The bishops should not miss this opportunity to offer the world the Christian response to the marriage crisis.
To focus the conversation elsewhere is to ignore a hard fact and a great opportunity.
The collapse of marriage culture throughout the world is indisputable. More and more marriages end in divorce, even as increasing numbers of couples simply ignore marriage, cohabit, and procreate. The effort to redefine “marriage” as what we know it isn’t, and to enforce that redefinition by coercive state power, is well advanced in the West. The contraceptive mentality has seriously damaged the marriage culture, as have well-intentioned but ultimately flawed efforts to make divorce easier. The sexual free-fire zone of the West is a place where young people find it very hard to commit to a lifelong relationship that inevitably involves sacrificing one’s “autonomy.” And just as the Christian understanding of marriage is beginning to gain traction in Africa, where it is experienced as a liberating dimension of the Gospel, European theologians from dying local churches are trying to empty marriage of its covenantal character, reducing it to another form of contract.
Rome, we have a problem.
Pope Francis understands the crisis of marriage culture in its multiple dimensions, just as he understands that the family, which begins in marriage, is a troubled institution in the post-modern world; that’s why he’s summoned two Synods on the topic of the family. And that’s why the Synod, fully aware of the gravity of the situation, should begin, continue, and end on a positive note, offering the world a pearl of great price: the Christian understanding and experience of marriage.
The Synod discussion, in other words, should take the crisis of marriage and the family as a given, and then lift up Christian marriages, lived faithfully and fruitfully, as the answer to that crisis. The Synod should begin with what is good and true and beautiful about Christian marriage and Christian family life, and show, by living examples, how that truth, goodness, and beauty respond to the deepest longings of the human heart for solidarity, fidelity, and fruitful love.
It’s quite obvious that the Church faces real pastoral challenges in dealing with broken marriages and their results. But, to begin the discussion of marriage and the family in the 21st century there is to begin at the wrong end of things. For it is only within the truth-about-marriage, which was given to the Church by the Lord himself, that compassionate and truthful solutions to those pastoral problems can be found.
The Synod might also do well to reflect on another piece of good news: the Church has far more tools with which to try and help fix what’s broken in 21st-century marriage culture than it did 40 years ago. John Paul II’s Theology of the Body has given Catholicism the world’s most compelling account of sexuality and its relationship to marriage: a vision of the nobility of human love that is far more attractive than anything on offer in Playboy and Cosmopolitan, not to mention what’s being taught about “marriage” by jihadists. And John Paul’s teaching is having an impact—it’s hard to find a college or university campus today that doesn’t have a Theology of the Body study group, often self-organized by students.
We’ve also come a long way since “marriage preparation” involved choosing music and quarreling with the pastor about rice-throwing on the church steps. Couple-to-couple marriage prep is a major development in alert dioceses and parishes, and a great expression of Pope Francis’s call that all Catholics understand themselves as missionary disciples.
So, message-to-Synod: think positive.
George Weigel is a senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, DC.
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