Breaking News: Pope Francis Values the Sacrament of Matrimony

Worth Revisiting Wednesday – This post originally appeared on September 21, 2014. (With the Post-Synodal Exhortation on its way this Friday, we thought it was appropriate.)

On Sunday September 14, 2014 Pope Francis celebrated a Holy Mass with the Rite of Marriage inside St. Peter Basilica. It also was on the occasion of the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. In his homily during the Mass, Pope Francis made some important connections between the feast day and the Sacrament of Matrimony, between the new life that is found through the Holy Cross and new life that is found in Holy Matrimony.

As to be expected, “the press” captured the opportunity to discuss this significant Holy Mass, especially since popes don’t regularly preside over a Mass with the Rite of Marriage. I wrestled with two different options for a topic for this article: (1) point out the errors of the media; or (2) focus on the truth of what Pope Francis stated in his homily. Certainly we must be ready to stand up for the truth and correct errors. One specific passage from Scripture comes to mind: “Always be prepared to make a defense [Greek apologian] to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15 RSVCE). But in apologetics, there is a danger of focusing too heavily on the errors of our critics and not enough on the reason for our hope: the truth that is found in Christ Jesus (cf. John 14:6).

Pope Picture at WeddingIn his homily, Pope Francis reflected on the first reading of the day, and he recalled that when the Israelites were on their journey through the desert, they became impatient (cf. Numbers 21:4). But married couples, too, as they walk together through the journey of life, can become impatient, even with each other. Pope Francis makes this exact point:

Here our thoughts turn to married couples who “become impatient on the way,” the way of conjugal and family life. The hardship of the journey causes them to experience interior weariness; they lose the flavour of matrimony and they cease to draw water from the well of the Sacrament. Daily life becomes burdensome, and often, even “nauseating.”

This is not a great frame of mind for any married person to be in. Whether you’re Catholic or not, you can recognize that married life can be difficult at times.

Because of the impatience of the Israelites, they failed to see the threat which was about to take them by surprise. “During such moments of disorientation … poisonous serpents come and bite the people, and many die” the pope commented. In married life there are serpents that attempt to attack the husband and wife. The serpents which threaten married life are seeking the death of their relationship. But the Israelites had a remedy to the serpents’ poisonous bites: they could look at Moses’ staff and recover (cf. Numbers 21:8). Likewise, married couples and indeed all people have a remedy, as we learn from our Savior:

And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:14-17).

Married couples, when facing “nauseating” days and weeks, can gaze upon the Cross of Jesus Christ and recognize a preeminent sign of God’s love for His people (cf. Romans 5:8). Pope Francis expresses his confidence in the One who can bring aid:

The cure which God offers the people applies also, in a particular way, to spouses who ‘have become impatient on the way’ and who succumb to the dangerous temptation of discouragement, infidelity, weakness, abandonment… To them too, God the Father gives his Son Jesus, not to condemn them, but to save them: if they entrust themselves to him, he will bring them healing by the merciful love which pours forth from the Cross, with the strength of his grace that renews and sets married couples and families once again on the right path.

One might be tempted to think: “Of course… the Pope is going to say ‘Jesus is the answer’ and the Catholic blogger is going to agree. For those of us who are really in a troubled marriage, what can we do?” But the pope’s advice is the most real, the most concrete, advice that anyone will ever give us. If spouses try to heal their relationship on their own, they will quickly lose hope and they will fail. But if spouses entrust themselves to the living God who loves them beyond measure, they will be able to love each other with God’s love through the Holy Spirit: “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us” (1 John 4:12). We always have hope when we trust the One who makes all things new (cf. Revelation 21:5).

Edward Trendowski is Director of the Office of Faith Formation for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

“What’s love got to do with it?”

In my own prayer this summer, I’ve been using a collection of prayers from the great American Catholic writer, Flannery O’Connor. The prayers were part of a journal that was recently found among her papers. They are the prayers of a young struggling writer who wants her faith to inform her writing and her writing to be a work of faith. The collection is called A Prayer Journal.

In one of the journal entries she is writing about the importance of a thread in writing a novel. The thread, she writes is “a view of the world behind it & the most important single item under this view of [the] world is the conception of love—divine, natural, & perverted” (O’Connor 30). She continues to reflect on how many of our great writers, Freud, Proust, Lawrence “have located love in the human & there is no need to question their location; however, there is no need either to define love as they do—only as desire, since this precludes Divine Love, which while it too may be a desire, is a different kind of desire—Divine desire—and is outside of man and capable of lifting him up to itself” (O’Connor 30).

O’Connor saw this way of defining love as primarily an emotion as a real problem for the modern heart, which was becoming increasingly “divorced from faith” (O’Connor 31). She writes “The modern man isolated from faith, from raising his desire for God into a conscious desire is sunk into the position of seeing physical love as an end in itself” (O’Connor, 31). This, though written more than 50 years ago, is at the heart of the debate today on the definition and meaning of marriage.

Wedding-Feast-at-Cana1Recently, I was asked to be part of a panel at the Catholic Information Center reflecting on the impact of the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage. I was asked to address the theological and pastoral implications of the decision. One of the pastoral implications is both a challenge and an opportunity to give witness to that which makes a sacramental marriage different. I suggest what makes a sacramental marriage different is the way in which the Church understands love. As Flannery O’Connor writes, the love we are called to share in marriage is a divine love. Married love is a self-sacrificing and self-giving imitation of Jesus’ self-giving love. The married love of man and woman couple is a visible sign for the world of God’s faithful and fruitful love. What made this presentation so interesting was the centrality of defining what love means and what love has to do with marriage.

Please follow this link to view the complete presentation which includes President John Garvey of The Catholic University of America and Helen Alvaré, of George Mason University.

Susan Timoney is Secretary for Pastoral Ministry and Social Concerns for the Archdiocese of Washington and teaches spirituality for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Is Marriage a Name or a Reality?

obergefell vs hodgesThe Supreme Court decision Obergefell v. Hodges cries out for commentary, and there are many more able persons than I providing just that. I won’t try to speak to the decision itself, or even to its consequences. What I would like to talk about is its antecedents: how did we get here? To those of you who study theology (perhaps at St. Joseph’s College!), I want to affirm what you are doing and show how the supposedly abstract ideas we think about actually have enormous power to shape the world for good or ill.

The key to the marriage debate, it seems to me, is the choice between two options: either marriage is a reality to which we conform ourselves, or it is a name for something that we change to fit our desires. Marriage either changes us, or we change it. Guess which one is more comfortable?

The first option is usually called “realism.” The philosophy lying beneath the second option is called “nominalism.” To oversimplify, nominalism holds that reality is disconnected from what happens in our minds. We have concepts or ideas, but those concepts don’t necessarily line up with the real world. So when we name something—say, a minivan—what we are really doing is sorting out our own thoughts about transportation, not naming something that really is beyond our mind. For the nominalist, there is a disconnect between the reality between his ears and the reality of the rest of the world. “Nominalism” comes from the Latin word for names. For the nominalist, names don’t signify something real in the world. We can play with names, make them into what we want. There is no reality tying us down.

That might all seem very abstract, until we apply it to our culture. Then we see that we are all nominalists, unless we work really hard not to be.

Let’s apply these categories to the marriage debate. If marriage is not a “mere” name but is a reality, then our task is to understand that reality and act accordingly. (This is a receptive approach to the world, if you like.) Even prescinding from what Scripture says, the history of human society demonstrates that marriage is the pair-bonding relationship between a man and a woman that facilitates the best environment for raising children. Its features are fidelity, exclusivity, and totality. It is, as the Code of Canon Law says, a partnership of the whole of life oriented to the good of the spouses and the procreation and education of children.

This orientation toward children is, by the way, why governments have ever cared about marriage. The government does not and should not care about your intimate friendships. You don’t have to get a friendship license. You don’t need to appear before a justice of the peace to swear your commitment to your best friend. And this is a good thing. The government is not in the love-and-friendship business. It is very much in the looking-out-for-the-future business, which is why it has cared about marriage, because kids flourish when their biological parents are committed to each other and to them.

If, conversely, “marriage” is just a name that we tack onto intimate relationships, then it is elastic and can be stretched to accommodate all kinds of relationships. Why stop at two people? Marriage is just a name for indicating “the relationships which we value.” It’s a governmental seal of approval. Without it, our relationships aren’t just not-marriage; they are actually, positively demeaned. If marriage is desirable, and people desire it, they should have it. A double-tall latte is desirable; if people desire it, they should be able to have it, and if they can’t, it’s discrimination.

What may or may not apply to consumerist choices cannot apply to relationships, though. Plenty of people can’t marry: my six kids, for example. They don’t have the prerequisites to marry (such as psychological and sexual maturity). It’s not discrimination to tell my kids they can’t marry; it’s simply a realization that “marriage” is not an empty name signifying nothing but rather a reality that you either can or cannot fit into. It’s certainly not a condemnation or judgment of my kids. I can’t be a basketball center (I’m 4’11” and most certainly cannot jump). While this has caused fleeting moments of discomfort—stupid gym class!—it is not a matter of discrimination, but of reality.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t believe Justice Anthony Kennedy posted a status update along the lines of: “Just confirmed my nominalism in the Obergefell majority decision! ‘Like’ it if you reject metaphysical realism too!” Nominalism is generally not a consciously chosen lifestyle option. It’s just the default mode. But it’s not healthy. As I have argued elsewhere, it’s better to live in reality, even when it requires me to change, than to try to construct reality to fit me.

Angela Franks teach theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Pentecost and the Human Person

I had nearly completed a reflection for you on this Pentecost Sunday. I really did; with accompanying artwork and everything. And then I read something…

In a recent issue of a particular religious periodical, to which I know at least a few believing and practicing Catholics still contribute, Dr. Peter Steinfels has an article entitled “Contraception and Honesty.” Amid all of the discussion surrounding the recent synod on the family, one issue – he insists – is being noticeably omitted by the synod Fathers. This issue, of course, is the Church’s magisterial teaching on the inherent illicitness of the use of artificial contraception. Without delving into the specifics of this article, it should be acknowledged that Dr. Steinfels rightly puts his finger on a topic which everyone is dancing around, i.e., that the vast majority of people who self-identify as Catholic in Europe and North America reject the Church’s teaching on artificial contraception. Further, he is also correct to point out that this is a problem.

Rather than embark on a full-blown crusade against the remainder of Dr. Steinfel’s piece, which would no doubt be seen as just another salvo lobbed by a soldier in the myopic and unproductive “culture war,” I would prefer to go even deeper into the issue which he raises. At the risk of belaboring the obvious, there has been a dramatic shift in the mores and morals of Western culture in the past seventy years or so; although this transition began long prior and was witnessed, inter alia, by Pope Pius XI in Casti connubi (1930). To my mind, at the root of these concerns about marriage, re-marriage, “same-sex marriage,” artificial contraception, etc. is not sex, but anthropology. The real question is: Who do we, as Christians, understand the human person to be?

If we consult the current cultural code in search for an answer to this question then our response will be simple: The human person is whomever I want him to be. In a piece written in 2011, Fr. Robert Imbelli – drawing upon the language of Robert Jay Lifton – described the contemporary image of the human person as “the protean self.” This phrase communicates an understanding of the human person as a “self without a center, blending effortlessly into the most disparate situations and bound by no ultimate and lasting commitments.” In short, the “protean self” possesses no real and concrete substance – to use an Aristotelean phrase. He simply exists. He is “free” to become whomever circumstances dictate him to be, whomever he conceives himself to be, whomever he wills himself to be.

The Christian response to the question of human identity ought to be very different.

Today’s Gospel reading is commonly referred to as “John’s Pentecost” (Jn 20:19-23). Most of us are probably more familiar with the Lucan account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), but John too describes the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples of Jesus. Rather than have the disciples gathered in an upper room in Jerusalem after Christ has ascended, John has the resurrected Jesus personally communicate the gift of the Spirit to his followers. “[Jesus] said to them again, ‘Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.’ And when he had said this, he breathed [enephusesen] on them and said to them, ‘Receive the holy Spirit [pneuma]’” (Jn 20:21-22). What makes this Pentecost account unique is St. John’s stress on the intimate connection between the Father, the Son, the Spirit, and the Church. We are called by the Son, in the name of the Father and by the working of the Spirit, into communion with our Triune God; and to share this communion with others (mission). The Son has “infused us with the Spirit” for this end. The connection is so intimate, so personal, that the disciple of Christ inhales the very “breath of God.” For the Christian, this is who the human person is: the one capable of participating in the divine life of God. And since this is the identity of the human person, our fundamental ethical question should always be: Does a particular action or disposition draw me closer or move me farther away from this divine communion for which I was made?

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Protecting, Respecting, and Cherishing the Union of the Marital Act

Today’s readings (Isaiah 7:10-14, 8:10; Psalm 40:7-11; Hebrews 10:4-10; Luke 1:26-38) of the Solemnity of the Annunciation of the Lord prophesy and highlight Mary of Nazareth’s virginal self-giving love in her fiat or “yes” to God. Would Mary consent to be the Mother of the Son of God Incarnate? She responds to the angel Gabriel, “Be it done unto me according to your word.” (The first part of this response is almost identical to Jesus’ fiat in His agony in the garden, as well as the centerpiece of the Our Father, “Your will be done.”) The Virgin Mary’s unconditional and profoundly obedient love of God informs her fiat. Mary’s sexuality, and therefore her motherhood, embrace her affirmation to love God in return.

In today’s world, social decline in faith, virtue, and family stability, among other reasons, have weakened the concept and exercise of “commitment,” so clearly embodied by the Virgin Mary. To “commit” to something, for many, seems too difficult, almost archaic, especially in reference to something other-centered. This is true, for example, concerning marriage. Do most couples, when exchanging marriage vows at their wedding, seriously intend faithful commitment for better or worse until death? Do they understand the meaning of a vow, and are they dedicated to spousal love “no matter what?” Total, self-giving commitment to another in marriage is slowly (or not so slowly) becoming culturally anomalous, if not anachronistic. This is not surprising since commitment to God—the foundation of all other just and loving commitments—is a notion slowly receding into oblivion in our collective, cultural mindset. Without commitment to God, universal truths, and absolute moral norms, relativism spawns, multiplies, and destroys soul and society. In Scripture, God warns us about this contagion, such as corrupting the absolute character of the Decalogue, the Commandments of love (e.g., Isiah 5:20-24; Torah in v.24 is an Isaian reference to the Decalogue).

By disuse and even wholesale rejection of virtue—the greatest of which is love of God—our culture has atrophied in wisdom and moral character and no longer recognizes the purpose of sexuality. We, the people, by and large, view sexual activity as a multi-method approach of obtaining orgasmic pleasure. This is no overstatement—our pervasive and long-standing contraceptive mentality and practice, cohabitation, seduction into the multi-billion dollar pornography enterprise, and political and legislative eradication of the meaning of marriage (in favor of formalized consensual license to engage in sexual activity), reflect our true colors.

In the order of nature, sexual activity—elicited by sexual desire—is oriented toward union of bodily persons. Self-giving, marital love is God’s signature design of this union. To effect it, four conditions must be met.  First, the union must be willed. Second, it must be complementary of one man to one woman to create the union. Third, it must be faithful because of its profound intimacy. Fourth, it must be respectful of the life-giving act of lovemaking, and therefore be open to life, i.e., must not sterilize lovemaking because of its reproductive character. This procreative dimension—the reproductive character—is an intrinsic aspect of conjugal union. A denial of the procreative, fruitful dimension of the conjugal act is a denial of its union. A partial, but not total self-gift in lovemaking contradicts the complete gift of self expressed in the body language of love, so well-illustrated by St. Pope John Paul the Great’s theology of the body.

Among proponents of the oxymoron, “gay marriage,” some argue that the Catholic Church’s teaching of procreation as a fundamental good of marriage is erroneous because elderly married couples would cease to be married, or elderly couples could not marry because of their inability to procreate. However—as (most) everyone knows—a married couple does not conceive a child each time they make love! Marital union does embody a reproductive character: to denigrate this character denigrates the sacred union.

The Virgin Mary’s courageous, unwavering fiat must be ours, as well. Our undying commitment and loyalty to God embraces all of His will, including those facets most countercultural, such as respect for the marital act. Let us imitate Mary, and serve God faithfully, bravely, chastely. By doing so, we will live with integrity. In addition—God willing—we will serve as an example for others to follow, stimulate personal and social growth in virtue, and thereby reclaim and even advance the grace and teaching of Christ. “Though grass withers…the Word of our God stands forever!” (Isaiah 40:8).

Mark Koehne teaches moral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

The Heart of Marriage

It takes three to make love, not two: you, your spouse, and God. Without God people only succeed in bringing out the worst in one another. Lovers who have nothing else to do but love each other soon find there is nothing else. Without a central loyalty life is unfinished.

Fulton J. Sheen, Seven Words from Jesus and Mary: Lessons from Cana and Calvary


My husband and I in Venice December 2013

My husband and I in Venice December 2013

This week, September 1st mixed the sacred and the profane in a special way in my life. It marked Labor Day and my 24th wedding anniversary, and so, I have the hard labor of marriage on my mind, a labor of love.

I often think back about seven years ago when a priest offered me life-changing counsel in response to my confession of impatience with my husband and worse, resentment towards him for a bad business decision and its terrible and lingering effects. Father reminded me that my crosses are also my blessings – and it is within my marriage and family that I will receive my greatest blessings and crosses.

It was as if a crushing weight was lifted off my shoulders and I understood anew the sacramentality of marriage, of my marriage. I had forgotten that Cana is hallowed through Calvary: love is inseparable from the cross of Christ. Indeed, love waxes greater through our participation in His redemptive suffering. I could not change past decisions and their material effects on my family’s life, but with the grace of God, I could change. I recognized that as I had allowed my bitterness to increase, the presence of God had decreased. I had sidelined Him; thus I had sidelined my marriage.

The late Catholic book publisher Frank Sheed used to say to his wife when he went away on a business trip something to this effect: Whenever you find yourself missing me, just look to the pierced side of Christ, and there I will be. Christ was the center—the heart—of their marriage, and that very heart was pierced for the sake of love. Paradoxically, when Sheed’s wife placed the pain and longing of her heart inside the pierced heart of Christ, she found her love. She was united with her husband in the most profound sense of the word, however far from her “in the body” he may have been. This is the love that does not cover over feelings of pain and longing, but draws out their deepest meaning.

Saint Bernard Church stained glass, Burkettsville, Ohio.

Saint Bernard Church stained glass, Burkettsville, Ohio.

Christ lives in the heart of a sacramental marriage. For husband and wife, then, their marriage is their road to sanctity. It is a road strewn with blessings and crosses, and when traversed with Christ as the center, both blessings and crosses are embraced as if there is no distinction between the two, and indeed there is none.


Marriage: Total Self-Gift

“Wow, you got your hands full.”Trendowski

If you’re a parent, it’s possible that you have heard this statement thrown in your direction before. My wife and I, as we approach our seventh wedding anniversary, have three children. I find it amazing when people say “you got your hands full” when I am only holding one of my children. Imagine if they saw me when all three were climbing on me at the same time, or when they’re hungry and in a seemingly rehearsed chorus they ask for different foods in harmony.

With the Third Extraordinary Synod of Bishops set to meet this Fall, Pope Francis and bishops from around the world will be discussing issues related to marriage and family life. I believe that the Catholic Church’s vision for married life offers a fresh and engaging perspective for our contemporary world. St. John Paul II declares, “The communion of love between God and people, a fundamental part of the Revelation and faith experience of Israel, finds a meaningful expression in the marriage covenant which is established between a man and a woman” (Familiaris Consortio 12). The approaching synod has caused me to reflect on how I live my vocation to married life.

In his book Divine Likeness, Cardinal Marc Ouellet suggests that since Vatican II and St. John Paul II, “the theology of marriage has been developed in terms of ‘gift’…” (Ouellet 150-151). Men and women are created in the image of God (cf. Genesis 1:26-27). One of the great theological insights of Vatican II was the idea that “man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself” (Gaudium et Spes 24). Only through a gift of self can people find their true purpose and meaning in life. This is because a total self gift both participates in and manifests the divine life to which we’re invited.

Many of us are familiar with St. John Paul II’s Wednesday audiences which have become what we call the “Theology of the Body.” The giving of oneself in marriage, including in the conjugal act, is discussed in terms of a total gift of oneself. In a marriage covenant, husband and wife can manifest Trinitarian love, and the communion to which all people are drawn. For a husband or wife to hold back anything would be a betrayal of the communion which they’re guided by the Holy Spirit to manifest.

Cardinal Angelo Scola in The Nuptial Mystery draws from St. John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and describes how the perichoresis of the Triune God is based on total self-giving. This is described beautifully in the following:

Communio personarum exists in its perfection in the Three in One, because the Father gives himself completely to the Son without keeping anything of his divine essence for himself… The Son himself gives back the same, perennial divine essence. This exchange of love between the two is so perfect as to be fruitful in a pure state: it gives rise to another person, the Holy Spirit (donum doni) (Scola, 131).

The Father completely gives everything He is to the Son; the Son completely gives Himself back in totality to the Father. Their self-giving love is so total and so perfect that it is fruitful and a third Person arises, the Holy Spirit.

Cardinal Scola makes the connection between this Trinitarian relationship and the relationship between husband and wife. A husband and wife can give a total gift of self, offering all that they are, and in the context of the conjugal act, it is possible that a new person can be created. But Cardinal Ouellet also mentions that whether or not a new child is conceived, the love of the spouses is fruitful in that they are manifesting the Trinitarian gift of self (cf. Ouellet 172).

There is an element of sacrifice involved here. The spouses freely commit to each other, accepting the new life if God should bless them with a child. However, if a couple experiences difficulty in conceiving, they also accept the sacrifice associated with not being able to bear children. In both cases, the spouses who completely give of themselves in love have the opportunity to offer themselves as a spiritual sacrifice to the Lord (cf. Romans 12:1) and to participate in the economy of salvation by manifesting Trinitarian love through a gift of self.

So my response to my interlocutors should be “Yes, I have my hands full: they’re full with my gift of self to the Lord. I give Him all that I am in loving surrender in an act of self-emptying gift-giving aimed at being drawn deeper into the mystery of the Trinitarian communio personarum, and this participation in the divine life penetrates who I am, giving me the grace and love to offer myself as a self gift to my wife.” Do you think that would get their attention?

Either way, what is essential to remember is that God invites us to participate in His very own divine life and we can experience true love through sincere acts of self gift.

Edward Trendowski is Coordinator for Catechetical Resources for the Diocese of Providence and teaches pastoral theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.