Catholic Scholars’ Statement
on Marriage and the Family
The following statement has been composed and edited by Prof Dr Joseph Selling of the Catholic University of Louvain after consultation with a wide range of Roman Catholic theologians.
In preparation for the Synods of 2014 and 2015
When Vatican II drew up its document “On Fostering the Nobility of Marriage and the Family” (Gaudium et Spes, Part II, chapter 1, para. 47-52) the bishops invited and listened to the voices of married persons and were attentive to their personal experiences. The result was a renewed, more realistic teaching. However, when the 1980 Synod of Bishops “On the Role of the Family” was prepared and took place, only carefully hand-picked members of the laity were invited. They offered no critical voice and ignored abundant evidence that the teaching of the church on marriage and sexuality was not serving the needs of the faithful. It resulted in the Synod not producing anything pastorally helpful.
We therefore urge the Catholic faithful and any other interested parties to share their experience and knowledge with the leaders of the church and to make their thoughts and their concerns known.
Some of the following issues appear to merit special attention.
Leaders lack experience of married life
The fact is that the vast majority of official teaching of the church on marriage and the family has been prepared and promulgated by men who have no direct, personal experience of married life in the contemporary world. They have made promises of celibacy which exclude any form of sexual relationship. As a result, relatively little of the teaching in this area clearly speaks to persons who are attempting to come to terms with their sexuality, to find and enter into meaningful relationships, and to prepare for a life of committed, mutual love that may involve the challenges of parenthood.
Marriage exists in multiple forms
The document circulated to prepare for the synod, the Lineamenta, speaks about marriage as if there is only one form of this relationship, and implies that all families are the same. Yet the experience of the faithful is that this is neither historically nor geographically the case. For, even within the same culture and at the same historical time, there is a multiplicity of marital relationships and family structures. Furthermore, in many instances, marriage and family do not form the basis of the social structure, as many church documents suggest. In reality, they are frequently the victims of poverty, war, materialism, the abuse of power, and a church that does not appear to understand the challenges that married persons face.
Real married life is complex
While the document leaves the impression that the current teaching of the church has been the same since the time of Christ, it fails to acknowledge that it was only in the twelfth century that marriage was recognized as a sacrament and that the notion of an indissoluble bond, brought about by consent and sexual consummation, was the creation of canonical form around the same time. While the church has always taught that “what God has joined together no person may put asunder” (Mt 19:6; Mk 10:9), it has offered no criteria for determining what God has, in fact, joined together. Experience has taught that simply fulfilling the canonical form of marriage is no guarantee that a genuine, informed, and sincere commitment has been made.
When it becomes apparent that no truly marital covenant exists, which may take many years, or worse: when a sincere, marital commitment is rebuked by an unfaithful partner, more often than not the persons who suffer from this tragedy are presumed to be guilty and treated as permanent sinners rather than comforted with mercy and understanding. If civilly divorced persons attempt to build a subsequent relationship, not infrequently in order to provide a family environment for their children, the institutional church, rather than working toward reconciliation as most of our fellow Christians have done, responds by banning them from the Eucharist. Expecting these persons to live celibate lives betrays a severe and suspicious view of human sexuality.
Church guidance lacks sensitivity
Those who are attempting to approach marital relationships are often given little guidance for how to go about this most important task of becoming mature. Marriage preparation is often focused upon avoiding any sexual encounter before the public exchange of promises and avoiding the use of contraception in marriage no matter what the life-circumstances of the couple may turn out to be. Persons who do venture into relationships and who may even cohabit with a potential spouse are unilaterally judged to be immature, selfish, unwilling to make commitments, and disrespectful of authority. Rather than assisting them on what many see as a journey into a lasting relationship, the church condemns them as living immorally.
Pastoral support for the young falls short
We face an unprecedented commercialization and exploitation of human sexuality, especially through global communication. While the church has been quick to condemn what it considers immoral, it offers little positive help for millions of people, especially the young, on how to deal with these pressures and how to develop a healthy, loving, appreciative, and joyous understanding of sexuality. While there are many rules for telling people what (not) to do, there are hardly any tools being offered that might help them to navigate the complex and frequently stormy waters of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality.
Discrimination against homosexuals continues
Though the church has made some progress in accepting the fact that not all persons find themselves called to a life-long, heterosexual union, it has still done very little to foster the acceptance of persons with alternative sexual orientations as dignified members of the church and society. The task of educating the faithful to respect all human persons who do not conform to one’s own personal expectations, especially when those persons are living honorable lives, is yet to begin in the majority of Catholic parishes.
Responsible contraception should be allowed
For the past 45 years, the leadership of the church has clung to a teaching about responsible parenthood that excludes almost every practical means of regulating fertility. After Gaudium et spes attempted to overcome the canonical perspective of viewing marriage primarily as an institution for the procreation and education of children, the author of Humanae Vitae, ignoring the advice of his own advisory committee to move forward with the teaching on birth control, reinstated the notion that an “openness to procreation” must be attached to each and every marital, sexual act. Church leaders need to realise that the time has come to reform this teaching.
It should be left to the conscience of every couple to find a responsible manner of regulating fertility that is appropriate for their own particular situation. While some forms of avoiding conception may be considered less than ideal, these should not be labeled “intrinsically evil”. Such terminology confuses more than it enlightens. The use of responsible contraception should not be considered matter for the sacrament of reconciliation.
The laity's advice on married life is crucial
Finally, official teachings on marriage and sexuality, based as they are on abstract notions of natural law and outdated, or at the very least scientifically uninformed, concepts of human sexuality are for the most part incomprehensible to the majority of the faithful. Teachers need not only to understand their subject matter, but also to understand those whom they are attempting to teach. We believe that there has been inadequate consultation with all of the faithful, representing a broad spectrum of experience and reflection, not to mention a considerable amount of expertise among those who are professionally trained. We believe that it is necessary to take the data of human experience seriously in the formation of pastoral guidance.