St. John the Baptist, Martyr for the Sanctity of Marriage

The Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist celebrated on Thursday speaks to a critical issue in our times. Herod both resisted and violated his own conscience; he feared the opinion of the crowd more than that of God, ordering the hideous and unjust murder of John the Baptist. Unfortunately, such acts are commonly committed by some leaders and others who compromise with evil in order to survive and flourish in an evil world. The reason for John’s imprisonment and murder is what makes his death a lesson, particularly for our age.

Simply put, St. John the Baptist died because he told Herod Antipas that his “marriage” to Herodias was invalid and sinful. Herod Antipas had divorced his first wife, Phasaelis, so as to be able to marry Herodias, who had been married to his half-brother Herod II (also known as Herod Philip I). The situation is described in Scripture:

For Herod himself had ordered that John be arrested and bound and imprisoned, on account of his brother Philip’s wife Herodias, whom Herod had married. For John had been telling Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” So Herodias held a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she had been unable, because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing he was a righteous and holy man (Mark 6:17-20).

Herod eventually yielded to the machinations of Herodias, and John the Baptist was murdered for upholding the sanctity of marriage. Jesus would later affirm John’s teaching and say,

Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11-12).

Jesus suffered rebuke, even from his disciples (cf Matt 19:10), for teaching this (cf Matt 19:7), but He withstood them and rebuked their error (cf: Matt 19:8-9). St. John the Baptist died for this teaching, as did St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher.

Today there are many, even within the Church up to the highest levels of authority, who are willing to set aside or compromise this teaching, making sacramental accommodations never before imagined. While not every civil marriage is a sacramental marriage, and the church should be willing to hear evidence and potentially grant annulments in such cases, we cannot water down the Lord Jesus’ unambiguous teaching, a teaching these saints died to defend.

It is not simply an error to supplant this ancient teaching of the Lord—it is a grievous error. It is grievous because, intentionally or not, it diminishes the deaths of these glorious martyrs who loved and revered God too much to flatter men, even powerful ones. They suffered for this truth in a way that most today are not willing to suffer. This teaching, as the disciples imply, is a hard one (Matt 19:10), but how can we set aside something that Jesus insisted upon and for which these martyrs died?

The Church must have a pastoral stance for the divorced and remarried through a willingness to investigate their situations and grant annulments where appropriate. Further, we can recognize that not all situations are the same; not all acted in bad faith or with malice. However, we cannot set aside the truth of the Gospel to do this. Sometimes the answer must be that we cannot, at this time, extend the sacraments to them. We can still hold them close and encourage them to pray, attend Mass, and beseech God, until such time as they are willing to live as brother and sister. We can do nothing less because Jesus teaches this clearly.

At the Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist, we do well to remember and cling to the truth for which he died.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: St. John the Baptist, Martyr for the Sanctity of Marriage

Will Marriages Be Acknowledged in Heaven?

I am often approached by widows and widowers after the death of a spouse with a question similar to this one, which was submitted to me at my “Question and Answer” column in Our Sunday Visitor.

I recently lost my husband of 46 years and long to be reunited with him one day. But some people have told me that our marriage ended with his death and that Jesus says we will not be married or considered spouses in heaven. This is difficult for me to understand. Will we even know each other in heaven or have anything special there between us?

One can certainly hear the pain in her question. It is perhaps a needless pain, born out of an unnecessarily strict reading of Jesus’ words in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus was responding to a hypothetical question posed by the Sadducees about a woman who had been married to seven different brothers and bore no children to any of them. They raise this not so much as a marriage question but as a way to make the teaching of the resurrection appear ludicrous. Jesus sets aside their argument in the following way:

Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and put this question to him, saying, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us, ‘If someone’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, his brother must take the wife and raise up descendants for his brother.’ Now there were seven brothers. The first married a woman and died, leaving no descendants. So the second married her and died, leaving no descendants, and the third likewise. And the seven left no descendants. Last of all the woman also died. At the resurrection, whose wife will she be? For all seven had been married to her.”

Jesus said to them, “Are you not mistaken because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God? When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage. Instead, they will be like the angels in heaven. As for the dead being raised, have you not read about the burning bush in the Book of Moses, how God told him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living. You are badly mistaken” (Mk 12:18-27).

The Sadducees posed this not so much as a question about marriage but as a way to make the teaching of the resurrection seem ridiculous.

The first thing to note is that Jesus speaks of marriage only in a passing way. His response to the question about the highly unlikely scenario is designed to teach solemnly on the reality of the resurrection of the dead. In His response, Jesus does not fully develop a teaching on the experience of spouses toward each other in Heaven.

Hence, we ought not to conclude that a long marriage in this world will have no meaning at all in the age to come. In heaven our body and our soul will be perfected. So, too, our fundamental relationships, both spousal and familial. They will not be discarded or simply forgotten. Surely those who are spouses here will experience a far more perfect union in Heaven. They will enjoy mutual understanding, love, appreciation, and spiritual intimacy far greater than they could even imagine. They will have this because they have it first and foremost with God; and with, in, and through God they will enjoy this perfected union with each other. The same would be true of our other familial relationships and bonds of friendship, to each according to what is proper and perfect. The married will enjoy this supremely, because marital bonds on earth receive special divine graces.

The early Church writer Tertullian affirms this view:

All the more shall we be bound to our departed spouses because we are destined to a better estate … to a spiritual partnership …. Consequently, we who are together with God shall remain together…. In eternal life God shall no more separate those he has joined together than in this life where he forbids them to be separated (Tertullian, On Monogamy, 10).

To be sure, some aspects of marriage do end with the death of a spouse. The marital vows that bind the couple to an exclusive relationship, forsaking all others, are only operative until death do them part. Thus, the death of a spouse permits the surviving spouse to marry again. In some cases, especially before the modern age, such marriages for widows or widowers were necessary for financial and familial reasons.

That a marriage ends by the death of a spouse speaks more to worldly realities than to heavenly ones. It still does not follow that one’s earthly marriage will have no meaning in Heaven. Even if a person remarries after the death of his/her spouse, surely both relationships will be perfected in Heaven, not discarded. As the relationships are perfect, there will be no jealousy or resentment between the first spouse and the second.

In His response to the Sadducees, Jesus surely does mean that there will be no new marriages in Heaven. There will be no wedding bells, no marriage ceremonies, for Heaven is already one grand marriage feast of Christ with His Bride, the Church.

Further, marriage is given here in this world for the sake of propagating the human race through having children. This need will not exist in Heaven, where there is no death. The Fathers of the Church emphasize this in their commentary on this teaching:

    • “For when they shall rise from the dead, they neither marry, nor are given in marriage; but are as the angels which are in heaven” as if He had said, there will be a certain heavenly and angelic restoration to life, when there shall be no more decay, and we shall remain unchanged; and for this reason marriage shall cease. For marriage now exists on account of our decay, that we may be carried on by succession of our race, and not fail; but then we shall be as the Angels, who need no succession by marriage, and never come to an end (Theophylactus, as quoted in the Catena Aurea).
    • In the resurrection, men shall be as the Angels of God, that is, no man there dies, no one is born, no infant is there, no old men (Pseudo Jerome, as quoted in the Catena Aurea).
    • For marriages are for the sake of children, children for succession, succession because of death. Where then there is no death, there are no marriages; and hence it follows, But they which shall be accounted worthy, &c (Augustine, as quoted in the Catena Aurea).

As for us living like the angels, the Lord speaks to immortality, but He also teaches that there will no longer be any need for sexual intercourse. This may seem like a drawback to some people, particularly in this hypersexualized age, but the intimacy between spouses in Heaven will be far greater than any mere physical union. When a great joy comes between spouses it eclipses lesser ones. Here too, the Church Fathers affirm this meaning:

    • Our Lord shows us that in the resurrection there will be no fleshly conversation (Theophylactus, quoted in the Catena Aurea).
    • Since all fleshly lust is taken away … they resemble the holy angels (Cyril of Alexandria, Homily 136 on Luke).

Married couples should look forward to a relationship that is perfected in Heaven, not set aside. While the juridical aspects of marriage may end at death, the union of hearts and lives will not. In Christ there surely remains a spiritual connection and covenantal union that stretches from Heaven to earth through prayer, and in Heaven the Lord will surely perfect what He joined on earth, giving spouses unimaginable joy and unity.

Set me as a seal on your heart,
as a seal on your arm.
For stern as death is love,
relentless as the nether world is devotion;
its flames are a blazing fire.
Deep waters cannot quench love,
nor floods sweep it away.
Were one to offer all he owns to purchase love,
he would be roundly mocked
(Song of Songs 8:6-7).

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Will Marriages Be Acknowledged in Heaven?

Hosea’s Stormy Marriage

In the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours last week we read from the Book of the Prophet Hosea. The story of the Prophet Hosea’s troubled marriage is a powerful testimony to two things: our tendency to be unfaithful to God, but also God’s passionate love for us. This is particularly important today as there has been so much discussion about divorce and “remarriage.” While many people have endured difficult marriages, remember that God Himself is in a very painful marriage—with us, His people! God surely knows what it is like to have a difficult spouse. The story of Hosea depicts some of God’s grief and shows what He chooses to do about it.

The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy; we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. Here are the basic facts along with some of that “fill in”:

    • Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2).
    • Hosea and Gomer have three children together, each with a meaningful name: Jezreel (God was about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (meaning “not pitied”), and Lo-Ammi (meaning “not my people”). It is possible that these children were not actually Hosea’s but rather the offspring of one or more of Gomer’s various lovers, for although they were born during the marriage, God later refers to them as children of harlotry.
    • At some point, although the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Gomer leaves Hosea and enters into an adulterous relationship. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea’s reaction, but God’s is well-documented.
    • Hosea takes Gomer back. After an unspecified period of time, God instructs Hosea, Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1). While the passage does not clearly state that this woman is Gomer, the overall context of the first three chapters of Hosea 1-3 make it clear that it is she. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back, Gomer and re-establish his marital bond with her.
    • Hosea pays a hefty price to purchase Gomer back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and about a homer and a lethech [about 10½ bushels] of barley (Hosea 3:2). The willingness of her adulterous lover to “sell her back” demonstrates quite poetically that his love, like the love given by the world, is not real love at all; it is for sale to the highest bidder.
    • Prior to restoring her to any intimacy, Hosea institutes a period of purification and testing: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you” (Hosea 3:3).

This story is both difficult and beautiful. Its purpose is not so much to tell us about Hosea’s marriage as it is to show the troubled marriage of the Lord, whose bride—His people—is unfaithful to Him. Both collectively and individually, we have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism (usually on our behalf) and we have renewed them on many occasions since that time.

All too often, though, we casually “become intimate” with other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps we have become enamored of money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, or worldly philosophies. Some have outright left God; others keep two or more beds, speaking of their love for God but dallying with others as well. Yes, it is a troubled marriage, but we are the unfaithful ones.

What does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride—and at quite a cost: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid dearly to draw us back to Him. Yet still we stray and often show little appreciation of His love. There’s an old gospel song says, “Oh, Lord, I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”

A deeper look into the story of Hosea reveals God’s grieving heart. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to examine describes God as grieving, angry, and weighing His options; but it also shows Him as loving and almost romantic. On one level, we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. God is said to be like this, but He is not angry the way we are angry; He does not grieve the way we do; He is not romantic in the way that we are. Although we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor, we cannot wholly set them aside as having no direct meaning. In some sense, God is grieving, angry, loving, and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how He experiences these is mysterious to us, but He does choose to describe Himself to us in this way.

With this balanced caution, let’s take a look at some excerpts from the second chapter of Hosea, in which God decodes the story of Hosea and applies it to us. He describes to us His grieving heart as well as His plan of action to win back His lover and bride.

Thoughts of divorce Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband [Hosea 2:4]. The text suggests that God is weighing His options, but perhaps the better explanation is that this line is intended for us readers, so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. However, God will not do that, for although we break the covenant, He will not. Though we are unfaithful, God will not be. If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).

The bitter charge against her Let her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts …. “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil, and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal [Hosea 2:4, 7-10]. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing, but so often we do not thank Him. We run after the world and the powerful in it, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. We love the world and forget about God. We “sleep with” the world. We give credit to medicine, science, and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry, for we are enamored of secondary causes and not of God, who is the cause of all. We get into bed with the world and its agenda, and we adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is distressed by our ingratitude and adultery and is presented in this passage as a wounded and jealous lover. Remember that these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that although He is not hurt, angered, or passionate the way that we are, neither is He indifferent to our infidelity.

Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishmentI will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully. … I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers, and no one can deliver her out of my hand. I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities. … I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense … If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them, she shall not find them [Hosea 2:5-7, 12-13, 15, 9]. This text could be seen as describing God in a jealous rage, but God has a result in mind. He does not punish as might some despot exacting revenge. He punishes for its medicinal effect. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God; we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion with us.

The hoped-for resultThen she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now” [Hosea 2:9]. God’s intent is to bring His bride back to sanity, to the point that she is ready to seek union once again. Without it she will perish; with it, she will be united with the only one who ever loved her and the only one who can save her.

Passionate loverSo I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked [Hosea 2:16-19]. God wants to be alone with His bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare His love for her again. She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that when we die, we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world: creature comforts, power, pride, and the like. As we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart, and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this He restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.

Renewed covenantI will make a covenant for them on that day …. I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. … and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” [Hosea 2:20-22, 2519] God renews the marriage bond with us, both in the Church and individually!

Here, then, is the astonishing, undying, and pursuing love of God for His bride, the Church, and for each of us individually. After all our whoring and infidelity, we do not deserve it, but God is a passionate lover. As He commanded Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God Himself buy us back—at a high price. Certainly, God did not pay Satan. Rather, the large payment in Hosea’s story indicates the great sacrifice God had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far, and He had to journey far and then carry us back.

I am not here to render a personal judgment on those who have tried valiantly to save their marriage but were unable to do so. Rather, my purpose is to reach those of you who are currently struggling, who are trying to persevere, so that you realize that God understands your pain. He, too, experiences it from us, time and time again. Yet each day He renews His covenant with us and offers us mercy. In the words of a famous spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen; nobody knows but Jesus.”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Hosea’s Stormy Marriage

The Problems Produced by the Polygamy of the Patriarchs

In the Book of Genesis, God’s plan for marriage is set forth poetically but clearly: one man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Note that the word used is “helpmate,” not “helpmates.” After teaching the man that animals are not suitable companions, God puts Adam in a deep sleep and, from his rib, fashions Eve (cf Gen 2:21). Note that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam God created a woman not another man; He also created one woman—not two, not three. So, we see that both homosexual marriage and polygamy are excluded.

Scripture goes on to insist that marriage is a lasting union, for it says that a man shall “cling” (Hebrew דָּבַק = dabaq) to his wife (not wives), and the two (not three or more) of them shall become one flesh (Gen 2:24). God then went on to tell them to be fruitful and multiply (Gen 1:28).

Given the clear plan for marriage, what should we make of the polygamy of the patriarchs (e.g., Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, and Solomon)? Does God really approve of this? There is no evidence that He thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior; in fact, it seems to go unrebuked. The fact that they have several wives is noted in Scripture more in passing, with little if any shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet rebukes David for many things, but having multiple wives is not among them.

Let’s begin by noting that the Scriptures teach in various ways: there is direct rebuke and punishment described, but there is also subtle instruction through stories. This is the way in which the Scriptures teach against polygamy. Through various stories we learn that polygamy causes nothing but trouble: factions, jealousy, envy, and even murder. The problem was not so much the multiple wives as it was the sons they bore.

Polygamy was common among the Old Testament patriarchs. Here is a “brief” list:

1.  Lamech (a descendant of Cain) had two wives (Genesis 4:19).
2.  Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4, 25:6 (some were called concubines)).
3.  Nahor (Abraham’s brother) had both a wife and a concubine (Genesis 11:29, 22:20-24).
4.  Jacob was tricked into polygamy (Genesis 29:20-30) and later received two additional wives bringing the grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
5.  Esau took a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
6.  Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
7.  Obadiah, Joel, Isshiah, and those with them had multiple wives (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
8.  Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of whom he “sent away” (1 Chronicles 8:8-11).
9.  Caleb had two wives (1 Chronicles 2:18) and two concubines (1 Chronicles 2:46, 48).
10.  Gideon had many wives (Judges 8:30).
11.  Elkanah is recorded as having two wives, one of whom was the godly woman Hannah (1 Samuel 1:1-2, 8-2:10).
12.  David had at least 8 wives and 10 concubines (1 Chronicles 1:1-9; 2 Samuel 6:23, 20:3).
13.  Solomon had 700 wives and 300 concubines (1 Kings 11:1-6).
14.  Rehoboam had eighteen wives and sixty concubines (2 Chronicles 11:21) and sought many wives for his sons (1 Chronicles 11:23).
15.  Abijah had fourteen wives (2 Chronicles 13:21).
16.  Ahab had more than one wife (1 Kings 20:7).
17.  Jehoram had multiple wives (2 Chronicles 21:17).
18.  Jehoiada the priest gave king Joash two wives (2 Chronicles 24:1-3).
19.  Jehoiachin had more than one wife (2 Kings 24:15).

Clearly, polygamy—at least among wealthy and powerful men—was common and brought little condemnation from God or His prophets.

The silence of God does not connote approval, however. Just because something is mentioned in the Bible does not mean that it is approved. For example, God permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the people (cf Matt 19:8), but to permit reluctantly is not to endorse or be pleased.

Polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with in Scripture (i.e., mentioned more than just noted in passing), always spelled trouble with a capital T!

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies:

Jacob had four wives whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (whom he considered unattractive and felt himself “stuck with”), Rachel (his first love), Bilnah (Rachel’s maid), and Zilpah (Leah’s maid). Leah bore him six sons and a daughter: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulan, and Dinah. Rachel was infertile for many years, but finally gave birth to Joseph and later Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, while Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher.

All these sons by different mothers created tension, the greatest of which surrounded Joseph, whose brothers grew jealous and began to hate him, for their father, Jacob, favored Joseph as Rachel’s son. The brothers hatched a plot to kill Joseph, but due to a combination of their desire for monetary gain and the intervention of Reuben, he was instead sold into slavery. At the root of this sad story of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess. The clear teaching (among others) is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Gideon had many wives and by them many sons. Scripture tells the story of violence and death that resulted from this situation, with the sons all competing for kingship and heritage.

Now Gideon had seventy sons, his direct descendants, for he had many wives. His concubine who lived in Shechem also bore him a son, whom he named Abimelech. At a good old age Gideon, son of Joash, died and was buried in the tomb of his father Joash in Ophrah of the Abiezrites. Abimelech, son of Jerubbaal (i.e., Gideon), went to his mother’s kinsmen in Shechem, and said to them and to the whole clan to which his mother’s family belonged, “Put this question to all the citizens of Shechem: ‘Which is better for you: that seventy men, or all Jerubbaal’s sons, rule over you, or that one man rule over you?’ You must remember that I am your own flesh and bone.” When his mother’s kin repeated these words to them on his behalf, all the citizens of Shechem sympathized with Abimelech, thinking, “He is our kinsman.” They also gave him seventy silver shekels from the temple of Baal of Berith, with which Abimelech hired shiftless men and ruffians as his followers. He then went to his ancestral house in Ophrah, and slew his brothers, the seventy sons of Jerubbaal (Gideon), on one stone. Only the youngest son of Jerubbaal, Jotham, escaped, for he was hidden (Judges 9:1-5).

At the heart of this murderous conflict was polygamy. The sons competed for kingship, power, and inheritance. They had little love for one another because they had different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his half-brothers but to his mother and her clan; he did not hesitate to slaughter them to gain power.

Among other things evident in this terrible tale is that polygamy leads to chaos and hatred. The story is cautioning, “Don’t do polygamy.”

King David had at least eight wives (Michal, Abigail, Ahinoam, Eglah, Maacah, Abital, Haggith, and Bathsheba) and ten concubines. Trouble erupts in this “blended” (to put it mildly) family when Absalom (David’s third son, whose mother was Maacah) sought to move to the head of the line of succession. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half-brother Amnon stood in the way. The tension between these royal sons of different mothers grew intense. Amnon raped Absalom’s sister Tamar, and Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and over time nourished hatred for his father David, eventually waging a war against him in an attempt to overthrow his power. Absalom is killed in the war, and David can barely forgive himself for his role in his son’s death (2 Sam 18:33). The family intrigue wasn’t over, however.

David’s son Solomon (by Bathsheba, David’s last wife) would eventually become king but only through the machinations of his mother. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah (by Haggith), who was the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was proclaimed king in a formal ceremony. Bathsheba conspired with Nathan the Prophet and deceived David into thinking that Adonijah was mounting a rebellion. She also reminded David of a secret promise he had once made to her that Solomon would one day be king. As a result, David intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after Solomon assured his safety. Despite this he was later killed by Solomon.

What a messy situation! We have sons of different mothers hating one another, wives playing for favor and conspiring behind the scenes, and so forth. Once again, the implicit teaching is this: Don’t do polygamy.

Solomon, it is said, had 700 wives and 300 concubines. Again, nothing but trouble came from this. Scripture says,

King Solomon, however, loved many foreign women. … He had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray. As Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart was not fully devoted to the Lord his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molech the detestable god of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord (1 Kings 11:1-6).

The tolerance of pagan religious practices encouraged by these wives, along with other policies, led to great hostility and division in the kingdom. After Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah. They were never reunited, and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy and this lesson: Don’t do polygamy.

Abraham’s sexual relations with his wife Sarah’s maid, Hagar, while a case of adultery rather than polygamy, also led to serious trouble. Although Hagar became pregnant with Ishmael at Sarah’s behest, Sarah grew jealous and mistreated her, causing her to flee (Gen 16). Hagar eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael. Later, when Sarah finally bore a child (Isaac), she  decided that Ishmael was a threat and had Abraham drive him and Hagar away (Gen 21).

Ishmael went on to become the patriarch of what we largely call the Arab nations; Isaac’s line would be the Jewish people. The rest, as they say, is history.

Once again, polygamy is lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So, the Bible does teach on polygamy. Through stories, we learn of its problematic nature. We ought not to be overly simplistic and conclude that polygamy was the only problem or that such tragedies never occur in other settings, but it clearly played a strong role.

It would seem that in the Old Testament God tolerates polygamy, as he does divorce, but nowhere does He approve of it.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and excludes divorce.

Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, unless the marriage is unlawful, and marries another woman commits adultery (Matt 19:8-9).

Have you not read that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate (Matt 19:4-6).

Whatever one may argue with regard to the Old Testament’s approach to marriage, Jesus makes it clear that we are going back to plan A: One man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support.

Beware, polygamy is the next taboo targeted for overturning. In the wake of the legalization of gay “marriage,” polygamists and their supporters are insisting that the Bible approves of this way of life. Do a web search on “polygamy” and you’ll see many sites devoted to this thinking and to its promotion.

The basic message must be this: While reporting the existence of polygamy, the Bible also describes the consequences, which were nearly always violent. The biblical teaching, therefore, is clear: Don’t do polygamy.

Here are two clips from the movie Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The first one is somewhat humorous, but in the second one things begin to get dark.

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard:  The Problems Produced by the Polygamy of the Patriarchs

 

Marriage Is About What Is Best For Children

As a kind of follow-up from yesterday’s Gospel on marriage, we do well to ponder where our focus on marriage is, both personally and nationally.

Finding our way back – Part of the essential work we must do in re-establishing a coherent vision for marriage rooted in tradition, Natural Law, and, for believers, Scripture, is to restore a proper reference point so that all the pieces of the discussion make sense.

What is this proper reference point? Marriage is essentially about children and what is best for them. It is not about civil rights; it is not about two adults being happy and fulfilled. If we use the proper starting point, a lot of other things begin to fall in place.

1. Marriage is a stable and lasting union – Children require 18+ years to come to maturity. A stable environment is obviously best for them. In too many cases, children are ferried back and forth between parents who are either divorced or never married in the first place. One weekend here, another there, one summer here, another there. The instability is devastating for children. Parents should seek, above all, to resolve their differences and stay married.

Living in a stable though imperfect home—and all homes are imperfect—is an important way that children learn values such as trust, commitment, forgiveness, tolerance, generosity, conflict resolution, love, loyalty, and integrity.  It inculcates in them a sense of true marriage and family, knits together important family ties on a multigenerational level, and sets them up to be able to form strong families themselves when they are older. They also learn proper dynamics between men and women: how to treat and regard members of the opposite sex.

Those who simply claim that the traditional, stable family is no better or worse than other arrangement are ignoring what long human experience has taught us in this regard. Scripture affirms the value of a stable family when it speaks of a husband clinging to his wife (Gen 2:24, Matt 19:1ff inter al) and when Jesus forbids divorce (Matt 5, Matt 19, Mark 10 inter al). Marriage is about what is best for children, and as a rule, stability is best.

2. Marriage is the union of two heterosexuals – Though heterosexual relations are obviously necessary for procreation, that is not the main point here, for many homosexuals argue that they can adopt children. The central point here is what is best in raising them.

The fact is that children are best raised by a mother and father together. In terms of simple human formation, children are best raised with both male and female influences. There are things that a father can say to and model for his children that are properly and best done by a father. Likewise, there are things that a mother can say to and model for her children that are properly and best done by a mother. This is what nature herself provides in linking procreation to both a father and a mother. Situations in which there are two fathers, or two mothers, or just one parent, are not ideal for children. As a rule, it is best for children to be raised in a traditional family setting.

There are times when death or illnesses make the ideal setting impossible. There are exceptional circumstances in which a father or mother is unfit, but in general a traditional heterosexual marriage is the ideal environment for children. It is what nature herself has set forth and, for believers, it is what God has set forth. In cases in which a parent is missing from the family, it is essential for the remaining parent to provide opportunities for children to interact in a proper way with mentors of the missing sex. This can be accomplished with aunts, uncles, grandparents, and the like.

The bottom line is that traditional heterosexual marriage is optimal for children and their human formation. All other arrangements are less than ideal. To the degree possible, children should be raised in the optimal setting that nature and nature’s God have set forth.

When placing children for adoption, married heterosexual couples should have priority over single parents and homosexual couples. This is not bigotry, it is what is best for children. There is typically no difficulty finding homes for infants. Sadly, it is more difficult to find homes for older children, but married heterosexual couples should still generally speaking be favored.

Again, the important thing is what is best for children, not whether certain adults may be offended by perceived bigotry, or whether the approach is politically correct.

3. Traditional, heterosexual marriage should enjoy the favor of law and recognition – One of the great battle lines in the marriage debate has been that married couples enjoy certain favors under law such as tax advantages, inheritance rights, and hospital visitation privileges. Most people see some room for give on these sorts of matters. On a case-by-case basis, it may make some sense to allow, under civil law, a greater ability for Americans to legally enact a wider variety of arrangements for power of attorney, inheritance, and the like.

However, if what is best for children remains our starting point, then it also follows that traditional heterosexual marriage should enjoy some legitimate favors. Strengthening traditional marriage is a worthwhile goal for public policy. Some tax provisions encourage forming and keeping traditional families. Granted, the degree to which such proactive policies should go is debatable. Even among supporters of traditional marriage there are some who have a libertarian view when it comes to any government involvement.

In the end, whether through tax breaks, other laws, or simply through special recognition, a strong support of and advocacy for traditional marriage is proper and good, for whatever strengthens the traditional family is good for children. Whatever we can do as a society to uphold traditional marriage, insist on fidelity, limit divorce, and give special recognition and honor to these families is good for children.

This also is why legal recognition of other types of unions as “marriage” is problematic. To use the same term, “marriage,” both for traditional heterosexual marriage and for gay unions implies an equality that is not true. Gay unions are not on the same footing with traditional marriage because they are not what is best for children. Traditional marriage is what is best for children and it should enjoy an elevated status because of this. Using the same word for the two blurs this and traditional marriage loses the favor it should have and the recognition is it should receive.

That’s enough said for now, but remember the fundamental point: Marriage is essentially about children and what is best for them. When we use the welfare of children as our starting point, it is clear that traditional marriage is proper and best. This starting point challenges not only advocates of gay “marriage” but also sometimes those of traditional marriage, for not all those in traditional marriages have what is best for children in the forefront of their minds either. Too often couples do not work at their marriage to overcome difficulties; many are too quick to rush to divorce court. What is best for children often takes a back seat in our culture.

 

The Story of Hosea and What It Teaches About God and Holy Matrimony

HoseaWe are currently reading from the Book of the Prophet Hosea at daily Mass. The story of the Prophet Hosea’s troubled marriage is a powerful testimony to two things: our own tendency to be unfaithful to God, but also of God’s passionate love for us. We do well to recall the story, especially given the “great debate” among some in the Church today over the question of divorce and remarriage. And while there are many painful stories of what some have had to endure in difficult marriages, remember that God is in a very painful marriage with His people—yes, very painful! God knows the pain of a difficult marriage and a difficult spouse. The story of Hosea depicts some of God’s grief and what He chooses to do about it.

The precise details of Hosea’s troubled marriage are sketchy; we are left to fill in some of the details with our imagination. But here are the basic facts along with some “fill in”:

  1. Hosea receives an unusual instruction from God: Go, take a harlot wife and harlot’s children, for the land gives itself to harlotry, turning away from the LORD. So he went and took Gomer, the daughter of Diblaim (Hosea 1:2).
  1. Together they have three children, each with a symbolic name: Jezreel (for God is about to humble Israel in the Jezreel valley), Lo-Ruhama (not pitied), and Lo-Ammi (not my people). It is also possible that these children were not of Hosea but rather of Gomer’s various lovers, for although they are born during the marriage, God later refers to them as children of harlotry.
  1. At some point, though the text does not specify when or under what circumstances, Gomer leaves Hosea for another lover and enters into an adulterous relationship. We can only imagine Hosea’s pain and anger at this rejection. The text remains silent as to Hosea’s reaction, but as we shall see, God’s reaction is well-documented.
  1. Hosea takes her back. After an unspecified period of time, God instructs Hosea, Give your love to a woman beloved of a paramour, an adulteress; Even as the LORD loves the people of Israel, though they turn to other gods and are fond of raisin cakes (Hosea 3:1). Now while the quoted text does not clearly specify that this is the same woman he is to love, the overall context of chapters 1-3 of Hosea demand that this is the same unfaithful wife, Gomer. God tells Hosea to redeem, to buy back, Gomer and re-establish his marital bonds with her.
  1. Hosea has to pay a rather hefty price indeed to purchase Gomer back from her paramour: So I bought her for fifteen pieces of silver and a homer and a lethech of barley (Hosea 3:2). The willingness of her paramour to “sell her back” indicates quite poetically that the apparent love of the world and of all false lovers is not real love at all. It is for sale to the highest bidder.
  1. Prior to restoring her to any intimacy, a period of purification and testing will be necessary: Then I said to her: “Many days you shall wait for me; you shall not play the harlot Or belong to any man; I in turn will wait for you” (Hosea 3:3).

This story is both difficult and beautiful. Its purpose, as you likely know, is not merely to tell us of the troubled and painful marriage of Hosea. Its truer purpose is to show forth the troubled marriage of the Lord, who has a bride—a people—who are unfaithful to Him. We, both collectively and individually, have entered into a (marital) covenant with God. Our vows were pronounced at our baptism and we renewed them on many other occasions.

But all too often we casually “sleep with” other gods and worldly paramours. Perhaps it is money, popularity, possessions, or power. Perhaps we have forsaken God for our careers, politics, philosophies, or arts and sciences. Some have outright left God; others keep two or more beds, still speaking of their love for God but involved with many other dalliances as well. Yes, this is a troubled marriage, not on God’s part, but surely on ours.

And through it all, what does God decide to do? In the end, as Hosea’s story illustrates, God chooses to redeem, to buy back, his bride—and at quite a cost: For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect (1 Peter 3:19-20). Yes, God paid dearly to draw us back to Him. And yet still we stray and often show little appreciation of His love. An old Gospel song says, “Oh Lord I’ve sinned but you’re still calling my name.”

A deeper look into the story of Hosea reveals a view into the grieving heart of God. Reading these Old Testament passages requires a bit of sophistication. The text we are about to look at describes God as grieving, angry, and weighing out His options; but it also shows Him as loving and almost romantic. On one level, we must remember that these attributes are applied to God in an analogical and metaphorical sense. Although God is said to be like this, He is not angry the way we are angry. He does not grieve the way we do; He is not romantic the way we are. Although we see these texts in terms of analogy and metaphor, we cannot wholly set them aside as having no meaning. In some sense, God is grieving, angry, loving, and even “romantic” in response to our wanderings. Exactly how He experiences these is mysterious to us but He does choose to use these metaphors to describe Himself to us.

With this balanced caution, let’s take a look at excerpts from the second chapter of Hosea, in which God decodes the story of Hosea and applies it to us. He describes to us His grieving heart as well as His plan of action to win back His lover and bride.

  1. Thoughts of Divorce! Protest against your mother, protest! for she is not my wife, and I am not her husband. The text suggests that God is weighing His options. But perhaps the better explanation is that this line is for us readers, so that we will consider that God could rightfully divorce us. But as we will see, He will not do that. For although we break the covenant, He will not. Though we are unfaithful, God will not be unfaithful. If we are unfaithful he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself (2 Tim 2:13).
  1. The bitter charge against herLet her remove her harlotry from before her, her adultery from between her breasts … “I will go after my lovers,” she said, “who give me my bread and my water, my wool and my flax, my oil and my drink.” Since she has not known that it was I who gave her the grain, the wine, and the oil, And her abundance of silver, and of gold, which they used for Baal. God’s charge here is not merely that we are unfaithful but also that we are ungrateful. God is the giver of every good thing. But so often we do not thank Him. We run after the world and after the powerful, thinking it is they who provide our wealth. They do not—it is God who does so. But instead we love the world and forget about God. We “sleep with” the world. We give credit to medicine, science, and human ingenuity, but do not acknowledge or thank God. Our ingratitude contributes to our harlotry, for we are enamored of secondary causes and not of God, who is the cause of all. So we get into bed with the world and its agenda, and adulterously unite ourselves with it. God is distressed by our ingratitude and adultery and is presented here as a wounded and jealous lover. Is God a wounded and jealous lover? Remember these things are said by way of analogy and metaphor. God is neither hurt nor angered by the way we are. And yet we cannot wholly dismiss these words as having no meaning. God has inspired this text and wants us to understand that although He is not passionate as we are, neither is He indifferent to our infidelity.
  1. Grief-stricken but issuing purifying punishmentI will strip her naked, leaving her as on the day of her birth; I will make her like the desert, reduce her to an arid land, and slay her with thirst. I will have no pity on her children, for they are the children of harlotry. Yes, their mother has played the harlot; she that conceived them has acted shamefully. … I will lay bare her shame before the eyes of her lovers. … I will bring an end to all her joy, her feasts, her new moons, her sabbaths, and all her solemnities. … I will punish her for the days of the Baals, for whom she burnt incense. … If she runs after her lovers, she shall not overtake them; if she looks for them she shall not find them. This text could be seen as describing God in a jealous rage. But as we shall see, God has a result in mind. He does not punish as some uncontrolled despot exacting revenge. He punishes as medicine. He punishes as one who loves and seeks to restore. We are not sinners in the hands of an angry God; we are sinners in the hands of a loving God who seeks reunion.
  1. The hoped-for resultThen she shall say, “I will go back to my first husband, for it was better with me then than now.” God’s intent was to bring His bride back to sanity, to bring her to a place where she is ready to seek union once again. For without this union she will perish, but with it she will be united with the only one who ever loved her and who can save her.
  1. Passionate loverSo I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. From there I will give her the vineyards she had, and the valley of Achor as a door of hope. She shall respond there as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt. On that day, says the LORD, She shall call me “My husband,” and never again “My baal.” Then will I remove from her mouth the names of the Baals, so that they shall no longer be invoked. See how God wants to get alone with His bride and woo her once again! God will speak lovingly to her heart and declare again His love for her in a kind of Marriage Encounter She, now repentant and devoted, will renew her love as well. There is also an image of purgatory or purgation here. It is likely that when we die we will still have some attachments to “former lovers” in this world: creature comforts, power, pride, misplaced priorities, and the like. So as we die, God lures us into the desert of purgatory, speaks to our heart, and cleanses us of our final attachments. After this He restores to us the vineyards of paradise that once were ours.
  1. Renewed CovenantI will make a covenant for them on that day. … I will espouse you to me forever: I will espouse you in right and in justice, in love and in mercy; I will espouse you in fidelity, and you shall know the LORD. … and I will have pity on Lo-ruhama. I will say to Lo-ammi, “You are my people,” and he shall say, “My God!” God renews the marriage bond with us, both corporately in the Church and individually!

Here, then, is the astonishing, undying, and pursuing love of God for His bride, the Church, and for each of us individually. After all our whoring and infidelity, we do not deserve it. But God is a passionate lover. As He commanded Hosea to buy back his adulterous wife, so too did God buy us back at a high price. Now to be sure, God did not pay Satan. Rather, the payment He rendered was an indication of the high sacrifice He had to make to win back our hearts. We had wandered far and He had to journey far and then carry us back.

I am not here to render a personal judgment on those who have struggled to save a marriage but were unable to do so. Rather, my purpose is to reach those who are currently struggling, striving to persevere, so that you realize that God knows your pain—he too experiences it from us, time and time again. Yet each day He renews His covenant with us and offers us mercy. If it helps to realize that God knows your pain, please understand that He does. In the words of the old spiritual, “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”

A Pastoral Plan for Marriage and Family Is Unveiled

Sunday at St. Matthew’s Cathedral, with hundreds of invited married couples, Cardinal Donald Wuerl presented the Archdiocese of Washington’s pastoral plan to more fully implement Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The complete text of the plan is available here and additional resources can be found on this website: adw.org/amorislaetitia.

The purpose of the pastoral plan is to achieve the overarching goal of Amoris Laetitia, which is to strengthen marriage and family. It emphasizes effective marriage preparation, support for married couples, marriage enrichment, and assistance for couples struggling in their marriages. The plan speaks to teaching the faithful more effectively on the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony, the need for conscience formation, and the overall need for formation in the Gospel. There are also helpful sections directed toward working with people in irregular situations so as to address their problems and keep them close to the heart of Christ and the Church. The Tribunal processes of the Archdiocese remain as they have been in the past for the proper resolution of marriage cases.

Before an in-depth discussion of the plan, a short aside is in order: While nearly all of the commentary on Amoris Laetitia has focused one or two narrow matters pertaining to a couple of footnotes or to Chapter 8, almost to the point of ignoring the rest, the pastoral plan correctly understands that the exhortation is much, much broader in scope. It is this larger part to which the Cardinal’s plan is devoted, while also attesting that there is no change in Church teaching.

What this plan is about is formation in the Lord’s teaching and grace as well as setting an ever-stronger foundation for marriage and family. Cardinal Wuerl notes in his own blog, The parish has a central role in making clear the Gospel vision for marriage and family life. Indeed, this must be our crucial work going forward, both as an Archdiocese and in our individual parishes.

I would like to reflect on this solid, pastoral plan, by reflecting on it in three ways: A Gospel Picture, A Growing Problem, a Going Plan.

A Gospel Picture In the fourth chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus sees a woman of Samaria coming to a well to draw water. As the Lord who created her, He has always known her and loved her. Before He ever formed her in her mother’s womb He knew her (see Jer. 1:5) and knew everything she would ever do. Indeed, every one of her days was written in His book before one of them ever came to be (see Psalm 139). Yes, He knows her and loves her.

The woman is not named because she may well be you or someone you know. Yes, her story is our story.

The woman comes to the well thirsty. She may be an outcast since she comes alone and at a time of day when others would not be there. Whatever her pain, whatever her sins, whatever shortcomings may have caused her to be outcast and alone, Jesus seeks her. There’s an old hymn that says, “He looked beyond my fault and saw my need.”

In daring fashion, Jesus, a man, speaks to a woman in public. This was not done in those days. He also reaches across racial and ethnic divides, appealing to their shared thirst. In her own pain and fear she at first scoffs that a Jewish man would speak to her, a Samaritan and a woman. In His patience and mercy Jesus does not give up. Slowly, even tenderly, He draws her to a deeper encounter and helps her discover her true thirst.

At a critical moment she says, Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty. Here is the moment for which Jesus longed and thirsted: her assent, her response in faith, however nascent. Her assent opens the first door to the living waters Jesus wants to give.

There is an obstacle, though

“Go call your husband and come back.”
The woman answered and said to him,
“I do not have a husband.”
Jesus answered her,
“You are right in saying, ‘I do not have a husband.’
For you have had five husbands,
and the one you have now is not your husband.
What you have said is true.”

Note that there is no rejection in Jesus’ tone, but neither does He ignore her marital situation or wave it off as if it were of no account. Like a good physician, He sees this as likely at the heart of much of her pain and her difficulty in discovering her truer thirst. Something here needs healing, needs to be addressed, so that the living waters can flow and satisfy.

How exactly Jesus dealt with her situation is not clear. Whatever happened was between them. Remember that the Gospel accounts often present in a focused way what for us usually takes much longer. For example, Jesus healed lepers in a moment and cast out demons by a mere command. In contrast, our healing and the casting out of our demons takes time and an ongoing encounter with the Lord through His Body, the Church.

In this Gospel then we see a picture of what the Church has always done and must continue to do. Whatever our hurts and whatever our histories, the Church—the living, active presence of Jesus Christ in the world—must continue to seek those who thirst and draw them to Christ, the source of the true water for which they really thirst. Some bring struggles with sin, addiction, weakness, and other afflictions. All of us are sinners who need ongoing healing. We often seek love try to satisfy our thirsts in the wrong ways and in the wrong places. The role of the Church is not to dismiss sin and struggles as if they were of no account, but to help the faithful, through God’s graces, to work through struggles and overcome obstacles so that the healing waters can flow.

A Growing Problem It is no secret that marriage and the family are in crisis. (See some sobering statistics here: Marriage Troubles.)

The culture is increasingly poisonous to marriage and family: secularism, materialism, the sexual revolution, mobility and rootlessness, the demise of the extended family, the need for two incomes, suffocating college debt, promiscuity, movies that emphasize dysfunction rather than virtue, pornography, ideological colonization, and individualism.

The biblical vision of marriage, family, and sexuality has been significantly eroded in the minds and consciences of many people today. This is true in our parishes as well. The Church cannot remain aloof or disinterested in the walking wounded, who greatly resemble the woman at the well. In his blog, Cardinal Wuerl beautifully notes,

So many people think that if their own lives look more like the woman at the well than the Holy Family that there may not be a place in the Church for them. That is simply not true.

As Jesus looked to the woman of Samaria with love and sought to draw her to the living water of the Spirit, so the Church looks to us with love and seeks to more deeply immerse us in the living waters of Holy Spirit and the Lord’s truth, which alone will set us free.

Simply wishing people well or welcoming them without providing real, substantive help is not enough. Jesus did not brush aside the woman’s painful marital past at the well. He raised the issue with her and (albeit in a hidden way). He ministered to her in a way that allowed her to leave her water jar (a symbol of her reliance on the world) and run joyfully to summon others to Jesus.

The Church, as Christ’s active presence in this world, can do no less—hence the Cardinal’s pastoral plan.

A Going Plan The Pastoral Plan of the Archdiocese of Washington is a combination of pastoral practices and the assembling of resources to help parishes and individuals form and care for one another in today’s world. The Cardinal sets forth “the need for more adequate catechesis and formation, not only of engaged and married couples and their children, but also priests, deacons, seminarians, consecrated religious, catechists, teachers, social workers, medical professionals and other pastoral workers.”

The Cardinal also speaks to the need for the proper formation of conscience through patient and careful teaching by the Church and careful listening and discernment by the faithful.

There are some people today who (often with erroneous consciences) uphold objective sin as if it were part of the Christian ideal or who want to propose something other than what the Church teaches. They should in no way presume to teach or preach this to others. The Church must patiently and clearly help them, and everyone, to listen once more to the Gospel message and its call to conversion.

The Church must consistently seek more effective ways to reach people, especially in this age of secularism and detachment from traditional Christian and biblical terms and vision. We cannot simply presume that others share our premises or understand our terms and distinctions. The Cardinal notes, “The act of accompaniment includes fidelity to the teaching as well as awareness of how the teaching is being received or even able to be perceived.”

The Cardinal exhorts pastors: “The underlying moral principle which should inform both that personal discernment and the priest’s ministry is that a person whose situation in life is objectively contrary to moral teaching can still love and grow in the faith, he or she can still take steps in the right direction and benefit from God’s mercy and grace while receiving the assistance of the Church.”

Our job is to assist in the ongoing formation of conscience with respectful, patient, and clear counsel.

Remember that the Church has long reached out to people in invalid marriages through the Tribunal and annulment process. The Church and your local pastor stand ready to assist you if you are currently in a marriage not recognized by the Church. It is often possible to resolve the obstacles that stand in the way of the living water of the sacraments. Please seek advice from your parish or the Archdiocese. An annulment is not a “Catholic divorce.” It is rooted in Jesus’ very words. There is no room to detail all of that in this post, but I have written in more depth on the subject here: What is an annulment?

The pastoral plan then goes on to exhort parishes and parishioners with practical advice. The Cardinal addresses pastors, parish leaders, parish staff, catechists, youth, engaged couples, newly married couples, young adults, young families, older couples, and families in special circumstances (e.g., military families, interfaith and ecumenical families).

The plan concludes with references to dozens of practical resources and programs in the areas of formation, marriage preparation, marriage enrichment, and help for those in troubled marriages.

Some may wonder whether a plan such as this will simply be announced with great fanfare only to end up on the shelf. I would point out that Cardinal Wuerl and the Archdiocese of Washington have a well-established record of following through on pastoral plans. Our Synod, conducted in 2014, has been carefully implemented and has resulted in many structural changes and ongoing initiatives that were sought by the members of the Synod. The Cardinal’s recent pastoral on racism has resulted in a standing committee to shepherd its implementation.

I am convinced that this pastoral plan will also bear much fruit through consistent and persistent action, ongoing review, and accountability. There is much to do—marriage and the family need our focused attention. It is our mission and goal to root the world once again in God’s beautiful vision. It will take time and great effort from all in the Church. We must pray and we must act. The pastoral plan can unite and focus our efforts. May God’s grace and blessing be upon us.

Cardinal Wuerl Releases Amoris Laetitia Implementation Plan

Cardinal Wuerl Releases First Detailed Pastoral Amoris Laetitia Implementation Plan for Parishes 
“Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family” released this weekend in all parishes of the Archdiocese of Washington

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, today celebrated Mass at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington, where he released,Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family.” This broad and detailed pastoral plan is the first of its kind in implementing Pope Francis’s 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia at the parish level. The pastoral plan considers the challenges that individuals, couples and families encounter today in a highly secularized culture, and encourages parishes to serve as welcoming places for all, particularly those who might be disillusioned or disaffected by contemporary society. In releasing this document, Cardinal Wuerl is encouraging all individuals, couples and families to participate in the life of the Church in the Archdiocese of Washington.

At St. Matthew’s, Cardinal Wuerl began his homily referencing the Gospel reading for the day: “The long and beautiful recounting of that meeting of Jesus and the Samaritan woman shows how Jesus not only draws out of her the realization of her own sad condition, but also what the gentle and consistent accompaniment helps her to come to understand.” He continued, “Pope Francis uses the story of the woman at the well to remind all of us that the journey from detachment and distance from God to a rich embrace of God’s love is one that requires patience, engagement and what now has become a common place word: accompaniment.”  

Accompaniment, Cardinal Wuerl noted, is a word that Pope Francis uses today to remind us of the fullness of pastoral ministry that helps move us beyond just hearing the Word, and to understand appreciate, appropriate and live it. “I have chosen today, and this Gospel, as a time to announce our own effort at accompaniment,” Cardinal Wuerl said.

Giving the example of the archdiocese’s annual Mass for couples celebrating jubilee anniversaries, the cardinal spoke of one family at the Mass with three generations celebrating their 74th, 50th, and 25th wedding anniversaries. “The tableau is a visible proclamation of what Pope Francis announces at the very beginning of Amoris Laetitia: ‘The joy of love experienced by families is also the joy of the Church,’” he said.

But for many today, he continued, there is little understanding of the true nature of love, marriage, commitment, and self-giving, which are all part of the Catholic vision of love. “Yet, while their lives and experiences may have drawn many far away from the Church’s message, we are all the more called to reach out to them, to invite and accompany them on the journey that should help bring them to the joy of love that is also the joy of the Church.”

“It is in the light of both the effort to experience the joy of love in marriage, and the challenge to address its brokenness when that happens that we, in consultation with this whole archdiocesan Church, including laity, religious and clergy, offer the Pastoral Plan as our effort: to share in the joy of love in marriage and family, and to be with others in their life’s journey whatever the conditions that are a part of this moment in the journey,” said Cardinal Wuerl. 

Neither the Holy Father’s 2016 exhortation, nor this pastoral plan presents a list of answers, the cardinal reminded the faithful as he concluded his homily. But both documents call for a pastoral approach for people – married, single, and divorced – who are struggling to face issues in life, the teaching of the Church, and their own desire to reconcile it all, and he called on the faithful to carry out the call to share the joy of love in marriage and family life. After the Mass, the cardinal greeted the families and gave them copies of the pastoral plan. Children in attendance also received special rosaries from Cardinal Wuerl that had been blessed by Pope Francis

“Sharing in the Joy of Love in Marriage and Family” is available on the archdiocese’s website at: adw.org/amorislaetitia. Printed copies of the plan in both English and Spanish were sent to all 139 parishes in preparation for this weekend’s official release of the document, and Cardinal Wuerl encouraged priests of the archdiocese to read the plan and preach about it at all parish Masses this weekend. 

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The Archdiocese of Washington is home to over 655,000 Catholics, 139 parishes and 93 Catholic schools, located in Washington, D.C., and five Maryland counties: Calvert, Charles, Montgomery, Prince George’s and St. Mary’s.