Monday, November 29, 2010
The Church and Marriage: 40 Years Late and a Dollar Short
At the last USCCB conference, Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville, Kentucky, told his brother bishops that today is like 1970 for marriage. But is it 1970 for marriage? Are we truly facing the ultimate threat to marriage that the bishops believe or has the Roe V. Wade moment come and gone without much comment from the Catholic hierarchy in America?
One does not have to support same sex unions to state the obvious that the institution of marriage has been in great distress for quite some time. With a recent Pew Research poll showing that 40% of Americans believe that marriage is an obsolete institution, there is obviously much more going on with marriage than same sex unions.
In fact, 1970 for marriage occurred in 1970 when California implemented the nation’s first no-fault divorce law. In the past four decades, each state in the union has followed California’s lead and now every American is free to abandon his or her spouse without any questions from a judge and not even a gasp from his neighbors. When Al and Tipper Gore announced their plans to divorce for no apparent reason, the nation largely reacted with a yawn.
If the bishops had the prescience they should have had, they would have spoken boldly against these trends 40 years ago but the Church was largely silent. More importantly, she made no attempts to assure that the laws that govern secular society reflected the vision of marriage dear to Christians. And even today as the health of heterosexual unions continues to decline, all the bishops have offered is the tepid For Your Marriage Initiative—a campaign so toothless and benign that it has neither affected nor offended a single soul.
The Catholic Church teaches, based on the words of Christ in the Gospels, that a person who divorces his wife and marries another is in a permanent state of adultery. More than any other Christian denomination, The Catholic Church has remained firm in this position by refusing to remarry those persons whose first marriages the Church believes are valid and by denying access to the sacraments to Catholics who have remarried. Although this has been difficult for many Catholics to accept and has caused some snickering outside of the Church, the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage has caused next to zero political fanfare. Since no bishop in the United States has called for a prohibition on divorce, there has been no real secular backlash to the Church’s teaching on divorce.
On the other hand, to prevent a minority from using the word marriage or having legally recognized civil unions, the bishops have launched expensive and energetic campaigns in states across the nation and the USCCB continues to make outlawing gay marriage its second priority. This week outgoing USCCB president Cardinal Francis George fought and lost a battle to stop civil unions in Illinois. Is this approach to dealing with gay marriage prudent and conducive to the mission of the Church? Through their actions, the bishops are essentially saying that the second worse moral infraction in America after the killing of innocent is homosexual intercourse. Is it really surprising that the Church’s campaign against same-sex unions has caused so much ire?
And does the public backlash against the Church spending millions of dollars to stop gay civil rights endeavors negatively impact her more essential objectives? Although the Catholic Church has many subsidiary goals, her primary mission is the salvation of souls. The campaign against gay marriage contributes nothing to the Church’s evangelistic mandate and does a great deal to undermine it. The Church’s mission against gay marriage wins no converts to the faith. No one who does not already believe in the substantive matters of Christian teachings is going to be persuaded by it. However, many who are already skeptical about the Church are going to see in these actions a confirmation of their perception that the Church is biased and hateful. There is a growing sense among the proponents of same sex unions that the Church’s prophetic voice is only emboldened when she faces a small, relatively unpopular minority. Other public sinners, like adulterers, get a pass. In short, the Church’s anti-gay marriage propagation is making her enemies.
Certainly, the Church having enemies is not automatically a problem; in fact, our Lord warned us to be cautious if we are beloved by the world. However, unnecessarily courting enemies is a serious problem because it creates evangelistic obstacles in an already hostile culture. There are many converts who were not immediately persuaded by particular aspects of Catholic teachings, such as its sexual teaching, but have come to embrace them as members of the community as their faith and understanding deepened. Their attraction to the Church’s core teachings, like the Eucharist, drew them and because of their love of Christ, they have taken the time to study the Church’s teaching on sexual morality. It is these potential brothers and sisters in Christ who we risk never having because they are so offended by our actions in the public square that they are resistant to the call of the Gospel.
Furthermore, the majority of Catholics reject some portion of the Church’s teachings on sexual morality and as many as three-quarters of them cannot be bothered to offer an hour of their week to the Lord. This is the crisis that our shepherds should be agonizing over. If the Bishops committed the energy and resources that they have directed towards influencing public policy to rooting out banal, vacuous homilies and developing orthodox and inspiring catechetical education, for both children and adults, they would generate much less antagonism and they might actually change the culture in the process.