Summer 2014

The Crisis of Marriage as a Crisis of Meaning: On the Sterility of the Modern Will

D. C. Schindler

“There is nothing more human than marriage, and yet no general human reality is more full of grace: marriage is, as St. Paul said, the ‘mega mystery.’”

1. The impoverishment of intellect and will


In Fides et ratio, John Paul II observes that “[o]ne of the most significant aspects of our current situation . . . is the ‘crisis of meaning’” (FR, 81). At the origin of this crisis, he explains, is the impoverished notion of reason that has arisen with the modern world. Having identified a number of trends in modern and contemporary thought—relativism, skepticism, scientific positivism, eclecticism, pragmatism, historicism, and nihilism, among others—all of which share a lack of confidence in reason’s capacity to attain to ultimate truth, the pope goes on to lament the invasion of the human spirit “by a kind of ambiguous thinking which leads it to an ever deepening introversion, locked within the confines of its own immanence without reference of any kind to the transcendent” (ibid.). In order to help restore an openness of reason to what lies beyond itself, he says, three things are required: first, philosophy must recover its original “sapiential dimension,” that is, its aspiration to the meaning of the whole beyond the fragmentation caused by modern technological habits of mind (ibid.); second, philosophy must recall its ability to attain to the being of things, and so reach genuine knowledge of “total and definitive truth” (FR, 82); and third, philosophy needs to be understood, once again, as having a “genuinely metaphysical range, capable, that is, of transcending empirical data in order to attain something absolute, ultimate, and foundational in its search for truth” (FR, 83). This is an urgent task for the Church, not only because a reduced conception of reason is closed to the truth of the faith, but also because, in this impoverishment of reason, humanity itself is at stake:1 if the pope is right to say that we “may define the human being . . . as the one who seeks the truth” (FR, 28), the despair regarding man’s capacity to attain to deep and real truth represents a collapse that reaches to man’s innermost essence.

But the contemporary “crisis of meaning” concerns not only an impoverishment of reason; it is not only as a seeker of truth that we may define man. Rather, the human being is also, and even more basically, the one who seeks love. To quote the famous passage from John Paul II’s first encyclical: “Man cannot live without love. He remains a being that is incomprehensible for himself, his life is meaningless, if love is not revealed to him, if he does not encounter love, if he does not experience it and make it his own, if he does not participate intimately in it.”2 Love is so basic to man precisely because it is ultimately for love that man was created: in order to explain why the commandment to love God and neighbor is the “first and greatest,” Gaudium et spes states that “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (GS, 24). If there is, indeed, a “crisis of meaning” in the contemporary world—and evidence of this has increased dramatically even since the publication of Fides et ratio—one cannot but wonder whether, along with the impoverished conception of reason and no doubt profoundly connected with it, our age also suffers from an impoverishment of the will. Just as we despair of ever being able to know total and definitive truth, so too do we have difficulty believing that man can truly give himself in a total and definitive way, and receive the total and definitive self-gift of another. The idealism of lovers might attract us and even inspire us at some level, but the moment we step back and see their protestations in what we call “perspective,” they appear to us unserious. And we always step back. To think about the human condition realistically, it is believed, we have to acknowledge that man can neither know the whole, nor will the whole. Man is finite, and he lives most honestly, he does the least damage to himself and others, when he frankly admits to his limitations and respects them. Such a modesty is taken to be the very mark of a Christian! We can only know so much, and therefore we can only promise so much. For all its pretensions in certain areas, the modern will turns out to be remarkably impotent.


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1. Indeed, one fails to grasp the deep point of the encyclical if one does not see that these are inseparable: man’s openness to God and the flourishing of his humanity.

2. Redemptor hominis, 10; translation modified.