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What We Don’t Already Know

When I read in the National Catholic Reporter blog that thirteen German moral theologians and pastoral theologians signed a document critiquing Catholic moral teaching on sexual issues, it did not surprise me or raise my expectations for the Synod on the Family. After all, theologians have been reflecting on sexual morality in various thoughtful and rigorous ways for years. Not all of their conclusions match those which have been proposed by the magisterium. But almost no one in the hierarchy seems to listen to those whose conclusions do not match theirs, so it has virtually no effect on deliberations in Rome.

To be sure, the theologians made some worthwhile suggestions. These included a “new paradigm for evaluating sexual acts” that would consist of at least three dimensions: a caring dimension to protect what is fragile; an emancipatory dimension which takes  “the side of those who lose in relationships, the ones who are left and hurt to the core;” and a reflexive dimension which honors the joy of intimacy along with the vulnerability it entails. All good thoughts. But who is listening?

The recent observations, on the other hand, made by Martin Gächter, auxiliary bishop of Basel in Switzerland and published in his diocesan newspaper and the Swiss Catholic publication KIPA, did surprise me—both for their candor about the extent of the problem and for the bishop's admission that the Church doesn’t have all the answers. He said we must seek a common understanding through respectful, open exchange and patient listening. In his own words:

There is today, within and outside the church, no common understanding of marriage, family, and sexuality. In order to arrive at one, we presently need much exchange, openness, and patience. Each must listen closely to others. Every life experience must be taken seriously. It is important in this that we not reject or judge others. Only God can rightly evaluate a person. And also the Church can never say of someone that God condemns them, or certainly not that they are going to hell.  (HT and tr. Anthony Ruff, OSB)

Can you imagine an American bishop saying something like this? I can’t. Our episcopate may contain bishops who think such thoughts, but they would never say so in public. The expression of anything other than total affirmation of traditional magisterial certitudes concerning sexual morality has been taboo for decades. And indeed many give the impression that they are fine with this state of affairs. Why listen, if you already know all the answers? You’d only be encouraging error and false hope of changes in Church teaching.

In fact, so cold has been the deep freeze on free discussion around such topics that when I first heard about the Synod on the Family I wondered who would speak any words at all, except to echo the Church’s already-decided positions. I thought everyone who had a different point of view had been silenced or dismissed long ago.

It certainly is true that Pope Francis has been attempting to change the frame by the pastoral priorities he embodies and the words he speaks. In his worldview, the experience of the poor is important. Mercy is important. Advancing a bishop’s career is not important. Speaking the truth is important. Listening is important. Maintaining appearances is not important.

What I have been waiting for, however, is some sign that there are bishops out there who are ready to step into that new frame. Because if they don’t, the Synod on the Family will be nothing more than an echo chamber, another chance to reaffirm What We Already Know.

One Swiss bishop does not a discussion make, of course. If Bishop Gächter is the only one convinced there is something bishops must discover by means of listening, we might as well resign ourselves to a lot of surveys filled out in vain. But maybe there other bishops too who believe that “Each must listen closely to others. Every life experience must be taken seriously.” If so, the Synod might actually turn out to be interesting.

About the Author

Rita Ferrone is the author of several books about liturgy, including Liturgy: Sacrosanctum Concilium (Paulist Press).



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No, I cannot imagine a U.S. Catholic bishop saying anything like that.

I can imagine Thomas Gumbleton saying such things, and although I don't have any ready references, he may already have said such things.

Thanks Ms.Ferrone:

    Perhaps there are few comments because as you wonder about the Swiss Bishop's statement, what is there to say. One priest I know just rolls his eyes and says it's such a mess he doesn't say anything; he just tries to listen and do the right thing. I had asked him what I should say to my young women granddaughters? To them the Church is a religion not a way of life.

   I've learned  more about  sex and family and church from someone like Stanley Hauerwas than anything proclaimed by our Church. Sometimes I wonder if there is a creeping Gnosticism in American Christianity: with an implicit fear of the body.

 Maybe all we can do is try to remember the future and hope for the best.





Rita - think that we have to both trust and hope that Francis is planting seeds to get to what you express well.  It will not happen overnight; there will be resistance/opposition (fear always is alive and well with those who think they have certitude).

Let's work to support; let's allow for the listening; allow the *mess* - then, let's see what happens.

From the NCR article:

Moving to their proposal for a new paradigm of evaluating sexual acts, the theologians [...] state that such a paradigm would have at least three dimensions: (1) A caring dimension to “protect that which is fragile.” Marriage, the theologians state, “could then be understood as an institution that protects this fragility, not as an institution of obligation.” [...]

Would that the magisterium heard their suggestions!

institution that protects this fragility.

Perhaps the conclusion would be no divorce, which obviously harms the fragility...

terrific piece, Rita--many thanks


I also can't imagine any US bishops saying the kind of thing the Swiss bishop has.  In a video talk I saw by Fr. Helmut Schuller, he was asked why priests in Austria and Germany were not afraid to dissent while in the US they were.  He said that in Europe, the priest shortage was so bad that the hierarchy didn't have the same power to threaten them.

Divorce ACCEPTS the fragility of so many marriages.   It's time to accept that fact that a priest witnessing two people pledging their vows to each other is NOT the same as God joining them together.

I wonder if understanding would be easier if an analogy were drawn between divorce on the one hand and a religious member leaving his or her order on the other hand.


Protecting fragility is a good term, because it acknowledges that people can get hurt in all sorts of ways: hurt from lack of commitment as well as hurt from, say, an abusive marriage. Divorce is a legal reality. What the theologians are talking about is ethics. 

This topic relates to our recent discussion about the development of doctrine.  The church cannot and, I fervently pray, will not implement this proposal, which in my view would amount to simply deleting existing doctrine wholesale and replacing it with something new and ostensibly more popular.  The key obstacle for change of this nature is identified in the article: the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responding to a proposal to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion (apparently, in that instance at least, he really did listen, and took the trouble to write a lengthy response), noted that "the "entire sacramental economy" could not be swept aside by an "appeal to mercy.""

What might gain some traction with Francis and the bishops, in my very humble opinion, would be an appeal to mercy that doesn't sweep aside the entire sacramental economy.  The system of annulments - which can be understood as exercises in mercy - can be calibrated to be relatively more or less merciful.  It's said that many more annulments are granted in the US than elsewhere; apparently, the church here takes a more merciful approach than much of the rest of the world.  Perhaps the world can learn from us.  This, it seems to me, is something that Pope Francis and the bishops can do.  What they can't do is take the Christian doctrine of marriage and just run it through the shredder and then print up something new and shiny.


What is interesting is how one could use the 3 dimensions of caring, emancipation/concern for the less powerful, and reflexivity to *explain* much of Catholic sexual teaching.   Pope John Paul 1, in his excellent "Letter to Pinocchio" (see ) hits some of the same notes.   Even prohibitions against masturbation and pornography can make sense in the context of reflexivity and protection of what is fragile, namely in these cases the ability to really be present and available to another person. 

Re: the number of annulments granted in the US compared to elsewhere; does anyone know the statistics of how many annulments are actually sought in, for instance, European countries?  If one compares the rates of those sought vs those granted, the church in the US may not be so different from elsewhere. The greater raw numbers of annulments in the US are sometimes used to prove a point of our being more lax and permissive on divorce here.  However, fewer annulments being sought elsewhere could just a easily be used to argue that fewer people care whether or not they are in the good graces of the church. And neither conclusion is necessarily valid.

I don't see anything specifically Christian about those three criteria. They sound more like pop psychology.

Martin Gächter, auxiliary bishop of Basel:

There is today, within and outside the church, no common understanding of marriage, family, and sexuality. In order to arrive at one, we presently need much exchange, openness, and patience. Each must listen closely to others. Every life experience must be taken seriously. It is important in this that we not reject or judge others. Only God can rightly evaluate a person. And also the Church can never say of someone that God condemns them, or certainly not that they are going to hell.  

I don't know that this is straying very much from the 'official talking points'.  This seems to be very much in the spirit of the New Evangelization: listening respectfully to others, both within and outside the church, not condemning others.   It doesn't really indicate that this bishop is willing to reconsider anything doctrinal or even any of the disciplines of marriage as the Catholic church understands it.  And I think that many American bishops would endorse this approach and wouldn't have any problem saying so.  The American bishops, as a whole, are not a condemnatory lot when it comes to marriage.  What I see is that they set up programs to help couples understand Catholic marriage before they marry, and programs to help sustain marriages after marriage.  

For that matter, the priests that I know and work with, without exception, take couples 'as they are' and do their best to guide them from wherever they are, into a Catholic marriage.  The only way that can possibly work is to not be condemnatory and to engage them and listen to their story.  That's been my experience, anyway.

To my reading, this doesn't seem the same sort of thing as what the German theologians are proposing.  Unless I am misunderstanding them, the theologians' proposal is a good deal more radical: that the church should recognize as sacramental any sexual union that encompasses intimacy and vulnerability.





Here are the full descriptions of the three dimensions proposed by the German theologians.  In case I'm not the only one who has been attempting to puzzle through what they are proposing.

- a caring (“palliale”) dimension  to protect that which is fragile. As a “pallial” ethics, Christian sexual ethics has to beware of the insisting focus on acts in its moral tradition and demand discretion and protection from the glaring light of normativity. Marriage could then be understood as an institution that protects this fragility, not as an institution of obligation.

Such Christian sexual ethics would have to show again and again the need for interpersonal boundaries that counter late romantic rhetoric of fusion. Finally, this pallial dimension creates possibilities for an ethics of pregnancy as a phase of life in which parents and child are exceedingly vulnerable.

- an emancipatory dimension  that liberates and opens new perspectives when vulnerability has become violation. As an emancipatory ethics, Christian sexual ethics has to take the side of those who lose in relationships, the ones who are left and hurt to the core. It rejects all forms of sexual violence.

- a reflexive dimension  that accepts vulnerability and counters the banalization and routinization  of sexuality. As a reflexive ethics of vulnerability, Christian sexual ethics know the ontological value of vulnerability. The joy of intimacy can be experienced only when it is possible to be vulnerable without being violated.  Sexual ethics of nudity and vulnerability react to the abyss of suffering through sexualized violence, which the Church has seen in the past years.  Here it becomes painfully obvious that the Christian moral teaching that limits sexuality to the context of marriage cannot look closely enough at the many forms of sexuality outside of marriage.  Furthermore, we are of the opinion that more programmes and input is needed to support the reflective and communicative competences of partners. Marriage preparation as a communicative process should bepromoted.


About annulments - according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, only 15% of divorced Catholics ever even applu for annulments ...

Crystal, thanks - that is a great article!  (And there are a number of links and references to other articles that look equally interesting.)

Katherine, that article to which Crystal referred us contains these numbers on annulments by country:

49% of Church annulment cases introduced globally in 2011 were from the United States followed by Poland (6.4%), Brazil (5.6%), and Italy (5.1%).

I agree with the various caveats you mentioned in your comment.  Still, these raw numbers on annulment cases are pretty striking.

Charles Morris, in his outstanding book American Catholic, suggests that the US may be unique as the place where the Catholic 'model" of what discipleship should be, actually works in practice (kinda/sorta, anyway).  These numbers may be evidence of that.  And it may help explain why someone like me finds the German theologians' proposal so alien.  Germany may have largely given up on traditional marriage.  I don't think that is the case in the US (despite the deterioration in traditional marriage that statistics illustrate).  The US may be a real problem for people who claim, as the German theologians and perhaps the Swiss auxiliary bishop seem to be claiming, that sexual practices among people bear almost no relationship to what the church teaches or desires.


Jim Pauwels, thanks much for all o your comments here (and elsewhere, as well). Let me say something about why I find the proposals of the German theologians intriguing. A disclaimer. I am not sure that I understand the full force of what they propose. Nor have I read things like Sr. margaret Farley's work. Nor do I have any significant information about what goes on in confessionals. But here is what I find intriguing, and attractive.

In my limited expeerience, the "standard" Catholic line holds that all sexual relations or activity by Catholics outside of marriage is gravely sinful and ought to be confessed with a promise to avoid subsequent "occasions of sin. If there are any exculpating circumstances, they are presumed to be rare. The model for this prevailing line is legal: "Did you or did you not do such and such with him/her?"

It appears to me that the German tjeologians are saying something like this. The following sorts of questions are always relevant in sexual matters as the ought to be in all other serious personal matters. Consider Jack and Jill or Jack and Jim or Ann and Bertha.

How old are they? Are they married or not? How long and well have they known each other? What dependents do they have? And on and on.

Can it be that not only are there "exculpating circumstances" in such cases, but could it even be that, under circumstances that are by no means rare, sexual relations or activity between either heterosexual or homosexual pairs is actually good?

I grant that, old as I am and having grown up with the "standard" line so firmly insisted upon, I am emotially queasy about what the German theologians appear to be proposing. But intellectually it does seem to me that they are on the right track. And for what it's worth as anecdotal, I'm pretty sure that my children and their spouses, all of whom are practicing their faith reasonably well, would find these proposals far from objectionable. I don't know what they are telling their children, ages eight to 14 about sex, but I doubt that they are hueing rigorously to the "standard" line.

In any event, in all moral matters, I think that it is important to avoid a heavily legalistic catechesis.

I don't know what they are telling their children, ages eight to 14 about sex, but I doubt that they are hueing rigorously to the "standard" line.

What I tried to impart to my teenage children: (1) Sex is a big deal. It's important, emotionally and otherwise. It can be overwhelming. It's not something to do on a whim. Casual sex is not a good idea. (2) If you're going to have sex but are not ready to have a child, then it is a moral imperative that you use contraception. Doing otherwise would be irresponsible. (I also made sure that they had access to contraception.) (3) Whatever you do and whatever happens, I will be there for you if you need me. You can always count on me.

That sums up my parental teachings on sexual morality, adapted to the times!

So Herr Muller of the CDF believes the "entire sacramental economy" outweighs any "appeal to mercy".  In Matthew's gospel, Jesus is quoted twice as saying, "I desire mercy, not sacrifice" (Mt 9:13; 12-7).  Luke has Jesus saying, "Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful" (Lk 6:36).  I think I'll go with the understanding of our primitive ancestors in the Christian faith, not with some CDF prefect concerned with the "entire sacramental economy".  On this point, I think Orthodox Christians have it right.  Maybe Muller, his CDF duties notwithstanding, has a thing or two to learn from Matthew and Luke.

I give up. What is "the entre sacramental economy"?

And as you answer, be ready to explain it in the name of a God who originally offered his Son's death on the cross in hopes we would figure out, by seeing it in action, an entire human economy.

Müller (CDF) said a number of disturbing things in that article he wrote on marriage ...

 - that it ... "withdraws the partners from caprice and from the tyranny of feelings and moods .... Love is more than a feeling"

He also said that people in a marriage with domestic violence can live apart but must still remained married for life, and that people cannot trust their own consciences to decide about whether they should stay married. 

I'd link to the article but it seems to have been taken down.  John Thavis wrote about it here ...

Crystal: so it appears that the head of the CDF is ready to butt heads with the pope. Well, that's exciting! Wouldn't it be good to have a public, even televised debate, where they exchange arguments, call in experts to support their views, have witnesses offer testimonies, and tongues would become untied and Catholics would suddenly be free to speak their mind? How liberating that would be!

It is excellent that the CDF head is speaking up directly against the pope, and that he is not being called for a talking-to, like Cdl Schönborn had been a couple of years ago. Even if I don't like what he is saying, I enjoy the nascent diversity of voices.

Claire, that's a positive way to look at it.  But I'm wonering if Muller is actually saying what the pope himself believes, and that's why Francis has not spoken against Muller's views nor supported Marx and the others who have been opposed to Muller.  And the pope *did* just make Muller a cardinal.



Oh Crystal, what a depressing thought. I hope you're wrong.

I am starting to take the attitude with/about Francis that I'm not paying attention to his words but to his actions.  He's not batting too well in that respect, except in the touchy-feeley, non-controversial matters.

I do not believe that most Catholics want to redefine marriage as a contract to be entered into and left at will. The idea of marriage as permanent and lifelong is very important to most Catholics, I daresay, as well as to others. Marriage as a sacrament, as something sacred and blessed by Christ, is important to people.

Holding fast to this goal is the reason why they try so hard to solve problems, make marriages work, and do not abandon a marriage lightly. In short, couples aim for and desire what the Church holds up as normative: a permanant, lifelong commitment between the spouses. 

The question is, what is the response when despite best efforts, a marriage breaks down and cannot be sustained without injury to one or both of the partners, and subsequent to this, the person wishes to marry again. Especially in the event that the second marriage IS capable of being permanant and lifelong, what is the appropriate response?

I myself am not satisfied by the tribunal system. Legal processes, despite all the claims of being "pastoral" are very limited as a vehicle for reconciliation, healing, and communal support. Our imagination is shrunken, and inadequate, with respect to what can happen. We too often think we respond either by changing a definition, or by going to a court. We have to expand our imagination. There is more than one answer here.

Sacramental and pastoral processes should play a much more healthy role in what we do, istm, because that is how we communicate our primary commitments and how we say what is important to us in faith. I think that many Catholics would welcome this approach as an alternative to the legal approach.

What I find interesting that priests can resign their priesthood and its vows, apply for laicization and then get married.

The laity, however, are bound to their marital vows forever unless the semi-charade of annulment is undertaken.


The Catholic Church effectively gives tacit approval to divorce with what has become the charade of annulment.  In their 2002 book, “Catholic Divorce:  The Deception of Annulments”, Joseph Martos and Pierre Hegy state:


“Because the grounds for annulment have become so broad that practically anyone who applies for one can obtain it, many observers now regard annulments as ‘virtual divorces.’  After all, the same grounds for divorce in a civil court have ‘become grounds for the nonexistence of marriage in an ecclesiastical court.’  (Page 23)  To add to the deceit, many couples who receive annulments do so believing that their marriage was, in fact, sacramentally valid – that the marital bond did exist but that, over time, it began to break down.  These couples, understandably, choose not to disclose this part of the story to marriage tribunals so that they can qualify for an annulment.”


In other words it is the Catholic game of nudge-nudge, wink-wink.


There was an recent article at NCR about annulments ...  "Pope Francis should consider the churcj's outdated annulment process" by Fr. Peter Daly  ...

I think people do want marriage to last forever, but it isn't rules and penalties that make marriges last despite difficulties, it's love.  You can't legislate love, which is why I think the church tries so hard to redefine it as duty or obligation.  But no amount of obligation can take love's place in a relationship that is no longer about getting an heir and a spare or melding kingdoms, but about living out love in companionship.

What I find interesting that priests can resign their priesthood and its vows, apply for laicization and then get married. The laity, however, are bound to their marital vows forever unless...

I agree. There is something unsavory about the clergy holding the laity to a higher standard of commitment than they hold themselves to. 

Actually, I read a past article by a Jesuit priest at NCR about him leaving his order and the priesthood -  he wrote that it *was* a lot like getting an annulment.  He was asked to prove what divorced people are asked to prove .... that their relationship was never valid in the first place, that no real commitment ever existed .... and like so many divorced people, he said that was just untrue, that people can and do make serious and valid commitments that sometimes later fail ....

Point taken, Crystal.

Claire,   I never realized that either until I saw that article.  It does seem like that guys making all the decisions about marriage/divorce are the one who have no actual experience with it.

Oh, but I wonder how this plays out when the Vatican defrocks priests ... B16 defrocks 400 priests in 2 years ...

Bernard - thanks for your comments as well.  I often wish I could think of something worthwhile to say in response to your comments, because they are always so thoughtful and honest, and such contributions should be encouraged.  I just want you to know that I read every comment of yours that I run across and usually find something to think about, even if it doesn't prompt a response.  Please consider this my cumulative acknowledgement.  :-)

I haven't read Sr. Margaret Farley's work, either, save the short excerpts that have been published at dotCommonweal when we discussed the controversies around them.  But I also noticed a commonality between what the German theologians have proposed, and descriptions I've seen of her work.  Perhaps this vindicates her work?

 I think the sort of approach you describe, in which there are 'extenuating circumstances'  that prevent people from achieving the church's ideal of a sacramental marriage, would strike a lot of people as both practical and merciful.  It seems to me that what happens in real life within the church is what should happen, given the reality of what goes on on people's lives: the church should search for ways to beckon, guide and welcome such couples into sacramental marriage - when that is possible, as quite often it is.  When it turns out that it is not possible, then I think we would agree that condemning these couples certainly should not be the church's response; this is, I think, the meaning of "who am I to judge?"  The church, in its mission, should have a certain boldness but also a certain modesty.  It should be bold in proclaiming what has been passed on to it.  It should be modest in its ackhowledgement that there are many things in our lives and in creation that are mysterious, the keys/answers/explanations to which haven't been granted to our sight or knowledge. 


I myself am not satisfied by the tribunal system. Legal processes, despite all the claims of being "pastoral" are very limited as a vehicle for reconciliation, healing, and communal support.

Rita - I do agree.  The tribunal system addresses the legal (church-law) aspects of the marriage.  It is not really intended to be a vehicle for reconciliation, healing and communal support.  It's great when these things can take place as part of the annulment process, but we shouldn't burden the legal process with expectations that are extrinsic to its purpose and character.  My view is that there is a church-law legal dimension to marriage, and the tribunal system should attend to that legal dimension in as pastoral a way as possible.  We all realize that there is also a need for reconciliation, healing and communal support when a marriage breaks down, as there is in so many areas of our lives.  The church should be providing those good things in addition to, not through, the tribunal process.  Just my view.



Thanks very much, Jim, for your comments. I ought to reiterate that I realize that what I have said above is certainly incomplete and almost certainly less that wholly accurate. As Rita has said above, the importance of the Christian conception of the sacrament of marriage is immense. No institution dealing with sexual conduct comes near to it in nobility. And, from another aspect, human sexual desire is and has always been hard to live out responsibly. Every historical society that I have eever heard of has its sexual taboos and regulations. But perhaps the Church's (clergy and laity) role is not to be the enforcer of these needed regulations. The state and civil society have that task. Rather, the church is to be the patient, caring community that, in Pope Francis' striking metaphor, provides the "field hospital" for the many wounds so many of us suffer, not least of all from our assorted failures to live our sexuality in fully constructive ways.

Jim McCrea - the process of laicization can be just as frustrating, demoralizing, and difficult as an annulment.  For more than 10 years, JPII refused to allow any laicizations - no other choices.

And, echoing Rita above, laicization and annulments share lots of *ridiculous* things that have nothing to do with reality.  Guessing that less than 30% of all priests who left, sought laicization.

There usually is more than one "Jim" who is posting here.  I hate to preen from comments such as Bernard posted when I realize that he is most likely referring to Jim P.

My ego needs chastening on a regular basis.

For more than 10 years, JPII refused to allow any laicizations

Bill - I don't know how well-known that is - I didn't knot of it until I just read your comment.  That's pretty mind-blowing and seems the opposite of merciful.


It was one of the most harsh, cruel, and fruitless, exercises of authoritarian reaction of John Paul II. 

As Jon Sobrino once pointed out, the making of victims is a sure sign of the worship of idols. Idols require victims. 

The absolutizing of vows -- setting them above the yardstick of humanity -- is idolatrous. Of course this creates victims. 

What a thoughtful post and good discussion. I had read Joshua McElwee's piece on the NCR site, but had not read the accompanying translation of the German bishops' responses to the Vatican's questionnaire.  Their answers to the questions were so sensible, wise, and humane. And I noticed that other signers included lay theologians and even a few women. God bless them all. 

In our diocese the questionnaire was not even distributed, and though individuals could register their input directly online through sites like Voice of the Faithful, it would be interesting to know how, absent consultation, our views were represented to the Vatican.

Sadly, Rita Ferrone, there are NO American bishops out there who can speak with such compassion and humility as your Swiss prelate does.  

Isn't it about time that American Catholics face reality that we are on our own when it comes to the very survival of our faith community?   Our shepherds have all made their beds with the wolves, it would seem?

For decades now, those qualities of compassion and humility have been leached out of the American hierarchy in favor of right-wing ideological lap-dogs.  Papa Francesco will have to really huff and puff to stem that tide.  [ Our only hope in mimicking the Little Engine That Could struggling up the mountain:  I think I can, I think I can, I think I can ...]  

The most significant ray of hope - and we're talking a very weak spark indeed - is the recent removal of Cardinal Raymond Burke from the Congregation for Bishops.  Thank-you Jesus, Burke will no longer be in a position to promote the careers of his ideological acolytes.  [I guess they will all have to have their ecclesial hierarchs fashion shows conducted in the privacy of their vacation homes.]

Right across the Bay from me sits the US hierarchs' go-to-guy for "the sanctity of marriage," his excellency Salvatore Cordileone.  He's only 57 years old.  The people of San Francisco will be stuck with this stinker for a long, long time.  Since his patrone Burke's star has fallen in the Vatican, the people of Chicago were spared his acquisition of that red hat - but remember there are many roads to top of the heap.  Cordileone is only just one pathetic hierarch among many out there upon the fruited plain.  

Catholics must take matters into their own hands:  LET THE PEOPLE DECIDE!

I wonder if the basic theological problem is that matrimony is seen as a sacramen, and sacraments cannot change their efficacy -- once bestowed sufficient grace comes is promised by God Himself to meet the challenges, or so the theory goes.  Such a view implies, it seems, that there is no excuse for failure in marriage, and so no marriage can be ended.

i also wonder (and this seems quite heretical) about matrimony being a sacrament.  I've read that it wasn't until Augustine that it was recognized as a sacrament.  Hmmm.  Is it really a sacrament?  If so, what is the difference between it and plain secular marriage.  (I was taught that matrimony, the sacrament, is something more than plain marriage.)

It seems to me that this discussion should also include consideration of what divorce does to children.  No doubt some children are better off without a particular parent, but it seems that they are very, very few.

Can children be said to have a right to two parents, married or not?  Or a right to two married parents? 

Lutherans don't see marriage as a sactement.  Why do Catholics see it as one?    About children of divorce - as someone who was one, I think the important thing is not necessarily that one's parents are married but that both parents have a good relationship with the child.

Grant or Dominic or whoever is moderating this thread: Is there any way tomake a printed version of the comments on this thead. They have been good and I'd like to share them with some friends and family members, but I havenot succeeded in printing them. I can print Rita's opening remarks, but not the comments.



Bernard - I just highlighted the entire thread, starting at the bottom and highlighting through to the headline of the original post, by dragging my mouse.  Then I copied it to the clipboard (CTRL+C if you're using a Windows based system), opened a new document in Word, and pasted it (CTRL + V) into the document.  I didn't try to print it, as my computer isn't connected to a printer, but I don't know why it wouldn't work.  

Unless someone else is commenting as I write this, this will be comment #50.  So with the next comment, because this site limits to 50 comments per screen, you'll have to do two copies and pastes :-).


Ann, the question of how marriage came to be understood as a sacrament, and what is entailed by such an understanding today, is (as you might imagine) complex. Augustine indeed led the way in the West by referring to marriage as a sacramentum, but this is the Latin translation of the Greek term in Ephesians, mysterion. In Latin, the word sacramentum means oath, which made an easy bridge to the idea of permanance in terms of lifelong fidelity of the spouses, but other sorts of depth are called to mind by the word mysterion. In any case, Paul's objective is Christological; he is not defining marriage so much as using it as a metaphor for Christ's relationship with the Church. 

Leaving aside St. Paul for a minute, the contrast between patristic and scholastic understandings with respect to the indissolubitilty of marriage is also important to note. It was usefully pinpointed by J. Martos in his book on the history of the sacraments as follows:

Following the lead of Augustine, the scholastics argued that this metaphysical bond [of matrimony] was unbreakable since it was a sign of the equally unbreakable union between Christ and the church. It was not, as in the early church, that marriage as a sacred reality should not be dissolved; now it was argued that the marriage bond as a sacred reality could not be dissolved. According to the church fathers the dissolution of marriage was possible but not permissible; according to the schoolmen it was not permissible because it was not possible. Thus the absolute prohibition against divorce arose in the twelfth century both as a canonical regulation supported by a sacramental theory, and as a theological doctrine buttressed by ecclesiastical law. The two came hand in hand.

(Doors to the Sacred: A Historical Introduction to Sacraments in the Catholic Church, revised edition, Ligouri/Triumph, 2001, p. 377)

So, in brief, the history of the sacraments holds more than one way to understand the phenomenon of marriage. The sacramental-legal synthesis which we have inherited is venerable, but is itself the result of development which can and must be revisited when pressing pastoral realities demand it. 

I think we can all agree that within the context of revelation that marriage is intended as a stable, permanent union that provides the foundational building block of society. Further, Jesus affirmed the indisolubility of marriage especially for those seeking to live in the kingdom of God. These principles say nothing about how people who fail in marriage should live their lives, nor about how members of the church are to deal with this sad but irreversible fact of life. Interestingly, the clerical class with their belief in celibacy as a superior state in life established laws which forbad remarriage while the prior spouse is still alive. Is this not clearly a teaching that has not been received by those most affected by it? How did we arrive at a sacramental economy which treats remarriage for those whose prior unions are irretrievably lost as an unforgivable sin? The obvious solution for those still seeking God's love is for pastors to be generous dispensers of God's mercy. And that solution has been available from pastors for a very long time. There is nothing novel about it. Our own experience of God's unconditional love demands it. 

Thanks, Jim P. I'll try it.

And thanks too to Rita and John Feehily for their comments. I learned something helpful from Riita's comment on the difference between the patristic and the scholastic views  and appreciate John Feehily's perspective.

Ann and Crystal:  I think that children deserve care by people who love them.  Ideally this will be a couple who either birthed or adopted them, but there can be other arrangements that, if they are capable of lovingly raising children, that is good, too.

Regarding the necessity of a mother and a father:  don't forget that most people were born into that situation and look at some of the horrible results!  As my father told me:  any damned fool can breed (any way too many do), but it takes good people to be parents.

Jim P and Rita - thanks for following up on JPII and his lack of mercy toward resigned priests.  If my sources are correct, various key bishops/cardinals worked on him for years to change his stance (one thinks of what he learned by observing the communist appartchiks) and that what finally moved him was the argument that these men's wives and children were left in *limbo* - obviously, most of these men moved on; married; had families and yet many of these children and wives were left in a sacramental void - thus, they argued from one of his passions, family support, that his stance did more harm than good.

This may be a *church myth* but remember that my canon lawyer gave this explanation.

Sorry, don't have and can't locate any documentation around this process or decision.

Rita --

Thanks a bunch for all that information about the early fathers' and the scholastics' views on  marriage.  I had no idea they were so different.  I was taught the straight scholastic view as if there were no other.  And I wonder if they're really compatible.

For instance, it would seem that a contract that is essentially a mystery (in *any* sense) would be impossible, at least not a contract in the ordinary sense of the term.  And if it's not being used in an ordinary sense, then just what does/did it mean?

As to the analogy of the relationship of Christ to the Church and Holy Matrimony == which is the primary analogate?  I mean which is the relationship which tells us something about the other relationship?  And regardless of which is which, metaphorical uses of terms in theology are very dangerous because metaphors are *always* dangerous in argumentation.  

And isn't that word "mysterion" always an admission of a lack of knowledge and some sort of uncertainty?

Obviously, the conception of marriage as a lifelong commitment, sacramental or otherwise, is incredibly important even if it is no longer ubiquitous.  It is still normative, even if it is not exactly "normal."  So my complaint isn't so much with the ideals or definitions surrounding marriage, but with the ferocious coupling of marriage with all sexual activity in a way that makes it difficult to  counsel or even just to be honest with one's children in how to behave ethically and responsibly outside of marriage.  Most people are sexually active before marriage, and for most of these people, this sexual activity not only doesn't ruin their lives, but if it forestalls early and improvident marriage, it probably is pragmatically helpful.  I know the rejoinders, what about unwanted pregnancies and the Church's dogma surrounding contraception and on and on.  But that's sort of my point -- to a certain extent the Church has locked itself into a stance on marriage that is itself the pragmatic (or even essential) outcome of not wanting to revisit anything related to sexuality, rather than an organic understanding of the married state.   Arguing about who has the right to get married in the church is so far afield from is really at stake in this debate that you can't really blame people for seeing the withholding of sacramental blessing as being an increasingly meaningless stigma -- look at how many people don't get married at all, even when they have children. 

Rita - one of my scriptural and sacramental profs used the term - *covenant* to describe both the relationship of the Trinity to the Church and then the relationship in marriage.

As they described and drilled down on *covenant* you learn that the core of this relationship is not *legal* (in the western sense) nor is it a *contract* (again, in the Western sense).

The defintion has much more to do with loving trust; forgivenss; walking together on a journey; etc.

Many of these discussions appear to completely ignore this reality - would call this a ressouorcement.

There's been a lot of talk since the announcement of the October meeting on the family about divorced people and the Church extending mercy to them.  I can't help but feel that there needs to be some talk about mercy towards the children of problem marriages, not just discussion of mercy towards the parents.  Who, if anyone, will speak for the children at the meeting?

My best friend is a lawyer and a law school honor graduate.  Years ago she attempted to start a practice that specialized in representing children.  To her surprise she found that there was relatively little law which required that a child have legal representation even when the child seems to need it.  For instance, as I remember, no states require that children have their own lawyers to represent their interests in their parents' divorce proceedings.  And there apparently wasn't a demand for lawyers for children in other matters, so the practice went nowhere.

I just can't see separating the interests of children from the problems of their parents. 

Interesting development here:

"Colorado proposal would require pre-marriage education classes

Published January 21, 2014


A California group has proposed a ballot initiative in Colorado that would require couples who want to get married to take mandatory pre-marriage education classes. "


The question, of course, is would this kind of class be equal to or better than the results that come from Pre-Cana and Cana classes?


I can imagine a U.S. Bishop saying this: Walter F. Sullivan, late of Richmond, Virginia. But he has been dead now for over a year and we will never see his like again.

Judith, thanks for remembering Bishop Sullivan. Let's hope he is praying for us.

It's interesting to me that the two American bishops named in the thread are Sullivan and Gumbleton, both "peace" bishops, and both iconic figures of a style of leadership which is now rare to the point of extinction in the American episcopate. 

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