Put Out into the Deep

The Challenges to Marriage

My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,

As I begin the second of my three-part series of articles on the upcoming Synod on of the Family, we move to the issues for consideration in Part II of the document entitled: “The Pastoral Program for the Family in Light of New Challenges.”

Truly, much is happening in the Church around the world to assist families. All of this will be considered by the Synod attendees, allowing them to understand the current situation and make suggestions for the future. There are various pastoral programs already underway – namely marriage preparation, which has a long history in our own country.

Unfortunately, there are fewer people coming today to sacramentalize their marriages. For those who do come, however, they express satisfaction with the Pre-Cana programs run by the Diocese, given evidence in the evaluations which they make following their participation.

In general, the problem is that around the world, people set a date for their wedding and then come to the Church, which frequently does not leave adequate time for preparation. The new methods of preparation – engaged encounters, retreats and other new experiences – can be beneficial to the couples, especially pre-marriage inventories where their compatibility can be assessed and counseling can be offered to them where difficult situations can be predicted.

Marriage preparation truly begins in the family, and this is the difficulty today when so many families are separated. Many young people do not have models that they can follow in developing their own approach to marriage. Truly, families need to be assisted in developing a family spirituality so that the preparation for marriage is given to children being raised in loving families.

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis, in his Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (“Evangelii Gaudium”) reminds us that “Pastoral ministry for the family needs to follow ‘the way of beauty,’ namely, by witness which attracts others simply because the family lives the Gospel and is constantly in union with God.”

Some of the pastoral challenges facing the family revolve around the crisis of faith, which is coincidental with the crisis of family life. There’s an old saying coined by the Servant of God, Father Patrick Peyton, C.S.C., “The family that prays together, stays together.” Father Peyton is also known as “The Rosary Priest.” It certainly is now more true than ever before. Families need to be assisted by families who live the faith in parishes so that our parishes truly become a “family of families.”

Some of the critical situations with the families today revolve around difficulties in relationships and communication. Communication among spouses is critical. The Marriage Encounter Movement, started years ago and still existing today, focuses on the ability of couples to dialogue with each other and share their feelings and strengthen their relationships. Unfortunately, today we have the break-up of families and break- down in families, with divorce and separation so prevalent.

The questionnaire, which the Bishops from around the world responded to regarding this Synod on the Family, recognized this difficulty and proposed programs to assist couples in finding more happiness in their marriages. Unfortunately, violence and abuse today mark many family situations, as well as international trafficking and exploitation of children.

One of the difficulties of families today is the dependence on media and social networking. The common addictions of our society are alcohol, drugs and pornography, as well as addictions to gambling and video games, which all come to us through the Internet. We know that the Internet brings us much good. However, it also offers innumerable temptations for the family. Perhaps today our modern media offers us “opposing models of the image of the family, which transmits mistaken and misleading values.”

In our own area, the example of the TV series “Modern Family” gives an impression that almost any grouping of people can be called a family. In this program, amidst sarcasm and humor, a solid family foundation cannot be found.

The external pressures on the family are enormous today. The impact of work on the family, especially where both spouses are in the workplace, causes our children to be reared by others.

The impact of migration on some families and poverty itself reduces families to a struggle for subsistence. On the other hand, however, in the middle class and upper realm of society, consumerism and individualism become difficult challenges. “In this regard, the words of Pope Francis on a tendency today to ‘waste’ and ‘live for the moment only’ come to mind, both of which, having a major impact of the fragile endurance of emotional relationships, are often the cause of deep discomfort and instability in family life.”

There are numerous difficult pastoral situations that are enumerated and that need attention. Again, Pope Francis, in the “Joy of the Gospel” says, “The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open, …where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.”
The various situations in which families find themselves challenge us to be an open Church. Cohabitation is one of the difficulties in preaching the sacramentality of marriage and its permanence. These unions, which are on an experimental basis, have neither religious or civil approbation.

Frequently, they are not very good preparations for a sacramental marriage. Also, living together in a form of “de facto” unions has resulted in a marked decline in sacramental marriages in some societies. Unfortunately, “often cohabitation or de facto unions are a symptom of the fact that young people tend to prolong their adolescence and consider marriage too challenging and, therefore, fear embarking on an adventure considered too great for them,” as Pope Francis has noted in his address to engaged couples on Valentine’s Day of this year. Therefore, the person separated or divorced and remarried is also of chief concern of this Synod. In addition, great concern is given for the children of those who live in these fractured families.

A major portion of the document is dedicated to the situations of canonical irregularity, which means those people who are divorced and remarried and have not sought to regularize the situation through obtaining an annulment and who still frequent the sacraments, or on the other hand, feel themselves rejected by the Church. There is great confusion among the faithful about the situation even as far as some who are divorced and not remarried and feel that they are not allowed to receive the Eucharist.

Much more catechesis is needed in these various areas so that those who feel marginalized or frustrated will feel that they are not separated from the Church. As baptized Catholics, they must always share in the life of the Church, even if it cannot be complete. One phrase is particularly important, “Moreover, responses and observations from some episcopal conferences emphasize that the Church needs to equip herself with pastoral means which provide the possibility of her more widely exercising mercy, clemency and indulgence towards new unions.”

The challenge is how can this be done. The discipline that we exercise regarding the sacrament of matrimony has by-and-large Biblical origins. There is some concern regarding the reception of sacraments in situations of canonical irregularity and the constant suggestion that is made that we follow the practice of the Orthodox churches who open the way for second and third marriages of a penitential character. It is not clear how this could be adapted in our own Catholic tradition. One of the major requests was to streamline the process for dealing with marriage cases. It is a delicate matter for most people to approach an ecclesiastical tribunal and state their belief that their first marriage was not valid for a number of reasons.

Fortunately, today, it is more and more the case that a misunderstanding of the sacrament of marriage is widespread and the grounds for nullity have increased and not shrunk. Amid the cautions that the annulment process should not be seen as a “Catholic divorce,” there are many issues that could assist those approaching tribunals to be pastorally supported. I believe that our own Tribunal situation of the Diocese of Brooklyn is one which mirrors some of the suggestions made in the preliminary document. Clearly, the issue of re-admittance to the sacrament after divorce must be considered by the Synod as a pressing problem for the Church Universal. Important also are possible follow-up programs and meetings with those already married to assist them in overcoming the difficulties during the first five years of marriage.

One of the more vexing issues are the unions of persons of the same sex. Civil recognition of these unions is becoming more widespread throughout the world. The phenomenon of the homosexual culture needs to be addressed. One suggestion, and perhaps a good one, is that we should use neither the term homosexual or lesbian or gay or bisexual to describe persons, since no person should be described by any of their characteristics. In effect, it is a source of discrimination. A person should be treated as a person, no matter what his or her orientation, affect or even activity. As the various conferences have reported, pastoral care of the children of same-sex marriages is utmost important.

The overall suggestion is that these children, “must be received with the same care, tenderness and concern which is given to other children.”

As we can see from the preceding summary, the Synod has not shied away from putting out into the deep of the most vexing problems facing families in our world, and especially in our Church today.

Next week, I will conclude this analysis of the Synod on the Family. In the meantime, let us redouble our efforts to pray that the light of the Holy Spirit will be shed on those dealing with these matters of the family.

Editor’s Note: The Instrumentum Laboris can be found on the Internet on the Vatican website: http://www.vatican.va under the “Roman Curia” and then “Synod of Bishops,” or click here.