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October 02, 2015
As this year’s Synod on the Family opens, Church leaders must be willing to clarify what Christian marriage is and what it is not, and propose it with a prophetic stance to a culture that becomes more and more ideological.
New spouses exchange rings as Pope Francis celebrates the marriage rite for 20 couples during a Mass in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Sept. 14, 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

This is the final part of an essay by Dr. Kampowski addressing theological arguments on pastoral approaches to marriage and family, especially those raised during last year’s Synod of Bishops. This installment is a call to Church leaders to clarify the ideal of Christian marriage in a culture characterized by denial of natural law, and to take a prophetic stance in its proclamation of marriage and family life.

The first part of Dr. Kampowski’s essay can be read here, the second here, the third here, and the fourth here.

Whose ideology? A culture in denial

The main concern of the 2014 Synod, of the German bishops, and of Schockenhoff and others, is absolutely pressing: how to communicate the Gospel to today’s world? What role do marriage and family have in this? How to bridge the gap between the Church’s teaching on sexuality, marriage, and the family on the one hand and people’s concrete life situations on the other? It seems that Schockenhoff, the German bishops, and some paragraphs of the 2014 Synod reports suggest confronting the latter problem by taking steps toward a de-idealization, a coming to terms with human frailty that would allow us to discern elements of truth and goodness in situations that are as such characterized by imperfection, if not brokenness. We have seen, however, that these “constructive elements” are a tricky issue. More often than not they are not simply imperfect realizations of the ideal of Christian marriage and family, marked by some deficiencies but essentially going into the same direction. Rather, we have seen that far from being analogous to the “seeds of the Word” present in the different non-Christian religions and cultures, the defining elements of the non-marital unions we have discussed are not preparatory of but rather directly opposed to the Christian ideal of marriage and family. They are not the elements to build on but to convert from.

What other roads are open, then, to address the predicament that all are agreed on? There is, of course, still another possible approach, also present in the synodal documents, that may be more helpful than the pragmatic, de-idealizing one. In consists first of all in clarifying what the ideal of Christian marriage and family actually is and what it is not, and then in proposing it with a prophetic stance, confronting a culture that becomes more and more ideological. It is ironic to hear people charge the Church with being ideological, while it is precisely the surrounding Western culture that has turned ideological, if by ideological we mean the insistence on the logic of an idea detached from reality. Who, really, is more removed from reality (that is, more ideological)? Is it the Church or is it our pansexualistic Western culture? The latter proposes that sex has nothing to do with procreation; that two men or two women can “marry” (and the basis of marriage is personal affection); that whoever desires a child has the right to a child (and desires are the basis of rights)—to name just a few convictions that imply a complete denial of reality. 

The Church, on the other hand, reminds us that: human sexuality is ordered to procreation, in this way disclosing to us a vocation and a mission that allows us to go beyond ourselves, a true call to love that transcends the isolation of the couple; that therefore, in order to be able to marry, two people need to be sexually differentiated; and that children, though the supreme fruit and the defining goal of the spousal union, are necessarily a gift, not a right, since they are persons whose being cannot be reduced to a function of other people’s desires.

Who is more removed from reality? The question is of course rhetorical. It is clearly today’s Western culture that has become ideological. It has become attached to an idea that is completely detached from the way things are. For the pastors and teachers of the Church, who want to proclaim the gospel of the family to this kind of culture, the main question then becomes: how best to address someone who is in almost complete denial of reality? Imagine we need to deal with someone ready to jump into an empty pool from 10 meters. He insists that there is water in the pool. However, all the empirical evidence is to the contrary: no water can be seen, heard, touched, tasted, or smelled. Still he is convinced, believing in invisible water. In our attempt to prevent him from jumping, we will not consider how many of his absurd convictions we can grant him so he will feel understood and finally listen to us. When expressing our unconditional love for him, we will do everything we can not to be misunderstood as encouraging him to proceed. Furthermore, we will definitely not ponder whether jumping into an empty pool is not in many ways similar to jumping into a pool filled with water, possibly containing constructive elements of the latter or preparing people for it. We will rather take a prophetic stance. We will cry out: Don’t jump! There is no water in the pool! If you jump, you will die! This, at least, is what love and mercy would require us to do in this specific situation.

Now what the Church has called by the name of “sin” are precisely acts that hurt or kill us. This is why God forbids us to do them. This is also why the Church has an obligation to speak out prophetically. Of course, if we have a legalistic idea of morality, we will find it difficult to see this. Then, for us, the problem with sinful acts would simply be that they are forbidden. If people have difficulties in living the moral law, the evident solution will be to change it, adapting the moral law to people’s capacities, so that, with the law changed, they will no longer be sinning.

But the moral law is really about our good and bad. The good or the bad are always in the acts themselves; sin is always also its own punishment (though God or human authorities may also punish it), just as virtue is always also its own reward (though God or human authorities may also reward it). If we really believe that sinning is like jumping into a pool without water, then we will have no doubt that we have to warn those about to plunge themselves into it. And while we will bind the wounds of those who have already jumped, we will also encourage them not to jump again.

This prophetic approach has also been present in the synodal documents. A very clear expression can be found in the Instrumentum laboris used in preparation of the 2014 extra-ordinary synod, which reports how “a good number of episcopal conferences mention that, when the teaching of the Church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful. When an overall view of marriage and the family is sufficiently set forth according to tenets of the Christian faith, its truth, goodness and beauty is clearly visible.”[1] This approach was also emphasized in some of the Synod’s minor circles. Thus, for instance, the Synod Fathers gathered in the Italian circle “B” to discuss the midterm report detected in that text a certain fear “of expressing a judgment on different issues that have now become the dominant cultural expressions.” For them, however, “this does not seem to be coherent with the Church’s prophetic mission.” They continue:

It is important for the text to express in the best possible way the prophetic role that is proper to the pastors and the Christian community, well aware that we are not looking for an easy populism that appeases and attenuates everything, but that we have the responsibility to express also a judgment that comes from the Word of God. […] This becomes evident especially in the face of situations that are taken as a form of de-institutionalization of marriage and family by virtue of alleged individual right.[2]

The comments by the Italian language group “C” went along similar lines:

These Fathers […] consider it indispensable for the Relatio to reaffirm in an explicit manner the teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality, without hesitations in making use of the categories of “sin” and “adultery” and “conversion” with respect to situations objectively in contrast with the Gospel of the family. The same Fathers insist on the fact that using euphemisms can lead to misunderstandings among the faithful, especially for the distorted interpretations made by great part of the non-specialized press.[3]

But also the extra-ordinary Synod’s final text, of course, contains elements of this “prophetic” approach. Thus we learn in its number 28 that “the most merciful thing is to tell the truth in love,” and thus to “go beyond compassion.” A love that is truly merciful “is an invitation to conversion.” In this way, “we understand the Lord’s attitude […]; he does not condemn the adulterous woman, but asks her to sin no more (Jn 8:1-11).”[4]

The solution to the problem of communicating the gospel of the family to the people of our age is thus not to adjust the message in a way that it becomes more acceptable to a pansexualistic ideology, for instance by renouncing the received teaching that sexual acts are ordered to marital love and find their fulfillment only in this context. This pragmatic approach would not at all make people more disposed to listen to the Church. It would only confirm them in their conviction that there is no truth about human sexuality, that everything is equally valid and ultimately indifferent. The Church, too, would become indifferent in their eyes; she would render herself insignificant. The Anglicans have strictly observed the pragmatic path. The result is that today the UK boasts of more practicing Catholics than practicing Anglicans, if we take Sunday Church attendance as a criterion.[5] What Mary Tudor did not manage—restore England to Catholicism—the Anglican bishops are on their way to achieving without spilling any blood. Why would we Catholics want to imitate an approach that has evidently not proven to be very helpful?

Which ideal? A Gospel of Hope

But of course, if we suggest taking a prophetic stance, we need to clarify what this stance is on. Those who charge the Church’s teaching with being ideological oftentimes critique positions no one actually holds or that are, in any case, distorted. John Paul II’s Wednesday Catecheses on God’s plan for human love—the “Theology of the Body”—amount to a handsome book of more than 600 pages in some editions. And some may indeed manage only to get through the first part of what is not easy reading. That’s fair. But then it’s no longer fair if someone who has read only the first part of John Paul II’s reflections on human love before the Fall and has never reached his chapters on concupiscence and the hardness of the heart proceeds to conclude that John Paul II romanticizes human love. No official Church document, by John Paul II or anyone else, is presenting a romanticized image of human love, a “fusion ideology” as some put it.[6]

Of course, the Church is optimistic, but this would have to be the job of anyone whose main business it is to proclaim good news. She is confident that love is possible, that through human effort collaborating with God’s grace, Eros can be transformed into Agape, which is directed at the core of who the other is as person. She is convinced that the call to holiness is not only for the few (clerics and religious), but for all the baptized. She has hope for human beings when she assigns great significance to human sexuality. Sexual acts are not just some form of entertainment among others, a conception that would render them banal. Rather, the sphere of sexuality discloses to us our vocation to fruitfulness, to father- or motherhood. Therefore the very meaning of our lives is at stake here. The Church is hopeful that, given this great significance of human sexuality, people are able to govern and modify their sexual behavior, i.e., that they are able to abstain should love require it. And love may require it often. Love for one’s future spouse and for one’s possible children requires abstinence before marriage. Love for one’s actual husband or wife and for one’s possible or actual children may at times require it also during marriage (ill health, business trips). She is hopeful when she proposes that, for this, one does not need a special vocation short of the vocation to love which is common to all, as is the vocation to holiness that is love’s perfection.

The Church does not negate that there are incredible difficulties and tremendous sufferings. But she also believes that by God’s grace forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. She is optimistic in believing that even the worst sinner may still convert and turn from his ways, inviting spouses, betrayed, abused or unjustly abandoned to share in this hope. Failure is final only when you give up. To be sure, there may not actually be any reconciliation. But as long as you don’t give up by entering a new union with someone else, the possibility of reconciliation will be there until the final hour. The Church is realistic in believing that conflicts, wounds and hurts are part of life. She is optimistic in trusting that by God’s grace a family can cultivate a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation, starting with the small things so that the big things may not even happen, and never giving up on the other. Forgiving means not to identify the other with the wrong he or she has done to us and to share in the hope that God has for that person that he or she may still convert. If we truly love someone, we will have hope for him or her. For those abandoned by their spouse, this hope and this love for the other may mean that they live for the rest of their lives without another intimate relationship. It does not mean they are abandoned by God, by the Church, and by their friends. And perhaps there will indeed be a reconciliation, perhaps not. But the door always remains open. A light is left on for the other at all times.

Perhaps this is indeed romantic. It is definitely optimistic. It is not ideological, that is, it is not an idea detached from reality. The reality is that we are not alone. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses (cf. Heb 12:1) who testify that it is possible to love unconditionally: the community of believers made up of those presently alive and those who have gone before us. We have a tremendous grace at our disposal, given that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5). We live in a broken world, we are sinful and fragile people, and yet, all this notwithstanding, we are able to love because of God’s healing grace.

Importantly, however, loving someone does not mean to live in perfect harmony and never experience conflicts. To love according to Jesus Christ is to be struck and not to strike back, to pray for those who persecute us, to have hope even for our enemies, who may well be the members of our own household (cf. Mt 10:36)—that is, to hope for them that they may still convert and one day become our friends again. This is optimistic, all right, but it is not ideological, detached from reality. It is rather a belief in the reality of the power of God, who indeed performs his miracles. As Christians we believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. We even believe that he turns a piece of bread into Christ’s own body. How come we find it so difficult to believe he can also heal a broken relationship? He may or may not do it—and he always leaves room for human freedom—but he certainly can do it.

What brought me personally to the faith was the healing of my parents’ relationship, which for me, a boy of 13 years at the time, was a greater miracle than any divine healing in the physical order. God must exist, because my parents, having found him, have also found the way back to each other, at first continuing their fighting as usual, but then, after certain words had been exchanged and the tears had duly flown, always adding a moment of asking and conceding forgiveness. They still quarreled, but were always reconciled after each argument, starting to pray with and for each other. This was a new and immediate change. As a result, their very relationship, which had been on the brink of breakup, became deeply transformed in a process that still took years and even decades, including several crises and many tears. But since they allowed God to mold them, as the potter molds clay, for the last years before my father’s passing their relationship did indeed become harmonious: two hearts had become one, a living miracle testifying to what God can do to our relationships if we give him permission. Along these lines, Pope Francis explains the importance of forgiveness in the life of couples: “We all know that the perfect family does not exist, nor a perfect husband or wife […] We sinners exist. Jesus, who knows us well, teaches us a secret: don’t let a day end without asking forgiveness […] If we learn to say sorry and ask one another for forgiveness, the marriage will last and move forward. When elderly couples, celebrating 50 years together, come to audiences or Mass here at Santa Marta I ask them: ‘Who supported whom?’ […] Everyone looks at each other, they look at me and say: ‘Both!’ And this is beautiful!”[7] This is beautiful and it is real. It is not an ideology but a reality—a reality often very painful and always quite laborious with an outcome that is never guaranteed, which does not make it any less real, since it is certainly possible. This is all we need to know.

[1] General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum laboris, III Extraordinary General Assembly, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization, Vatican City 2014.

[2] Italian Circle “B,” “Reports of the Minor Circles,” October 16, 2014;

[3] Italian Circle “C,” “Reports of the Minor Circles,” October 16, 2014;

[4] Relatio Synodi, n. 28.

[5] Cf. Jonathan Wynne-Jones, “Britain has become a ‘Catholic country,’” Sunday Telegraph (December 23, 2007) (last access: March 22, 2015).

[6] Cf. Regina Ammicht Quinn, “Vom Leben für andere: Frauenfragen als Beziehungsfragen? Überlegungen aus der Perspektive theologischer Ethik,” in: Marianne Heimbach-Steins - Gudrun Cyprian (eds.), Familienbilder. Interdisziplinäre Sondierungen, Oppenladen 2003, 66, as cited in Heimbach-Steins, “Die Idealisierung von Ehe und Familie in der kirchlichen Moralverkündigung,” in Konrad Hilpert, ed., Zukunftshorizonte katholischer Sexualethik, Herder, Freiburg i.Br. 2011, p. 301.

[7] Francis, Address to Engaged Couples Preparing for Marriage, February 14, 2014.

About the Author
Stephan Kampowski 

Stephan Kampowski is professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Following his doctoral dissertation on the action theory and moral thought of Hannah Arendt, his recent work has focused on issues in bioethics.

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