The Extraordinary Meeting of the Synod of Bishops begins this Sunday, October 5, and will last for two weeks, concluding on Sunday, October 19 with the Solemn Concelebration of the Holy Mass and the Beatification of the Servant of God Paul VI in St. Peter’s Square. As the Synod gets underway, here are four suggestions—with an applicable verse from Sacred Scripture—for those interested in better grasping and more effectively articulating the beauty of the Church’s teaching on marriage and family:
First, listen to the Church’s teaching with fresh ears and avoid excessive preoccupation with controversial issues. “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mk 4:9).
It is helpful to acknowledge from the outset that the Church and her teaching will likely come out the loser in mainstream media coverage of the Synod. Many of our reigning cultural elites and the institutions under their charge have too much vested in pushing their own agenda and worldview to give the Church a fair hearing.
Predictably, much of their coverage will focus exclusively on hot-button issues: the reception of Holy Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics; the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples; the use of contraception; and so forth. Even these issues, however, will be covered only through a narrow lens: Closed-minded Conservative Prelates vs. Open-minded Progressive Prelates; The Wrong Side of History vs. The Right Side of History; The Church’s War against Women; and the like.
It is incumbent on serious Catholics, therefore, to seek out thoughtful considerations of the Church’s teaching, most of which will be found in faithful Catholic media outlets. Even then, however, it is best to avoid excessive concentration on the controversial issues, but rather listen with fresh ears to the Gospel of the Family. It is only within the context of deep and prayerful reflection on God’s revelation concerning marriage and family that light is shed on how to effectively understand and respond to the pressing moral and doctrinal questions.
Secondly, recognize the real battle over marriage and family is ultimately a spiritual battle. “We are not contenting against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness” (Eph 6:12).
It is good to keep in mind the following rule of thumb: when God calls us to a mission that is particularly crucial for the good of souls, the enemy will bombard us with distractions to throw us off task. The more significant the mission, the more we can count on the enemy to distract and obfuscate.
Teaching the truth about marriage and family has always been central to the Church’s primary mission: evangelizing and proclaiming the Gospel. In our present cultural climate, however, it is more crucial than ever. How so?
Marriage is meant to be both a prophetic sign and a sacrament. As prophetic sign, marriage reveals Christ’s spousal love for the Church. As sacrament, marriage enables husbands and wives to love each other with Christ’s spousal love. The family is meant to be a prophetic sign that reveals the love that exists between the divine communion of Persons in the Trinity. As an icon of the Trinity and the domestic church, God blesses the family with the grace of experiencing the love of the divine Communio Personarum through the love of their own communio personarum.
It is too easy to gloss over these truths without taking them seriously, without asking ourselves: What if they are true? However, it is good to pause and contemplate the consequences of distorting the truth about marriage and family. If God instituted marriage as the place where spouses encounter Christ’s spousal love, and if God instituted the family as the place where we encounter the love of the Trinity, the ultimate effect of distorted teaching is that many people will not truly encounter God and experience his love for them.
In a world that has come to perceive the mere existence of God as a fairytale or superstition — let alone the existence of a God who is love and who cares for us intimately — the enemy will go to great lengths to deconstruct marriage and family. The enemy would like not only to obscure the truths about marriage and family but, more radically, twist them into anti-signs, into an anti-witness that becomes an obstacle to knowing and experiencing the truth about God and his love for us.
Third, understand that speaking the truth about marriage and family now requires a willingness to suffer and take up the cross. “If you wish to follow me, pick up your cross daily” (Lk 9:23).
Perhaps the unique gift the Synod will give us the grace to suffer the Cross well in order to give patient and effective witness to the truth about marriage and family. It is becoming clear that the common-sense definition of marriage — a wedding needs a bridegroom and bride; a marriage needs a husband and wife; and children need their mom and dad — is not only being rejected as false, but as dangerously false. Laws enacted to uphold the common-sense definition are rapidly being struck down — precisely on grounds that they have no rational basis and are thus inherently unjust.
It is worthwhile to pause and seriously consider what it means to hold a view of marriage and family that society’s laws and dominant cultural institutions officially stamp irrational and unjust. Distilling it down to its most unexaggerated terms, it means marginalization, suffering and ultimately the Cross. How so?
The appropriate response to a truly unjust law is to work vigorously to eliminate it through licit means. It is licit, for example, to overturn an unjust law by creating new legislation which compels citizens to act justly and penalizes them for acting unjustly. Likewise, it is entirely legitimate to educate citizens to reject the irrational thinking that underpinned the unjust law in the first place.
Consider, for example, how the U.S. struck down the unjust Jim Crow laws; how we’ve worked to eliminate racial discrimination; and how we’ve worked to marginalize voices that express racist prejudice. Can you imagine a teacher openly advocating racist ideology in the classroom without being penalized? Can you imagine a business practicing racial discrimination without being penalized?
In fact, no person working in the public square today can even privately hold to the view that a person’s dignity is determined by race without receiving some form of opprobrium. And rightly so, because such a view is not grounded in reality and is, therefore, irrational and unjust.
If the push to redefine marriage ultimately prevails, however, the same vigorous legal and cultural pressures will be marshalled against those who advocate the view that by definition marriage can only be: the faithful, life-long union of one man and one woman who are open to procreation and raising children. We will, thus, be viewed in similar fashion as the racist: our voice will be marginalized and we will be penalized for holding on to our position.
Fourth, assume the best about our opponents who are working to redefine marriage, because they may not truly know the negative consequences of what they’re seeking to do. “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
Many people, perhaps even most, who’ve been persuaded to accept the redefinition of marriage believe they are acting from a sincere desire for a more just social order. The problem, of course, is that they have been duped into believing something that is truly unjust (redefining marriage) is in fact just — precisely through an appeal to their inherent desire for social justice.
If laws defining marriage as the life-long union of one man and one woman who are open to having and raising children did lack a rational basis and were therefore unjust, it would be entirely appropriate to work toward eliminating these laws and the thinking which underpins them. The aspirations, and even the logic, of those who advocate the redefinition of marriage is sound. Importantly, however, their premises are not.
Astute Catholic thinkers have observed that the push to redefine marriage didn’t begin with the movement to include same-sex unions in the definition of marriage. Rather, it began with the widespread acceptance of contraception, which separated sex from procreation and legitimized the permissibility of intentionally rendering sexual acts infertile. It continued with the widespread acceptance of no-fault divorce, which eliminated the understanding of marriage as an indissoluble union and, thus, legitimized the notion that children do not have a right to be raised by their married mothers and fathers. And it was further bolstered by the widespread acceptance of creating children through Artificial Reproductive Technologies, which separated procreation from the sexual union of husband and wife and, thus, legitimized the notion that children do not have the right to be conceived as the fruit of the permanent, life-long union of their mother and father.
In Familiaris Consortio, St. John Paul II wrote: “The difference, both anthropological and moral, between contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle . . . is a difference which is much wider and deeper than is usually thought, one which involves in the final analysis two irreconcilable concepts of the human person and of human sexuality” (emphasis mine).
We could just as easily substitute the difference between “contraception and recourse to the rhythm of the cycle” with the difference between indissoluble marriage and no-fault divorce or the difference between marriage as the union of one man and one woman with marriage as the union of same-sex couples.
In the end, the push to redefine marriage is based on a concept of the human person and of human sexuality that is irreconcilable with the Church’s teaching. The crisis the Church faces, of course, is that many Catholics no longer believe in the Church’s understanding of the human person and of human sexuality. People are rarely willing to advocate, let alone suffer, for something they do not believe to be true. Moreover, few people are willing to join or remain in an organization whose main teachings contradict what they hold to be true.
If we are unwilling to allow the Church to inform our beliefs and actions, we will bolt. We will leave the Church in favor of the culture.
If, however, we become convinced by truth of the Church’s teachings — even if it goes against the grain of previously held and culturally imposed beliefs — we will be willing to keep hold of this truth, even if this means we will surely suffer marginalization and the Cross. We will allow the Church to inform our beliefs rather than the culture.
The task of the Synod on the Family, then, is not so much to solve this or that hot-button moral issue. Rather, it is to evangelize and proclaim the truth and beauty of her teachings concerning the human person and human sexuality, to give persuasive reasons for believing these teachings. It is only within the context of these prior teachings that we are able to make sense of and give effective witness to the Church’s moral and doctrinal positions on marriage and family.
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