The Crisis of Marriage
Anyone at Mass on the first Sunday in October heard the same readings, including the bishops congregated in Rome for the Synod on the Family.
They were from Genesis: the creation of woman to be man's perfect companion "bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh" (establishing marriage). And from the gospel of Mark: Jesus challenged by the Pharisees on the question of divorce. His response: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her."
These are challenging words for any congregation to hear, and point to an important area of discussion at the Synod. As has been reported in the Catholic press, a letter has been sent to Pope Francis by several cardinals stating that the Synod may be in danger of sowing confusion about how the Church should "interpret and apply the Word of God...to changes in the culture." The cardinals warn that "The collapse of liberal Protestant churches in the modern area, accelerated by their abandonment of key elements of Christian belief and practice, in the name of pastoral adaptation, warrants great caution."
Christian belief and practice in relation to marriage is based on the words of Jesus. They were revolutionary when first proposed and no less so now. It is a high ideal, a union indissoluble to death, wife and husband equal in responsibility and worth, a partnership exclusive and fruitful. This was a challenge for the Jews of Jesus's time, when a man was allowed to divorce his wife and remarry. Jesus explained that Moses allowed this because of their "hardness of heart," but it was not what the Creator intended. For the early Greeks and Romans who received the doctrine, this new concept was even more radical. The faithfulness demanded of the husband seemed bizarre and even unmanly, and a prohibition against divorce and remarriage absurd.
That teaching seems to create similar discomfort for average Catholics. In every pew, in every church, are couples cohabiting, or in second or third marriages, as well as the children of families blended by divorce and remarriage. The words ringing from the pulpit just don't sound merciful to our modern sensibilities, steeped in a culture of individuality, consumerism, and self-realization, where the thought of struggling through an unhappy marriage or denying oneself the gratification of a sexual inclination appears on the order of martyrdom.
The Synod on the Family is confronting the troubling reality that is the crisis of marriage and family. At the root of it is an almost complete lack of understanding of the nature and rewards of a Christian marriage, even among Catholics. Instruction is woefully inadequate. How can people live up to an ideal which is not taught or explained, and which the wider culture disdains?
Finding modern Catholics at sea on the subject, some cardinals are suggesting a relaxation of what they say are rigorous laws that deny Communion to remarried Catholics, as well as a more welcoming approach to homosexuality and same-sex relations. They call this a way for the Church to harmonize "fidelity (to the law) and mercy in its pastoral practice," implying that mercy and God's law are at odds with each other.
The General Rapporteur for the Synod, Cardinal Erdo, took a firm stand against this view in his keynote address at the start of the meeting. He explained that mercy is only real when it points the way to the right path, offering forgiveness, but requiring conversion. A simple relaxation of the law, or a change in doctrine to accommodate social realities is not true mercy. The doctrines on the family exist not to punish or restrict, but because they are good; they lead to human flourishing.
As Pope Francis noted, the family revolution of the past decades "has often flown the flag of freedom, but in fact it has brought spiritual and material devastation to countless human beings, especially the poorest and most vulnerable." Strong, indissoluble families, where children are welcomed and then raised by their mother and father to be virtuous adults is the ideal.
Offering Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics would foster the idea that marriage is just one more commitment that can be abandoned when hearts change and that a new commitment can fully take the place of the old. Instead, Erdo confirmed that "a pastoral, merciful accompaniment is obligatory," but "this must leave no doubt about the truth of the indissolubility of marriage taught by Jesus Christ himself." This is mercy, but mercy based on truth; a truth that when grasped "in all its fullness and all its holiness...is a true way to felicity."
It remains to be seen whether the letter allegedly sent to Pope Francis was, in fact, the work of the thirteen signatories listed, and what, if any, effect it will have on the Synod. It's clear, however, from his past statements and writings that he agrees that marriage and family are a true way to felicity.
Not easy or consistently pleasurable, and certainly requiring persistent self-giving and dedication. But the rewards are immeasurable. Our pastors and the Synod fathers must be courageous when faced with a wider culture that disdains the paths of lasting happiness.