It Happened, but It Wasn’t Holy or Helpful – Biblical Teaching Against Polygamy

the Word of God

Given cultural trends and recent court decisions to redefine marriage, the move to accept and legalize polygamy and polyandry has intensified. For example, an essay at Politico declares, “It’s time to legalize polygamy.” Another article at Slate Magazine is entitled “Legalize polygamy.”

Some are already coining the term “trouple” or “throuple” to describe “marriages” of three people (of any combination of sexes).

Such moves are not unexpected and are sure to beginning coming through the courts and legislatures soon. Clearly, the Catholic Church does and will oppose such moves based on Natural Law and biblical arguments.

But the biblical stance on polygamy is less clear than it is on homosexual acts (which are unequivocally condemned at every historical stage of biblical record). Polygamy, on the other hand, while not envisaged by God in His plan for marriage (see below), was tolerated in biblical history. Some of the greatest biblical patriarchs had numerous wives. And God does not punish them for this. Indeed, He works with them and blesses them to lead Israel.

Yet as we shall see, the Scriptures do teach against polygamy, but more phenomenologically than legally or theologically. In other words, the fact that the patriarchs engaged in polygamy is presented to us as a fact, as a phenomenon, and little direct explanation, defense, or condemnation is given. However, the phenomenon of polygamy almost always led to trouble. And this reality is presented, too, as we shall see.

Thus the Bible does teach against polygamy, but more in the form of a morality tale than a direct condemnation. The fact is, polygamy leads to serious trouble. Departing from God’s plan always leads to trouble. This is all the more so for marriage. So while admitting that the biblical approach is different in the case of polygamy, let’s survey what the Scripture reports of the trouble that polygamy causes.

God’s clear plan for true marriage – When God sets forth marriage as described in the Book of Genesis, there is poetically but clearly set forth a definitive form for marriage: one man and one woman in a stable, lasting, fruitful relationship of mutual support. For God said, It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a suitable helpmate for him (Gen 2:18). Already we see that “helpmate” is singular, not plural. After teaching the man that animals are not suitable companions, God puts Adam into a deep sleep and fashions Eve from his rib (cf Gen 2:21). Note again that in presenting a suitable helpmate for Adam, God created Eve, not Steve. And so we see that marriage does not include any notion of homosexual union. But neither did God create Eve and Ellen and Sue and Jane as collective helpmates for Adam. And so implicitly and poetically, but clearly, we see excluded the notion of polygamy.

God’s plan for marriage is one man and one woman. Scripture goes on to insist that marriage be a lasting union, for it says that a man shall “cling” (Hebrew = דָּבַק  = dabaq) to his wife (singular, not plural), and the two (not three, four, 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).

So far, it’s clear enough: one man and one woman in a stable, fruitful relationship of mutual help and support.

But then, what to make of the polygamy of the patriarchs (Jacob, Moses, Gideon, David, Solomon, and many others)? Does God approve of this? There is no evidence that He thunders from on high at their seemingly adulterous and clearly polygamous behavior. The fact that they have several wives goes unrebuked, and is mentioned more in passing in the Scriptures, narrated with little shock. For example, Nathan the Prophet has many things for which to rebuke David, but having multiple wives is not among them.

What of this polygamy?

We ought to begin by restating that the Scriptures teach in various ways. There is the methodology of straight rebuke, wherein sin is both denounced and punished. But there is also a more subtle and deductive way, in which Scripture teaches more through story than prescription. And in this way, the Scriptures do teach against polygamy. For we learn by story and example how polygamy causes nothing but trouble. In fact it leads to factions, jealousy, envy, and at times, murder. But as we shall see, the problem is less the wives themselves than the sons they have borne.

But, to be clear, polygamy was a common thing among the Old Testament patriarchs. The list is not short:

  1. Lamech (a descendant of Cain) practiced polygamy (Genesis 4:19).
  2. Abraham had more than one wife (Genesis 16:3-4; 25:6, some are 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 he received two additional wives, making a grand total of four wives (Genesis 30:4, 9).
  5. Esau took on a third wife to please his father Isaac (Genesis 28:6-9).
  6. Ashur had two wives (1 Chronicles 4:5).
  7. Obadiah, Joel, Ishiah, and those with them “had many wives” (1 Chronicles 7:3-4).
  8. Shaharaim had at least four wives, two of which 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 which 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, who breached both Deuteronomy 7:1-4 and 17:14-17, 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).

Well, you get the point. So we have to be honest: polygamy, at least among wealthy and powerful men, was practiced and its practice brought little obvious condemnation from God or His prophets.

But the silence of God does not connote approval, and not everything related in the Bible is told by way of approval. For example, it would seem that God permitted divorce because of the hard hearts of the people (cf Matt 19:8). But to reluctantly permit, as God does, is not to command or to be pleased. Jesus would later withdraw divorce and remarriage from the range of tolerated behaviors. And polygamy seems to have largely abated by the time of Jesus.

And, as we have noted, God teaches in more than one way in the Scriptures. For the fact is, polygamy, whenever prominently dealt with (i.e., mentioned more than merely in passing), always spelled “trouble” with a capital “T”.

Consider some of the following internecine conflicts and tragedies.

  1. Jacob had four wives, whom he clearly loved unequally: Leah (with whom he felt “stuck” and whom he considered unattractive), 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 stubbornly infertile but finally bore him Joseph and Benjamin. Bilnah bore him Naphtali and Dan, and Zilpah bore him Gad and Asher.

Now all these sons by different mothers created tension. But the greatest tension surrounded Joseph, of whom his brothers grew jealous. His father Jacob favored him because he was Rachel’s son. This led to a plot by the other brothers to kill him, but Joseph ended up being sold into slavery to the Ishmaelites. At the heart of this bitter conflict was a polygamous mess. The unspoken but clear teaching is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. Gideon had many wives (Jud 8:30) and by them many sons. Scripture tells a story of terrible violence and death that results from these many sons by different mothers, 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 and internecine conflict was polygamy. These were brothers who competed for kingship, power, and inheritance; brothers who had little love for one another since they were of different mothers. Abimelech’s loyalty was not to his brothers, but to his mother and her clan. Thus he slaughtered his brothers to win power.

Among other lessons in this terrible tale is the lesson of chaos and hatred caused by polygamy. It’s as if to say, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. 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 say the least) family when Absalom (the third son of David), whose mother was Maacah, sought to overcome the line of succession and gain it for himself. When his older brother Chileab died, only his half-brother Amnon stood in the way. The tensions between these royal sons of different mothers grew very hostile. Amnon raped Absalom’s sister Tamar, and Absalom later had Amnon murdered for it (cf 2 Sam 13).

Absalom fled and nourished hostility for his father David. Eventually he sought to overthrow his father’s power by waging a rebellious war against him. Absalom is killed in the ensuing war and David can barely forgive himself for his own role in the matter (2 Sam 18:33).

But the family intrigue isn’t over. Solomon would eventually become king, but only through the intrigues of his mother, Bathsheba, David’s last wife. As David lay dying, his oldest son Adonijah (son of David’s wife Haggith), the expected heir (1 Kings 2:15), was acclaimed king in a formal ceremony. But 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, her son, would be king. David then intervened and sent word that Solomon would be king. Adonijah fled, returning only after assurances of his safety by Solomon. Yet despite those assurances Adonijah was later killed by Solomon.

Here, too, are the complications of a messed up family situation. Sons of different mothers hating each other, wives playing for favorite, securing secret promises, and conspiring behind the scenes. At the heart of many of the problems was polygamy. Once again the implicit teaching is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. Solomon, it is said, had 1000 wives (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. Finally, after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel seceded from Judah.  There was never a reunion and both kingdoms were eventually destroyed by surrounding nations.

Lurking in the mix of this mess is polygamy. Once again, the lesson is, “Don’t do polygamy.”

  1. Abraham’s dalliance with his wife’s maid Hagar, while not strictly polygamy (more adultery, really), also leads to serious trouble. Hagar bore Ishmael at the behest of Abraham’s wife, Sarah. But Sarah grew cold and jealous of Hagar and Hagar fled (Gen 16). She eventually returned and gave birth to Ishmael. Later, when Sarah finally bore Isaac, Sarah concluded that Ishmael was a threat and had to go. She had Abraham drive 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. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Polygamy, once again, lurking behind a whole host of problems. Don’t do polygamy.

So the Bible does teach on polygamy and, through stories, teaches us of its problematic nature. We ought not to be overly simplistic when interpreting these stories, as if to say that polygamy was the only problem, or that these things never happen outside polygamous settings. But polygamy clearly played a strong role in these terrible stories.

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

In Matthew 19, Jesus signals a return to God’s original plan and hence prohibits divorce. For he says, 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). He also says, 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).

Back to Plan A – So, 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, fruitful relationship of mutual support.

And thus the Scriptures do teach against polygamy. Even if it was tolerated, God taught them through bitter experience, “Don’t do polygamy.” It is trouble with a capital ‘T.’

While the first video accurately but lightly depicts the polygamy of Jacob, the next two videos recall the problems it engendered.

Matrimony or Bust – Another Glimpse at the Why and How of Traditional Marriage’s Demise

120714All the way back in 1973, George Gilder published a book entitled Men and Marriage. He expanded and republished it in 1986. In his book, Gilder argued that our culture was marginalizing men, to its great peril. He articulated the critical role that marriage has in helping men focus their sexual energies in a creative and beneficial way. Women have their nurturing role rather clearly defined in the very design of their bodies. But men’s role in the raising of children and in society in general is less evident. The traditional family gave men a rather clearly defined role that had dignity and supplied them with the feeling that they were needed, indeed essential.

But, as Gilder showed even then, much of that has been stripped away. Feminism and the sexual revolution are sources of the erosion, along with other deleterious social effects. And the erosion of esteem for the roles of husband, father, provider, and leader is hurting not only men, but children, women, and our culture as a whole. For when the sexual energies of men are not channeled toward creative ends, they tend toward destructive ones.

Gilder’s description of the problem is in full blossom today, and more and more social commentators now describe men as increasingly a combination of angry, disengaged, dysfunctional, cynical, fearful, and legally and socially constrained. The wider culture, heavily influenced by feminism, often depicts men as sexual predators, drinkers, imbeciles, buffoons, and as stupid and immature. And after consuming a steady diet of these portraits, some men do indeed display some of these traits.

Over the years, we have discussed many aspects of the problem on this blog. Most significantly, we have focused on the apparent lack of connection that young people today have with the ideas of courtship, dating, and marriage. Marriage is delayed any many are never getting there at all.  The com-box lights up whenever I write on these matters. Many commenters are bewildered, like me, but others are young people who are quite angry and cynical about one another. Our culture has really poisoned the atmosphere between the sexes. Promiscuity makes even simple flirtation fraught with a sense of danger, and merely unwanted attention becomes the stuff of sexual harassment. The men who write in are the bitterest of all. One man wrote, “Sure women are beautiful but that is where the appeal stops. The relationship is nothing but trouble and power struggle, and I risk losing everything, everything!”

Welcome to the world of post-radical-feminism and the post-sexual-revolution. It is a toxic world for romance, let alone the deeper values of marital and family love. It is toxic for men and for women, but most tragically it is toxic for children, who are often raised in a culture of deepening confusion and conflict in its most necessary component: the traditional family.

There is an article on Brietbart that articulates the problem for men and their anger. It is a lengthy article, and I should warn you that if you click on the link to the article in the previous sentence you will read some rather “raw” language. But frankly, it IS raw out there today for increasing numbers of young people, who have inherited the whirlwind of the sexual revolution and radical feminism. It is a lonely world, a world in which hostility and widespread promiscuity have destroyed innocence and  poisoned relationships between young men and women that used to be natural and oriented toward marriage and family.

Here are some excerpts of the article, which I present here as a kind of log of the cultural decline we are experiencing. The quotes from the article are in bold italics, while my comments are in plain red text.

Social commentators, journalists, academics, scientists and young men themselves have all spotted the trend: among men of about 15 to 30 years old, ever-increasing numbers are checking out of society altogether, giving up on women, sex and relationships and retreating into pornography, sexual fetishes, chemical addictions, video games and, in some cases, boorish [male] culture, all of which insulate them from a hostile, debilitating social environment created, some argue, by the modern feminist movement.

Of course in retreating from an ugly world, they dwell in an even uglier one. But to them it seems to feel less threatening, more predictable, and less complicated. Gilder discusses the observation that if men cannot be encouraged to commit to the creative and constructive relationship of the family, they will (as sociological studies show) tend toward destructive and damaging relationships that range from violent ones (gangs) to less harmful but disengaged ones like gaming, or drinking.

You can hardly blame them. Cruelly derided as man-children and crybabies for objecting to absurdly unfair conditions in college, bars, clubs and beyond, men are damned if they do and damned if they don’t: ridiculed as basement-dwellers for avoiding aggressive, demanding women with unrealistic expectations, or called rapists and misogynists merely for expressing sexual interest.  

The new rules men are expected to live by are never clearly explained, … leaving [males] clueless and neurotic about interacting with [women]. “That might sound like a good thing because it encourages men to take the unromantic but practical approach of asking women how they should behave, but it causes a lot of them to just opt out of the game and retreat to the sanctuary of their groups … where being rude to women gets you approval, and you can pretty much entirely avoid one-on-one socialising with the opposite sex.”

Here, too, this “retreat” cannot receive approval, but some understanding of the disgust and fear that underlies it may be important. Generally, men used to seek the company of women and seek a wife. Now they do not. What has changed? While some aspects of the women’s movement were necessary (better access to jobs, fairer compensation, etc.) there now seems to have been an overcorrection, such that women now outrank men in terms of many indicators of social success such as graduation levels, income, and legal access to benefits and rights. Many men find the legal and legislative world hostile to them and discover that it is politically incorrect to say that the “corrections” are now harming men.

Women have been sending men mixed messages for the last few decades, leaving boys utterly confused about what they are supposed to represent to women, which perhaps explains the strong language some of them use when describing their situation. As the role of breadwinner has been taken away from them by women who earn more and do better in school, men are left to intuit what to do, trying to find a virtuous mean between what women say they want and what they actually pursue, which can be very different things.

Men say the gap between what women say and what they do has never been wider. Men are constantly told they should be delicate, sensitive fellow travelers on the feminist path. But the same women who say they want a nice, unthreatening boyfriend go home and swoon over simple-minded, giant-chested, testosterone-saturated hunks in Game of Thrones. Men know this, and, for some, this giant inconsistency makes the whole game look too much like hard work. Why bother trying to work out what a woman wants, when you can play sports, [self-gratify through masturbation] or just play video games from the comfort of your bedroom?

Yes, men speak to me all the time about such mixed messages, both here at the blog and in ministerial settings. Women make it very difficult to understand what they want. Part of the problem is that women are not monolithic. Different women want different things. But even with an individual woman, many men struggle to understand. Women have always had, in every culture and time, a “lot of moving parts.” But the frenetic and ephemeral quality of modern culture puts the inconsistencies on steroids and leaves a lot of men bewildered and angry.

Again, the retreat of men into lesser or native activities cannot be approved. But in merely reporting it here I do not do so. It is important to examine the trend and to try to understand it, since even many churchgoing Catholic males are manifesting these attitudes and behaviors.

The article goes on to discuss what drives women to exhibit the behaviors that men are fleeing. Here, too, you do not need to accept all that is said here or read it in terms of assigning blame. But women have widely changed their behavior, and once again it is good to ask why.

Women today are schooled in victimhood, taught to be aggressively vulnerable and convinced that the slightest of perceived infractions, approaches or clumsy misunderstandings represents “assault,” “abuse” or “harassment.” That may work in the safe confines of campus, where men can have their academic careers destroyed on the mere say-so of a female student … academics such as Camille Paglia have been warning for years that “rape drives” on campus put women at greater risk, if anything … damage [is] being done to them by the onset of absurd, unworkable, prudish and downright misandrist laws such as California’s “Yes Means Yes” legislation—and by third-wave feminism … which is currently enjoying a hysterical last gasp before women themselves reject it.

Another root of the problem is the school system, both public and private. We have discussed on this blog many times before that normal boyhood has been demonized and treated as something to be medicated away.

In schools today across Britain and America, boys are relentlessly pathologised, as academics were warning as long ago as 2001. Boyishness and boisterousness have come to be seen as “problematic,” with girls’ behavior a gold standard against which these defective boys are measured. When they are found wanting, the solution is often drugs. One in seven American boys will be diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at some point in their school career. Millions will be prescribed a powerful mood stabilizer  such as Ritalin, for the crime of being born male. The side effects of these drugs can be hideous and include sudden death.

Meanwhile, boys are falling behind girls academically, perhaps because relentless and well-funded focus has been placed on girls’ achievement in the past few decades and little to none on the boys who are now achieving lower grades, fewer honors, fewer degrees and less marketable information economy skills. Boys’ literacy, in particular, is in crisis throughout the West. We’ve been obsessing so much over girls, we haven’t noticed that boys have slipped into serious academic trouble.

OK, so even if there was a need to correct and focus a bit more on girls, it looks as if we’ve overcorrected. This may not be politically correct, but it certainly looks as though the statistics indicate this.

Jack Donovan, a writer based in Portland who has written several books on men and masculinity, each of which has become a cult hit, says the phenomenon is already endemic among the adult population. “I see a lot of young men who would otherwise be dating and marrying giving up on women,” he explains, “Or giving up on the idea of having a wife and family. This includes both the kind of men who would traditionally be a little awkward with women, and the kind of men who aren’t awkward with women at all. “They’ve done a cost-benefit analysis and realized it is a bad deal. They know that if they invest in a marriage and children, a woman can take all of that away from them on a whim.  He goes on: “Almost all young men have attended mandatory sexual harassment and anti-rape seminars, and they know that they can be fired, expelled, or arrested based more or less on the word of any woman. They know they are basically guilty until proven innocent in most situations.”

This is pretty clear and it is well aligned with what I am hearing, increasingly, from men.

Well, this is a tough topic to be sure. Not exactly the best topic for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception! However, it does illustrate well what happens when a culture loses its relative innocence, and sex becomes a toxic, cynical, fearful pursuit, one that is no longer tied to marriage and family. (Mondays are also my usual day for doing “culture check” articles.)

It will be admitted that not all young people are lost in this cycle, but increasing numbers are. A good start toward addressing the problem is raising awareness of and naming the demons. There was a time, not so long ago, when we got the courtship and marriage thing right … or at least largely right. People mostly got married and stay married. Our families weren’t perfect, but they functioned. Our culture wasn’t perfect—far from it—but its basic units and foundations were operative.

Have mercy on us Lord, and on the whole world.

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: