Why Do Marriages Fail? Here’s One Often-Overlooked Root

101614The news from the Synod this day is improved. Thanks be to God, many, yes many of the bishops and synod participants have articulated how deficient and misleading the “rough draft” Relatio was. Keep praying! The struggles to lay hold of and articulate with clarity God’s stunning teaching on Holy Matrimony and family in a doubtful world will continue.

But, frankly, even at the moment Jesus uttered his unequivocal insistence that marriage was one man and one woman in an indissoluble bond, many were stunned and scoffed, If that is the case of a man with his wife, it is better never to marry! (Matt 19:10) Jesus, of course, did not back down and went on to reiterate His teaching while also affirming that celibacy (never to marry) was a positive, not negative role (Matt 19:11ff).

Our struggle to recapture and reaffirm without compromise what Jesus taught is surely challenging, especially in a climate in which so many marriages fail. I was listening to an interview yesterday in which the question of how to stem the tide of failed marriages was pondered. All the usual remedies were discussed: better catechesis, better marriage preparation, more sermons on Holy Matrimony, etc. But both participants in the interview concluded that, in a culture as troubled as ours, the “education/catechesis” model was going to have only limited effects. Both agreed that deeper cultural changes and healing would be required in order for marriage (and many other things) to recover substantially and statistically.

Let me ponder with you a deep but often unexplored root of the trouble with marriage today. It is interesting because it actually emerges from something good, but something that is good in a detached and therefore unmoored sense: our high idealism about marriage. Let me explain.

We live in times that have become quite cynical about anything being good or noble or pure. But many today still have an extremely high ideal for marriage: that it should be wonderful, romantic, joyful, loving, and happy. Yes, this is quite an ideal, rather rooted in the dreamy wishes of romantic longing, but an ideal nonetheless. Amor omnia vicit! (Love conquers all!) Surely we will live happily ever after the way every story says!

But here’s the problem: Many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal! Yes, many are wandering about thinking, as in the U2 song, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for!”

Yes, the problem is that there is no ideal marriage, only real marriage. Two sinners have married. A man and a woman with fallen natures, living in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, have entered the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. But, like the graces of any Sacrament, those of Holy Matrimony are necessary not because things are wonderful, but because they are oftentimes difficult. Marriage is meant to sanctify but, like baptism, its offered graces gradually unfold, and they do so to the degree and at the speed with which the couple cooperates with God’s work.

Real marriage is going to take a lifetime of joy and challenges, tenderness and tension, difficulties and growth in order for a man and woman to summon each other to the holiness that God gives. And some of God’s gifts come in strange packages; struggles and irritations are often opportunities to grow and to learn what forgiveness, patience, and suffering are really all about. These are precious things to learn and to grow in. Frankly, if we don’t learn to forgive we are going to go to Hell (e.g., Mt 6:14-15). Even the best marriages have tensions. No tension means no change.

This may not be the ideal, “happily ever-after” marriage, but it is the real one, full of joy, love, hope, and tenderness, but also sorrow, anger, disappointment, and stresses.

The real problem comes not from our ideals about marriage, which are good to strive for, but from the fact that we conceive of these ideals in a hedonistic and “instant-gratification” culture.

Hedonism is the “doctrine” that the chief goals of life in this world are happiness and pleasure. (The Greek word hedone means “pleasure.”) In the hedonistic view, any diminishment of pleasure or happiness is the worst thing imaginable, a complete disaster. On account of this “doctrine,” many insist on a kind of God-given right to be happy and pleased. Even many devout Christians fall prey to the very exaggerated notions of hedonism and excuse some pretty selfish and sinful behaviors by saying, “Well, God wants me to be happy doesn’t He?” And thus, when the Church or an individual suggests that perhaps someone should do what is difficult, the hedonistic culture reacts, not with puzzlement, but with downright indignation, as if to say, “How dare you get between anyone and what makes him happy!”

So, our notion of an ideal (happy, fulfilling, blissful) marriage is seen through the lens of hedonistic extremism. And thus if the ideal is not found, many sense a need, a perfect right, to end a less-than-ideal marriage in search of greener pastures.

And this is just one more thing added to our instant gratification culture of “overnight shipping,” “Buy it with one click,” and “Download now!” If the ideal marriage is not evident very soon, the disappointments and resentments come quickly.

Yes, resentments. There is an old saying: “Unrealistic expectations are premeditated resentments.” How quickly our unrealistic notions of the instantly ideal, picture-perfect marriage are dashed on the shoals of reality. And thus we return to the premise: many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal.

Somewhere, not only in the Church’s marriage preparation programs but also in our work of assisting personal formation, we need to teach and become aware that unrealistic expectations are ultimately destructive. Our ideals are not the problem per se, but we must become more sober of our conception of our ideals through the lens of hedonism and instant gratification. Growth takes time. Life moves through stages. Marriage is hard … but so is life. Cutting and running from the imperfect marriage, as too many do rather quickly today, is not the ultimate solution. Sure enough, one imperfect marriage yields another and perhaps yet another.

Rest assured, I do not sit in judgment over everyone who has ever divorced. I speak here to a cultural trend (perfectionism jaded by hedonism and instant gratification) that contributes to the perceived need and “right” to “move on” if happiness is not quickly and stably attained. In the (even recent) past we tended more to stick things out, to work through some of our differences and to agree to live with others of our differences. Life was more seen as hard, a kind of exile to endure on our way to our true homeland and to true happiness. Surely we looked to some joys here on earth, but we had more of a sense of the passing quality of all worldly things, whether good or bad. We would do well to regain something of this more sober appreciation that life here is a mixed bag; it’s going to have its challenges. Marriage is no exception. And though we may idealize it, we should be aware that we are setting ourselves up for resentments and disappointments if we do not balance it with the understanding that marriage is hard because life is hard.

Clearly there are many other problems that contribute to today’s high divorce rates. But here is one often overlooked root: many expect an ideal marriage, and if there is any ordeal, they want a new deal. (And we would do well to remember that in a world with adults behaving like this, it is the children who get the raw deal.) This is a deep cultural root of our divorce problem, a deep wound of which we should become more aware.

Back to Basics: A Summary of the Teaching of the Catechism on Holy Matrimony

101414There’s an old story told about the legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi. At one point he was so concerned that the players on his team had lost any sense of the basics of the game that he summoned them all into a classroom and had them all sit down at desks. Most of them expected a detailed review of the playbook, with diagrams on the board of X’s, O’s, and arrows. But to their surprise, the blackboard was empty and no playbooks were in sight. Lombardi walked in and stood in front of the quiet room. In short order he reached behind the desk and held up a familiar object, saying, “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

Talk about back to basics! Lombardi then proceeded to talk at length about the game and its most fundamental aspects. He described the object of the game, the different stances (such as offensive and defensive), the different positions (such as fullback and right guard), and so forth. To experienced players, the lecture must have been quite embarrassing. But sometimes people get so confused that we can no longer assume that even the most obvious things are obvious anymore. 

Given the recent confusion about marriage, sexuality, and the family, and with the Synod that was called to address the confusion in some cases intensifying it (or at least the media reports have done so), it seems opportune for all of us to go back to basics. Perhaps it is time for one of  us to reach behind the desk and hold up a book or two, saying, “Ladies and gentlemen, this is a Bible, and this is the Catechism, and this is what they say about the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony. There’s no need to reinvent, rename, or come up with new definitions. God has already taken care of all of that in what the Bible and the Catechism say.”

In the paragraphs that follow, I propose only a brief review of what these sources say. I recommend that you read the Catechism from paragraph 1601 to 1666. Can we not agree to go to sources of official Catholic Teaching? Despite what the Washington Post or the New York Times say, these teachings cannot change.

Back to basics! Here is what the Catechism and Sacred Scripture have to teach on marriage.

I. God is the Author of Matrimony – The Book of Genesis speaks to us not only of our creation but also of our very nature. In the first place, we are made for love because we are created in the image and likeness of God, who is love. A second and very important truth taught to us in the scriptural account of our creation is that man and woman were made for each other. God himself declares, It is not good for the man to be alone (Gn 2:18). So God created Eve from the very flesh, the very human nature of Adam. Note well that a woman is the suitable partner. woman, not two or several women (hence bigamy and polygamy are excluded), and not another man (hence homosexual liaisons do not supply the suitable partner that makes a marriage). When Adam beheld Eve he was delighted and declared, Here at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh (Gn 2:23). God also teaches in the Genesis account that in His creative act is the origin and understanding of marriage: For this reason a man leaves his father and his mother and cleaves to his wife, and they become one flesh (Gn 2:24).

Holy Matrimony is about Children –  In Chapter One of Genesis, we are also given another important teaching about Matrimony. Adam and Eve are instructed by God, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it (Gn 1:28). Thus, the love of Adam and Eve was to reflect the love of God, which is fruitful and life-giving. Marriage has a central goal of producing children, hence its structure is both heterosexual and lasting, since that is what is first necessary and then best for children.

Here then is God’s plan for Holy Matrimony: a man and a woman in a unity of life and fruitful love so profound that they may be said to be one flesh. Adam sees Eve as his equal, bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh. He is delighted to behold her and acknowledges that it is not good that he should ever be without her and that he is completed and helped by her. Although the scriptural account does not record Eve’s reflections, we may presume that they were similar. Alone it was not possible for them to be fruitful and multiply. Alone and apart they could only find death; together as one they would experience the gifts of life and family.

To all demands that the Church recognize same-sex unions, polygamous unions, second (or third…) unions, or other irregular or unnatural unions as “marriages,” can only come the firm and clear answer, “No.” We recognize God as the author of marriage and are bound to what He has given and set forth both in Holy Scripture and Natural Law.

II. The Painful Reality of Sin – The wondrous communion of Adam and Eve intended by God and described in the book of Genesis was seriously disturbed by the consequences that flowed from the Original Sin they committed. This is dramatically illustrated by Adam’s response to God. When God noted that they had eaten from the tree of which he had forbidden them to eat, Adam blamed Eve, saying, It was that woman you put here with me, she gave me the fruit and so I ate it (Gn 3:12). See how strongly this contrasts with his former appreciation of Eve, whom he described as one with him, as bone of his bone and flesh of his flesh! Now division and hostility are experienced and expressed.

It is also highly significant that both realize that they are naked (Gn 3:7). Whereas before, their relationship was one of complete openness and trust, now they experience embarrassment and vulnerability before each other and before God. They feel they must cover up; they feel compelled to hide significant aspects of themselves.

God himself describes the consequences that will flow from the awful reality they have chosen. His words to Eve are particularly poignant: I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you (Gn 3:16).

Adam, too, shall now have to toil for food to eat and the experience of Eve as his helpmate or co-worker seems greatly diminished (Gn. 3:17-19).

It is quite clear that sin and evil inflicted great harm on the original joy and communion between Adam and Eve. The Catechism describes these sad realities quite well:

This experience [of the evil flowing from Original Sin] makes itself felt in the relationships between man and woman. Their union has always been threatened by discord, a spirit of domination, infidelity, jealousy, and conflicts that can escalate into hatred and separation. This disorder can manifest itself more or less acutely, and can be more or less overcome according to the circumstances of cultures, eras, and individuals, but it does seem to have a universal character.According to faith the disorder we notice so painfully does not stem from the nature of man and woman, nor from the nature of their relations, but from sin. As a break with God, the first sin had for its first consequence the rupture of the original communion between man and woman. Their relations were distorted by mutual recriminations; their mutual attraction, the Creator’s own gift, changed into a relationship of domination and lust; and the beautiful vocation of man and woman to be fruitful, multiply, and subdue the earth was burdened by the pain of childbirth and the toil of work (Catechism 1606-1607).

The consequences of the divisions caused by sin continued to be felt down through the pages of the Old Testament in the polygamy of the patriarchs, which only gradually came to be forbidden, and in the permitting of divorce under Mosaic Law. Our Lord Jesus would later indicate that the fact that divorce was permitted was an indication of the “hardness of your hearts” (Mt 19:8).

III. Still a noble grace – Yet despite the distortion caused by sin, God continued to point to marriage’s lofty status by presenting it as one of the primary images of His covenant with His people. God was the faithful spouse of His bride, Israel. Through the prophets, He reminded His bride that she was espoused to Him. Sin was infidelity, but God’s love was everlasting and, though He chastised Israel, He would never forsake her. God even used romantic imagery. Consider this example from the Prophet Hosea:

“Therefore, behold, I will allure Israel, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her … And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband’ … and I will make you lie down in safety. And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD (Hosea 2:14-20).

And so it was that God never cast aside the lofty ideals of marriage. He continued to proclaim them to His people.

IV. Established by Christ as a Sacrament – It is in this context that Jesus proclaimed an absolute return to God’s original plan, which the regime of sin had distorted.

In the Gospels, Jesus proclaims His intention to return to God’s original plan for marriage. Divorce had entered the scene through sin. But Jesus came to destroy the ancient power of sin and cancel its effects. He is able to empower couples, through His healing grace, to live up to the original vision of marriage given by God.

This, too, is clearly taught in the Catechism: In his preaching Jesus unequivocally taught the original meaning of the union of man and woman as the Creator willed it from the beginning. Permission given by Moses to divorce one’s wife was a concession to the hardness of hearts (Mt. 19:8). The matrimonial union of man and woman is indissoluble: God himself has determined it “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder”(Mt 19:6). This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus … himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to “receive” the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ (Mt. 19:11). (Catechism 1614-1615)

It is in the context of His solemn teaching on marriage that Christ established marriage as a sacrament and St. Paul could declare it a great mystery (sacramentum) . The Catholic Church has acknowledged it as such ever since.

Note the phrase used in the Catechism, which speaks of Christ’s unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond. The word “unequivocal” is a strong one, and must be insisted on, especially to those who wish to equivocate on this matter. Let this be clear: no validly conferred marital bond can be broken. What God has joined is not to be separated. To leave a valid marriage and enter another sexual union is to be in an ongoing state of adultery.

V. The Outward Sign of the Sacrament –  The outward sign, that which is seen and heard, is the exchange of consent (vows) before the Church. The Church is represented by a priest or a deacon. The vows are usually worded in this or similar fashion: I take you to be my wife/husband. I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honor you all the days of my life.

Note here the rather all-encompassing quality of these vows! Often a reminder of these vows can help to overrule notions that a marriage should end. For, indeed, there will be some bad times, sickness, and even poverty. But marriage is for better OR worse, in health AND in sickness, for richer OR for poorer.

Too many want their marriage to be ideal, and if there is any ordeal they want a new deal. But the vows speak directly to the fact that while marriage does bring joy and many graces, no marriage is perfect. Difficult times must be endured as part of the expected picture.

VI. The Graces of the Sacrament – The three most basic qualities of Christian marriage are that it is permanent, faithful, and fruitful. The graces of the Sacrament all serve to create and preserve these realities.

Permanence: Since God himself is the author of every valid marriage, there arises a bond between the couple that can never be broken. This stable and faithful relationship is itself a great blessing since it provides the couple a sturdy foundation on which to live and experience trust, mutual support, and encouragement. It also provides the best environment in which to raise children. It can seem difficult, even impossible, to bind oneself for life to another human being. This makes it all the more important to proclaim the Good News that God loves us with a definitive and irrevocable love, that married couples share in this love, that it supports and sustains them, and that by their own faithfulness they can be witnesses to God’s faithful love. (Catechism 1649)

Faithfulness: Marital love is also of its nature always undivided and exclusive. This love is a special love, which is never to be shared by the spouses with others.  In addition to these graces, Christian couples receive all the graces they need to perfect their love for one another and strengthen their unity. By these graces they assist one another to grow in maturity and holiness. Marriage helps to overcome self-absorption, egoism, pursuit of one’s own pleasure, and to open oneself to the other, to mutual aid and to self-giving. (Catechism 1609)

Fruitfulness: Children are the supreme gift of marriage and contribute greatly to the good of the parents themselves. God’s love is fruitful and marital love is to be a reflection of that love. When God established marriage, He instructed the first spouses as to its nature, Be fruitful and multiply (Gn 1:28). So by its very nature the institution of marriage and married love is ordered to the procreation and education of children. This of course includes more than a college education. It includes every aspect of the personal development of children: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, and supernatural life. God grants to parents an awesome dignity when He entrusts the care of immortal souls to them. This of itself helps us to recognize the high calling of marital life and helps us to understand how crucial and necessary the Sacrament of Matrimony is for the Church and for the world.

VII. The structure of marriage as being both heterosexual and stable (permanent) is due to its essential work of raising children.

Our modern culture speaks of marriage as being about and for the happiness of the adults. The Lord, however, sets forth marriage as being first and foremost about children and what is best for them. Our culture prattles on endlessly about the rights and feelings of the adults in the marriage, but it is what is best for children that should be the first priority in speaking of Matrimony, its proper structure, and the conduct of the spouses.

The modern world has wholly shifted the focus to adults, insisting on their absolute “right” to resist children through contraception and even to kill them through abortion. And this is all so that adults can follow their own wishes. In separating children from marriage and sex, we have separated what God has joined and are now reaping a whirlwind of confusion along with bad and destructive behaviors.

Back to basics, fellow Catholics! Read the Scriptures; study the Catechism; respect Natural Law. And above all, get on your knees and pray for an end to the confusion. It will take a miracle in this darkened and decadent world, but God is able!

Jesus Rejected Unlawful and Unchaste Marriages in His Own Day – Here’s Why and Where

100714Monday’s decision by the Supreme Court not to take up numerous state appeals regarding same-sex unions pretty much signals that the secular redefinition is here to stay. This is really no surprise given the rather deep confusion about sexuality and marriage in our culture. The polygamists and any number of other groups demanding recognition for their aberrant notions of marriage are sure to follow with all due haste. And what is to stop them, legally, at this point? The word “marriage” is now largely meaningless since, if marriage can mean anything, marriage means nothing, in the linguistic sense. At my parish, we celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony and are retooling our documents with this new designation wherever possible.

While Jesus did not directly address the issue of same-sex “marriage” (since such a bizarre notion would not even have occurred to anyone in the Jewish world of his day), he did address the notion of illicit or unchaste unions. He did this in the “Matthean exception” (Matt 19 and Matt 5). While Jesus forbade divorce, He set aside or excluded certain unions that were illicit or unchaste and indicated that these were not unions to which one should cling. In effect, He said that they are not marriages at all so the term “divorce” does not apply to them and they should be set aside.

Consider the text from Matthew 19. Let me first present the text itself and then provide some background and interpretation. (I am using the Catholic NABRE translation.)

[Jesus said], I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) and marries another commits adultery (Matt 19:9).

The RSV (Catholic Edition) translates the passage this way: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.

Now the phrases, “unless the marriage is unlawful” and “except for unchastity,” are translations of the Greek phrase  μὴ ἐπὶ πορνείᾳ (me epi porneia). The usual meaning of the word porneia is “fornication” (i.e., sex between two unmarried people). However, depending on the context, porneia can also refer to other forms of sexual contact that are illicit or irregular by biblical standards. For example, many Greek lexicons (e.g., Strongs and Thayer & Smith) define porneia broadly as “illicit sexual intercourse” and then go on to define porneia to include fornication, homosexual activity, lesbian activity, sexual intercourse with animals, sexual intercourse with close relatives (as spelled out in Leviticus 18), or sexual intercourse with a divorced man or woman. Protestants tend to include adultery in the definition of porneia more so than do Catholics. The reason that Catholics in general do not is that there is another Greek word specifically for adultery: μοιχᾶται (moichatai). Therefore we do not consider adultery to be grounds for divorce based on either Matt 19 or Matt 5.

So, fundamentally, porneia most often means fornication (pre-marital sex) but can mean other illicit things as well.

Why then does Jesus utter this “exception” to the otherwise air-tight prohibition of divorce? The answer would seem to lie in the influence of certain Gentile notions, which the Lord wanted to be clear to exclude, at least in the settings Matthew recalled. The Gentile world was a very sexually confused—even depraved—world. All sorts of strange sexual practices were tolerated and even tied into some of the pagan religious practices. Gentile notions of marriage were often at wide variance with Jewish ones. Gentiles often called “marriage” what Judeo-Christians would call incest. There were also difficulties encountered with  homosexual behavior and other sexual liaisons that the Christian Church could not and would not recognize as legitimate or anything but sinful. (The most thorough discussion of this background can be found in the Navarre Biblical Commentary.)

So, in effect, Jesus is declaring that certain so-called marriages that featured porneia (some form of illicit sexual union) were not marriages at all, and that His forbiddance of divorce should not be seen as applying to these illicit unions. The implication is that since such unions were not considered marriage at all,  one could and should leave them without being guilty of divorce. The bottom line is this: there was a defined understanding of marriage that Jesus insisted upon, and He freely declared that just because someone called something a “marriage” didn’t make it a marriage.

Many today want to redefine marriage into something other than one man and one women in a fruitful (child-bearing) relationship until death do them part. I have little doubt, based on biblical evidence alone, that Jesus would declare such unions as “not marriages at all,” since He clearly set aside certain unions of His day by calling them unlawful, or more specifically, unchaste.

To those who would argue that Jesus did not specifically mention homosexual unions, I would point out, as already noted, that the term porneia can and does include all forms of illicit sexual unions: incest, fornication, and homosexual acts. Hence His use of the word here does include an exclusion of unions based on this form of unchastity.

As an aside, many today argue that Jesus never explicitly mentioned homosexual acts (though I’d like to point out that also didn’t explicitly say “Don’t beat your wife,” either) and they seek to conclude from His “silence” that He therefore would approve of homosexual acts. But of course Jesus does address the sinfulness of homosexual acts—through His appointed spokesmen, the Apostles, to whom He said, “He who hears you hears me” (Luke 10:16).  The New Testament teachings of the apostles, who speak for Jesus, clearly describe homosexual acts as sinful (e.g., Rom 1:18ff, 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:8-11) and contrary to nature (paraphysin – Romans 1:26).

Hence, the term porneia (here understood widely as unchastity) surely does include homosexual acts (as any Greek dictionary will affirm). In the Matthean exception or exclusion, Jesus thus sets aside unchaste or illicit unions since they are not true marriages at all. Divorce does not apply to them and such unions should be discontinued since they are unchaste.

Baptize but Be Discreet: On the Catholic Baptism of children presented by homosexual and other irregular parents

062914There has been some interesting coverage in the news recently regarding the Church’s stance on baptizing children conceived or reared in irregular situations.

In recent decades there has been an explosion in the number of children conceived and born outside of Holy Matrimony. The general approach of the Church has been to baptize these children as long as there is no evidence of an ongoing rejection of the Church teaching that sexual intimacy is reserved for marriage. While people may have fallen in weakness, the presumption was that they at least accepted the norm and were going to try to live by it.

If the “couple” in question were living together outside of marriage, the baptism was handled discreetly and the couple was counseled to cease fornication.

It is not certain that every pastor admonished couples as he should but this was (and is) the general policy.

Enter the new and ever more frequent problem of same sex “couples” presenting a child for baptism, and now the stakes get higher. Why? Because of the visibility of the sin involved. At the baptism ceremony, one can at least presume that a single mother has repented of fornication. But it is hard to presume that a homosexual “couple” living together openly, in a culture that has suddenly decided to “celebrate” their “lifestyle,” is making a similar admission of the wrongness of their past behavior. It is also difficult to presume that many who attend the baptism have clarity on the aberrance of homosexual acts.

Thus the Church finds herself in a deeper quandary regarding how to baptize children being brought up in irregular situations that are far more public, situations that bespeak acceptance and even celebration of something the Church must oppose.

Discretion is the operative word. We still have every reason try to baptize children in these irregular situations; after all, it is not the fault of the child. However we must balance the common good of avoiding scandal with the individual good of each child by seeking to handle these baptisms discreetly, giving no opportunity for public confusion regarding what we must reasonably and biblically oppose (same-sex unions).

Here are some excerpts from an article that was in the Washington Post this past Saturday along with my comments in plain red text. (The full text of the article is here: New Battleground?.)

… Catholic leaders have carefully, if quietly, avoided doing anything to block gay couples from having their children baptized … And this is for the good of the child, who is not guilty of the sins of parents, guardians, or caretakers. It is not to be seen as an affirmation of the sins of the adults involved, whether this be due to homosexual acts, fornication, or adultery.

The default position for most bishops … is that if the parents pledge to raise the child Catholic, then no girl or boy should be refused baptism.

They generally let parish priests make the final call and let them administer the sacrament, though it is usually done in a private ceremony with the biological parent—not the adoptive mother or father—listed on the baptismal certificate.

The honest truth is that most priests have been so inundated by single mothers that we no longer handle the baptism of such children discreetly (as was done decades ago), but have held such baptisms publicly, and often alongside the baptisms of properly married parents. This must likely be reexamined. We have fallen prey to the normalization of fornication in our culture. And while not every priest has done so, it must be admitted that we have not properly distinguished between what ought to be discreet (because of the behavior of the parents) and what can be publicly celebrated. However, one was still able to presume the possibility that the parents had repented of fornication and were now living properly. This is often not the case with so called homosexual “couples” who often (but not always) wish to live in very public opposition to Church teaching.

[But a] new debate was prompted by the emergence of a memo—first reported by the Wisconsin State Journal—that was sent in early May to priests of the Madison Diocese by the top aide to Bishop Robert Morlino. In the memo, the vicar general of the diocese, Monsignor James Bartylla, says there are “a plethora of difficulties, challenges, and considerations associated with these unnatural unions (including scandal) linked with the baptism of a child, and such considerations touch upon theology, canon law, pastoral approach, liturgical adaptation, and sacramental recording.

Yes, they are unnatural unions and present a host of difficulties to us. Even in the “single mother” scenarios that have recently troubled us, comes the listing of a “father” who is often absent or sometimes even unknown. I have often had to struggle with a woman who either did not want to disclose the father or did not even know who the father was.  There is always the option of writing Pater ignotus (father unknown) in the baptismal register, but it is generally desirable to indicate the biological father if he can be known. But at least the mother was known. Members of so called “gay” couples do not fit on either line. Which do we list? Who is the father? Who is the mother? It’s a mess. Further, the rites call for a blessing for mother and father. What do we do? What do we say? Its a mess, a big mess. 

Bartylla says that pastors must now coordinate any decision on baptizing the children of gay couples with his office and that “each case must be evaluated individually.” And this makes sense. When you’ve got a mess, and this is a real mess, it makes sense to adopt a uniform policy. If there are 100+ parishes in a diocese, there should not be 100+ policies in a matter as serious as this. The Bishop, who is chief legislator and liturgist, ought to set the norms.

A spokesman for the Madison Diocese, Brent King, said … “We want everyone to receive this most important sacrament, and we are dealing with this sensitive matter prudently, for the child’s sake and the integrity of this most sacred sacrament,” wrote King. Yes, we want to baptize every child we can. This mess is not their fault. But we have to do so in ways that protect  the common good by avoid scandal and confusion.

Officials at the USCCB said these decisions are left to local church leaders, and indicated there are no plans to formulate a national directive beyond the guidance offered in a 2006 statement on ministering to gay people. That document says that baptizing the children of gay parents is “a serious pastoral concern” but that the church should not refuse them access to the sacrament. OK, good, but I suspect that some national norms are going to be needed as well.

Since the bishops passed that document, however, an ongoing wave of victories for same-sex marriage advocates has continued to push the issue into the public arena. As more gay Catholics can marry, and can be open about their relationship, more gay couples may be presenting their children for baptism.

Exactly. What was once an abstract, even theoretical problem is now becoming more widespread. Further, the homosexual extremists are looking to embarrass us, to set us up. We need to consider carefully a way forward that respects our traditions, but does not give any credence to their unnatural unions.

“The question with gay couples is whether their opposition to the church’s teaching on marriage means that they do not in fact intend to raise the child in the faith,” said Rita Ferrone, the author of several books about liturgy and a consultant to U.S. dioceses on liturgical matters. “Gay parents may or may not be ideologically opposed to church teaching, but chances are they do not merely disobey but also reject the various norms they have transgressed,” Ferrone said.

Sadly, these days the presumption is that many people, even beyond the “gay” community itself, not only approve of but even brazenly celebrate what God calls sin and abomination. Thus our presumption of good will is difficult to maintain.  Our operative presumption must become that we are being set up and pressured to approve what God does not approve. 

DeBernardo said the problem with a policy that focuses specifically on gay parents is that it “stigmatizes lesbian and gay couples as being more suspect than any other parents.” Sadly, though, many if not most gay parents want to live their sin publicly. It is not fair to ask us to be silent; we cannot do so.

“It is very likely that no parents that present a child for baptism are perfectly following all church rules,” he said. “Why single out only lesbian and gay parents for further scrutiny?” OK, but again the operative point is the public nature of the sin and the scandal given by its public nature. Some sins are just more obvious and public than others.

Countering any trend to curb baptisms, however, is the long-standing presumption, in church teaching and among even conservative church leaders, that no child should be denied baptism.

And herein lies the delicate balance: the good of the child vs. the common good to avoid scandal. The key going forward is discretion. More baptisms than in the past are going to need to be celebrated privately, in the presence only of the immediate family (i.e., parents or guardians and godparents). This will need to include fornicators and other irregular parents. We have become too lax and must now apply a norm consistently that has been poorly applied in the past.

And thus the bottom line seems clear: baptize these children, but do so discreetly. Further, we ought to regain more discretion as to how we baptize children in other irregular situations. The common good and the individual good of the children can and should be balanced, but they are not mutually exclusive.

“In Sickness and in health,”as seen in a powerful cartoon.

012414-pope-1The video below has a scary side to it. Although it is a cartoon, I do not recommended for the youngest children, simply because it is scary. But its message is an important one on several different levels

First, its title “In sickness…” is a reminder of one of the aspects of the marital vow, namely, that the spouses will remain true and faithful to each other “in sickness and in health.” The video shows the power of faithful and abiding love to bring healing, consolation, and peace in some of life’s darkest hours. The opening darkness and delirium of the sick man gives way quickly when his wife embraces him in love.  The confident conclusion of the medical doctor (who in the dream is not able to stave off the attack) is based firmly on the fact that the man is in the care and embrace of his loving wife. All is well. Love conquers even death.

But of course, physical illnesses are not the only struggles endured in life and hence the man’s fears and dreams may also be seen as a metaphor for the Scripture which says  the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. But resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 5:8-9)  And of course one of the most central aspects of faith is that we should love one another, and help each other through life struggles.  When one is weak, the other is strong, and Woe to the solitary man; if he falls he has no one to help him up (Eccles 4:10). Love and understanding,  provide a sure support in getting through the dark moments of life.

Perhaps finally, woman in the story extending love can also be seen Mother Church showing love, prayerfully embracing us in our struggles, both in sickness in darkness.

Enjoy the video. As I say, the opening section is scary but light comes!

Biblical Teachings on Marriage and Family. A Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family

It is not difficult to demonstrate that most of our modern problems center around struggles and misunderstandings regarding marriage, sexuality, and the family. Collectively as a nation and the culture, we have departed significantly from the teachings of God and common sense, when it comes to our thinking and behavior regarding these three fundamental pillars.

Today’s Feast of the Holy Family presents us an opportunity to reflect, and provides a rich tapestry of Scriptures. Many of these teachings are not “politically correct,” but for that, no apology should be made. They remain God’s teachings and it is hard to argue that modern notions of sexuality, marriage and family have produced anything short of catastrophe and disaster. And as is usually the case, it is the children suffer the most.

Any look at statistics, show facts and trends that are not merely alarming, they are downright astonishing, especially given how steeply and suddenly they have occurred. Currently more than 40% of children in this country are raised without two parents. Numbers have declined even more steeply for minority communities.

In 1961, the year of my birth, 80% of black children were raised in a two parent family; today that number is 20%. And for whatever assertions may be made regarding racism and poverty, the fact is these numbers are demonstrably improved over those of 1961. Even with far greater social stressors and pressure, Black families used to stay together and work out their difficulties. Today with far greater affluence, this is no longer the case. “White” families and other ethnic and racial derivations may have numbers that are only slightly less shocking, and when we factor in age and generational differences the numbers are not that far apart.

The two-parent, heterosexual family is becoming quickly and endangered species. Along with this decline many grave social consequences follow, to include: lower SAT scores, and graduation rates, higher rates of juvenile delinquency, teenage pregnancy, cohabitation rates, sexually-transmitted diseases, higher rates of homosexual inclinations and a higher tendency to divorce. Clearly as the model of the stable faithful heterosexual marriage becomes rarer, the capacity of young people to form stable families becomes less and less likely.

And whatever attempts to make the claim that this disordered state of affairs is probably just fine, and that “alternative family arrangements” are just as good as traditional ones, most people know that this is a lie. It just makes common sense that psychologically, the best environment for any child is to be raised in what nature, and nature’s God has set forth. Namely: that there should be a father and a mother, a male and female, who form a stable, committed, and lasting bond where their children can be formed in a safe environment of trust and learn the male and female genius of being human. A mother alone, or a father alone, or two fathers, or two mothers or any other combination is far less than ideal, and to intentionally subject children to this is an injustice.

Yet such departures from God’s plan for marriage and family are increasingly the norm today. There is much about which to pray and reflect on this Feast of the Holy Family

Having stated in a kind of general way the problems and misunderstandings regarding sexuality and family life today, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of the readings and see five basic teachings or themes sets forth.

I. Honor – the opening of the first reading says God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons. (Sirach 3:2). The reading goes on to state the blessings that come from this honor and obedience.

Yet, in modern culture, honor directed toward parents and elders has increasingly disappeared. The steady diet of most children on TV, music, and other media is that they are the “wise” ones, and that adults and parents are “out of touch.” A typical sitcom or commercial on television presents the children as all wise and up on the latest things, whereas the adults are usually pictured as quite clueless. And if there is a father in the picture, he is presented as a total buffoon.

When I was a child, my father forbade us to watch The Flintstones. He said that he would not allow his children to watch a cartoon the presented adults looking stupid, because this would not help them to respect their elders. He was right. Of course the Flintstones is quite mild compared to the steady diet of most youngsters some 50 years later.

The fact is, God teaches and commands that children should honor their father and their mother. Without respect and honor, there can be no teaching or handing on of wisdom from previous generations. The lack of honor and respect for parents, elders, and authority in our culture goes a long way to show why and how we are making foolish mistakes, and repeating errors long since discarded by previous generations.

While previous Christian generations and eras were not sinless by any means, it is evident that we are going steeply backwards, such that the folly and sinfulness described by Paul in Romans 1 regarding the pagan world have reemerged on a wide scale. But our folly is even worse, for we, unlike them, do have access to the gospel and our culture had emerged from the Judeo-Christian wisdom. But in a kind of teenage rebellion, we have collectively cast off the respect and honor that is due our elders, and the traditions and wisdom that they and the Church can offer us.

We must restore honor to our parents, elders, and lawful authority such as the Church if we want to see our families and culture strong again. Parents and those in lawful authority must also learn to teach and act as those worthy of respect and honor.

II. Hierarchy – . Although it is politically incorrect, the Lord through the Scriptures teaches the family must be hierarchically ordered. The father and husband used to have headship. The text from Colossians today says clearly

Wives, be subordinate to your husbands,  as is proper in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives,  and avoid any bitterness toward them. Children, obey your parents in everything,  for this is pleasing to the Lord. (Col 3:19-21)

Now headship is required of every body, and every group. A body with two heads is a freak, and a body with no head is dead. It is the same for organizations and groups. Even if there be consultative bodies, headship and leadership is required. God sets a husband and father as head of the household, the domestic church. This is consistently taught in scripture (Col 3:18; Eph 5:22; 1 Peter 3:1, inter al).

And while it is clear that this authority he has is for service, not domination and that he exercises it among those of equal dignity before God, nevertheless he has this authority and it ought to be acknowledged and observed. He is not to be bitter to his wife or Lord it over her, but he must with love be willing to manifest headship in his household. I have written more of this here: A Unpopular Teaching on Marriage

In our times many have preferred to set this teaching aside and the result is that many marriages resemble more of an on-going power struggle, than a loving and cohesive unity. It is true that it is not necessary or even wise for a husband to micromanage everything in his household. He does well to keep deep communion with his wife and often defer to her judgment in many matters. But there are simply some matters that require a final “decider;” some one that everyone looks to and, like it or not, accepts their decision and direction. Scripture consigns this role to the husband and father.

Further Scripture says, Children, obey your parents in everything, for this is pleasing to the Lord (Col 3:20). And again, God sets a father in honor over his children; a mother’s authority he confirms over her sons (Sir 3:2). And while we have commented on these verses in terms of respect, he ought to note them here in terms of hierarchy. Children are to respect the hierarchy of the family. They are not on par with their parents and should not act toward their parents as if they were on par with them.

When I was growing up, my Father made sure to confirm my mother’s authority over us and would not tolerate us being disobedient or disrespectful toward her. A good husband and father with be careful to do this.Even when I was an adult my father would not tolerate me speaking ill of my mother or being disrespectful toward her.

Thus, while all the members of the family have equal dignity before God, not all have the same role in relation to each other. Hierarchy is important in the family for good order and teaching.  God sets it forth and it ought to be observed carefully.

III. Helpful virtues – The first part of the second reading today from Colossians 3 provides a veritable encyclopedia of virtues to cultivate. Notes some of them here:

Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another… put on love,  that is, the bond of perfection. And let the peace of Christ control your hearts…And be thankful (Col 3:12-15)

I spend an entire session with couples that I prepare for marriage looking at this passage. All the virtues here are essential for good family life.

Note how many of the virtues emphasize compassion mercy and forgiveness. The fact is, families are composed of sinful human beings, who have issues, and struggles. Life too can be difficult, and cause stresses and strains on marriage and family. How essential then to develop these sorts of virtues.

Every now and again, when someone comes to me and tells me they have difficulty preparing for confession, and want advice, I often refer them to this very passage. I asked them to read Colossians 3 and assure them that if they will read it carefully they will have plenty to confess before they are halfway through!

So many stresses and strains could be either avoided, endured, or handle charitably, if the virtues of Colossians 3 would only be cultivated. Is impossible to comment on them all here. Perhaps we will do well to have another blog post on this passage later this week.

IV. Holy teaching – The text from Colossians goes on to say, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, as in all wisdom you teach and admonish one another, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God. (Col 3:16)

Nothing can be more essential in having a godly and holy family, that having godly and holy teaching.

With rare exceptions, we have utterly failed in this regard. Nothing can be considered more important than instruction for eternal life. Yet in how many families is this instruction seldom or never given?

If the child is failing math or some other school subject, most parents react with alarm, realizing that their child’s future may be at stake. They will often spend money to get tutors and other help. But if their child knows little or nothing about God, why they were made, what is the purpose of their life…well, who cares?

Parents will put bumper stickers on their car boasting at their child is on the honor roll at Somewhere Middle School, but will have little interest or pride in whether they can recite the Hail Mary, or the Glory Be, let alone know how to find a Bible and know the difference between the Old and the New Testament. Where’s the bumper sticker that says, “My Kid knows the Lord!” or “My Kid is smart enough to pray!”

Tens of thousands of dollars will be sent to the college so the kids can get the degree, to get the career, to get the house and the car. Yet little or no inquiry will be made as to whether their child attends Mass  at college or is living anything close to a Christian moral life.

This is a tragic modern situation where the ladder of success is leaning up against the wrong wall. Great effort is expended on things which pass away, and almost no effort on things which will last forever, come heaven or hell.

Scripture is clear, the home must be a place where godly wisdom is taught and lived, modeled and proclaimed. Parents should read their children Bible stories every day. They must be taught God’s law, right from wrong, and to walk in the holy fear and reverence of God. Family members should not only teach one another, they must admonish one another. To admonish is to warn, to recall, or summon one back to what is correct, right and true.

The principal educators of children in the ways of faith are to be the parents. While much is rightly said in terms of critique that not enough teaching takes place from the pulpit, 7 to 10 minutes a week is not going to accomplish what is necessary or called for in a text like this. Even if the pulpit of a particular parish contains a poor preacher, there’s nothing to prevent a parent from carefully studying the catechism and teaching their children; or to prevent them from taking a children’s Bible and reading them stories every day, and teaching them God’s word. Holy teaching should be the hallmark of every family

V. Heroic Sacrifice –  In this matter we look to the Gospel, and we see St. Joseph. The Gospel focuses on Joseph’s instruction by God through an angel that he must protect his child and his wife by taking them to Egypt immediately for King Herod six the child.

How many fathers, indeed parents in general in our culture struggle to get their priorities right? Too often  career eclipses their vocation. And thus, for many fathers, their work takes priority over their role as husband and father. And while the two are not directly opposed at most times, there are times and tendencies for one’s career to damage one’s capacity to be husband and father.

In the Gospel today what Joseph has to do in going to Egypt will clearly have an impact on his career and his agenda. Scripture speaks of him as a “tekton.”  And while many think this means Carpenter, it really means more literally,  “builder.” Joseph probably worked in the building trades.

Now going to Egypt in the middle the night is clearly going to impact his business. It is further likely that he would prefer not to go to a foreign land. And yet his child and wife need him. He is their protector and the husband, father and head of the household.

Heroically, Joseph obeys God and immediately takes his wife and child out of harms way. He does not count the personal cost. This is the kind of heroic sacrifice sometimes required of parents and family members. Joseph thinks as a husband and father, not a businessman, or a company man.

Now this is hard, and it is heroic, for many men strongly identify their ego with their work. Like any human being, they also fear losing their livelihood. But Joseph heroically trusts God and heroically witnesses that his vocation as husband and father is more important than even his paycheck.

We need more ever heroism of the sort today when money and lifestyle too often trump essential work of being a parent and spouse. Our  lifestyles are often far too costly, requiring double income and often long hours and overtime. But honestly, and we know this, children need their parents at home more than they need a great-room and granite countertops. Having a Beach house is nice, but having your parents at home is better.

In our era, too many parents are willing to let strangers raise their children so they can earn more money, and for what? Is it for the kids? Really? Then why are they so often marginalized by something that is supposedly for them? Life is complicated, this is clear. But every now and then it is good to re-examine our motives and priorities and be willing to make heroic sacrifice for what is more important than what we merely want.

Here then are some teachings on marriage and family from today’s feast. We do well to heed what the Lord teaches. Our families are currently and collectively in a real crisis. Individual choices have led us here and individual choices will have to lead us out.

God has a plan for marriage and family: One man for one woman in a stable faithful and fruitful union, raising their children in that context and bringing them up in the Holy Fear of the Lord.  We do well to heed this plan as a Church and culture or suffer the consequences.

Finally there is the tendency when we hear teachings like this, but have struggled to live them well, to react either with anger (and say, “The preacher is judging me”) or react with sadness and think that all we can do is be silent since we would be a poor witness. Please do not do either. All of us, whether we have been able to keep to God’s teaching or not, ought to proclaim it. Perhaps you have not been able to get married and/or stay married. Perhaps you wanted to, but  your spouse was unwilling to stay or cooperate. Perhaps you had a child outside of marriage. All the more reason to speak clearly to your children and grandchildren and urge them to seek God’s graces early. God has a plan, and it is for our good not our ill. Teach it boldly and with courageous love!

Here is a video of heroic sacrifice:

Some Sober Reflection on Matrimony, Sexuality and the Family. A Call to Prayer for the Upcoming Synod.

“Jay & Janet Nuptial” by John Ryan Cordova from Philippines This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

We’ve talked a good deal about the decline of marriage on this blog over the years. And our discussion must continue as the Synod on the family is planned in Rome.

In my short 25 years as a priest I have experienced a major drop off in marriages. In my early years, I had about thirty weddings a year; now, about five or six. In this urban parish in which I have ministered for the larger part of 20 years, a beautiful and picturesque setting for a matrimonial sacrament, we used to have to turn couples away who were not members. Some Saturdays featured two weddings back to back. Beginning in 2000, weddings plummeted.

And lest you think this just unique to me in my urban parish, note that in 1973 there just over 400,000 weddings in Catholic parishes in this country. In 2003, there were 199,645, more that a 50% drop in thirty years. Last year, 2012, there 166,991 weddings in the Church. Compare that to the 419,278 funerals and you have a pretty good picture of a Church and a culture that are in real trouble and of the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony that is “dying.” Thus my anecdotal experience matches the national trends and numbers.

Recently Mona Charen offered some thoughtful reflections on Marriage in National Review. I would like to offer her comments along with some of my own. Note that I am excerpting her article, the full version of which is here: The Marriage Divide.  In that article she speaks of the sources of some of her statistics and offers context that these excerpts may not include. Hence I recommend the full article as well. As usual, her comments are in Black, bold, italics. My remarks are in plain red text.

Marriage is decaying very fast. As recently as the 1980s, …only 13 percent of the children of moderately educated mothers…were born outside of marriage. Today, it is 44 percent. Even more disturbing are the recent data showing that 53 percent of babies born to women under age 30 are non-marital.

I will only add that these sorts of number are simply shocking, not just for their real impact but also for how swiftly this revolution has come upon us. One struggles not to see outright demonic along with the usual human sinfulness that produces cultural ailments.

If you graduate from college, you are likely to choose a family life similar to, if not quite identical to, the 1950s ideal. (I suspect eve this is beginning to change for the worse). If you are a high-school dropout, you are unlikely to marry at all. If you have a high-school diploma or some college, your family life in many cases is going to be chaotic, featuring cohabitation, short marriages, and high rates of instability….cohabiting couples have a much higher breakup rate than do married couples, a lower level of household income, and a higher level of child abuse and domestic violence. (She speaks to some of the sources of these sober trends in her article).

[C]ohabitation is a very bad deal for all concerned — especially women and children. The children of cohabiting couples do worse than those living with a single mother if the boyfriend is not the biological father of the children. The break-up rate among unmarried cohabiting couples is much higher than among married couples, with all that that entails for disruption, poverty, and pathology.

And again, it is the children who pay most and first for all this adult misbehavior. But the damage does not stop there, as can be seen.

I would also like to say that regarding the cohabitation problem, there are two levels to the problem: the young who do it, and the parents and grandparents who actively or passively approve of it. Once upon a time, even in my short 52 years, this behavior was not only frowned upon, it was punished at both the family and cultural level. Folk who “shacked up” received significant pressure: financial, social, familial and cultural, to stop “living in sin.”

The sexual revolution, with a thinking strongly tied in with a lot of hallucinogenic drugs, sold us a bill of goods that it was really “better” for a couple to “take a test ride” before tying the knot. For at least two decades now the data have exposed this as a lie. But the lie continues.

Bottom line, cohabitation harms everyone: man, woman, child, society, culture, the Church, the family, everyone. We stamp out smoking but celebrate something that causes even more harm. Time to wake up. Cohabitation is sinful and harmful.

In a 2001 survey, two-thirds of respondents approved of living together before marriage. Even then, data suggested that couples who cohabited before marriage were more likely to divorce than those who went straight to the altar….

Men cohabit with less expectation of permanence than women do. Many couples not destined for marriage waste good years in impermanent arrangements, often becoming parents….

Ms. Charen also developed the economic implications of cohabitation:

President Obama addressed income inequality in a recent address but failed to mention one of the most significant contributors to rising inequality in America — the marriage gap. Jobs are changing, international competition has driven down wages, top executives are pulling down enormous salaries, but it is cultural patterns, specifically personal decisions about cohabitation and marriage, that are most responsible for deepening the divide between haves and have-nots in America.

There is perhaps no greater correlation than the one between poverty and single-motherhood (absent fatherhood). And so many of the other social ills that we lament and decry come from irresponsible sexual activity.

Unlike trust funds, marriage is available to everyone and confers the same benefits on rich and poor. There is no substitute for two married parents who care for one another in sickness, help each other in child and elder care, watch the kids while a spouse takes night classes, and contribute to thriving communities. In-laws give loans, jobs, and other support that they are unlikely to extend to live-in “significant others.

Without the basics of security and permanence in their personal lives, people find it much more difficult to rise out of poverty or to maintain a middle-class life. They are also far less happy. If you care about the poor and the middle class, you ought to worry about marriage.

Amen. And yet many of those who most claim to care about the poor are loathe to discuss marriage or sexuality as factors in poverty.

I remember once being at a meeting of largely socially liberal clergy who were arguing that one of the “greatest threats” that young people face and the reason for dropping test scores and higher dropout rates in our city was lead paint and roach feces in the homes and schools. And thus the city should spend money to abate these things and (theoretically) the lower test scores etc., would rebound.

When I spoke, I said it would nice to get rid of these problems, but I thought there were bigger issues at work than lead paint and roach droppings. Perhaps, I stated, that single motherhood and teenage pregnancy were likely bigger factors in low test scores, higher dropout rates, and growing juvenile crime.

Well,  I received a scorn you can only imagine. I was passed a note by one of the leaders that I was “off message” and that I should keep my moral opinions to myself.

Somehow I figured that clergy might “get” what I was saying. Though scorned, I stood my ground, and insisted that the social devastation of sexual irresponsibility far out weighed many of the other things people obsess about. Fine, lets remove lead paint and clean up after the roaches and even stamp out smoking. But how about working to restore families? What of preaching and teaching God’s plan for marriage and sexuality? What of the extremely deleterious effects of sexual irresponsibility, cohabitation, divorce, and so many other trends that are out of control?

Even as we pass laws forbidding smoking almost everywhere, we seem to forget that before 1969 it was pretty hard to get a divorce in this country. People were generally expected to work their difficulties out, and be married to the father or mother of their children.

While there are rumors that some in the Church are going to pressure to Synod Fathers to change Church Law in the admittance of divorced and remarried Catholics to Communion, I rather doubt that will happen. It is my prayer that the Synod Fathers and members will focus rather on fixing the problems rather than lowering standards. We have a lot to answer for in the Church for the horrifying confusion today about marriage. We have not been clear on marriage and too many clergy don’t want to upset people who haven’t been able to attain to, or keep stable and marriages and families after God’s own design. We have been to silent. And to what degree people do know of our teachings, many find them unintelligible when we hand out annulments in the numbers we do,  and have so many complicated rules about the wedding ceremony but so little followup after the wedding day.

That said, I don’t think it fair to blame the Church wholly for the mess. Our culture clearly went over the cliff in 1968 and 1969 with the sexual revolution and no fault divorce. Contraception celebrated the lie that there was “no necessary connection” between sex and procreation, and also furthered the lie of sex without consequences. 55 million abortions later (Since 1973), our families in the shredder, and the lie is manifest, but many still choose to believe it. Sex without consequences? No such thing.

Pray for the Synod upcoming. Pray for clarity and prophetic teaching. Pray.

Literally Messing with their Brain. What Recent Scientific Studies Can Teach Us About Ourselves and Raising our Children

120913In modern times there has been a tendency to downplay the differences between men and women, preferring to see whatever differences have historically existed as simply social constructs. This thinking was insisted upon by many as a kind of political correctness that must be held otherwise punishment and excoriation was sure to follow.

Nevertheless, most people with common sense have always known that men and women are very different, and that these differences are not simply the result of social constructs or the way people were raised.

Now scientists have made discoveries not only affirming that men and women are different, but helping to show one of the reasons why.

At the heart of the recent studies, and discoveries, is the fact that men’s brains and women’s brains are usually wired very differently. While the pathways that set up in the brain can be influenced by the setting in which one is raised, especially at the time of puberty and before, the study shows that there is a very strong tendency for men’s brains to be wired front to back, and for women’s brains to be wired right to left.

Here are some excerpts from the article:

Researchers found that many of the connections in a typical male brain run between the front and the back of the same side of the brain, whereas in women the connections are more likely to run from side to side between the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

This difference in the way the nerve connections in the brain are “hardwired” occurs during adolescence…

A special brain-scanning technique called diffusion tensor imaging, which can measure the flow of water along a nerve pathway, established the level of connectivity between nearly 100 regions of the brain, creating a neural map of the brain…

Because the female connections link the left hemisphere, which is associated with logical thinking, with the right, which is linked with intuition, this could help to explain why women tend to do better than men at intuitive tasks…

Men tend to outperform women involving spatial tasks and motor skills – such as map reading – while women tend to better in memory tests, such as remembering words and faces, and social cognition tests, which try to measure empathy and “emotional intelligence”.

“It’s quite striking how complementary the brains of women and men really are,” said Rubin Gur of Pennsylvania University, a co-author of the study.

You can read more of the study here: Study Shows Brain differences

Now of course I’m not writing a science blog here, but I would like to make a couple of comments, one of them theological/philosophical, and the other moral.

First, regarding the theological/philosophical point. While it is refreshing to see science affirming what we all basically know by ordinary sense and experience, namely, that men and women think very differently, it seems nevertheless that a certain caution is in order. For in our materialistic and reductionist times there is a tendency to reduce the human person to merely the biological and especially, to the brain.

But of course, even at the physical level, we are more than a brain on a stick. Our whole central nervous system, interacts with our brain, as does the whole of our body, forming a very mysterious mind-body, connection that contributes very strongly, and collectively to our sense of “I” as a person.

Beyond the complexities and magnificence of our physical nature, is also the mysterious and powerful presence of our soul. Surely our soul interacts with our brain, and our whole body, both influencing it and being influenced by it.

And good though this study is, and interesting besides, we cannot simply explain the differences between men and women by studying brains. Why is this?

Theology and philosophy speak of the soul is being the “form” of the body. What does it mean to speak of the “form of the body?” Well consider if you’re going to design a glove. How would you design it? Well, you would look at the form and function of the hand. The hand then, is the form of a glove. Now a  hand has a certain size and four fingers with a fifth opposeable thumb. But the fingers of the hand also move along three hinges or joints.

Thus, in designing a glove, four fingers, with an opposeable thumb are required. And also required is the capacity of the glove to permit the movement of the fingers. All of these factors give rise to the design and features of the glove. Thus the the hand is the form of a glove.

And so, when we speak of the soul as being the form of the body, we are saying much the same thing. The soul has certain capacities, and the body, that God designs, reflects these capacities. And thus, our soul as a powerful intellectual capacity, and the capacity to reason, therefore we have large brains. The soul also has the capacity to express its thoughts, and so the human person has the physical capacity, using our larynx,  tongue, lips etc  to communicate. Our souls also have an emotional capacity and the ability to exhibit subtle cues, and thus our faces and hands and other bodily movements are very expressive of our emotional state and inner thoughts. Our soul also has the capacity to do both grand works, and very delicate and close work, and thus, our hands especially, are able to lift heavy objects, and yet also do very delicate and close work.

Well,  you get the point, the design of our body is reflective of the capacities of our soul, the soul is a form of the body. Now dogs, for example, do not talk, not simply because they lack a larynx, but chiefly because they have little or nothing to say. Human beings on the other hand have a lot to say, and our body has many faculties to accomplish that fact.

Therefore, in an article such as this, science is doing what science does best, namely looking at the physical aspects of the human person. I do not ask more of science than this, and appreciate the insight of an article like this.

But as a theologian and a philosopher I want to insist that men and women are different, not simply because their brains tend to be wired differently, but also because their souls have different capacities and gifts. I am not male simply because my body is male, my soul is also male.

We live in an age the things that thinks a “sex change” operation can change our sexual identification. It cannot. Our bodies manifest our soul, for the soul is the form of the body. Mutilating the body, does not change the soul. In a fallen world, there are occasional situations which set up where, due to genetic damage etc. some are born with ambiguous bodily features. But this is an anomaly, and anomalies do not deny the nature of things, but on account of their rarity, affirm the nature of things.

In no way do I write this reflection on the soul, as a denial of what science shows. I only write to remind those of us who believe to remember that we are more than brains and bodies. And this is especially important to remember in reductionist times such as these. In this case, science affirms the clear differences men and women generally show. I wish only to add that these differences are explained by more than brain chemistry; they reach also the soul.

The second principle I wish to speak to, is more in the moral realm. For, as the study shows,  it would seem clearer than ever, that not only are men and  women different, but that they complement each other.

The study says that men are more spatial and analytical, less and less empathic whereas women are better at tasks requiring memory, intuition, and the navigating of complex relationships.

It is strongly evident, that all these qualities are important, even essential to properly navigate life and therefore, men and  women need one another both socially, but also in marriage, and especially in the important and critical task of rearing and forming children.

It is  commonly held today that it does not matter if a child has only one mother, or one father or two fathers or two mothers. But of course common sense tells us that it does matter.

Those of us were blessed to be raise by a father and mother know that our mother witnessed to and taught us many things that our father could not. Likewise our father witnessed to and taught us many things that our mother could not.

Masculinity and femininity have important things to contribute to the raising of every child. To intentionally deprive children of this complementary relationship of a father and a mother is to impoverish that child.

The study shows that the wiring of the brain tends to take place especially at the critical moment of puberty. And thus, it seems that for a child to be lacking masculine and feminine examples close at hand, we may find that the wiring and pathways of their brain are quite literally affected,  surely also their soul.

Of course this insight is affirmed by our experience of the last 40 years where increasing numbers of children are not raised by their father and mother,  but are raised in all sorts of other abnormal situations. It is quite obvious that many social ills come from this abnormal situation ranging from lower test scores and graduation rates, all the way through more serious social problems such as teenage pregnancy immaturity, poverty, sexual confusion and even suicide. The study even hints at the rise in autism as being tied to how the brain is formed in the critical puberty and pre-puberty years.

If it is true that there is more to our thinking patterns than social convention etc. and that our thinking patterns are quite literally hardwired into our body in our critical formative years, then we can see the moral imperative of ensuring that children are in the proper environment with a father and a mother, a male and female influence, and  help ensure proper brain development. And I would add at the soul be properly formed.

A young boy, without his father, without a male influence may find many conflicts set up as his brain which is meant to be wired from front to back does not receive the proper example for this to more properly take place. Likewise for young women.

I can hear some of the rebuttals now: “Where’s your data, where are all the studies?” And to this I would simply say “Where are yours?” Studies ought to be made. But in the meantime, we have no business experimenting on children if there is reason to doubt the children are effectively raised in single-parent settings or single-sex settings. And common sense tells us there is reason to doubt it.  I should think that the burden of proof would be on those who want to engage in social experimentation with children.

If anything, this study tends to reaffirm that the formation especially at the time of puberty, is important to get right. Nature, and nature’s God supply a father and a mother. We are foolish to set aside this model, as we largely have culturally speaking. We may literally be messing with our children’s brains and futures.