Catholic Culture Dedication
Catholic Culture Dedication

What about Catholic affirmation for those in false marriages?

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Oct 08, 2015

It would be a grave mistake for the Church to start speaking positively about intrinsically inauthentic “marriages”. I refer here to the pleas of a few Synod fathers that the Church must explicitly recognize and commend what is positive in the relationships of those who have divorced and remarried, and of same-sex couples who lay claim to a marital commitment. But this is precisely what the Church must not do.

I have no personal experience or testimony to offer on this highly emotional question, but I can present the kind of reasoning that ought to apply:

1. Marriage may in some sense be a virtue, but a virtue is not marriage.

Every single person who has ever lived has had some good qualities or virtues. But if those qualities or virtues are directed toward the wrong ends, then they cannot be praised in their ends. I might recognize that Fred is an extraordinarily careful, thorough and dedicated worker. But if his “job” is robbery, I cannot commend him as a careful, thorough and dedicated thief. To do so suggests that thievery is a good thing if we pursue it with a significant level of perfection.

Similarly, it may well be that a same-sex couple—let us call them Beverly and Melissa—exhibit a touching fidelity in their pseudo-marital relationship, and even derive a number of benefits from it. But like Fred, they are faithful to the wrong thing—to an objectively evil thing. Therefore, the more the Church praises the qualities of their relationship, the more the Church will undermine the conviction that the relationship is, in itself, seriously wrong.

2. Exclusion from Communion is salutary for the unrepentant sinner.

Holy Communion is not only a grace and a consolation but a commitment and a sign. This is so true that, without the proper disposition or commitment, the grace of the sacrament works toward condemnation rather than salvation. Read St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. [vv. 26-30]

We may take the last sentence physically, if we wish, but only in addition to its chilling spiritual meaning: That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died.

Therefore, those who claim marital bliss, in defiance of Our Lord’s own Revelation of the nature of the marital union, are far more likely to be harmed spiritually by the reception of Communion. Part of the reason lies in the very nature of both sacraments. But part of it is also found in what we might call the psychological disposition created in the wayward couple—at the very least, a disposition to a false sense of spiritual security.

Here we might raise the question of why so many others who are guilty of objective evils receive communion freely. The answer is that this is an abuse, and two wrongs do not make a right. But even so the Church has a special reason to distinguish between those who have sinned in the past (but might be repentant) and those who seek the sacrament of the altar while still clinging to a public relationship which mocks all of Catholic sacramental life. To divide what God has joined (Mk 10:9), or to pretend God has joined what He has expressly divided, is to breach the Body of Christ.

3. Orthodoxy and orthopraxis go together (you can’t have one without the other).

In the third quarter of the twentieth-century there was much talk of “orthopraxis” (right practice or right action) as opposed to “orthodoxy” (right doctrine or right teaching). It was frequently claimed that the two could be separated, “orthodoxy” being a dirty word imposed from on high, and “orthopraxis” springing from the Christian heart (at the urging either of the dominant culture or of dissident theologians). But this is self-evident nonsense, for all right action must be consistent with the teachings of Christ and His Church. These alone are a sure guide to the reality to which we must respond in love.

I take it to be elementary that our actions either follow and reinforce our beliefs or contradict and weaken them. I referred above to the psychological dispositions created by bad ecclesiastical practices in those whose approach to Communion is a contradiction. But what of our own awareness of the Church’s teaching? If, as a matter of fact, our speech and our ecclesiastical policies are calculated to affirm the good in the relationships of those who are not really married, it will follow as night follows day that the community as a whole will gradually lose its instinctive sense of the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage. True marriage will be thought of as one of many possible relationships which are “OK”—perhaps not quite ideal, but definitely good enough to get by.

We would also be wise to stop and consider whether the faith or even the raw numbers have increased in any Christian body which has progressively accommodated itself to modern cultural ideas on sexuality and marriage. It might be good to look—to take an arbitrary example—at the Anglicans. Have their policies of inclusion deepened the faith of those in the pews, or increased their numbers? The question answers itself. A Church cannot adopt practices which belie her own teachings and expect commitment to those teachings to grow. The result is always self-destruction.

The language of mercy is the language of repentance.

One of the most important questions we need to ask is this: How many Catholics who are struggling to follow Christ through authentic fidelity and chastity will be discouraged if our Church leaders confuse the objective state of a relationship with the personal virtues of the participants, now exercised for the wrong ends? How many will fall into sin, lose their Faith and become estranged from Christ if they continually see ecclesiastical persons fall all over themselves to affirm what, at root, Our Lord does not affirm?

Note again that there is a big difference between condemning the objective aspects of a relationship and writing off the sinners in that relationship as somehow unredeemed or unworthy of love. In fact, it is actually love which compels the Church not only to minister to all but also to keep the full truth about Christ and man at the center of that ministry. Even when we sorrow over the waywardness of our children, we embrace them with tears. But the surest way to lose one’s children is for parents to hide their own values in the hope of winning their esteem, and the second surest way is the abominable condescension by which we assure them that their most serious decisions do not matter.

There is a dramatic difference between capitulation and mercy. In the immortal words of Phil Lawler concerning the use of less condemnatory language: “That would make perfect sense to me, if I could find ‘condemnatory’ language in any recent Church document.” Instead, Our Lord continually enjoins even the Church to “go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mt 9:13). I say “instead” because one of the deeper meanings of this passage is that we are not to pretend that the sinner is righteous, for the righteous are closed to the mercy of God. Rather, we are to help the sinner to know Christ, and so to desire nothing more than to respond to His love in the utter joy of a repentance that is fully accepted and richly blessed.

Christ used the metaphor of thirst more than once to capture the essence of this exchange of love: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (Jn 4:10). This is so beautiful and so consoling that we might imagine Our Lord and Savior wishes to say nothing more!

But we would be wrong. In his conversation with the same woman, he continues:

You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; for you have had five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband; this you said truly. [Jn 4:17-18]

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.

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Show 5 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: FredC - Feb. 24, 2016 11:18 AM ET USA

    You can learn the attitudes and skills needed for effective evangelization by joining the Legion of Mary.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Oct. 12, 2015 6:04 PM ET USA

    sue5214: No, I meant to write what you see there. To be open to the mercy of God we must recognize that we are sinners. The moment we identify ourselves as "righteous" (self-righteous?) we are in trouble. This why Our Lord says that the came for sinners, when we know that he came for all. Anyone who thinks he has no need of God's mercy is terribly, terribly mistaken--and closed to that mercy.

  • Posted by: - Oct. 11, 2015 9:46 PM ET USA

    What a great article! But did you mean, under "the language of mercy is the language of repentance", 3rd paragraph down, that sinners (you said "the righteous") are "closed to the mercy of God"?

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Oct. 09, 2015 1:23 PM ET USA

    The person addressed by Our Lord in John 4 is St. Photina, a missionary and martyr of the early Church. This is what happens when those in error are exposed to the Truth.

  • Posted by: feedback - Oct. 08, 2015 9:56 PM ET USA

    Generating "false sense of spiritual security" was the goal of the ancient serpent, "You surely will not die!... Your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God" [Genesis 3:4-5]