The world may well be anticipating surprises from the Synod on the Family, and its focus on current pastoral challenges. Rome may be burning with synodal soundbites. It has been nearly fifty years since such modern global media interest has focused on the sacrament of holy matrimony and the nature of matrimonial and family life. The view from the outside is full of confusion. Within the Church, we are likewise left to build from the ruins of a culture that has suffered seemingly irreversible damage. It is a hard task, and a tall order — one not for the faint of heart.
Sifting for clarity on news-feeds means reading a litany of questions and realizing the full scope of the damage from a bonfire of ignorance. Without addressing the important theological nuances of the issues at hand, some first thoughts flicker from the embers, and begin to illumine the way forward.
We can not diminish the meaning and power of the sacraments to suit new normative ways of life. Sacraments are not social constructs and do not operate like social institutions. They can not be revised, restructured, redefined. Christ made no mistakes when offering us the way of life we have inherited in Baptism. It is high time to reclaim what we are given from Christ himself: that harder road of heroic and faithful love.
No, matrimony is not a partnership. Partnerships are for corporate life. Sacramental life is altogether different — it offers communion. With Christ — God, come in human flesh to rebuild the union broken in original sin. Matrimony, the sacrament of Holy Matrimony, is a holy union of a man and a woman before God: the fruitful fusing of two minds and two wills, and two hearts and two bodies. Anything else is less than matrimony: less than holy, and less than virtuous — less than worthy of the human person as image of God.
Mercy without justice is not mercy. It is, rather, the further enslavement and alienation of mediocrity. To begin at the level of mere human desire is to set the bar of truth pretty low. We have much more at our disposal than human capacity for mercy, however heroic. We have the grace of God. We should claim it. And the Church should offer it as the antidote to the dysfunction of the culture we live in. Because grace changes the course of lives mired in confusion, and because Love makes the burden light.
Yes, suffering is real. Marriages break apart, divorce is a real and prevalent challenge in our time. But in no way should we accept its all to frequent occurrence as the new norm in the story of human love. What kind of a message do we offer, if we accept weakness and failure as the de facto normative trajectory of modern unitive life? The Church permits divorce in certain instances. What it objects to is the beginning of a new concurrent marriage afterwards, and the adultery such entails. At the heart of divorce and the many varied factors that tragically lead to it, is the breaking down of the charity we call love. This is a tragedy, and it brings on deep wounds and suffering. We cannot and should not adapt to the reality of divorce, but seek instead new ways to help spouses avoid it.
Yes, there are challenging situations, and Catholics live through them every day. These are our parents, our siblings, our spouses, our friends. Any married couple will tell you suffering is real, betrayal is real, infidelity is real, boredom is real, illness is real. But we can not start from the breaking point to look for the ideal. The faults that lead to divorce are no different than those that constitute countless other forms of human weakness, of human sin — except that in holy matrimony a union is at stake, one of a sacramental nature.
The human condition is inherently lacking; human nature is inherently wounded by sin. Grace, we teach, we believe, supplants the gap. To modify teaching on sacramental realities on the premise that failure happens, is to deny grace a chance. It is to say sin is not real — a view that contrasts the words of Christ himself, the full structure of the Church’s sacramental life, and the reality of vast suffering and evil.
We must not confuse mercy for mediocrity, for this is not Catholicism. Catholicism calls us to greatness: it calls us to sanctity through the life of grace. It rejects the human proclivity to failure we call sin by offering a way back, a way of mercy staked in the truth of a fall, a way of forgiveness that is unmerited and yet lavished. As images of God, we are not created to fail in love — if God is love, that is. And Love, He is.
Rebellion is real. Weakness is real. Sin is real. And so a Savior was born. And He died. And He rose, and ascended into heaven, so that the full return to the Father’s house might be offered to us.
It is time to build around the ruins and so protect what is fragile. The Church should replace the very parts of the culture have eroded away, rather than mold herself to accept them as they are. This is a position of strength because it is the position of Truth — it is not the position of vulnerability. The Church must remain steadfast and able to confront ruin with hope. We should expect no less if we believe this is the Church of Christ — the one who goes to the apex of Calvary to save what is lost.
It is time to cast a wider net. It is time to live up to the capacity and command we have been given to go to the ends of the earth. It is time for a new missionary zeal. It is not a time for retreat and enclaves of protection. It is time to boldly enter the new Athens’ and the new Rome’s of the world — the very heart of the most modern cities, to meet the souls in the pews and in the streets, those truly impoverished by the dearth of hope — that first cause that makes the charitable love of holy matrimony so difficult — and preach there the Truth, and Way, and Life that sets souls free to live well, and love truly once more.
The answer to divorce is not changing teaching on sacramental life; it is, rather, the calling forth of heroes, and the summoning of courage — the belief that sanctity in the form of radical fidelity to the truth, however difficult, is possible, for everyone. Everyone.
Because, ultimately, the role of the Church of Christ is to pastor souls unto eternity: to teach them believe in the Love that died for them. Then, and only then, can they be empowered to persevere now in the love they vow, unto eternal happiness.
All this, then, makes for a lament on the urgent pastoral needs before us.
Anew, we are to begin by supporting those who have yet to make the commitment of holy matrimony, teaching them the sacramental nature of the calling they are choosing, and why it differs from everything else, what it actually takes to live it, and why this even matters.
Anew, we are to revive anemic marriage preparation programs; to build from the ashes and salted wastelands towards the New Jerusalem. We should be aiming higher and closer to home. We should begin with ourselves, and realize we can not live what we have not come to know and love. Marriage preparation presumes a formation in faith and virtue that most no longer have. And so it fails. All too often. It is time to offer and pursue individual catechesis and reignite a passion for the study of truths of the Faith. It is time to resurrect the heart of the Faith, of her sacraments, of her tradition, of her liturgy, of the beauty of her saints. We are to return to teaching on virtue and vice. Only on this foundation will preparation for the unitive life of holy matrimony be possible. Making marriage preparation easier, faster, simpler, is to not prepare two people for the greatest decision they might make with their lives. It is a grievous failure of pastoral care. The consequences are self-evident. It is time to address the problem at its origin.
And where even the best preparation fails, and serious issue arise, as they do, the action required is not to debate the indissolubility of vows, or diminish the seriousness of the state of ones soul as regards grave sin, but to restore hope where it is frail, to offer compassion wherever the Passion is relived, to renew courage where it is weak, to infuse hope where there is despair, to strengthen the vulnerable, and comfort the betrayed — all the while never altering the truth. Easy mercy is un-mercy to some and a parody of mercy to others. Mercy and justice cannot be severed. Truth demands engaging the full force of pain and pride. Only in this way, can mercy be true and compassionate.
Anew, we are to treasure the Priesthood. If the priest is a ‘dispenser of the sacraments’ he is not their traveling salesman — simply, the one who shows up at a ceremony, officiates and then disappears. To dispense the sacraments is to serve as the means for lavishing grace. The Font of Grace does not dry up. The priesthood exists to confer all the sacraments — so to offer the bedrock of support necessary for marriages to become holy, and to survive the tempests that daily assail them. The Church remains the treasury of a greater help, when all we are offered in the culture to support fragile unions or respond to their breaking fails to satisfy. It is high time to invest in the priesthood, so that from that higher of callings every other Catholic way of life might abound with grace and hope.
We need joyful priests, holy priests, educated priests. Priests who are supported by their dioceses and their bishops, who are given charge of a flock and choose to shepherd it with the full resources of the Gospel. Unwavering, committed, fearless, generous, merciful priests, who inspire holiness in those who listen to them, and who watch them live faithfully in their vocation. Catholic matrimony depends on the priesthood, and on the preaching of the truth through it. It can not survive without it. The extended family has indeed broken down, and the Church, that wider communion of the people of God, should replace it through the ministry of her priests who exercise the full spiritual paternity of Christ, and still bring His life into the world. Where the priesthood suffers, or where it fails to teach and witness to the splendid truth of divine love, marriages suffer also — ruins from the ruins. It is all a grievous public scandal of lost faith and squandered hope. And the culture watches it all.
Anew, we are to consider contraception, and abortion, and divorce, as symptoms of a greater need, and not simply as causes of the current challenges. Innocent lives end in abortion; contraception ruins health and marriages; children are the hidden victims of divorce. New unions that follow divorce lead to the betrayal of countless spouses and the children left behind. Who pleads their cause? These are now the widow and the orphan of modern times. They live the slow death of love and hope, and the Church cannot watch silently in the name of second chances only for some.
But how do we get to these low points of moral choice, if not from a prior weakness and failure in virtue? The response to these serious offenses against love, and life, against marriage and the common good of the family, are indeed necessary to correct error, and clarify confusion, and teach truth. But the heart of the Church’s response must be more expansive. It must focus first on the capacity of each person to achieve happiness: to seek the good, to know the truth, and love it so fully as to be capable of heroic love, honest love, generous love, fruitful love, sacrificial love. The Church must encourage virtue if the many goods enshrined in matrimony and the family are to survive.
Anew, we are to speak the full Truth. The beauty of the Truth, the challenge of the Truth. Boldly, we must offer the world no less than what the Church offers its precious fold — the one option for happiness, for holiness, for salvation: Christ himself, and his faithful, yes, radically sacrificial love. No longer is it possible to think the culture is too strong for us, and so adapt to its weakness. It is, rather, time to claim the victory that is ours, and invite others into it.
We have the means to deal with suffering, with betrayal, with the narcissistic pursuit of pleasure, with infidelity, with impurity, with the hedonistic failure of love — we have the Cross of Christ and His forgiveness. Offering anything less to those in difficult marriages is to despair of conversion, and reject the option for salvation. The culture has already done this for us. Where, now, is one to turn, if not towards the New Jerusalem?
What better can we do, than to place
Repairing where he judg’d us, prostrate fall
Before him reverent, and there confess
Humbly our faults, and pardon beg, with tears
Watering the ground, and with our sighs the
Air frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek.
Undoubtedly he will relent and turn
From his displeasure; in whose look serene,
When angry most he seem’d and most severe,
What else but favor, grace, and mercy shone?
So spake our Father penitent, nor Eve
Felt less remorse: they forthwith to the place
Repairing where he judg’d them prostrate fell
Before him reverent, and both confess’d
Humbly their faults, and pardon begg’d, with tears
Watering the ground, and with their sighs the
Air Frequenting, sent from hearts contrite, in sign
Of sorrow unfeign’d, and humiliation meek.
-John Milton, Paradise Lost, X. 1086–1104
The tempest is indeed strong, and like the boat on that Sea of Galilee, the Church is a remaining refuge — Christ lives in her, and still commands the waves. Would that we not think Him asleep, and despair.
If the scene set before us is one of breakdown and ruin, of choices between mediocrity and failure, let us look for a higher standard, and not an easier way; one that proposes that hardship is not the end of the possibility for real virtue — but for some, let us hope many, perhaps the first portal to it. This is the standard of the Cross of Christ: that cornerstone on which the structure of our faith stands — there where mercy bleeds garnet glory, while the pillars of the culture fall.
The Church’s job is to hold this portal open, and then to lavish the full force of the sacred patrimony entrusted to her for the salvation of souls in need. The paramount task of our time, and the kind of pastoral care we can believe in, entails the bold offer of the standard of love we find on the Cross — placed in stark contrast to the mediocre expectations of the loves of the world. The solution to pulling matrimony from the ruins is not found in adapting to the brokenness of our culture: the solution is found in the heart of Christ wherein is the font of love that never dies. And this should be attractive enough. Or we are Catholics in vain.
We call matrimony holy. And what is holy if full of life, and grace, and peace. The gates of hell can not prevail against it. May heaven shower grace when all else fails.
That we might regain our joy, in that paradise lost.
This post is a sequel to The Tragic Way of Matrimony, and is dedicated to those in difficult marriages, or whose marriages have otherwise ended in divorce, with prayers.
You may reach Maria Grizzetti at IncarnationandModernity@gmail.com