Catholic Culture Podcasts
Catholic Culture Podcasts

The Church on Marriage and Family: Joining Battle

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 20, 2014

I confess that I was surprised by the response of Manila’s Cardinal Tagle to the preparatory work for the Synod on the Family. For Cardinal Tagle said he was “shocked” by the results of the worldwide pre-Synodal questionnaire, which revealed that in most places Catholics do not understand “the teaching of the Church regarding family life.”

I do not dispute the facts on the ground. It is, after all, highly doubtful that the majority of those who bear the Catholic name anywhere understand the teachings of the Church regarding family life. I presume most Catholics know that the Church regards marriage as a life-long commitment with an openness to children. But even in as Catholic a place as the Philippines, where the Church is an extraordinarily influential institution, there are two important reasons why people are unlikely to actually understand the “teachings” behind this commitment.

The first reason is that there is no place on earth in which the predominant media, not to mention the glitterati who dominate the media, are not overridingly secular. In the broadest sources of information to which Catholics are habitually exposed everywhere, the deep meanings of things are not explored; still less is there any effort to take God seriously or to trace the logic of reality implicit in His holy will. Not even nature is treated as if it bears meanings which have been designed into it by a Creator.

Unless conscious counter-cultural steps are taken, the Catholic vision of life will not enter the mind or heart by osmosis. Instead, osmosis presents an unending trickle of more or less deliberate obscurantism.

This leads to the second reason. Catholic thought on marriage and family is no longer easily understood. Even most of my readers do not fully understand the special nature of the human person, the nuptial meaning of the body, the ends of marriage, the moral difference between contraception and natural family planning, the responsibilities for material sustenance and Christian education and their bearing on family size, the distinction between annulment and divorce, what it means to be two in one flesh—or, for that matter, the relationship between the natural institution of marriage and the sacrament of matrimony, or the nature and effects of the sacrament of matrimony itself.

Then there is the immensely rich mystery of marriage as a living paradigm of the relationship between Jesus Christ and His Church.

But here I must admit that I digress. It is not necessary to be knowledgeable about all of these things to “understand” the Church’s teachings on marriage and family life. But it is necessary to be free of significant attitudes, values, desires and blind spots which undermine or contradict the Church’s understanding—which set our habitual thoughts running in directions which obscure the Church’s teaching. And that is exactly what afflicts most Catholics around the world. At best they are caught in the trap of entering into ostensibly Catholic marriages in the context of deeply secularized attitudes toward life, love, sex, marriage, children and human fulfillment.

An Uphill Battle

I cannot speak for the situation in the Philippines, which in fact Cardinal Tagle did not address. But if I were to extrapolate from the experience of the Church in the United States and Europe over the past few generations, I would conclude that the Church has seldom sought to present her case to the faithful with anything like the kind of systematic frequency and power required for success against a hostile culture. Catholics desperately need more comprehensive and more frequent instruction. The best and easiest forum for such instruction is obviously the pulpit, which must to some extent be rescued from vague aspirations drawn unimaginatively from the daily readings.

It ought to be obvious that the Gospel must be imparted with the clarity, the specificity, and the attendant explanations necessary to guide the basic actions of life, and to dispel our cultural myths. Beyond the pulpit, of course, the Church must reach out far more aggressively to pack the pews with lapsed and inactive Catholics who still bear her name. It goes without saying that catechetical instruction for those who lack it must be comprehensive and sound, but the key point is that the Church cannot provide a countercultural space, within which souls can grow in Catholic knowledge and sensibility, unless there is constant good, effective, and specific preaching at the parish level on the major problems which dominate our states in life.

I began by stating that I have no quarrel with the facts on the ground; they are obvious enough. But I do have a modest quarrel with Cardinal Tagle’s shock. It is utterly beyond me that these facts should be news to any experienced Churchman. Therefore I take the Cardinal’s use of the term “shock” to be a bit of a euphemism to cover what has now become a public embarrassment for the Church. Though neither is desirable, it is always better to be thought a fool than a knave.

In any case, the solution is an uphill battle across the cultural terrain of individualistic desire, immediate gratification, and ultimate despair. One hopes that the upcoming Synod will have much to say about how this battle should be waged. As Cardinal Tagle said, it is not a question of changing Church teachings, but of making them known, and making them known in the most credible way.

But the Church must be honest here. She cannot focus exclusively on tactics for some battle that could be fought or might be fought or ought to be fought. However important this may be, the first step is not really a matter of using the right vocabulary, of saying things in the right way. The very first step, before we learn to speak about these things effectively and often, is simply to speak about them at all.

A battle must be joined before it can be fought. As raw recruits become veterans, tactics will improve.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

Sound Off! supporters weigh in.

All comments are moderated. To lighten our editing burden, only current donors are allowed to Sound Off. If you are a current donor, log in to see the comment form; otherwise please support our work, and Sound Off!

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Jun. 19, 2016 4:57 PM ET USA

    In response to Edward, Jeff's essay is not about knowledge, as he so aptly pointed out in his mention that pride is "a damaging indulgence of the intellect." Chastity combats "a damaging indulgence of the senses," in this case indulgence of the sexual faculty. Thus chastity is more a matter of the will than the intellect. The intellect can understand the evil inherent in an indiscriminate abuse of the procreative faculty, but it is up to the will to act on that knowledge and choose to do good.

  • Posted by: Edward I. - Jun. 16, 2016 11:33 PM ET USA

    Without a concrete description of what God's grace actually looks like, advice to trust it is can be dangerous. What you have said, which is a more intellectual elaboration on things that have been said by others, amounts to: "you must become a saint as holy as Augustine in order to fulfill the natural law regarding chastity". Frightening, indeed. Who is your audience? Is the problem of unchastity due to a lack of knowledge? Knowledge cannot help someone who lacks the integrity to act on it.

  • Posted by: shrink - May. 21, 2014 4:23 PM ET USA

    Excellent points all around. But perhaps we are at a point in time that society is beyond responding to preaching. Ultimately, preaching about these problems, even forcefully and correctly, will not change matters very much because the problems now reside in deeply ingrained HABITS of behavior, emotion and thinking that block true messaging. Most people with problem habits in sex, drugs, or alcohol must hit bottom before they even think of changing.

  • Posted by: [email protected] - May. 21, 2014 2:33 PM ET USA

    We need to battle within our own parishes, with our own children, with our Church teachers to support and preach outloud what Marriage is about. We have been silent too long out of fear of rejection and criticism. Christ was rejected and criticized but that did not stop Him. We must be fearless even with our own priests.

  • Posted by: FredC - May. 21, 2014 11:07 AM ET USA

    For many, many years the laity has been asking that the homilies be designed to teach us specific Catholic doctrine, not vague generalities, addressing everyday issues such as drugs, alcohol, homosexual activity, contraception, etc. -- not just saying "don't" but giving us the logic behind the "do" and "don't" from both secular and religious viewpoints. Where else would the passive Catholic get the information?

  • Posted by: koinonia - May. 21, 2014 8:31 AM ET USA

    "The very first step, before we learn to speak about these things effectively and often, is simply to speak about them at all." This is an astonishing phenomenon indicative of a new mindset among clergy. The baptized have largely been deprived of their baptismal inheritance. This has led to broken or disordered families, individuals and souls, and to sadness. But we are called to happiness in ordered living. The proper pastoral mindset must be restored - teach, govern, sanctify- in Christ.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - May. 21, 2014 8:25 AM ET USA

    Amen brother!

  • Posted by: skall391825 - May. 21, 2014 3:52 AM ET USA

    You have made the case well for the New Evangelization. Will we really live to see it?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 20, 2014 10:50 PM ET USA

    I think with modern technology that links one side of the globe with another the problem is clear (but it is like an episode from "The Twilight Zone....;" I am surely dating myself). Cardinal Tagle and Cardinal Kasper need to be introduced...?

  • Posted by: - May. 20, 2014 8:56 PM ET USA

    You're missing the point, Dr. Jeff. For instance, how can the good people of the Diocese of Des Moines, Iowa, learn the Church's view on marriage and the family when their catechismally challenged bishop thinks that global warming will kill us all?

  • Posted by: bruno.cicconi7491 - May. 20, 2014 6:11 PM ET USA

    Many are concerned about the Synod, and even anticipating terrible events. But given this situation, the Synod may be just what the Church needs to react.