Yet, there are several practices within the Catholic Church, especially in the West, that have hastened the lowering of marriage rates.
On the Twenty-seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, the Scripture readings of the Mass have Catholics focus on the sanctity of marriage. Our Lord, in the Gospel, teaches a truth about divorce and remarriage that rarely receives any attention in sermons or in public addresses given by the clergy. And that truth is this: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (Mark 10:11) This particular teaching is repeated at least four more times in the New Testament; two times by our Lord and two times by St. Paul (i.e. Matthew 19:9; Luke 16:18; Romans 7:1-3; I Corinthians 7:10-11).
Whenever the Church proclaims the Word from these passages, 90 percent of the time there is no follow up or commentary by pastors. But if declining marriage rates and divorce are to be arrested or reversed, the Church will have to address the causes of such trends. Indeed, at some point both clergy and laity are going to have to set aside their anxiety and shine the light of Gospel on divorce; not just from heights of Vatican Hill but on a local level as well.
If there is ample confusion about what a Catholic really is today, there is just as much uncertainty about what marriage is. For instance, there is one exception or clause in the Gospel of Matthew that has been rightly and wrongly interpreted. And in so far as it has been wrongly interpreted, the clause in Matthew has served to cover a multitude of sins. Jesus said, “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (except for porneia) and marries another commits adultery.” (Matthew 191:9)
Historically, “porneia” is translated in one of two ways. An older translation renders the term as fornication or an unlawful activity. Cornelius Lapide, a priest and scholar of the 16th century, interpreted in this way: “I say that Christ here concedes divorce to a man on account of the fornication of his wife, but not the dissolution of marriage, so that he may marry another.” This is to say that fornication (or adultery) on the part of the spouse can justify divorce or separation but not remarriage.
Then there is another rendering of porneia within recent years; and that is to say that if the marriage was unlawful to begin with, then divorce and even remarriage can be justified. After all, no marriage existed from the beginning, only fornication or cohabitation. Key ingredients of marriage were amiss.
In either translation, the clause or exception in Matthew 19:9 can never be taken to mean that remarrying is morally justified after the inception of a lawful marriage under God. But as far as the decline of marriage rates and the confusion over its sanctity is concerned, there are three identifiable causes that can be traced to practices within the Church.
1. Pastors and marriage tribunals are not on the same page: I heard a good talk on marriage annulments by a bishop just recently. He gave several reasons why a marriage can be annulled but never addressed an obvious problem within the Church. And that is, if a marriage can be annulled by a church tribunal because of x, y, or z- thus declaring that a marriage never existed for these reasons –then x, y, and z should be the reasons prohibiting a couple getting married by the same Church. Much confusion has been created because the pastor and the marriage tribunal were not on the same page. This, no doubt, has risen to scandalous proportions in the last 40-50 years.
2. Unaccountable cohabitating couples: There are more than enough studies to show that cohabitation leads to higher divorce rates. This is enough reason not to put engaged couples on a conveyor belt which leads to a wedding ceremony only to end up at a church marriage tribunal. And there is 2000 years of Catholic pastoral tradition to show that up to the 1960’s the Church not only required, without apology, a confession of serious sins before she would bless a marriage with God’s authority, but that she would call upon the couple wanting to get married to repent from these same sins. To not insist on repentance, and to hence make it optional, is to do a disservice to the engaged couple. This pastoral omission deprives Catholics of developing virtues, deprives them of fostering a spirit of sacrifice so essential for the demands of marriage and deprives them of all the graces that comes through repentance.
3. Sermons: Because divorce and remarriage rates, as well as the practice of contraception, is just as high among Catholics as it is in the general public, priests hardly ever breathe a word about these things. This pastoral malpractice can explain why we should not rush to judgment about any couple or individual who is divorced and remarried. After all, many good Catholics never knew the truth about what constitutes a real marriage before entering into their past commitments. After all, they were never told by diocesan and parish programs. But this is no reason why the evils of divorce, and the pain it imposes on children, should go unmentioned by the Catholic clergy and marriage-prep instructors. After all, did not God say that he hates it? (Malachi 2:16)
If the Catholic clergy and laity are silent on the issues of divorce and remarriage, secular institutions will continue to enjoy a monopoly on how people understand them. This is not a good thing because marriage and the family are the cradle of society. Indeed they shape the moral, social and political landscape of our culture.
Therefore, let Catholics, who make it their aim to restore the institution of marriage, begin where a lot of the erosion had its beginning; and that is with relaxed pastoral standards within the Church and the silence on the part of pastors regarding the sins that undermine marriage. This is where true and lasting restoration must begin. Lamenting about how our public institutions show an utter disregard for marriage is hardly the answer. To the contrary, the answer is to be found, as it always has, within the Household of God.