The marriage game: Musical beds, musical faiths, and no emphasis on fidelity
One of the main emphases of Pope Francis over the past two or three years—and therefore of CatholicCulture.org—has been the problem of marriage in the modern world. This is, of course, intimately connected with the family, and it is no surprise that the high rate of marital breakdowns contributes hugely to the widespread dysfunctionality of today’s families. Marital breakdown reflects the modern ideals of both individualism and immediate gratification, which is simply to notice the dramatic decline of Catholicism in the formation of modern culture.
For these reasons I have often written about the crisis of marriage and family in the context of Western secularism. But to use the “Western” modifier can be misleading. The issue of marriage and divorce runs through all of human history. How marriage and family life are nurtured, protected and sustained tell us a great deal about whether a particular culture is truly capable of sustaining the common good.
The universality of marriage problems was brought home to me again in late March when I read our brief Catholic World News story, Punjab proposes changes to Christian marriage law. The gist of the story is that the government of the Pakistani province of Punjab is considering broadening the grounds upon which Christians may obtain a divorce. Currently, a Christian husband can obtain a divorce only if his wife commits adultery. This leads to false accusations. Moreover, since marriage law is primarily guided by religious law, and since Islam makes divorce much easier, some Christian men convert to Islam to obtain a divorce.
If you sift through our news reports over the past ten years, you’ll find similar references from a variety of regions in the Middle East. For example:
- In March of 2008, the head of Egypt’s Coptic Church announced he will not recognize the authority of an Egyptian court which ruled that Copts can convert to Islam, obtain a divorce, and then return to the Coptic Church. (story)
- In September 2010, the Patriarch of the Coptic Catholic Church explained that the easiest way for a Christian to get out of a marriage is to become Muslim: “For them it is easy to divorce and have the benefit of full rights against the other partner or spouse and full custody of the children.” (story)
- A year later, the Catholic Near East Welfare Association’s ONE Magazine reported that many Coptic Orthodox women have converted to Islam to leave their marriages. Moreover, when a Coptic Orthodox father converts to Islam in order to marry a Muslim woman, the children become Muslim by law, and cannot marry in the Coptic Orthodox Church even if they remain devout Christians. (story)
- Fast forward to January of this year, and we find that the head of the Maronite Catholic Church in Lebanon has deplored the frequent conversion of Maronite Catholics to other Christian communities and to Islam in order to obtain a divorce—conversions which he described as a “painful plague”. (story)
That brings us up to the March 21st story with which I began, about the grounds for divorce in Punjab. But whether we see such conversions as nothing but a painful plague may depend on what we think of the ideas to be presented next.
Weak Communities of Faith
In at least one of these cases, the leader in question made reference to two problems which fuel these trends: First, a lack of pastoral care in some communities, because of the shortage of priests; second, the influence of the secular media—an influence which in many cases is at least partially conditioned by Western biases. Christians in the Middle East are not likely to be completely inundated with programming that either celebrates infidelity and divorce or takes it for granted, as we are in the West. And yet Christians and Muslims alike frequently complain about the domineering attempts of the Western powers to impose their own secular and sexually-perverted attitudes on all the nations with which they interact.
What we see, then, is that it is very difficult to find cultures anywhere in the world which so strongly support the permanence of marriage that men and women alike tend to find divorce unthinkable. Moreover, as I suggested at the outset, it is difficult to find such cultures back in the mists of time either. To take just one example, you’ll recall Our Lord’s own comments on divorce and remarriage, when he said the even Moses had permitted divorce under some circumstances “because of the hardness of your hearts” (Mt 19:8, Mk 10:5). But the times and places which have boasted the kinds of cultures we are looking for have typically been characterized by strong, supportive, faithful Catholic communities.
From all of this we learn once again the indispensable importance of strong communities of Faith. This is yet another reason to strive to rightsize the Church. To oversimplify for just a moment, consider that if the Church substantially increased her pressure on those who publicly reject her teachings, with the result that such persons—and those who sympathize with them—would at the very least no longer feel welcome, the number of active Catholics in most regions would diminish dramatically. This would result in more vibrant and cohesive Catholic communities, centered on the parish, which would in turn produce a substantially larger number of vocations to the priesthood.
We actually know this from the experience of the few dioceses which have gone down this path. As the Church is “rightsized” through more cohesive communities with adequate pastoral care, she begins to grow again. Then, as each community works hard to maintain that adequate pastoral care as it grows, the number of priestly and religious vocations grows apace.
Is this an idealized picture? Certainly. But the same results can be realized in a very non-idealized way, through persecution. I am sure you see the point: We should be doing all we can to build that kind of community strength without being forced into it by the unreasoning hatred of outsiders. Catholic communities characterized by a strong culture of supportive Catholic fidelity are not to be ignored or dismissed. They are to be carefully developed and nurtured, so that they themselves can foster relationships and marriages which are so firmly rooted in Christ that complete breakdown is rare—and so that a person who would seek to facilitate such a breakdown by changing his or her religion would have every incentive to have long since self-selected out of that community.
Nor would one seek to change that cultural atmosphere, still less the rules that govern it. One would never seek to create an atmosphere in which those who refuse the grace offered by Christ through the Church see no need to select themselves out. Rather, each community must be blessed with saintly leadership, and formed in saintly values. Everything must arise and grow out of commitment to Christ.
Now why is this so? It is so because strong, supportive faithful Catholic communities actually work. While never perfect, they dramatically improve the odds. Whereas, to be perfectly honest, nothing else does.
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