Editor’s note: Catholic World Report recently held an essay contest for students at Ave Maria University in Florida, in which students were asked to reflect upon the main themes of last October’s Synod on the Family. The following essay is the winner of the contest.
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus teaches concerning marriage, “What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mark 10:9). He is instructing married people to turn their individualistic ideas into the self-sacrificing reality of what it means to be a couple according to God’s original plan for man and woman. This is a truth that is often forgotten in our society today. As someone who is recently engaged and has been going through marriage preparation, I find it disheartening that society views marriage as something almost meaningless. At this year’s Synod on the Family, Pope Francis in his opening homily said: “For God, marriage is not some adolescent utopia, but a dream without which his creatures will be doomed to solitude! Indeed, being afraid to accept this plan paralyzes the human heart.” Many in our culture today have a predominantly feelings-based, soulmate idea of marriage without an understanding of commitment. C.S. Lewis, in his The Abolition of Man, calls such people “men without chests.” This is the underlying problem of a culture of negativity towards the family that the Synod sought to address.
One of the first major issues Pope Francis took note of in his opening address is the lack of young people getting married and having families. As the Synod’s final report noted, there are many young people who see “marriage as the great longing of their life and the project of a proper family as the realization of their aspirations” and are settling with postponing marriage, whether for work or study or monetary reasons. Additionally, many are paralyzed by a fear that their marriage would fail and they are unwilling to take that risk. Most alarmingly, many see marriage as only an emotional and romantic friendship, and not a lifelong commitment of self-sacrifice for the other. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis alludes to this, saying: “The head rules the belly through the chest,” seeing the head as our rationality, the chest as values, and the belly as our fundamental drives and desires. The behavior of young people is often determined at the level of the belly. Many do not feel a need to get married because, with contraception and abortion, one can enjoy the sexual pleasures and emotional intimacy of marriage without a lifelong commitment and the raising of children. In order to combat this, the Synod Fathers declared that “the young baptized ought to be encouraged not to hesitate before the richness which the sacrament of marriage brings to their plans for love, strong in the support they receive from the grace of Christ and from the possibility of participating fully in the life of the Church.” The Church must be forming the heart of the people of our generation to pursue the good of the family for what it truly is.
Another important topic of the Synod was how those who are baptized and civilly remarried should be more integrated into Christian communities. The Synod’s final document said that such persons must know “not only that they belong to the Body of Christ which is the Church, but that they may have a joyous and fruitful experience of this.” Some Synod Fathers suggested that the divorced and remarried ought to be admitted to communion in spite of living in a state contrary to the words of Jesus. The majority of the Fathers, thankfully, did not agree with this position. For Christ himself said that he who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery. The Church must look to address the underlying problems. While there are of course significant exceptions which must be pastorally addressed, the majority of couples are getting divorced because things start going bad and they think they will be “happier” with someone else. C.S. Lewis states that “no emotion is, in itself, a judgement: in that sense all emotions and sentiments are alogical.” Married couples must not be so easily swayed by emotions and feelings. The focus needs to be on what is permanent and remaining. For the “heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” Marriage is indissoluble and is made to last through the joys and sufferings life brings.
During one of the marriage workshops that my fiancé and I attended, we were shocked to find out the number of couples that were already living together, and were even more shocked when the topic was never addressed. In many countries there are a growing number of couples that are cohabitating, a state “often chosen because of a general attitude contrary to institutions and definitive commitments,” according to the Synod’s final report. I believe this situation should be confronted in a charitable yet constructive manner. Many couples often resist the sacramental union yet still want to direct their relationship towards stability. This desire has the potential to translate into a lasting bond that is trustworthy and open to life, but the Church needs to direct them. She has to do more than affirm them in their nonsacramental state, and she should challenge couples to realize that they do not have to be, as Lewis said, “guided by their bellies.”
At the conclusion of the Synod, Pope Francis said that the “the Church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations or anathemas, but to proclaim God’s mercy, to call to conversion, and to lead all men and women to salvation in the Lord.” Pope Francis is definitely right, but the Church also cannot turn a blind eye to the issues at hand. She needs to inspire people with true mercy, which teaches them that a virtuous life is not only possible, but the key to a happy life. The Church needs to hold up more examples for the faithful of what a joy-filled marriage looks like. Perhaps the Year of Mercy could include canonization of more married saints. As a young person about to get married, my hope and prayer is that Pope Francis continues to lead the Church in changing the culture of marriage.
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