As the Extraordinary Synod on the Family begins its deliberations in Rome, the media propaganda has subsided as the issues truly important to the faithful have come to the fore.
While the Church’s teachings on the Sacrament of marriage are timeless, the challenges to these teachings vary from age to age. The virulent campaign against marriage in our own day can be traced to what Professor Charles Rice long ago called the “contraceptive mentality” – the rebellious assertion that confers upon the individual and his ego the right to replace God’s plan for life and love with his own.
In his encyclical Humanae Vitae, Pope Paul VI described the beauties of marital love and the Sacrament of Matrimony, and warned the world about the powerful cultural forces that, half a century ago, were already eroding those timeless principles. Faced with the sad fact that Pope Paul’s predictions have come to pass, and spurred on by the widespread abandonment of divine and natural principles by the secular culture, Pope Francis convened the Synod in order to revitalize the Church’s teaching on love and marriage in a manner capable of reaching out and healing the disordered spirit of a material world.
That will not be an easy task. “American civil law has done much to weaken and destroy what is the basic unit of every human society, the family,” writes Francis Cardinal George, O.M.I, in his last column as Archbishop of Chicago. And America is not alone.
Euthanasia, often not all that voluntary, is spreading in Europe and parts of the U.S. Vast swaths of what used to be Christendom are rapidly depopulating. Contraception is rampant, as is abortion, its silent partner. Marriage itself is often an afterthought – or ruled out altogether – for millions.
In convening the Synod, Pope Francis is acknowledging that the Church cannot continue on cruise control if we are truly to consecrate the world to Christ with the family as the social centerpiece of that noble task.
Pope Francis focuses on evangelizing the young and the unmarried, teaching them the beautiful Gospel of the Family. Unfortunately, as Raymond Cardinal Burke points out, the Church hasn’t been doing this very well lately: “One of the biggest challenges is the defective catechesis in the Roman Catholic Church… for the past 40 to 50 years,” he told Vatican Radio as the Synod began.
That “truth vacuum” has allowed the contraceptive mentality to triumph almost unopposed not only in America but throughout the West. As a result, as Cardinal Péter Erdő, the Synod’s General Rapporteur, remarked, “Many marriages today are probably invalid.”
This startling observation, delivered in the cardinal’s opening address, was not designed to appease those who advocate admission to the Eucharist of those who have been divorced and remarried. That is a tiny population to begin with, among whom there are undoubtedly many spouses whose first marriage is valid indeed.
No, Cardinal Erdő’s welcome candor reinforces Pope Francis’ goal by reinforcing Cardinal Burke’s troubling admission: the Church’s catechesis since the close of the Second Vatican Council – especially Her teaching on marriage and the family –has been woefully weak, often bordering on nonexistent.
In layman’s language, many Catholics who married in the past fifty years repeated their vows without actually knowing what they were doing.
But how could this have happened?
“Many people today have difficulty thinking in a logical manner and reading lengthy documents,” Cardinal Erdő bluntly observed. And while Humanae Vitae is not an unduly long document, it does rely on natural law and cause and effect as it persuasively describes the unhappy but inevitable consequences of the contraceptive mentality.
“We live in an audio-visual culture, a culture of feelings, emotional experiences and symbols,” Cardinal Erdő continued. Alongside this cultural shift, the communal attention span has collapsed to almost nothing.
How are our bishops to surmount the culture’s aversion to “logic and lengthy documents,” when they are already combatting the culture’s open hostility to everything that the Church and the family stand for?
The suggestion of several bishops, the Vatican spokesman reports, is that marriage preparation courses be strengthened – even “stricter,” “severe.”
But here’s a dimension that hasn’t yet been addressed: Cardinal Burke’s insight suggests that marriage preparation begin in childhood, along with the teaching on other vocations. That way, newly-engaged couples might not find marriage prep to be such a “shock” – and openness to life and the details of Natural Family Planning might be taught in moral language that is already familiar.
Couples today are fully capable of dealing with logic and rational discussion. But a lot of them haven’t been required to, especially when it comes to the beauty and intellectual depth of the Church’s teaching.
But they can handle it. The Church’s rich intellectual tradition invites us “to know, love, and serve God in this world” so that we can “be happy with Him in the next.” Man is by nature a rational animal, the ancients observed; he is constantly driven by the desire to know.
After all, the problem is not that the Ten Commandments are hard to understand. The problem is, rather, that they are hard to follow. Critics wring their hands and whine about how “judgmental” God’s law is – and then pretend “mercifully” to offer paltry compromises with narcissism – as though that would satisfy the longing of a heart longing for truth and love – and beauty.
Yes, beauty. Christ is indeed “the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” but He is also the pinnacle of beauty in all its perfection and purity. And He gave us the Sacrament of Marriage to embody and perpetuate that beauty, even in a secular, superficial world that all too often celebrates the grotesque.
With Cardinal Erdő, we can pray confidently and hopefully. “Feelings of doom or surrender have no place in the Church,” he told the Synod fathers. “A legacy exists of a faith clearly and widely shared… marriage and family are goods originating in the culture of humanity, a legacy which must be guarded, promoted and, when necessary, defended.”