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By Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D

5/5/2014 (2 years ago)

Catholic Online (

I urge you to reflect on these matters as we move toward the Extraordinary Synod on the Family and to share these insights with others

As we survey the landscape of marriage and family in the West (that is, Western Europe and North America), we find a desolate scene, which corresponds to the godlessness and materialism which also characterize the societies in question, with rampant divorce, aberrant sexual behavior, artificial contraception and abortion.  That agenda is not justifiable according to Gospel standards and is repudiated by the Church in Asia, Africa and much of Eastern Europe and also large parts of Latin America.  Thank God, we Catholics belong to a universal Church and can benefit from the shared wisdom of all the members of the household of faith.  The "late-comers" to the Faith of the "Third World" may be offering us a perspective which we need to consider and adopt - if we wish to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and to be the light, salt and leaven that He calls us to be on behalf of the society in which we live.


By Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D

Catholic Online (

5/5/2014 (2 years ago)

Published in U.S.

Keywords: Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D, Extraordinary Synod on the Family, Marriage, family, Pope Francis, Synod, divorce, remarriage, The Catholic Repsonse

PINE BEACH, N.J. (Catholic Online) - I would like to reflect on the much-discussed upcoming Extraordinary Synod of the Bishops of the Catholic Church scheduled for October 5 to 19 October 2014. The theme of this important Synod is "The pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization". I wish to dispel some myths and also provide some context or background.
At the outset, it is important to deal with some of the "hype" surrounding the Synod, starting with the assertion that - supposedly due to Pope Francis' openness - a wide and unprecedented consultation process has occurred in the lead-up to the event.  Like so many things attributed to Pope Francis as "firsts," this too is not a "first."  Indeed, in every previous synod after Vatican II, the bishops of the world have been consulted about the topic to be considered and they have always been encouraged to involve their clergy and laity in the process. 
Perhaps even more interesting to note is that consultation of the laity is a traditional element even of something so solemn and weighty as a dogmatic definition.  Before defining the dogma of the Immaculate Conception in 1854, Blessed Pope Pius IX asked the bishops of the world if that doctrine was, as a matter of fact, a common belief of the faithful; Venerable Pope Pius XII did the very same in regard to the doctrine of the Assumption in 1950.
That having been said, let us note what "consultation of the faithful" means - a topic dear to the heart of Blessed John Henry Newman and memorialized in his classic work, On Consulting the Faithful in Matters of Doctrine.  Consultation should not be confused with taking the latest public opinion poll, so as to determine a course of action flowing from the results.  The second noun in the expression is also critical; it is "the faithful" who are consulted. 

In other words, unevangelized, uncatechized, non-practicing people who may have had water poured over the heads as infants are not numbered among "the faithful."  If someone does not know what the Church teaches or, worse yet, knows it but rejects it, that person is not one of "the faithful."  Nor does attending Mass only on the high holy days or for "social" events like baptisms, weddings and funerals enlist one in the ranks of "the faithful."  Nor does living as a pagan - as though God does not exist - enable one to speak the faith of the Church.
However, it is good and important for us to know what everyone thinks and believes (or does not think/believe).  Why?  So as to frame an effective pastoral response.  Polls inform us that 80% of Catholic women of child-bearing age use some form of artificial contraception.  That is valuable information, not to move the Church to change her teaching on the objective evil of artificial contraception, but to give us the hard data we need to reach out to these people with cogent arguments, leading them to a conversion of life.  Pretending that everyone is "with us" is just as harmful as throwing in the towel in despair over failure to live by Gospel values.  Knowing where Catholics (even non-practicing ones) "are" allows us to frame plans of catechesis or even evangelization.
As results came in from the consultation process, the bishops of Germany announced that the vast majority of their people rejected all Church teachings related to marriage and the family, causing them to conclude that the Church had to change those teachings!  This is astonishing, to say the least.  Firstly, if I were a German bishop, I would be mortified to have to admit that this was the pastoral situation in my country because it says far more about the shepherds than it does about the sheep. 

It means that for forty years or more, episcopal silence on these issues and, in some instances, even tacit approval of theological dissent has fostered a spirit of rebellion against traditional Christian morality, which is to say that there is a rejection of New Testament morality - not the esoteric, time-conditioned formulas of out-of-touch old, judgmental celibates.  The shocking aspect of this revelation is that, if the data is accurate (and no one has reason to doubt it), the attitudes of the majority of contemporary German Catholics are lower than that of the pagan Romans of old.  Truly shocking.
Permit me to put a finer point on the whole "German" dimension to the problem.  Without belaboring the point, history demonstrates that there is a bizarre "anti-Roman" attitude that regularly surfaces in Germany, even pre-dating the Protestant Reformation.  Indeed, Luther capitalized on that pre-existing mentality. 

Furthermore, the German hierarchy - like the American hierarchy of the seventies and eighties - has often bullied the Holy See into compliance with their agenda, especially through threats of withholding financial support (which  is extensive due to serious government subsidy for religion in that country); in the present case, the tactics of the German episcopate can only be perceived as an effort to engage in a pre-emptive strike on the October Synod. 

Finally, there is an implicit arrogance, chauvinism and cultural imperialism in the stance, which more than suggests that "enlightened" people will see and accept the positions of the bishops and laity of Germany; not to hold to their stance is evidence of a backwardness unbefitting "modern" Catholics.  In response, would it be uncharitable to note that Sunday Mass attendance, vocations to the priesthood and consecrated life, and ecclesiastical weddings in Germany (as in most of the "enlightened" West) are in an embarrassing free-fall compared to "backward" Africa, whose principal problem is an inability to keep up with the growth of the Church there?
Now allow me to make two essential distinctions.  First, not to understand a teaching of the Church does not mean non-acceptance of the teaching.  Cardinal Newman famously remarked that "ten thousand difficulties do not make one doubt."  A person who has difficulty in understanding a doctrine or moral principle enunciated by the Church and who is honestly seeking clarification is a noble believer, deserving of all respect and assistance. 

Similarly, a person who has difficulty in living up to the high standards of Gospel morality and who fails is merely a sinner (like everyone else in the Church), and it was for such as these that Jesus came and for which He instituted the Sacrament of Penance.  Rejection of a moral teaching because one does not want to accept the challenge is another story entirely.
Perhaps most astounding and distressing of all have been the interventions of Cardinal Walter Kasper in his book (The Theology of Christian Marriage) and in his address to the consistory of cardinals in February.  He asserts that Catholics find our moral teaching incomprehensible (an echo of his German brothers in the episcopate), causing him to come close to suggesting that - on that account - the teaching must change. 

He further argues that the Church needs to come up with a theology of sexuality and marriage to which modern men and women can relate.  Where was he during the pontificate of Blessed John Paul II?  Has he read Familiaris Consortio?  Did he listen to John Paul's 1979-1984 Wednesday audience catecheses on "the original unity of man and woman"?  What about Evangelium Vitae and Veritatis Splendor?  What did Cardinal Kasper do with these profoundly rich theological reflections - as a theologian and as a diocesan bishop in his native country?
Most disturbing of all is his "push" for admitting the divorced/remarried to Holy Communion, for which he has been criticized openly or obliquely by a number of cardinals, including Raymond Burke (of the Apostolic Signatura), Carlo Caffarra (of Bologna and a professional moral theologian), and Sean O'Malley (of Boston); many bishops from Africa have also weighed in to challenge the Cardinal's proposals.  As Cardinal Kasper himself admits, the clear teaching of Jesus and the constant teaching of His Church is that a valid, consummated marriage is indissoluble (see Mk 10:1-12 and Mt 19:1-9).
So clear, so hard a saying, and such a drastic departure from Jewish tradition is Christ's doctrine on marital indissolubility that His disciples respond, "If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is not expedient to not marry" (Mt 19:10)!  Our Lord's reply is not to finesse His position (in fact, He proceeds to say that Moses allowed for divorce only due to the "hardness of the hearts" of his people) or to disagree with the conclusion of the disciples.  On the contrary, He counsels celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven.   
Cardinal Kasper makes much of the Church's need to respond to those in difficult marital situations with mercy.  Of course, he is absolutely correct.  And I would suggest that the finest biblical model for that is Our Lord's conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:1-42).  The all-knowing God-Man leads the woman into a dialogue about her moral life by inviting her to share her experience of Him with her husband, to which she replies: "I have no husband." 

Jesus approves of her reply and goes on to note that the reason she is correct is precisely because she has had "five husbands, and he whom you now have is not your husband."  As the story plays out, the adulteress becomes not only a believer but also an evangelist as she brings the Gospel to her whole town.  But notice the process: She admits to her sinful state first!  Similarly, in the story of the woman caught in adultery, Jesus refuses to submit her to the harshness of the Law (stoning) but commands her to sin no more (see Jn 8:11).  In other words, to qualify for Christ's mercy, one must admit to one's sinful behavior and must equally resolve not to sin again.
A person in an invalid second union is in an objective and on-going state of adultery; that is, each and every sexual act is a sin of adultery.  Unless and until one acknowledges the sinfulness of such acts and resolves to abstain from them in the future, one is in a state of on-going, unrepented adultery.  In the Early Church (to which many people often urge us to return), that condition obviated the possibility of reception of Holy Communion, with full reconciliation occurring only on one's deathbed.
Is there no other way out of such a morass?  The Church offers two possibilities, both of them in total fidelity to Christ's teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and to His ever-present offer of mercy at the same time.  First, a couple can approach a diocesan marriage tribunal to determine if a previous union was indeed a true Christian marriage.  This is not the kind of legalism condemned by Jesus but an expression of the awareness that marriage has both ecclesial and social ramifications.  At a theological level, Saint Paul teaches us that marriage is a sign (that is, a sacrament) of Christ's union with His Church (see Eph 5:32). 
Secondly, failing an ecclesiastical decree of nullity of a former union, a couple can choose to live as "brother and sister."  To be sure, this is a great sacrifice, but it preserves the goodness that exists in the present union; it maintains a family environment for any children born of that union; and, it removes the on-going state of adultery.  This is truly a heavy cross to bear, but isn't that exactly what Jesus promised His followers?  In fact, Our Lord observes that following Him would entail a "daily" cross (see Lk 9:23)!  And isn't this what moved the disciples in the passage cited earlier to suggest that perhaps it would be better not to marry at all? 

The cross of marriage and the cross of celibacy are but two sides of the same cross.  What is essential to realize is that when Christ directs His disciples to take His yoke upon them (see Mt 11:29-30), He goes on to assert that this yoke is easy.  How so?  Because a yoke is made for two - and Jesus always joins us in carrying that yoke.  He does so with His ever-present and all-powerful grace, which moved Saint Paul to cry out: "I can do all things in him who strengthens me" (Ph 4:13).
Is this second option really viable for a couple?  I am going to reveal something here that I have never shared before publicly.  My parents were in an invalid second union, and my father was unable to obtain a decree of nullity for his prior union.  As a result of my Catholic schooling and the loving, gentle prodding of the Sisters, by the time I was in second grade, my parents decided that reception of Holy Communion was more important than carnal relations, so that they committed themselves to live as brother and sister.  So, yes, it can be done.  Why?  Again, Saint Paul, the apostle of divine grace, exclaims: "My grace is sufficient for you" (2 Cor 12:9).
Now, let me suggest a potential area for development in the Church's pastoral practice and marriage law.  What constitutes a truly valid, sacramental union?  If Saint Thomas Aquinas is correct that "grace builds on nature," what kind of "nature" provides the needed building blocks for sacramental grace to do its work?  Let's consider a scenario that has been all too common over the past forty years.
If the statistics are true (and once more we have no reason to suspect they aren't), that the average American begins to be sexually active at the age of thirteen and that same person marries around the age of thirty, we are talking about seventeen (!) years of promiscuity.  That same individual (especially if a product of the government schools) has also imbibed a totally secular (that is, pagan) notion of human relations in general and of marriage in particular, and is completely ignorant or even hostile to the Church's theology of marriage and the family.  In all likelihood, that very person likewise has not led a sacramental life since receiving Confirmation (if even then).  Is such an individual apt matter to commit oneself to a permanent, stable, monogamous union, reflecting the union of Christ and His Church?  I think not.
Which is why I have regularly refused to witness such unions for my nearly thirty-seven years as a priest because I will not be party to a sacrilegious celebration of a sacrament, but also because I do not want to fall under Jesus' condemnation of those who bind up heavy burdens on those incapable of bearing them (see Lk 11:46).  Simply put, my serious responsibility to safeguard the integrity of the Sacrament of Matrimony and my genuine (tough) love for the couple motivate me to say "no" - unless and until they give evidence of a desire to remedy the serious deficiencies which their personal state exhibits.  Only if and when their deformed nature moves toward wholeness can and should they be admitted to the Sacrament of Matrimony.
When such deficiencies existed upon going through a sacramental rite, I believe there is good reason to question the validity of the sacrament.  In this opinion, I find myself sharing company with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (who became Pope Benedict XVI).  And it is here that I can envision an expansion of the Church's grounds for a decree of nullity - not permission for divorce and remarriage.  Pope Benedict dealt with this matter in some detail in one of the last addresses of his pontificate, actually echoing a 1977 statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
As we survey the landscape of marriage and family in the West (that is, Western Europe and North America), we find a desolate scene, which corresponds to the godlessness and materialism which also characterize the societies in question, with rampant divorce, aberrant sexual behavior, artificial contraception and abortion.  That agenda is not justifiable according to Gospel standards and is repudiated by the Church in Asia, Africa and much of Eastern Europe and also large parts of Latin America. 

Thank God, we Catholics belong to a universal Church and can benefit from the shared wisdom of all the members of the household of faith.  The "late-comers" to the Faith of the "Third World" may be offering us a perspective which we need to consider and adopt - if we wish to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus Christ and to be the light, salt and leaven that He calls us to be on behalf of the society in which we live.
I urge you to reflect on these matters as we move toward the Extraordinary Synod on the Family and to share these insights with others.  In this way, you will duc in altum - put out into the deep.


Rev. Peter M. J. Stravinskas, Ph.D., S.T.D. is the Executive Director of the Catholic Education Foundation. The mission of  The Catholic Education Foundation is to serve as a forum through which teachers, administrators and all others interested in Catholic education can share ideas and practices, as well as to highlight successful programs and initiatives to bring about a recovery of Catholic education in our times.The Catholic Education Foundation, Inc. is a 501(c)3 national non-profit organization formed to ensure a brighter future for Catholic education in the United States.


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