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I’ve just started on a book called “Covenanted Happiness - Love and Commitment in Marriage” by Msgr Cormac Burke, who recently visited Singapore. A friend in Family Life Society highly recommended this book and loaned me his autographed copy. Below are some extracts and adaptations from just the first chapter of the book.

Why modern marriages go wrong

Already in the first chapter, Msgr Burke pinpoints the cause of many modern divorces. Marriages fail when the spouses expect to find perfect happiness in their marriage. That is asking too much from a marriage. That is trying to find unlimited happiness, which humans are made for, in an earthly thing.

When humans forget God, only in whom one can find perfect happiness, and expects to find it in marriage, it puts too much pressure on the marriage, and the marriage crumbles eventually.

Happiness can be found in marriage, but not unlimited happiness; to ask perfect happiness of marriage is to ask for too much.

The purposes of marriage

The second reason Msgr Burke gives for modern marriages failing is that humans today tend to invert the order of priority in the purposes of marriage. We tend to think that marriage is for the expression and enjoyment of love, and then only, if at all, for having children.

We then conclude that happiness of marriage depends mainly or even exclusively on mutual love between spouses, and then only, if at all, on having children.

But is this what marriage is for? Perhaps people go wrong because they have not understood how marriage is meant to work. There are rules for making a marriage work, just as there are rules to life. Ignorance of the rules doesn’t excuse one from having to deal with the consequences.

For example, if I never knew about gravity or refuse to be subject to it, I can say I want to, and I have the right to, walk off a 20-storey building. Despite what I believe, I will still come crashing down, because my life is subject to the rules of life. Likewise, when I choose not to follow or do not know the rules of making a marriage work, and I set out on doing it my own way, my marriage will also come crashing down.

So what are the rules for marriage? How does one have find happiness in marriage? By understanding that married love is meant to become family love. Love in marriage is wider than mere married love. It is not meant to remain (and not likely to survive if it does remain) just the love of two people for each other. It is meant to spread out, to include more.

For most married couples, the true mutual love transcends the community of husband and wife, and reaches out to its natural fruit, the children, writes Msgr Burke, quoting from St. Josemaria Escriva. For special married couples who are not able to have their own children, their love reaches out to other children who have no parents to love them, and to formative and apostolic activities in favour of others.

The deliberate exclusion of children, in whole or in part, is almost certain to make any marriage work badly. This is a rule of life which is implicit in the Church’s teaching about the purposes of marriage and the relationship between them.

This does not mean that marriage is only for offspring, but it is equally for the happiness of the spouses. The key word is “equally”. Today, we tend to place more emphasis on happiness over having children.

Calculated happiness

A third main reason that Msgr Burke gives for so many marriages not working out today is the growing tendency not only to put mutual love before children, but to see actual opposition between these two purposes of marriage instead of seeing them as complementary.

Modern men and women seem to believe in what Msgr Burke calls “calculated happiness”. We believe that we can plan for happiness.

We know that love leads us to happiness. But what is love? I once asked a kid this question, and he said that love is the nice feeling that he gets when he is with someone he likes. Is that what love is? A good many adults also think so. In addition, many adults think of love in terms of personal satisfaction, rather than a rising towards an ideal, or self-giving, which implies struggle and sacrifice.

Happiness is the result of a generous dedication to someone or something worthwhile. Happiness is not something that can be bought with money or obtained through calculation. You can’t plan to be happy. Yet our modern philosophy is filled with cold calculations, many of which are quite selfish and quite mistaken.

The first calculation is that two people are sufficient to make each other happy. We see this when we see married couples say that love is the essential and all-sufficient constituent of married happiness.

The second calculation is that a certain number of children - one or two - may be a help to that happiness… or a hindrance.

The third calculation is that more than a certain number of children (two or three at a maximum) will certainly run counter to married love and happiness. Once you decide that a particular number of children will be detrimental to your married love, you can easily end up with any number - even one - as an obstacle to your married love. This is how birth control works in marriage.

When two people believe that there are made for each other, they may end up believing that they are not made for anyone else, and have no need for anyone else, even their own child. Should a child come along, husbands and wives, on becoming parents, feel some jealousy as they sense that they are no longer the exclusive object of their partner’s affections. This is a natural experience and it is natural that it will pass.

What is unnatural is to avoid having a child so as to possess the spouse fully and selfish. This runs contrary to love. No wonder marriages which are deliberately childless tend to break down after a while.

Why have children?

We know that love involves sacrifice. The more we sacrifice for another person, the more loving we become, and the more lovable we become as a person.

It is not enough for married people to sacrifice themselves for their spouses. What really makes people come out of themselves is when they sacrifice themselves for their children. If married love improves when married people sacrifice themselves for each other, then parental love is at its height when married people sacrifices themselves for their children together. Shared sacrifice is one of the best bonds of love. Children, above all, are what spur a couple on to a moral greatness, write Msgr Burke, quoting Jacques Jeclercq.

On the other hand, if a couple leave untapped the capacity for sacrifice stored in their parental instincts, they are likely to end up, at best, half-developed and half-lovable persons.

- adapted from “Covenanted Happiness” by Cormac Burke


Note: All of Msgr Burke’s books may be found online at his website.

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