A Promise to Love? The Possibility of the Catholic Wedding Vows

One of the fun things about being Catholic is that some of our prayers are a bit scary when one stops to ponder them. I’m not talking about prayers that only a few of us actually get around to praying, such as the Psalms in which we ask God to vent his just and terrible wrath on various evildoers. No, I have in mind prayers as common as the Our Father, in which we hold hands (well, I don’t, but you probably do) and blithely ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” One could possibly read that clause as asking God to make our own reception of forgiveness contingent upon our forgiveness of others. So not just “Please forgive me,” but rather “Please forgive me to the extent that I am fair enough to forgive others.” Uh-oh.

I welcome the correction of competent theologians on the aforementioned point. Until then, I will continue to feel nervous. Forgiveness and mercy are difficult for most of us. Evidence for this difficulty might be found in the fact that the Catholic Church is currently in the midst of a Year of Mercy. Holy Mother Church, in her wisdom, has not decided on a “Year of Fun” or a “Year of Getting Exactly What You Want” or a “Year of Free Candy.” We don’t need a year to work on obtaining those things. But it seems we might need a year to prepare our hearts for God’s mercy.

But if the Our Father isn’t terrifying enough, allow me to assist your Lenten mood of doom and gloom by helpfully providing another example: YOUR WEDDING VOWS.

Have you watched the recording of your wedding lately? Odds are, you said something along these lines:

“I, Boethius, take you, Rusticiana, to be my wife. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.”

You think you know where I am going with this, but you really don’t. You think what frightens me is the part about “all the days of my life.” But that’s not so scary. That just simplifies things: now there’s finally a plan! Plus, the Sweet Meteor of Death may already be in route, so let’s not presume we are talking 60+ years here.

Or perhaps you think I’m concerned about promising to be true to one’s spouse during times of sickness and health. Again, not such a problem. Dunno about you, but when I have a pounding headache, I’m not likely to be pondering adultery. Theoretically, staying true in times of health could be more of a challenge. But the God also provided a practical solution to that problem, a solution called “children.” Once you have children you’ll be tired, and adultery requires at least some minimal effort. It’s hard to stray when you fall asleep on the couch every night at around 9 p.m.

Nope, the scary part of the wedding vows is in that other, seemingly innocuous little clause, the one in which you promise to love. Did you have any business saying that? Is love something within your control, the kind of thing you can actually promise to do? A lot of our common ways of speaking about love give the opposite impression. We talk about being “swept away” or “falling in love”–both of which seem to indicate that love is some sort of mysterious and powerful force beyond our control. Did you, in your wedding vows, make a rash promise before God to feel warm and fuzzy towards someone for the remainder of your life, a promise you no doubt felt emboldened to make because of your excellent track record in your previous relationships. Well . . .

One good solution to the problem I have heard in several wedding homilies proposes a truth our culture has largely forgotten: there is such a thing as love which is chosen, love which is willed. We philosophy nerds call this “volitional love.” This form of love consists in seeking the good of the other person. One thus “loves” one’s spouse when one chooses to say a kind word to one’s spouse, when one chooses to do the dishes so one’s spouse can relax at the end of a long day, when one chooses to enroll one’s spouse in that bowtie of the month club thing he keeps strategically leaving on the kitchen table every morning, and by the way he likes the thin kind of bow tie. Just an example. Move along.

The point is that we can indeed promise to love in this volitional way, and the point of a sacramental marriage is receive a pledge of God’s help in carrying out that promise. Sacramental marriage offers amazing advantages for creatures whose wills are wounded by original sin. Wondering if that includes you? Unless you are currently enjoying the beatific vision, then the answer is likely to be “yes.”

Telling people that they have promised volitional love of their spouses is true and important. However, because I am a philosopher, and one of the jobs of a philosopher is to rattle the bars of your cage–especially during Lent–I would like to remind you that “the Catholic thing” is to understand God’s grace as building on and perfecting nature. That means that the natural way human life works is not typically overturned by the actions of God. And in the natural order of things, human action is often prompted by the emotions as well as the will. In fact, as the psychologist Conrad Baars points out in his book Feeling and Healing Your Emotions, the human will is most truly powerful–i.e. it actually gets things done–when the emotions support the decisions of the will. The will indeed shows a certain power when it resists strong emotions running in the opposite direction, but such unpleasant situations threaten to enfeeble one’s actions. One is “fighting oneself” instead of focusing on the task.


No bow tie. Bad sign, bro.

A marriage is no exception to this general rule of human action: one wants the support of the emotions in order to succeed at it. Good luck carrying out all those loving actions you wrote down on the flyleaf of The Five Love Languages if all you feel is hatred, aversion, and anger towards one’s spouse. No, if you really want to love someone, if you really want to honor the promise you made before God, then you will also need to cultivate the emotions that will support volitional love. In short: loving well requires both that we seek the good of our spouses (i.e. volitional love) and that we seek to like our spouses (i.e. the warm fuzzies, emotional love). We can’t simply excuse ourselves from the emotional side of marriage; we can’t simply tell ourselves that “the fire has gone out” and give up. If you take seriously the promise to love with the will, then you must also try to sustain–or even recover–emotional love.

Yet surely we can presume the assistance of grace with this second form of love as well. And here, again, grace would actually be building on nature: the emotions are not as independent of our control as we commonly suppose.

If you think that last statement was some crazy talk, then I refer you to the crazy talk of St. Thomas Aquinas, who argues in p. 81, a. 3 of the First Part of the Summa Theologiae that the human emotions actually “obey reason.” To be sure, “obedient” is not the first word that comes to mind when we think of the emotions, and St. Thomas admits that we do not enjoy any direct or “despotic” control over our emotional states. Yet St. Thomas also points out that we do enjoy a substantial amount of indirect control over them.

For example, the emotions obey reason “in their own acts” by following upon perception–and in humans, one’s perception of a situation can be influenced by reason, especially over time. You can “tell yourself a different story,” and this can radically change the emotion triggered. For example, you may have had the experience of being angry at a spouse for not doing something, only to have that anger dissipate when your reason helped you to give a different appraisal of the situation: “Why didn’t he start the !@#$% dishwasher? Oh, it was because he was making me a totally awesome, homemade Valentine’s Day card . . . in the shape of a bow tie!”

The emotions do just obey reason reason as “mind”; they also obey reason as “will.” The point of emotions is to move you into action. But your emotions cannot fully accomplish this without the consent of the will. The will has a “veto power”–not over the experience of the emotion itself, but instead over the actions that flow out of the emotion. And the will has still more tricks. With your will, you can choose to pay attention to the sorts of things likely to trigger certain emotions, and you can choose to do certain things likely to trigger certain emotions. On date night, for example, instead of having a heart-to-heart discussion of the various inadequacies and failures of your spouse, you might instead consider reminiscing about how you first met, or some of your happiest memories together. Or to really be proactive, you might choose to set the stage for date night by doing–get ready for it–acts of kindness. You might do the dishes. You might buy flowers. Acts of kindness of that sort are likely to put one’s spouse in a good humor: they influence one’s spouse to be a lovable person, the kind of person that tends to trigger emotions of love.

So all of this can be summed up in four sobering propositions:

  1. If you got married in the Catholic Church, then it is quite likely that you promised to love another human being until death.
  2. This love should always exist on the level of one’s will.
  3. To whatever extent possible, this love should also exist on the level of one’s emotions.
  4. None of this is likely to be easy.

Still, it is Sunday, so we don’t want to wallow in doom and gloom, even during Lent. Since marriage is a sacrament in the Catholic Church, a pledge of God’s grace, a fifth proposition also follows:

5. God will help you to love in these ways, if you try.

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