July 12, 2015
In today’s Gospel, Jesus sends His disciples forth on a mission; they go with nothing but a walking stick and they go to preach repentance. They carry no money; they carry no food or provisions. They don’t even take a change of clothes.
Now, I ask you: If I were to come to your house and ask food, lodging, and laundry service and what you get in return is being told you need to change your ways and come closer to Jesus, would you welcome me? Some would. Some would not. The message of repentance is sometimes not an easy one to hear.
It’s not an easy one to deliver, either. We all want to be liked; I’m no exception. If I tell you to repent… to change your ways… well, you might decide you don’t want to hear that. You might become angry at me for telling you that. Sometimes a message is a hard one to hear and accept, and it is easy to blame the messenger. It takes nothing on the part of the one casting the blame beyond an easy mustering of indignation and an overdeveloped love of self. On the other hand, it takes real humility and wisdom to hear a hard message – one that maybe hits uncomfortably close to home – and if not welcome that message, at least give it consideration and perhaps allow it to work a change for the good in your life.
I have kept my mouth largely shut, at least in the public sphere, over the last several weeks, but I have listened very carefully as a debate has raged in our nation over a recent Supreme Court decision. I imagine you probably know the one I mean. Now, however, I would like to take a few minutes to remind all of us what Holy Mother Church teaches regarding marriage.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church gives us a very clear, simple definition of what marriage is: “MARRIAGE: A covenant or partnership of life between a man and woman, which is ordered to the well-being of the spouses and to the procreation and upbringing of children. When validly contracted between two baptized people, marriage is a sacrament.”
The important points here are these four: first, marriage is sacramental. Second, the purpose of marriage is twofold: the good of the spouses and the procreation and raising of children. Third, marriage is a lifelong commitment. And fourth, marriage is between a man and a woman. Our society has challenged and, to one degree or another, rejected every one of these four points. Acceptance of divorce as a means to dissolve marriage rejects the notion of a lifelong commitment. Legal recognition of invalidly contracted unions rejects the sacramentality of marriage. Acceptance of cohabitation rejects the well-being of the spouses as an end of marriage. Acceptance of contraception and abortion rejects the procreation and raising of children as an end of marriage. And, of course, the recent Supreme Court decision and the acceptance of that decision by the public-at-large rejects the fact that true marriage is between a man and a woman. Rejection of a truth does not make that truth any less true; it simply makes the one doing the rejecting wrong.
The Church’s Code of Canon Law, the set of rules and canons by which our Catholic Church is governed, states in canon 1055, paragraphs 1 and 2 that, “The matrimonial covenant, by which a man and a woman establish between themselves a partnership of the whole of life and which is ordered by its nature to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of offspring, has been raised by Christ the Lord to the dignity of a sacrament between the baptized. For this reason, a valid matrimonial contract cannot exist between the baptized without it being by that fact a sacrament.”
Notice that the Code restates (although in slightly more technical language) everything that the Catechism teaches, but it stresses even more the sacramentality of marriage. It goes so far as to state that if a marriage is valid, it is by its nature sacramental. Invalid marriages are not truly marriages, and a marriage is invalid if it does not meet the criteria presented in both the Catechism and the Code.
Now, it would be a mistake at this point to conclude that the Catholic Church has its understanding of marriage and civil society has its understanding of marriage and that the root of the problem is nothing more than using the same word to refer to two vastly different institutions. Listen to what the Church’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World adds to the Church’s teaching on marriage: “The intimate partnership of married life and love has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws, and is rooted in the conjugal covenant of irrevocable personal consent. Hence by that human act whereby spouses mutually bestow and accept each other a relationship arises which by divine will and in the eyes of society too is a lasting one. For the good of the spouses and their off-springs as well as of society, the existence of the sacred bond no longer depends on human decisions alone. For, God Himself is the author of matrimony, endowed as it is with various benefits and purposes. All of these have a very decisive bearing on the continuation of the human race, on the personal development and eternal destiny of the individual members of a family, and on the dignity, stability, peace and prosperity of the family itself and of human society as a whole.”
In this, the Church is going beyond the ends and purpose of marriage as they relate to the individual man and woman and emphasizing the importance of marriage to our society as a whole. Marriage is not the result of humans willing it; marriage is entirely the domain of God. Proper marriage brings dignity, stability, and peace not just to the married couple but to society as a whole. On the other hand, perversions of God’s plan for matrimony damage the dignity, stability, and peace not just of those in the invalid marriage but of society as a whole.
The family is the foundation of society. Strong families result in a strong society. Marriage is the foundation of the family. The family can only be strong and in its turn, society can only be strong when the society’s understanding of marriage is strong. There are many, many factors today eroding our society’s understanding of what makes a strong marriage: cohabitation, contraception, abortion, divorce and remarriage, and, of course, so-called marriages between anyone but one man and one woman. Every one of these contributes to the problem. Every one of these erodes the family and damages society.
The path we are on as a society is not a healthy one, and this should be a concern to each one of us who claims the role of follower of Christ. We are not called to be right all of the time; we are called to uphold in love the Church’s teaching and to work in charity for what is right. By doing that, we work for our own good and that of our neighbor.
There is one last very important point I want to absolutely stress: Maybe you have close friends who are divorced and remarried. Maybe you have a child who uses contraception. Maybe you know someone who is hurting from an abortion who has confided in you. Maybe you or your children cohabitated before marriage or continue to do so. I, myself, have a very dear friend whose marriage is now recognized as legal in the state in which she lives where only a few weeks ago it was not. What do we do about these people?
We love them, of course. Nothing more. Certainly nothing less. People are not the problem. People are the solution. Attitudes are the problem. Acceptance of wrong behavior is as damaging as the wrong behavior itself because both allow the wrong behavior to flourish. In the weeks leading up to the wedding of a very dear friend of mine, Katei and I were discussing the fact that we though he was rushing into things. That he was not ready for the commitment he was making. That the marriage would end sadly. One of our nieces, then in her early 20s, overheard us and commented in all earnesty, “Well, at least it’s only his first marriage.”
Changing wrong attitudes and changing wrong understandings is a work of charity and it cannot be approached successfully in any other way. Let us pray always for the grace to love all people and to realize that no person’s sins are unforgivable and that no person’s sins are worse than our own, for this is the wisdom and humility that we will all need if we want to draw others to the fullness of Truth, Christ Himself, as we also recognize our own need for repentance and ongoing conversion of heart and life.