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Modern marriage is in a mess. For many complex and interwoven reasons the traditional Christian understanding of marriage has hit the rocks, and we’re clinging to the wreckage. I’ve outlined10 of the reasons why we’re in such a quandary. Increased mobility, socioeconomic upheaval, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce and artificial contraception have all contributed to the disaster, but in the midst of the mess the Catholic Church holds the answer.
The answer is that marriage is between one man and one woman for life. Although the answer is simple, it is not easy. The high calling of Christian marriage has met the harsh realities of the modern world, and Pope Francis’ recent exhortation offers a way forward in trying to match the reality of the marriage mess with the high vision of true, lifelong loving marriage.
Pope Francis encourages pastors and people to accept that we are in a mess, to wade in, roll up our sleeves and help those who have been shipwrecked to gather the flotsam and jetsam of their lives and try to build a raft out of the wreckage. To do this we have to stop and consider some basic principles of moral theology in order to help understand a way forward.
The first principle is that every action is either morally right or wrong. We determine if an action is right or wrong according to the natural law and God’s law. If an action goes against nature or breaks the law as revealed in the sacred Scriptures or Church teaching, then that action is objectively wrong. It can never be right. However, a person’s guilt for committing that sin can vary according to the severity of the crime, the person’s intentions, the circumstances and the orientation of his or her heart.
Here’s an example. The law says the speed limit on the freeway is 60 miles per hour. That’s the law. To go 61 mph is breaking the law. To go 90 mph is also to break the law. Both the person who has gone 61 and the person who has gone 90 have broken the law, but common sense tells us the person who has gone 90 is more guilty than the person who has gone 61.
Intentions, circumstances and the orientation of the heart also help to determine not if a person has broken the law but how guilty he or she is. So, for example, let’s say two people have gone 90 mph in a 60 zone. Bob, an arrogant fool, has done so because he is showing off and wants to win a race in his hot sports car. Sam, a loving father, has been speeding to get his little daughter to the emergency room because she has just been in a terrible accident. Bob and Sam have both broken the law to a severe degree, but Sam’s guilt for breaking the law is negligible, while Bob’s is great. They both broke the law, but their guilt is measured by their intention, the circumstances and the overall orientation of their heart. Sam is a good, loving and responsible father whose life is going in the right direction. Bob is an arrogant fool whose life is in a downward spiral.
A good pastor helps the members of his flock who are in the middle of the marriage mess by using these tools of analysis and assessment. Like the speeders, one divorced and remarried person may be far more guilty than another divorced and remarried person. Both have broken God’s law by being remarried after divorce, but the degree of their fault may vary. This doesn’t mean a divorced and remarried person who is only mildly guilty may automatically receive communion. That person still needs to have his or her irregular relationship sorted out.
Understanding that marriages are messy just means that a good pastor will use the tools of his training to help them understand their situation, see the wisdom of the Church’s teaching and discipline and then continue the process toward full repentance, a decree of nullity (if necessary), deep experience of God’s mercy and final, full reconciliation with Christ and his Church.
The pope’s pastoral exhortation is a recognition that the reality of being Christ’s disciple is not easy. Learning to love and be loved is the work of a lifetime. We stumble and fall. We repent and get up again. We repent and get up again. The church teaching and discipline are the aids we need to help us on that long, hard journey, and a good shepherd meets us where we are and leads us where we should be. He helps us match the reality of our loves and lives with that greater love and life to which we are called.
Fr. Dwight Longeneckeris a former Evangelical, then an Anglican priest and now a Catholic priest. Visit his website atdwightlongenecker.comto browse his books and be in touch.