Repost for new Sky View readers. Due to its importance, this particular article is reposted 2 or 3x a year.
Preface: In order to salvage the dignity of marriage in the eyes of the public, in order to make marriage a viable alternative to cohabitation and in order to impress upon the minds and hearts of people that marriage is forever, one thing is needed: To recover the pastoral practices of the Apostles, the Church Fathers and the Saints!! Consider this fact: The early Catholic Church- even as late as the 1960's -would have never married a couple who had practiced fornication or who had lived together without requiring that couple to repent. Such repentance prepared couples for the demands of marriage and more importantly, it prepared souls for eternity.
Pastors and marriage-prep teachers have deviated from this golden pastoral standard. And the main motive for doing so reults from their fear that to enforce such a standard would scare off people. Indeed, it might at first. But consider that the fear in losing people and the consequent lowering of pastoral standards has failed to attract converts to the Church. Indeed, what the Church loses in numbers, she will gain in quality. Low standards- whether we want to communicate this or not -suggests that the Sacraments are really not that important. Easy access to anything sacred conveys this very impression.
The Benedictine motto is this: "Pruned, and it grows again!" Once the dead branches of unrepentant sins is pruned, once this over grown bush is trimmed to size, then, only then, will the Church that Christ planted will take on the attractiveness that he, our Lord, desires.
On December 16th, 2011, the Michelle Bauman, reporting for Catholic News Agency, wrote a news article entitled, Record drop in US marriages caused by social changes. Here is just an excerpt:
The fact that the number of Americans getting married is at a record low is due to changes in society’s values, public policy decisions and economic factors, says sociologist Dr. W. Bradford Wilcox.
He was responding to a Dec. 14 Pew Research analysis that indicates marriage rates in the U.S. are at a record low, as young couples are delaying marriage longer than ever before..."
Recalling: Bishops act in 2010
In recent months, U.S. Bishops in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and the District of Columbia have been campaigning to keep traditional definition of marriage- between a man and a woman –as the only legally binding definition. For instance, the Massachusetts Catholic Conference stated in the Boston Herald News in late October that certain “moral and social issues are fundamentally important, since human rights are at stake and must be protected to help democracy to flourish in a way that benefits every citizen.” The statement went on to read: “These include the defense of the sanctity of life, the family based on marriage between a man and a woman…” The archbishop of the Twin Cities, Archbishop John Nienstedt, also assertively campaigned for the dignity of marriage by mailing a DVD (defending marriage as between one man and one woman) to 800,000 Catholics in the state of Minnesota.
There is a reason behind this refreshingly bold and unapologetic approach by many U.S. Bishops. And the reason is that the institution of marriage is being challenged on two fronts: Same-sex marriage, especially among the younger generations, has become widely accepted. Moreover, cohabitation among young adults is seen, with ever increasing frequency, as a viable alternative to marriage. Indeed, yesterday’s problem was divorce, but today’s problem is incentivizing couples to get married. If marriage, as opposed to cohabitation, requires more sacrifice and commitment, then why get married?
Marginalization of Marriage:
Indeed, for the first time in America's history a majority of young adults from ages 25 to 34are choosing not to get married. Cohabitation rates, especially among the lower classes, have risen sharply in recent years. The data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2009 American Community Survey and 2010 Current Population Survey confirms this. This is what they found:
• Between 2000 and 2009, the share of young adults ages 25 to 34 who are married dropped 10 percentage points, from 55 percent to 45 percent.
• Among the total population ages 18 and older, the proportion married dropped from 57 percent in 2000 to 52 percent in 2009.
• In 2008, non-marital births accounted for 41 percent of all births in the United States; although roughly half of these non-marital births are to cohabiting couples.
As one analyst said, "This is the lowest percentage recorded since information on marital status was first collected by the U.S. Census Bureau more than 100 years ago." The question Catholics should ask is: What relationship does the Catholic Church have with regard to these marriage trends? And how can she reverse it?
No doubt, the Catholic Church has the highest doctrinal standards with regard to marriage. Her teachings on the indissolubility of marriage and contraception are just a few of the doctrines which are countercultural; that is, doctrines considered to be “too difficult” or “unrealistic” by the majority of Americans. However, the pastoral practices of the Church in these last five decades- especially with regard to marriage preparation –have not been countercultural at all; far from it, they have been quite accommodating. And here lies the problem.
High Standards Ensure Unity:
As a result of this accommodation, rates of cohabitation, divorce and the practice of contraception among Catholics are roughly the same as the rest of society. In other words, the Church in America is composed of members who fare no better in their personal holiness than non-Catholics. If the majority of Catholics fail to observe all the moral laws of Christ then the Church as a whole will be ineffective in her witness. As Pope Leo XIII said, “As souls cannot be perfectly united in charity unless minds agree in faith, he [Christ] wishes all to hold the same faith.” The power to do good and the ability to glorify God as a Church requires a united front. But a united front in action is only preceded by a union of minds.
Collectively, a union of minds and uniformity of action is essential. Just as important is the obligation of every Christian to accept and live out all that Jesus Christ taught. A very important Scripture passage in understanding the necessity of total fidelity to Christ’s teachings is from James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law, but falls short in one particular, has become guilty in respect to all of it.” St. Augustine, just a few centuries later, elaborates on this principle by saying, "There can be nothing more dangerous than those heretics who admit nearly the whole cycle of doctrine, and yet by one word, as with a drop of poison, infect the real and simple faith taught by our Lord and handed down by Apostolic tradition." In other words, if a person is faithfull to nine out of the Ten Commandments, but is not observing the sixth commandment- "Thou shall not commit adultery," then it is as if he or she violated all the commandments. The same applies to fornication, contraception or any sexual sin. Using the analogy of St. Augustine, any one of these serious sins is like that drop of poison in a big glass of purified water. What good is the purified water if it contains one drop of poison?
Do not these passages from St. James and St. Augustine summarize, in a nutshell, why the Catholic Church has struggled to preserve the dignity of marriage in our culture? Is it not the case that in most marriage preparation programs couples who cohabitate are not required to repent from their sin before getting married in the Church? As such, they are neither trained in virtue for the sacrifices every marriage demands or prepared for eternity by repenting from the sin of pre-marital sex. This pastoral passivity speaks to the heart of the problem.
Go the Distance:
Before the 1960's, and especially in the first millennium, a common pastoral practice in the Catholic Church was that she required repentance from sin, especially serious sins, as a pre-condition for participating in the Sacraments. Also, throughout the centuries- leading up to the 1960's -if one was to enter the Church he or she had to believe everything Christ as taught by the Catholic Church. Picking and choosing was not an option.
It is encouraging to note that Archbishop Nienstedt of Minneapolis is attempting to dust off those ancient pastoral practices of the Church. He said, "I believe if you are going to be Catholic, that you have to be 100% Catholic…That you stand by the Church, you believe what the Church believes and you pass that on to your sons and daughters and your grandsons and granddaughters."
Don't Receive Them:
"Anyone who is so 'progressive' as not to remain in the teaching of the Christ does not have God; whoever remains in the teaching has the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him in your house or even greet him; for whoever greets him shares in his evil works." (II John 9-11)
"Do not receive him in your house." In the first-century when St. John the Evangelist wrote these words the Church was eager- like we are today -to welcome as many people as possible into the fold. However, if a person or a couple was not willing to "remain in the teaching of the Christ" they were not to be received in to the house; that is, the House of God. Submitting both their minds and will to the Gospel was an absolute. A failure to do so would merit exclusion. As such, the Church's mission to prepare souls for eternity was more firmly established.
To repeat, this principle was universally observed in the Catholic Church prior to the mid-twentieth century. In the early Church especially, a candidate wishing to become a member of the Mystical Body of Christ or a couple wishing to get their marriage blessed by the Church, had to believe the whole corpus of Christ's teachings. About the year 150 A.D., St. Justin Martyr wrote The Apology. In it he makes reference to the high standard required of one who wished to receive the Eucharist. He said, "We call this food the Eucharist; and no one else is permitted to partake of it, except one who believes our teaching to be true…and is thereby living as Christ enjoined."
Early Christians and Councils:
To live as Christ enjoined was proven by repentance and a virtuous life. The holy jealousy of the Bishops regarding the integrity of the Church, and the salvation of souls committed to their care, was given more clarity and detail at the Council of Nicea. Canon twelve reads as follows: "Those who by fear and tears and patience and good works prove that their conversion is real and not simulated, when they have completed the prescribed time among the hearers, may fittingly participate in the prayers after which it is at the discretion of the bishop to treat them with an even greater kindness."
Finally, we come to a writing from the same period which specifically addresses fornication, marriage and being admitted to the Sacraments. The Council of Elvira, a meeting of bishops in Spain, decreed that, "If it is determined that youths who have fornicated after having been baptized may, when they have done legitimate penance and when they have been married, be admitted to communion." (around 300 A.D.) Here, repentance from fornication and then entering into the lawful union of marriage (if the couple chose to get married) was the condition from which these "youths" could be admitted to communion.
Logic of High Standards:
The best way the Fathers of the Church knew how to ensure the salvation of souls on the one hand, and the holiness of the Church on the other, was to make total fidelity to Christ the premier condition upon which he or she could enter the Church or remain in communion with her. By doing this, the Mystical Body of Christ was not only a showcase for individual virtues but it was also an assembly of married couples who were a living testimony of Christ's love for His Church. This is what made marriage so attractive in centuries past. Undoubtedly, it is what gives meaning and splendor to the sacrifices required for a happy, life-long marriage.
Those pastoral practices which served to make marriage esteemed by society as the holiest of unions in the past will once again reveal marriage as being superior to cohabitation and same-sex unions in our day.