Defending Marriage at the Youth Synod

When Cardinal Carlo Caffarra was given the responsibility of starting Pope John Paul II’s Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family, he wrote a letter to Sister Lucia de Santos of Fatima asking for prayers. Many Catholics by now are familiar with Sister Lucia’s response to Cardinal Caffarra’s letter in the form of this apocalyptic revelation: “The final battle between the Lord and the reign of Satan will be about marriage and the family. Don’t be afraid because anyone who operates for the sanctity of marriage and the family will always be contended and opposed in every way, because this is the decisive issue.”

Given the present confrontation raging over marriage and sexual morality at this cultural moment, it would be difficult for sincere Catholics to ignore the import of this prophesy that deeply affected the late Cardinal Caffarra. John Paul II may not have been familiar with Sister Lucia’s words but he had already described the battle between the Word and the anti-Word in his prophetic book Sign of Contradiction. Sister Lucia specifies that the primary battleground in this epic confrontation between good and evil will focus on the sacrament of marriage.

Those who are unafraid to speak up for marriage and family must proclaim the Church’s covenantal view of marriage, which exhibits three fundamental qualities: real unity, absolute fidelity, and fruitfulness. Marriage, therefore, must always be heterosexual, indissoluble, monogamous, and open to new life. Attempts to define marriage differently by excluding any of these essential features are incompatible with the Word of God and with the logic of spousal love. According to John Paul II, man and woman created as a “unity of the two” are called to live in a communion of love that mirrors the love of the Trinity (Mulieris Dignitatem 7).

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The upcoming Youth Synod in October is a major event where the Church and its leaders will have a superb opportunity to confront those dissonant secular forces that offer more elastic interpretations of marriage and family life. But will the sanctity of marriage be espoused here with the zealousness Sister Lucia’s message is calling for? Unfortunately, all evidence points to the contrary. In the preparatory document or Instrumentum Laboris composed under the supervision of Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri we find for the first time in any Church document the acronym LGBT. Baldisseri claimed that this controversial formula was first introduced in pre-synodal documents, but this is not so. A look at the Youth Synod’s web site shows a girl in the midst of other young adults draped in a rainbow flag.

Also, according to the Instrumentum Laboris, “the question about sexuality must be discussed openly and honestly,” and it must be approached “without prejudice.” The Instrumentum Laboris seems to endorse the pre-synodal document’s request “to deal concretely with issues such as homosexuality and gender identity, which young people already discuss freely and without taboos.” Here’s a novel idea for Cardinal Baldisseri and the Synod participants—why not discuss these issues truthfully, based on the truth about marriage and sexuality revealed through Sacred Scripture and reaffirmed in the Church’s Tradition?

In general, the official Church under Pope Francis seems willing to compromise with the Sexual Revolution and modern culture, perhaps out of fear expressed by Sister Lucia of the fierce opposition that comes about when one defends the orthodox view of marriage. Over the years, with some noteworthy exceptions, the hierarchy has been diffident in its defense of indissoluble, heterosexual marriage as defined by Jesus (Mk. 10; Mt. 19). Some bishops find it easier to ignore these controversial issues, and others like Bishop Robert Barron argue that the Church should no longer be devoting valuable resources to the promotion of its devout creeds on sexual morality and marriage, because this crusade has become an exercise in futility.

In addition, many of the hierarchy’s most prominent leaders have distanced themselves from the falsely maligned encyclical Humanae Vitae, which emphasizes the generative purpose of the marital act. During 2018, this 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, few bishops extolled and affirmed the teaching of this notable document. Some Church leaders, like Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, lent their support to the document’s persistent but misguided critics. For the Humanae Vitae anniversary, the official website of the Austrian bishops, along with Schönborn’s own diocesan website, published a series of heterodox articles undermining the key principles of this encyclical. One of the articles by theologian Martin Lintner claimed that the teaching of Pope Paul VI must “evolve,” especially since the arguments against artificial birth control methods are “ultimately not convincing.” In keeping with the sentiment of the current Pontificate, Lintner further insisted that the Church cannot ignore “the decisions of conscience on the part of the faithful.” It seems safe to assume that Cardinal Schönborn has some sympathy with this viewpoint, since it was promoted on his diocesan web site without any rejoinder.

One wonders, of course, given recent events in the life of the Church such as the revelations about Cardinal McCarrick, how much of this opposition and indifference results from a distorted view of sexuality on the part of certain bishops or cardinals who choose to stand with the general culture. At any rate, it is hard to imagine that most members of the hierarchy will find their spine at this Synod and speak with vigor and clarity about marriage. But, unless they do, the embattled episcopal caste risks irrelevancy and a further erosion of credibility.

Moreover, anyone who is willing to take up arms for marriage faces another problem. The Church now has a great albatross around its neck, namely, that apostolic exhortation of recent vintage known as Amoris Laetitia, which has traumatized many of the Catholic faithful. Even those who have tried to provide some nuance to the incoherent eighth chapter have failed to satisfactorily reconcile its contradictions or clarify its ambiguities. The problems with this exhortation are too numerous to mention, but with the help of some thoughtful critics we can explore two interrelated issues that have not received sufficient attention.

First, as scholars John Finnis and Germain Grisez have observed, Amoris Laetitia strongly implies that marital permanence or indissolubility is a moral norm, a standard to which couples should aspire but not an intrinsic characteristic of a sacramental marriage. Its language and tone seem to signal a retreat from the doctrine of absolute indissolubility which is presented so clearly in the Gospels (such as Mt. 19). Amoris Laetitia never refers to Jesus’s declaration that the person who divorces his or her spouse and marries another commits adultery (Lk.16:18; Mt. 5:32). And it fails to mention indissolubility in paragraphs 291-312 when it prescribes how the Church should minister to those who are divorced and civilly remarried. In previous sections where indissolubility is discussed, it is presented as one aspect of the ideal of marriage. We are told, for example, that “the ideal of marriage [is] marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability…” and “that indissoluble exclusivity is expressed in a stable commitment” (34, 123). In some of these passages the description of marital indissolubility is unrefined and even banal. For instance, there are signs of this human yearning for permanence found in the “lives of lovers who do not view their relationship as temporary,” and in “those who marry who do not expect their excitement to fade” (123).

Also, Amoris Laetitia speaks about marriage as a “covenant before God that calls for fidelity” (123). More precisely, marriage is a God-given covenant that indissolubly unites husband and wife into a permanent and exclusive relationship.  According to the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes, marriage is a covenant that “has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws.”  The sacred bond “does not depend on human decision,” says Gaudium et Spes, since God is the “author of marriage.” Thus, the bond is sacred because it has been formed not only by the free consent of the spouses but also by God. Amoris Laetitia, however, seems to obscure this vital notion reaffirmed by John Paul II that the indissoluble bond of marriage is a “sacred and sacramental reality rooted in the dimension of the covenant and grace” (Theology of the Body, 117b: 2).

Second, the theologian Giulio Meiattini has written powerfully about how Amoris Laetitia fails to sufficiently take into account the transformative effects of the sacrament of marriage. Although marriage was a sacrament of nature, Christ elevated marriage to one of the Church’s seven sacraments. Marriage becomes not only a source of supernatural graces but also a sign of Christ the Redeemer’s gift of himself to his Church. In Ephesians, Paul instructs husbands to love their wives “as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25). This analogy cannot fully convey the depth of Christ’s divine love, but it does reveal the nature of spousal love as the total and irrevocable gift of self that mirrors Christ’s unreserved dedication to his Church. Instead of exhorting the faithful to live out their marriage in accord with Jesus’s inspiring example, Pope Francis strikingly proclaims the opposite: “there is no need to lay upon two limited persons the tremendous burden of having to reproduce perfectly the union existing between Christ and His Church” (122).

However, the passage in Ephesians should not be interpreted as imposing a “tremendous burden,” but as an invitation to husband and wife, called to become one flesh, “to share in the creative love of God Himself” (Theology of the Body 102.2). Thanks to the graces of the sacrament, the fidelity of husband and wife can manifest the same qualities of constancy and total self-donation that shape the relationship between Christ and his Church. But when the Gospel mandate on marital indissolubility is isolated from the sacrament and its abundant graces, it can indeed become onerous. Amoris Laetitia seems to imply that while constant fidelity is fine for the Son of God, it’s just too difficult for fallen man. Absolute commitment is a nice ideal, but many will fall short. Once again, the sacred reality of marital fidelity is muted in favor of the more pragmatic notion that this principle of indissolubility is just another precept of the Mosaic law that can encumber the soul in some situations. And therefore the Church must be prepared to offer merciful relief by providing the Eucharist to those discerning individuals who break that norm and end up in an “irregular union.”

The youth of today cannot be offered the truncated view of marriage that appears in the paragraphs of Amoris Laetitia, which pushes into the shadows key dogmas that affirm the evangelical meaning of indissolubility and the sacred reality of the marriage covenant which cannot be broken. The best thing the Church could do for all young people in this liquid and eroticized culture is to proclaim the plenary truth about marriage without hesitation and ambiguity. Many have lost their way and desperately need to hear this message. The truth about marriage and sexual morality shines forth in the writings of John Paul II, but also in the lesser known intellectual work on the sacrament of marriage done by Cardinal Scola and Cardinal Ouellet. It is doubtful, of course, that we will hear these doctrines pronounced at a Youth Synod that wants to be relevant, “concrete,” and “open” to the dangerous forces of the Sexual Revolution, a revolution determined to destroy the sanctity of marriage.

(Photo credit: Pre-Synod Youth meeting; Daniel Ibanez / CNA)


  • Richard A. Spinello

    Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of Four Catholic Philosophers: Rejoicing in the Truth along with The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family, and the Culture of Life.

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