A chaotic synod? Reason three: Marriage itself

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 16, 2014

In my last installment, I concluded that we must still consider why marriage presents the Synod on the Family with the most difficult topic of all. In reflecting on the distinctive nature of marriage, we will soon see more than ever why we should expect the synodal process, stretching over a year or more, to be characterized by no small amount of confusion as it struggles toward positive pastoral proposals for the family.

Problems with marriage, of course, lie at the very heart of what ails the family. While there are a great many things that can be said about it, three are perhaps most important in this context. First, the sacrament of matrimony is securely built upon marriage as a natural reality, a reality all but unrecognized in modern Western culture. Second, the sacrament of matrimony both mirrors and enhances a fundamental life-commitment which must be made before the corresponding personal growth in virtue and grace can occur. And third, as a result of the second point, invalid marriages do not easily admit of solutions “by degrees”. This means that the concept of gradualism, so critical to spiritual growth when properly understood, runs smack into a wall when it comes to “growing” out of an invalid marriage.

Marriage and Nature

In the classical world where Christianity got its start, there was a far more pervasive recognition of the “givenness” of nature than we have today. This went a long way toward the development of a sound understanding of marriage as a natural human institution on which the Church’s sacramental theology could build. It was broadly understood that human nature, with its differentiation between male and female, was a fixed and inalienable reality which must be deeply studied when forming human desires and reasoning about human purposes and human destiny.

According to nature, human sexuality is fixed, and marriage is an enduring intimate communion of a male and a female for the procreation, protection and nurturing of children, forming a family characterized by a stable and secure love. When the state of marriage is properly lived, innumerable personal and social goods ensue. But this vision of marriage is easy to discern only if one views nature as a “given”, as something fundamentally good and unalterably fixed in its leading characteristics. A culture which shares such perceptions, but recognizes at the same time all the weaknesses of human nature, will have a certain compatibility with a Church which teaches that a great benefit of grace is its ability to perfect nature.

But for a culture characterized by fundamental doubt about the origin and stability of nature, a culture that perceives nature as a random development, a culture which has a long history of technological mastery of and improvement upon nature—in such a culture, the perception of nature as a fixed “given” recedes into the background. Such a culture regards “nature” as something to be transformed and restructured according to personal desire. Indeed, the very (paradoxical) dignity of the human person seems to demand the right and the ability to make of nature what we will. Such a culture has lost an important commonality with Catholicism, and with Divine Revelation itself.

Marriage as a Life-Commitment

The natural and Catholic understandings of marriage involve an intimate and enduring commitment. To put this in Catholic terms, marriage is a vocation. The decision to marry is a fundamental decision, a life-changing commitment which becomes the special path by which the couple will work out their salvation and make their unique and irreplaceable contribution to both the world and the Church. Unlike many other decisions, an irrevocable commitment to marriage is a precondition for the enjoyment of its natural unspoiled fruits and all of its spiritual benefits. Fidelity to true marriage becomes a key part of the very identities of the man and woman in question.

As soon as that commitment is broken, the natural and spiritual fruits associated with marriage are severely damaged. Similarly, any living arrangement which falsely mimics marriage, while it may have some natural benefits and even produce the fruit of children, deprives the couple of the sacramental and vocational graces that are so critical to both themselves and their families. Moreover, such disunions and false unions always, in some measure, lead to a decline in the cultural understanding of the nature and benefits of marriage. All of this diminishes the good which the couple, the children and society as a whole would otherwise have been able to enjoy.

At the same time, people enter putative marital relationships because of their very natural deep desire for personal love and fulfillment, a desire which actually corresponds to one of the goods of marriage. It is an enormous human sacrifice to voluntarily sever so deep an attachment, subjugating it to a properly-ordered natural and supernatural judgment. Truly do we weave a tangled web whenever we put ourselves in the position of attempting to honor a false marriage, or of seeking to undermine a marriage that is true.

Gradualism and Marriage

The Church is understandably concerned to help untangle these webs. Unfortunately, vocational decisions like marriage are peculiarly impervious to gradualism—the pastoral approach of working by degrees toward ever-greater perfection in Christ. Typically we discover our various faults gradually over time, and we work by turns on whichever one is giving us the most trouble. We recognize that progress will come through a long series of resolutions, falls, confessions, absolutions, fresh attempts, and changing approaches as we grow in grace. No sooner do we mostly conquer one vice than we recognize another weaknesses of which we had not been previously aware. And so the process begins again.

Normally, then, we expect to make use of the Sacrament of Penance to confirm our weak but genuine resolutions, to enable us to receive Communion, and to lift us up again whenever we fall. But invalid marriages, which tend to lock us into an objectively sinful pattern of life, turn this normal sacramental process of growth on its head. Even a murderer can in theory repent, confess, receive communion, fall into the sin again, and repeat the cycle. But it is the very nature of a false marital state that adequate repentance can be signified only by breaking deep natural bonds in subordination to a deeper spiritual judgment.

The decision by a married couple to “live as brother and sister” instead of separating (for the sake of children) is about as close as we can get to the ordinary function of gradualism in this context. It is possible and even likely that a couple committed to living in this way would sometimes fail to abstain from sexual relations, and would have to confess these falls. But even in this case an initial commitment to forego the exercise of “marital” rights must be made. This, like separating completely, requires a spiritual maturity and determination which must appear at the beginning of any gradualist process.

The Synod

This is my third and final reason why we can expect the Synod to exhibit some chaos and confusion, as bishops struggle to formulate an optimum spiritual strategy. Apart from the basic need to form all souls in Christ, for all marriages there is the difficulty of inculcating in men and women a strong natural underpinning for their supernatural understanding of marriage. For troubled marriages, there is the need to counter the myth that human dignity demands freedom from even natural constraints. And for false marriages, there is the challenge of fostering the understanding and resolve to subordinate what seems like the deepest form of human happiness to a happiness that is higher and deeper still.

Now the Synod may propose any number of pastoral approaches which engage the Church more fully in addressing these grave needs—including, perhaps, ministries to those in false marriages which may reduce alienation while promoting a non-sacramental form of spiritual growth. This, after all, is what underlies the current pastoral practice of encouraging the couples to continue to attend Mass even though they cannot receive Communion. In truth, we cannot see how it is possible to resume a sacramental life before the fundamental condition of repentance is met.

In any case, it is all of these problems of marriage in the modern world which make things so difficult for this Synod. If we also recall my previous explanations of the nature of synods and the current position of the Church, it seems we should expect some confusion as the bishops thrash out the problem of the family in our time.


Previous in series: A chaotic synod? Reason two: The Church in our time
Next in series: A chaotic synod? Not in its results

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 CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Oct. 20, 2014 10:34 AM ET USA

    With others, I believe the evident "confusion" is deliberate. It is the clever tactic of a determined minority who want to subvert traditional Catholic teachings on marriage and morality. They wished to spread the seeds of dissent everywhere using the Synod as their vehicle and they succeeded handsomely. I repeat a question I've asked elsewhere: Why would any pope permit, perhaps even encourage, such a thing?

  • Posted by: - Oct. 17, 2014 10:06 AM ET USA

    Today's culture of death is different that u depict. Yes, it sees nature as having been a random occurrence, but somehow it has found a way to make almost all nature sacred. Rivers can't be changed, dammed to reap the benefits that follow, human migration into undeveloped land is a sacrilege, but man himself can be changed, perverted in any # of ways. Our culture of death is a veritable rubber pretzel, able to think and do anything, go anywhere, just so long as it stays fundamentally disordered.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Oct. 16, 2014 9:30 PM ET USA

    I disagree. I have deep faith in the potency of "the Catholic system" & have wondered for some time why it seemed to be "stalled out..." The fiasco now taking place in Rome under the auspices of "a Synod" confirm my worse fears..., extraordinary duplicity & outright treachery among the clergy, & an unwillingness of the minimally faithful to call their brothers & sisters to account. You minimize the sin of flagrant homosexuality & its effects on sacramental marriage. I think you are wrong.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Oct. 16, 2014 8:06 PM ET USA

    This is a coherent, well-considered statement. However, there is something very conspicuous that does not appear in the consideration of the topic. It is a difficult thing to ponder, indeed it does violence to anyone who is baptized and who loves the Church. The etiology of the symptomology exhibited is not simply "confusion." There is much more in the way of deliberation than of confusion if one reviews the prelate comments to date. There is a struggle; it is very old and it is relentless.