The full pastoral commitment of the entire Church • 3.23.12

On March 9, Pope Benedict gave the third of what should be five addresses on the challenges to the faith in our country to visiting American bishops making their quinquennial ad limina visits to Rome. In his first address on November 26, he said that he hoped these addresses would be help the U.S. prelates discern how to approach their task of leading the Church into the future, especially with regard to the “urgency and demands of a new evangelization.” He began by trying to help the Church get its own house in order, declaring in that initial address, “We ourselves are the first to need re-evangelization.” Catholics need to know the truth announced by Christ more deeply and live it more whole-heartedly if we’re ever going to bring the Gospel credibly as a counter-proposal to those dominated by secularistic mindsets and lifestyles.  

In his second address, given on January 19, Pope Benedict turned his attention to the rapidly changing context in which the Church in the United States must proclaim the Gospel. He conveyed his alarm that the consensus about the nature of morality and the common good that was enshrined in our country’s founding documents  “has eroded significantly in the face of powerful new cultural currents that are not only directly opposed to core moral teachings of the Judeo-Christian tradition, but increasingly hostile to Christianity as such.” These cultural trends, he added, “represent a threat not just to Christian faith, but also to humanity itself.” It is therefore imperative for the entire Catholic community in the United States — not just the bishops, but especially “an engaged, articulate and well-formed laity” — to “realize the grave threats to the Church’s public moral witness presented by a radical secularism that finds increasing expression in the political and cultural spheres.” You don’t have to be a veteran vaticanista to recognize that he was describing the grave threats against religious freedom and conscience that are being implemented by the Obama Administration and a few like-minded radically secularist state governments. 

In his third address, given two weeks ago, he turned directly and forthrightly to one of the most serious issues facing the Church internally and externally: “the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family, and, more generally, of the Christian vision of human sexuality.” Since, as Blessed John Paul II stated, “the future of humanity passes by way of the family,” if there is chaos in the understanding and experience of love, sexuality, marriage and family, there will be “grave social problems bearing an immense human and economic cost.” We’ve already started to have to pay that bill now, but the price tag of those problems will continue to soar well past our astronomical national debt unless we get serious about urgently addressing their symptoms and causes. This is something, he said, that demands the Church’s “full pastoral commitment,” which is a nice way to say that up until now he does not think that the Church in the United States has been committed enough. 

He specified several areas in which the Church needs to be all hands on deck. The first is in fighting back against the “powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage.” The Church, he said, needs to respond with a “reasoned defense of marriage as a natural institution consisting of a specific communion of persons, essentially rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented toward procreation.” This reasoned defense is something that all Catholic adults need to be trained to make — and have the courage to make in public. Defending marriage is not like explaining the doctrines of concomitance or Trinitarian perichoresis. Marriage, as the pope says, is not just any committed relationship based on adult desires and choices, but a “specific” type of relationship in which “sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant.” If we’re talking about a husband-less or wife-less institution, in other words, we’re talking about a relationship other than marriage. 

The second issue to which the Church needs to give “full pastoral commitment” is to communicating “in its integrity” the whole truth about marriage, family, love and sexuality. The pope says that this has to begin within the Church. He candidly said that “we must acknowledge deficiencies in the catechesis of recent decades,” which failed to pass on fully the Church’s teachings with regard to the sacramentality of marriage, to chastity within marriage, and to the vocation of Christian spouses in society and the Church. The fullness of the Church’s teaching as part of the Good News and as the truth that sets us free “needs to be restored to its proper place in preaching and catechetical instruction,” he said. In far too many Catholic parishes, educational institutions, Religious Education and RCIA programs, Catholics have attested that they have never heard anything mentioned about how and why extramarital sexual relations, cohabitation before marriage, and contraception within marriage are sinful and contrary to the good of those who engage in them. Those days need to be over. 

Third, the pope stressed that great attention needs to be given to marriage preparation programs, especially their “catechetical component and their presentation of the social and ecclesial responsibilities entailed by Christian marriage.” Marriage preparation needs to be about far more than communication skills and financial planning. The Church needs to help couples ponder in depth the meaning of their Christian vocation and mission. This is something that cannot in general occur on a weekend retreat and a couple of meetings with a priest or deacon. The Church requires priests to go to university and graduate school for eight to 10 years prior to the Sacrament of Holy Orders; it requires first Communicants and Confirmation students generally to study for two years of weekly classes. Yet for the Sacrament of Marriage, relatively little is demanded and little is given. And marriages and families are suffering and rupturing because of insufficient preparation and pastoral care. 

With regard to marriage preparation, Pope Benedict forthrightly raised the “serious pastoral problem” of the “widespread practice of cohabitation” by couples prior to marriage, saying that often couples seem “unaware that it is gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society.” Many couples today are choosing to cohabit without any urgency to get married. If these couples eventually determine to marry and approach the Church, priests are in a bind, obviously desiring to help the couple regularize their situation while at the same time trying to call them to conversion and to minimize the scandal that their situation causes among their family members and friends. That scandal is not limited to those who might object to cohabitation, but is much greater among those who have been so inured to the practice of living together before marriage that they’re no longer scandalized at all. Pope Benedict encouraged bishops and pastors to “develop clear pastoral and liturgical norms for the worthy celebration of matrimony that embody an unambiguous witness to the objective demands of Christian morality, while showing sensitivity and concern for young couples.” While he leaves the specifics up to bishops and pastors, he is clearly saying that cohabitation can’t be ignored. Guidelines need to be formulated, he said, indicating what cohabitating couples need to do in order worthily to receive the Sacrament and whether weddings of couples in such objectively scandalous situations should be celebrated differently than couples who have sought to structure their lives chastely in “unambiguous witness to the objective demands of Christian morality.” 

That leads to the last issue Pope Benedict raised: the “urgent need for the entire Christian community to recover an appreciation for the virtue of chastity.” He noted that the “permissive ideologies exalted in some quarters … constitute a powerful and destructive form of counter-Catechesis for the young” and that therefore the Church needs to be all the more committed to forming young hearts with the Church’s full “integrated, consistent and uplifting vision of human sexuality.” This has to occur not just in catechetical classrooms, retreats and homilies, but also through the convincing, embodied witness of Christian married couples. The young, he said, have a “fundamental right to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality” and all Catholics have the duty to provide it. Since children are the “greatest treasure and future of every society,” and since the future of humanity will pass based on the choices they make with respect to chastity, love, sex, marriage and family, Pope Benedict concluded, “truly caring for them means recognizing our responsibility to teach, defend and live the moral virtues that are the key to human fulfillment.” And meeting this responsibility in our present context requires nothing less than the full pastoral commitment of the entire Church. 

© 2013 The Anchor and Anchor Publishing, Fall River, MassACHUSETTS