Monsignor Cormac Burke Gives Tips for a Happy Union
NAIROBI, Kenya, 27 MARCH 2004 (ZENIT).
Marriage is one of God's most
intensive schools of love, where he wishes to train most of his pupils.
So says Monsignor Cormac Burke, an Opus Dei priest and former judge of the
Roman Rota who teaches anthropology at Strathmore University here.
Monsignor Burke explores the dynamics of love, marriage and children in
his book "Covenanted Happiness" (Scepter Press). He shared with ZENIT how
only the person who is prepared to face the challenges of love will grow
in love, and how children challenge each spouse's capacity to love even
Q: What are the "laws of happiness" as they are found and lived in
Monsignor Burke: The first thing to bear in mind is that marriage cannot
give perfect happiness, nor can anything else here on earth. The purpose
of marriage is not to give the spouses such happiness, but to mature them
In everything here on earth, God is trying to teach us to love, which we
will enjoy fully in heaven. Marriage is one of his most intensive schools
of love, where he wishes to train most of his pupils.
Happiness demands an effort. When a married person in difficulties allows
the thought, "I'll get a divorce and marry this other man or woman,
because I'll be happier with him or her," they are really saying, "My
happiness depends on not having too much demanded of me. I'll be happy
only if I don't have to make much of an effort to love."
The person who chooses to think this way can never be happy, for happiness
is above all a consequence of giving, as it says in Acts 20:35: "It is
happier to give than to receive."
Happiness is not possible inside or outside marriage for the person who is
determined to get more than he or she is prepared to give.
In marriage, then, one has to learn to love. If people don't learn, they
remain stuck in selfishness, like the devil or the soul in hell. Yet
marriage remains a divine institution to gradually draw them out of that
One also has to bind oneself to this task, that is, to enroll oneself in a
definitive way in this school of love. If one is prepared just to give
love a try and to abandon it if it doesn't seem to work, it will not work
nor will one ever become a person truly able to love.
Q: How does marriage achieve, deepen, mature and make permanent one's
Monsignor Burke: Above all by drawing out of ourselves. We will never get
started on the way to happiness until we realize that the main obstacle is
our own self
— our self-centered concerns, worries and calculations.
Paradoxically all these are absolute obstacles to personal happiness.
The paradox should not be difficult for the Christian to understand, for
it goes to the heart of Christ's teaching on those who selfishly,
calculatingly seek their lives: "Whoever seeks his life will lose it;
whoever loses it for my sake, will find it." The phrase "for my sake"
points to all that is good, generous, pure and worthwhile.
One of the most common modern errors is to think that happiness comes by
calculation. We think that our happiness depends on thinking things out
cleverly and accurately: "Will this plus that, minus the other, make me
happy?" It is not so. Personal happiness and the happiness of marriage
depend mainly on generosity and sacrifice.
Q: How do children bring happiness to a marriage and to the individual
Monsignor Burke: This century has come to separate and oppose married
fulfillment and having children. Many look on marriage just as a tandem
happiness à deux
which children are regarded as a possible advantage or a possible
hindrance to personal fulfillment. This is fundamentally not to trust
God's design for marriage.
Those who marry need to ponder that each child is a totally unique and
unmatchable gift to the spouses' union and love. They also need to realize
that children challenge each spouse's capacity to love even more than
conjugal life does. Only the person who is prepared to face up to the
challenges of love will grow in love.
Forty years of emphasis on self-fulfillment or on material comfort have
been accompanied by an equal emphasis on family limitation.
one or two, at the most
have come to be regarded as "optional extras" for a couple, not as the
natural fulfillment of their married aspirations. Job, status, social
life, gadgets, vacations, ease and comfort are seen as offering more
happiness than children would.
Yet, if one is to judge from the growing number of broken homes, fewer
children does not seem to have led to greater married stability,
fulfillment or happiness.
Catholic couples, too, have been deeply affected by the family planning
mentality, to the extent that a "planned" family is often presented as a
norm in pre-marriage instruction. Most of our young people marrying today
probably regard natural family planning as a normal part of marriage;
many, for whom it was never designed, are experiencing its effects on
their married life.
Q: What can hinder marital happiness?
Monsignor Burke: The sacrament of marriage brings special graces to a
couple to persevere in the mission of caring for each other and for the
children God gives them.
Neglect of the sacrament can indeed hinder that happiness, because the
sacrament carries with it sacramental grace
specific aid from God that helps couples to live up to the commitment
involved in married love.
Marriage is not a sacrament that you "go to" often, as one goes to holy
Communion; it is, rather, a sacrament that is received once. But to be
faithful one needs to invoke the sacrament's grace constantly, as a priest
needs to invoke the sacrament of his ordination.
Q: How does Pope John Paul II's "theology of the body" contribute to
Monsignor Burke: Pope John Paul presents the body as an instrument of
interpersonal communion, teaching that this is true only where the full
human meaning of the body and interbody relationship is respected, which
is not so in contraception. To deliberately nullify the life-orientation
of the conjugal act is to destroy its essential power to signify union.
Contraception denies the "language of the body." It turns the marital act
into self-deception, or into a mutual lie between the spouses themselves;
for one is not really giving oneself, nor is one really accepting the
Q: How does freedom play out in marriage?
Monsignor Burke: Many today consider that to bind oneself in an
irrevocable choice amounts to losing one's freedom. Not so. To marry is to
commit oneself to a constant loving exercise of freedom.
What sort of love is it that prefers to leave the "way out" always open?
The person truly in love is not afraid of losing his or her freedom, but
of losing his or her love. It is not the freedom to pledge oneself that
one should fear, but the freedom to go back on one's pledge.
The freedom we should be afraid of is the freedom to be unfaithful
which accompanies us to the end. That is why the humble lover feels the
need to pray, "Lord, make me faithful."
It's also why those who do back out are sad, for they have not only let
down those who should be dear to them, they have let themselves down, too.
There is no easy way to happiness. Those who seek divorce because of the
difficulties that marriage involves are simply balking at the difficulties
that happiness involves. They are settling themselves on the road that
leads away from happiness.
Q: How can following the Church's teachings on marriage, children and
contraception bring married couples to true happiness?
Monsignor Burke: If a couple that does not observe Church teachings seems
to be happy today, probably theirs is a very superficial happiness with a
large element of unconquered selfishness. And there is little promise that
they will be happy tomorrow.
As against this, today too there are many couples that try to be
unconditionally in God's hands, accepting both that their marriage is "for
keeps" and that God is the best natural family planner. God is the one
with most knowledge and longest experience, who best knows the answer to
the question: "How many children can crown our family project?"
As long as one looks at the question of happiness from a purely individual
and ultimately self-concerned viewpoint, it will be hard to grasp how
positive the Church's teaching is. The happiness of a Christian lies also
in being sharers in God's plans. The sense of this great privilege has to
be at the root of our happiness.
Married couples today need to be more aware of the marvelous witness they
are called to give to a world that doesn't trust God. Pope John Paul II
writes in "Familiaris Consortio" that "To bear witness to the inestimable
value of the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most
precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples in our time."
Indissolubility and procreativity are the two great values of marriage
that are looked on today as negative burdens, whereas they are keys to
true fulfillment and happiness. A united and happy couple is a testimony
to the possibility and worth of unbreakable love, just as a united and
happy family is a testimony to the blessedness of children.