and difficulty, but ultimately end up stronger and more stable for it. Stories where life is serene and happy as long as the main characters trust in God don’t do much for me, because that hasn’t been my experience at all. I see a lot of this idea in modern Christian culture that having faith in God means He’ll fix your life for you, and I think that’s a very damaging perception that rosy, idealized Christian media just encourages.

    I don’t know… I guess it’s about attainable ideals vs. unattainable ideals. Strife-free marriage is, I think, an unattainable ideal, at least for most people. Conversely, a marriage that may sometimes be rocky and painful, but that can be preserved and strengthened through hard work and perseverance, is an ideal that most couples CAN achieve. I think that acknowledging how hard marriage can be helps new couples to be prepared for it, and showing them that marital difficulties can be overcome is more valuable than telling them that their relationship won’t BE difficult as long as they keep the faith.

    I don’t think I’m actually disagreeing with you. I’m just wary of “ideals” in Christian culture, especially when it comes to romance; I agree that Christian media should show the best and brightest in life, but I also think that needs to be balanced with realism and frankness, or else we risk subjecting people to disillusionment, feelings of betrayal or inadequacy, depression, etc. when life turns out not to be as happy as they were promised it would be.

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