Many of you are aware that there is an Extraordinary Synod planned in Rome on the family.   There is surely no hiding the fact that the family is in real crisis, at least in the modern Western World, if not throughout many other parts as well. We do well to ponder the reasons and roots of this crisis, and develop strategies to begin to address the many problems.

At the recent Bishops Conference Meeting here in America, Cardinal Sean O’Malley made some remarks that I would like to draw upon, even as I make some remarks of my own. Basing my reflections on the Cardinal’s remarks, it would seem that there are at least four fundamental factors that contribute to our current difficulties regarding marriage and family. Lets look at each of them in turn, even if briefly and also interweave the Cardinals remarks.

I. Family history -  Two critical factors came together very difficult years of the late 1960s which together have had a very destructive effect on Holy Matrimony and the family.

The sexual revolution which began in the late 1950s picked up steam into the 60s and went boldly public in the year 1968, with the so-called “Summer of Love” in places like Haight Ashbury Park in San Francisco, and on many other college campuses and similar places.  At that time there were many who boldly shed any pretense of shame or guilt regarding open sexual sin and unchastity. What people used to whisper about as something shocking, was now boldly celebrated by increasing numbers in the culture.

The following year, in 1969 the first no-fault divorce laws began to be passed. Divorce, which until that time had been a difficult and lengthy process in America, now become something that could be accomplished in a matter of weeks.

These two very crucial events began a process which rather dramatically and quickly eroded Matrimony and and the family, such that we are now into the second, and in some cases, third generation of younger people, who have never known a world is stable marriages, and two-parent families. Large numbers of young people have never experienced living with both their father and mother for the duration of their formative years. More and more of them have no real models of faithful, stable, traditional marriages to look to. Is very clear, that without these sorts of models, even young people who want to embrace traditional marriage, struggle to do so, lacking any experience how exactly is done.

For all the Church’s attempts at marriage preparation, and pre-Cana classes, without strong family models it is hard to apply whatever might be learned in such classes and formation.

Cardinal O’Malley says, Half of the children born to that demographic [working class families] are born out of wedlock,” a statistic that Cardinal O’Malley said would have been “inconceivable” a few decades ago. [1]

Indeed, in the African American community which I have largely served, in 1961 (the year of my birth) 80% of Black children were raised in two-parent families, Today that number is 20%. The statistics in the wider culture, as noted, are not much better and continue to drop. The change is nothing short of astonishing.

All of this leads to a dynamic of family history and personal experience that are not promising for traditional Marriage or the family.

II. Fornication -  In the current cultural setting, following the sexual revolution that came out in the open in 1968, premarital sex, and cohabitation, have become epidemic. This has had a number of deleterious effects on Holy Matrimony and the family.

In the first place it takes away one of the stronger incentives to marriage that existed in the past, namely the desire of sexual intimacy and pleasure. Marriage in the culture of that time provided a context in which sexual intimacy was not only considered legitimate, but also honored and esteemed. Now, with the explosion of promiscuity and with such behavior no longer shunned, Marriage looses one of its draws. Most young people can obtain the sex they desire without the once demanded admission requirements.

Secondly a whole host of social ills accompanies fornication, and cohabitation (once called “shacking up” or living in sin). And these social evils and ills negatively impact Holy Matrimony.

Abortion has exploded on the scene. And whereas in the past a child conceived before marriage would move the couple to the sacred altar, now recourse to abortion, and even more viciously the expectation by men that women should “rid” them of the problem by abortion is the prevailing attitude.

AIDS, and sexually transmitted diseases like herpes, also make people less desirable as marriage partners.

And of course teenage pregnancy, single motherhood, etc, make many women less desirable for or prone to marriage and further the expectation that men should be able to move about sexually without commitment or responsibility.

Cohabitation also “permits” couples to play house, and the unwritten rule is that they can come as go as they please with little social repercussion to them.

Cardinal O’Malley says, The whole notion of family is so undercut by the cohabitation mentality, and these social trends are having a tremendous impact on the working-class communities who were once the backbone of the Church…This shift away from the bearing of children within wedlock is the “biggest threat to marriage. [2]

God lists fornication as among the sins that exclude one from the Kingdom of Heaven (e.g. Eph 5:3-9; 1 Cor. 6:9-11, inter al). Given the dreadful impact fornication has on Holy Matrimony and the Family, one can see why God takes sins of these sorts seriously. Of course the ones who pay the price for all this adult sexual misconduct, are children.

God  links chastity to respect for Marriage, and promiscuity He regards as a dishonoring of Marriage: Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers  (Heb 13:4).

III. Finances - In this matter Cardinal O’Malley says succinctly: Part of the problems are economic…Our educational system is so expensive, people graduate from college or graduate school facing huge debts. If you have a $150,000 debt when you graduate law school, are you going to marry a girl that has a $130,000 debt and start off your marriage with over a quarter-million dollars’ debt? So people are postponing marriage – are postponing a decision to go into the seminary or religious life – because they’re saddled under this tremendous debts which former generations didn’t have. [3]

We have discussed and debated on this blog before the notion that college is overrated and obscenely expensive. And for all the talk from the social liberals who dominate faculties and administration in these colleges, they seldom lift a finger to cut the costs of their overrated product. Instead they scold us for not caring enough about the poor and their burdens, while they live quite well off the future income of their students who are increasingly too poor to marry or raise children.

Almost no one among those who lecture us about justice will talk about this.

Student debt is becoming a huge factor in postponing marriage and also vocations to the priesthood and religious life.

IV. Formation struggles - Cardinal O’Malley  says the Church needs “better marriage preparation” and outreach to help young people recover an understanding of marriage. He says the Church needs to “catechize our young people and instill in them a sense of vocation, and also to help them understand what courtship is about.”

He adds that this becomes even more important for: In combination with the misunderstanding of marriage, lack of attendance at Mass, and the shortcomings in the catechesis of young people, the Church also faces many challenges posed by the secularization of the culture. [4]

Indeed, the teachings of the Church on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony have been poorly conveyed to God’s people. And for many  people, what they do hear unintelligible. For example they may well hear: Marriage is forever, but if it doesn’t work out for you we will get you annulment, and remember, an annulment is NOT a divorce! Or again they may hear that even though Protestants can get married while skydiving with a Justice of the Peace, and it valid, if a Catholic gets married outside the Church, it is invalid. Etc…

People struggle to figure all this out. And while there ARE answers to these puzzlements, they remain difficult obstacles in speaking coherently to people who are poorly catechized and more influenced by the secular world than the Church in this regard.

A chief place for us to begin rebuilding the case for traditional Marriage is resetting the premise of the discussion. Marriage is not first and foremost about what is best and most pleasing to the adults in the equation. Marriage is about children and what is best for them. Marriage is not about the rights of adults per se, it is about what is justly due to children.

Marriage takes its structure and mission as an institution based on the fact that every child deserves and has a birthright to be raised by by a father and mother, who have committed themselves to a stable and loving union, so as to give their child a  stable an loving upbringing under the formative influence of both a male and female, that is their own parents.

This, it seems is where we must begin. More on this here: Getting the Marriage Conversation Right. Other things are surely required, but here is a good place to start, right where the modern secular premise goes 180° wrong.

And thus, in these four fundamental factors a perfect storm begins to brew that has severely damaged the understanding of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and the Institution of Traditional Marriage. Other factors also influence, but as we prepare to the Extraordinary Synod, Cardinal O’Malley’s remarks help frame a discussion of the problem and a way forward.

Later we can also discuss some of the questions put forward in the working document of the Synod.

119 Responses

  1. Clare Krishan says:

    Thx for this Mrgr. I haven’t had a chance to comment (our Archdiocese closed their web poll after a super brief 14 days before I remembered to go check it out!) But let me add this wee bit of folk-wisdom from the trenches:

    I. Family history - “which… have had a very destructive effect on Holy Matrimony and the family.” your dateline has a little premature ejaculation. According to the data at the NYTimes,
    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/26/health/families.html?_r=0
    marital discord maxed out in the 40s (see stats in divorce chart) as I can attest: my mother-in-law was my father-in-law’s third wife. War has consequences, very bad ones. Hubbie’s aunt was a war widow. Veteran’s benefit entitlements warp family relationships, warp whole economies: the “greatest generation” have sunk the nation into indentured servitude which narry a thought to who will pay the piper!

    II. Fornication - “…has had a number of deleterious effects on Holy Matrimony and the family.” you presume illiciit heterosexual libido on what grounds? Young adult libido found homosexual outlets in WWI, this is not something newly relevant but as old as the hills. Again “easy” military solutions to entrenched political problems has consequences: how many veterans come home as “damaged goods” emotionally deformed, exposed to venereal diseases, perhaps an absent father to offspring in distant lands? The libertine sixties weren’t especially novel: the twenties set a social trend for excess that collapsed in on itself in the Great Depression (see Waugh’s “Vile Bodies”)

    III. Finances – “…saddled under this tremendous debts which former generations didn’t have.” no but they were saddled with demeaning service in the CCC or conscription, and decades of profound deprivation. This geared up a generation to be focused on materialistic ambition above all else and economic progress to the detriment of spiritual reflection and growth in the virtues via detachment (heck living thru so much ‘detachment’ kinda put the kabosh on virtue, for their children and their childrens’ children too)

    IV. Formation struggles - “the Church needs to “catechize our young people and instill in them a sense of vocation, and also to help them understand what courtship is about.” there are TWO sacraments of service to communion, and formation of the presbyterite is as important: how many priests are willing to invest in the challenging work of accompanying couples through marriage strife and instill hope for healing? Prepping for the wedding is all well and good, but the theology of the sacrament of reconcilitaion demands that spousal sins, marital peccadilloes and serious infidelities can be, indeed must be, borne with equanimity for the good of the children. In courtship young people can take their leisure to seek a good partner. but in marriage we no longer have that luxury, spouses may only seek to BE a good partner, there’s no alternative game plan. How may priests are familiar with Retrouvaille ministry, or are trained to help couples find similar peer-to-peer programs that work via solidarity and subsidiatity (the minister of marriage is NOT a priest, it is the couple themselves)

    Gripe re: quality of media in social networking :
    your choice of video isn’t “good,” “beautiful” or “true” its simple snarky and as such not worthy of the Conjugal Balduchin of Holy Orders; would you have posted it if it were posed by a same-sex civilly shacked-up couple? Sarchasm tastes sour and never attracts.

  2. Michael Rizzio says:

    A covenant mentality and a culture that honors the covenant is the center point. When you make a willed covenant with the Triune God you make it the bedrock of your life. It changes everything. Covenant communion is what links us to all other human beings through with and in Jesus Christ. It is the triple cord bond that is hard to break (Eccl 4:12). When it is missing from the equation, when it is not taught, contemplated, and acted upon our faith becomes dead and relationships fall apart.

    Our Blessed Mother has a privileged bonded relationship with each person of the Holy Trinity. When we give our fiat in love to God: Father, So and Holy Spirit we imitate her and begin a life of bonded service in Jesus Christ. Our adoption at Baptism is made fruitful with our fiat. We are kin to God, we are family with each other.

  3. […] Msgr. Charles Pope,  – Many of you are aware that there is an Extraordinary Synod planned in Rome on the […]

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