The Teaching of the Church on Marriage Today
Speaking notes of Most Rev. Diarmuid Martin Archbishop of Dublin
Iona Institute Lecture, Alexander Hotel, Dublin,
“I am grateful to the Iona Institute for this invitation to come and speak to the Institute on the theme of The Teaching of the Church on Marriage Today. I thank the Director, Mr David Quinn, and I thank the Chair of this evening’s session, Dr John Murray. I speak as a Bishop of the Roman Catholic Church about the Church’s teaching on marriage but also on the place of marriage, a natural institution, in fostering social stability in any society.
The theme of marriage and the family is at the heart of reflection in the Church worldwide at this time in the light of the Synodal reflection initiated by Pope Francis. This reflection involves also a discussion about marriage and the family in every Catholic diocese across the world. The interest that is being shown in the discussion process is an indication of how people consider a strong culture of marriage and the family as vital in society in any part of the world. Marriage and family matter deeply to all.
It is interesting that both Pope John Paul and Pope Francis took the family as the theme for their first Synod. Both had been diocesan bishops up to the moment of their election in two totally very different cultures – one in a country under communist persecution and the other in the challenging and changing religious reality of Latin America – yet both saw clearly, each from his own perspective, firstly how Christian marriage and the family are vital for the transmission of the faith and secondly how marriage and the family as human institutions are vital for the stability of society. Both saw the need not just to defend the teaching of the Church, but to foster a broad social understanding of the role of marriage and the family and to present that understanding in an attractive and an appealing way in the real situations of today’s changing world.
Where marriage and the family are not strong, society is weaker. Where societies weaken – in times of conflict or political repression or in times of economic strain – it is families which maintain stability and rebuild a society and its values. Marriage and the family remain independent of political ideologies and keep basic values alive, as was seen in the long years of persecution in communist countries. Political and ideological regimes come and go. Marriage and the family are permanent elements in maintaining social stability. Marriage and the family matter.
On the occasion of the Extraordinary Synod of last year, Pope Francis surprised us by asking that the preparatory document that had been drawn up should be accompanied with a questionnaire and asking that this questionnaire be studied not just by the bishops but by as a wide a representation of men and women as possible.
It was a revolutionary challenge. I think that some bishops had to read the instructions a few times before they realised exactly what they were being asked to do. There was also another reaction typical of us Irish. We immediately found faults with the questionnaire. There were too many questions, the language was too complex, the time available was too short, and how then were we going to carry out such a consultation. We Irish are good at finding faults and criticising.
Indeed much of the wider discussions on marriage and the family that takes place in Ireland today are polemical and critical. There are many reasons to be concerned and critical. A wide range of statistics show that the family as an institution is undergoing profound changes; that people have a variety of views about the family; that many families are in crisis. The results of the consultation that took place in advance of last year’s Extraordinary Synod showed that there is division also within the Church. There is a gap between the Church’s teaching and what the experience of many in today’s world is. The same divisions emerged also during the Synod of Bishops itself. Many bishops spoke about an increase in co-habitation and in purely civil marriage among Catholics and many other bishops were surprised and at times scandalised that some seemed to take this change as something to be recognised and not simply condemned outright.
Many bishops were surprised when Pope Francis unequivocally asked, at the beginning of the Synod, that the discussion should be open and frank and that everyone “could say all that they feel the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation and, at the same time, all should listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart, to what others say”.
There was open discussion. Some media talked about a synod of confusion and indeed such sentiments were if anything fuelled by a number of bishops themselves – both those who were at the synod and many who were not at the synod – who seemed to think that Pope Francis was simply allowing a situation to emerge in which the teaching of the Church was being undermined and that the Synod was on a path towards changing central teachings of the Church.
What is common to much of this scepticism and pessimism is that its proponents simply ignore the words of Pope Francis himself in his concluding address to the Synod. Pope Francis believes that truly honest and open discussion is positive.
“Many commentators, or people who talk, have imagined that they see a disputatious Church where one part is against the other, doubting even the Holy Spirit, the true promoter and guarantor of the unity and harmony of the Church – the Holy Spirit who throughout history has always guided the barque, through her Ministers, even when the sea was rough and choppy, and the ministers unfaithful and sinners.
Personally I would be very worried and saddened if there had not been these temptations and these animated discussions; this movement of the spirits, as St Ignatius called it (Spiritual Exercises, 6), if all were in a state of agreement, or silent in a false and quietist peace. Instead, I have seen and I have heard – with joy and appreciation – speeches and interventions full of faith, of pastoral and doctrinal zeal, of wisdom, of frankness and of courage”.
However, negative views continue even today. I was reminded of that only the other day when I received a letter, with an attached copy of a letter, written to the Apostolic Nuncio. Usually such attached letters contain criticism of my theology or of something that I had said and which they dutifully denounce to the Nuncio. On this occasion it was different: the Apostolic Nuncio was being petitioned to take to task none other than the Pope himself. Pope Francis believes that truly honest and open discussion is positive: and this seems to unnerve some.
The Synod’s analysis was very realistic. The perfect family rarely exists. All over the world families struggle. Families struggle due to poverty, unemployment and marginalisation. In many parts of the world – and indeed here in our own country – families are struck by wide-scale emigration and the separation that this entails. The perfect family rarely exists, but in the midst of great challenges great families exist and struggle and contribute to building up and sustaining society.
With over 190 bishops from so many countries in the world it was inevitable that concerns would be different. The challenges which the Church faces in supporting families are different in different parts of the world. In my English speaking discussion group there were five African bishops, seven Asians, one from Papua New Guinea and just two from traditional Western counties, myself and the Archbishop of New York.
An interesting aside was that of a Bishop from Greece who mentioned to me that he had many Irish weddings taking place on his Islands, arranged by marriage planners as a sort of business within which the faith dimension was reduced just to a colourful ceremony. Fancy weddings may make headlines in glossy magazines, but more than often they reveal only a superficial notion of what marriage and family are.
The strong message of the Synod was a call for a radical renewal of the Church’s pastoral support for marriage and the family and their role in society. In the pluralism which exists today in every part of the world we need a radical catechesis on marriage and the family. Marriage preparation is not just preparation for a wedding day.
The tone which Pope Francis wished to give the Synod was never condemnatory. The Church must encounter families where they are. The Church must listen to where God is speaking also through the witness of those Christian married couples who struggle and fail and begin again. The tone was one of reaching out pastorally and of reflecting the mercy of Jesus. Pope Francis constantly stresses an image of the Church as a “field hospital on the scene of a battle”, where people are taken up into the caring arms of someone, where their wounds are washed and cleaned and they receive a welcome of care and concern.
One Bishop took up Pope Francis’ image of the Church as a “field-hospital” where wounds are healed, saying that sadly too often the Church appears more like the city morgue where all the pathologies of things that have gone wrong with the family are examined without emotion. That is something we must keep in mind in the way we reflect for the future. We should be very realistic in our examination of the reality of the institution of marriage and family in society, but not get bogged down only with problems, but bring a message of hope and encouragement and support to families.
Among the subjects discussed at the Synod was that of men and women with same sex orientation. During the Synod’s discussion as to how to reach out to men and women of same sex orientation it was clearly and unanimously stressed by all that there is a radical difference between marriage between a man and a woman and the union of two people of the same sex. Yet it was also stressed that the Church had to welcome people as they are. For many it is hard to understand how Pope Francis can be opposed to same sex marriage and yet ask “who am I to judge”.
Let me come back to the Church’s role in fostering Christian marriage. The sacrament of marriage is not just a blessing for a man and a woman on their wedding day. The sacrament of marriage is a sacrament given for the building up of the Church. Christian married couples have a calling and a special charism within the Church which should make them active protagonists in fostering the values of love and life, of permanence and fruitfulness, which are the essential of marriage life. The fostering and defence of marriage and the family is in society is also a primary task of married people themselves and married couples should be in the lead in family politics, nationally and locally.
The Church must reach out to encounter families where they are, but that does not mean that you simply leave people where they are. The Church speaks of a law of gradualness, not in the sense that “anything goes”, but that we can be led, by the help of grace, to move step-by step towards living our Christian vocation more fully.
Marriage is however not just a theological reality. There are many in Ireland today who will say that they find my reflection on the Synod as interesting, but my reflections are really an internal matter for the Catholic Church. Ireland, they will say, is a pluralist society and while there is freedom for believers to reflect on and discuss openly their theological views, they are only marginally relevant in today’s society where marriage is looked on differently.
There is only one marriage and that is marriage as a basic human reality. Catholics may see that this basic human reality through the lens of theology and the Church marriage ceremony will reflect that, but what is being talked about is the one and the same human reality. The Church supports marriage as a human institution, just as the State should. There is a sense in which the level of policy support that a government gives to the institution of marriage and the family is the real barometer of the seriousness of its social policy.
What is the position of the Catholic Church in Ireland about the current discussions on the revision of some fundamental aspects of family law? What is the role of Church leaders and believers in speaking on the subject? Is there a role in this discussion for a contribution which springs from religious belief?
It is often said that Church leaders have every right to make statements but that they should limit themselves to the religious sphere. I am told that no-one is challenging my view on religious marriage but that changes are taking place which deal with what others want and which will not affect my view on marriage.
Does this mean that views which emerge from a Christian tradition are considered inappropriate for the discussion on issues of public concern? What is the relevance of faith in the debate on social issues in in a pluralist society? Should we Christians return to a Nicodemus style existence and keep the insights of faith within our own hearts alone. We should not forget that so much of what is cherished as good in secular society is, in fact, the fruit of Christian culture. Bishops regularly speak out on social issues and their comments are often – if not always – welcomed. The message of a God of love is anything but irrelevant to today’s harsh world.
The problem in many ways is that the Church has often in the past presented what is a message of love in language that is harsh. The truth about Jesus Christ can only be proclaimed in love. This is a challenge in today’s culture where often there is a clash of viewpoints and where we find it difficult at times to bring the message of our faith into a culture where faith is considered out of place in public discourse.
The fundamental question for me concerns the nature of the relationship between male and female, which I hold is not simply a social construct but which is constitutive of human relations. What does it mean to be male and female? Yes there are some social constructs around the roles of man and women which have evolved in our societies which do not reflect the true understanding of men and women and which must be changed. But the male-female relationship is not just social construct. There is something irreplaceable in that relationship between a man and a woman who commit to each other in love and who remain open to the transmission and the nurturing of human life, within an intergenerational framework which contributes to the stability of society.
It is also true that no person exists who is not the fruit of a male and a female. Even if it were possible to clone a child, that child would still bear the genetic imprint of a male and a female. Genetic parentage is not irrelevant. Some people sadly have to spend their entire lives seeking their genetic parents: not just out of a natural emotional desire; knowledge of one’s genetic make-up is important – and indeed it can be vital when planning to have children. We are all children of a male and a female and this must have relevance to our understanding of the way children should be nurture and educated. Genetic make-up is a fundamental dimension of the intergenerational reality of family.
It is important however to stress that all children, whatever the circumstances of their birth, should be loved unconditionally and treated with the same rights and dignity. This applies also to their rights within the Church. Pope Francis has spoken very strongly against any priest who might refuse baptism of a child simply because of the particular conjugal relationship of their parents or guardians.
Others will say that since I am not married and I have no right to pontificate on a theme about which I have no experience and understanding. Firstly a bishop does not have a right to pontificate in debates around public social policy. But that does not mean that he cannot participate through rational argument or through some basic insights which spring from his belief.
Former President McAleese rightly challenged bishops regarding our lack of experience in changing nappies: our ignorance of the realities of marriage goes way beyond ignorance of changing nappies. I must be honest and say that I am also lacking in knowledge of more fundamental day-to-day realities of the sexual, marital or parental experiences in a family.
Why then would someone turn to me as a priest and ask advice on marriage or indeed on matters concerning a whole world of life-experiences which I do not have. People turn to a priest because he should have gospel wisdom which transcends his own abilities. That answer is a challenging one and a humbling one, because I know how imperfect my faith witness is. I know that Gospel wisdom is not discovered simply though reading books of abstract theology or by regurgitating time old formulae. The Gospel wisdom in my ministry can only come from an understanding of the truth that I find in a God who is love and who is merciful. Any language that I use must reflect that understanding of God: it is not up to me to condemn on my terms, it is up to me to somehow reflect God’s love in my own life style.
There is problem of language in that Church figures tend to talk in the abstract and talk about abstract doctrines and theories and norms, whereas in today’s society the discourse most often begins with the situation of an individual rather than an abstract norm. In a strangely complex way while the Church discourse absolutizes doctrine and others absolutize individual situation, both sides are in fact setting out social norms for behavioural conformity.
An ethics of equality does not require uniformity. There can be an ethic of equality which is an ethic of recognising and respecting difference. A pluralist society can be creative in finding ways in which people of same sex orientation have their rights and their loving and caring relationships recognised and cherished in a culture of difference. I not saying that gay and lesbian people, are unloving or that their love is somehow deficient compared to others, I am taking about a uniqueness in the male-female relationship.
“Marriage matters; reflect before you change it” was the title of the statement of the Irish Bishops Conference last week. Marriage matters; discussion on the definitions of marriage require time. Yet in the current debate normal parliament procedures seem rushed. As a citizen, I would not like to see the instrument of referendum being used to fast-track positions of significance for the life of citizens and the common good. The fact that a number of referendums have been rejected in recent years is, in my opinion, an indication that that the world of politics has not always allowed sufficient time for broad discussion of proposals. But that is just my personal position.
Serious matters of public debate need open and frank and balanced discussion. I have already quoted Pope Francis’ comments at the opening of the Synod regarding how everyone should be able say “all that they feel the need to say: without polite deference, without hesitation and, at the same time, all should listen with humility and welcome, with an open heart, what others say”. He stressed that if there is no freedom to express all views then you are not talking about a Synod. One could add that if in public debate people’s contributions are simply brushed aside or a responded to just by sound-bites prepared by professional spin-doctors, then that is not the public debate which democracy requires. Pope Francis believes that truly honest and open discussion is positive and this, as I said, seems to unnerve some. Honest and open discussion can unnerve in any situation.
I have consistently said that the debate must be carried on respectfully without the use if intemperate language. I would add that it must be carried on rationally and with respectful argument and not simply with one-liners aimed at stopping debate.
I do however feel obliged to say that I have received in recent time correspondence from people who support a “no” vote in the referendum in which the language used is not just intemperate but obnoxious, insulting and, unchristian in regard to gay and lesbian people. If people use such language to support a position they feel is Christian, then all I can say is that they have forgotten something essential about the Christian message.
“Marriage matters; reflect before you change it”. I have tried in these reflections to stress that the upcoming Referendum touches on fundamental dimensions about what marriage and the family mean. I do so in the hope that my reflections will foster honest, mature and sensitive and respectful reflection on issues that are important for Irish society and for the institution of marriage and the family about which I feel strongly.” Ends
Further Information: Annette O Donnell, Director of Communications, Archdiocese of Dublin 087 8143462