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December 1, 2009

Special Report:
The U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on marriage

In this edition:
1. Preparing for the "authentic vocation" of marriage.
2. Marriage ministries in the church.
3. The real work of marriage: "Become what you are."
4. Pastoral letter, an activity of the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage.
5. A multidimensional pastoral letter.
6. Purposes of the pastoral letter.
7. The church's divorced members.
8. Notable quotes from the pastoral letter:
a) Infertility;
b) natural family planning;
c) violating marital chastity;
d) marital hospitality.
9. Vocation to grow in holiness.
10. Marriage reflects self-giving love of the Trinity.

1. Preparing for the "Authentic Vocation" of Marriage

"Marriage is an authentic vocation or divine call. As a vocation, marriage is just as necessary and valuable to the church as other vocations," the U.S. Catholic bishops state in the pastoral letter on marriage issued Nov. 17 during their annual fall meeting in Baltimore, Md.

The pastoral letter, titled "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," accents the value of marriage to both church and state. In one of its dimensions, the pastoral letter encourages concrete pastoral actions to support already-married couples and calls attention to the value of marriage preparation.

"Those who work with young people and engaged couples to establish good marriages" are thanked by the bishops, as are those "who help married couples to grow in love and strengthen their union, and who help those in crisis to resolve their problems and bring healing to their lives."

Because it is an authentic vocation, everyone "should pray that men and women will enter into marriage with the proper understanding and motivation, and that they will live it generously and joyfully," the pastoral letter states.

Thus, once a couple "has developed a conviction that God is calling them to marriage," both prayer and "the help of wise mentors" will be "crucial" to their ongoing discernment, says the pastoral letter.

The couple's "discernment process" during this time also will involve "an honest assessment of qualities that are foundational for the marriage." Among these qualities, the pastoral letter cites the "ability to make and keep a commitment," along with "the desire for a lifelong, faithful relationship" and "openness to children."

In addition, the pastoral letter says that couples planning to marry will want to reflect during their preparation period on:

-- "The values they share."

-- "Their ability to communicate," and

-- Their "agreement on significant issues."

In this context, the pastoral letter encourages recognition of "the public and ecclesial status" of marriage within the church. Its public status in the church means that marriage is lived out "within the whole body of Christ." Thus, married couples not only serve the body of Christ but ought to find "nourishment" within the church.

2. Marriage-related Ministries of the Church

The U.S. bishops call in their marriage pastoral letter for "a renewed commitment by the entire Catholic community to helping those called to the vocation of married life to live it faithfully, fruitfully and joyfully." The bishops "pledge to be a marriage-building church."

People who work "to defend, promote, strengthen, heal and reconcile marriages, either through church ministries or in other professions and fields of endeavor," are acknowledged by the bishops "with respect and gratitude." The bishops commit themselves to collaborating "with all who seek to create a vibrant culture of marriage rooted in God's plan for the good of humanity."

It is noted in the pastoral letter that "both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have emphasized that pastoral ministry in service of marriage and family life should be an urgent priority for the church." The bishops explain that the church regards marriage as a priority because "the church is built on a foundation of marriage and family life." These institutions are cherished, it says, because they cradle "the civilization of love" and serve "as the school of a deeper humanity."

The pastoral letter calls for "a comprehensive and collaborative ministry to marriages." Due to "the complexity and challenges" faced nowadays in society, it outlines five dimensions of such a ministry, saying it must be one that --

1. "Proclaims and witnesses to the fullness of God's revelation about the meaning and mystery of marriage."

2. "Accompanies and assists people at all stages of their journey: from the early years when young people begin to learn about committed relationships to the later years of married life and even beyond them to grieving the loss of a spouse."

3. "Invites and includes the gifts of many, beginning with married couples themselves, and welcoming also the service and witness offered by ordained ministers and by women and men in consecrated life."

4. "Encourages and utilizes many methods and approaches in order to serve individuals and couples whose circumstances in life, whose needs, and whose preparation and readiness to receive the church's ministry can vary widely."

5. "Celebrates and incorporates the diversity of races, cultures, ethnicity and heritage with which God enriches the world and the church, especially in our nation."

3. The Real Work of Marriage: "Become What You Are"

"Become what you are!" That "might be a great exhortation to newly married couples," says the newly released pastoral letter on marriage.

"The real work of marriage begins" when a couple "says a definitive 'yes' to their vocation of marriage," the pastoral letter explains. From that day forward, the couple's challenge will be "to grow, through grace, into what they already are: that is, an image of Christ's love for his church."

Couples are going to be challenged in marriage to keep growing as a couple, the pastoral suggests. This will mean "growing in a love that is far deeper than a romantic feeling."

The pastoral letter calls attention to a "strong tendency nowadays to reduce the love of the marriage bond to only a feeling, perhaps the romantic love of courtship and honeymoon." The problem is that "when that feeling dries up," it might seem to the couple "that they have nothing left and that they have failed."

But the spouses are called at times like that "to go further" - to become what they are, the pastoral says. It acknowledges that "while husbands and wives can cling to the unconditional promise that they made at their wedding as a source of grace, this will require persistent effort."

The pastoral letter then advises that "maintaining the common courtesies - persevering in fidelity, kindness, communication and mutual assistance - can become a deep expression of conjugal charity."

The challenge to continue growing in marriage is also a challenge to couples to grow in their understanding of their relationship's sexual dimension, the pastoral letter proposes. This may mean coming to terms with the limited understanding of marital sexuality sometimes shared by the larger society.

"Married couples tell us that at certain times in life marital intercourse does not seem as satisfying as it once seemed to be," the bishops observe. They express concern that "couples in this situation can come to think of themselves as having failed in the one thing that our secular culture tells us is essential." Couples may feel that it is "foolish or dreary to persist in a marriage that has come to seem unfulfilling."

However, "it is the consumerist-oriented version of sex" that couples ought to view as "empty and inevitably unfulfilling"; this is what "ultimately deadens sexual life," the bishops say. Human beings can find their "deepest fulfillment" through their participation in the "self-giving love" of the Trinity.

When a couple has clarity about their "promise of love to the end," it is possible for them, "in Christ, to achieve an intimacy where there is trust instead of shame," the pastoral says. Then, "leaving behind the lustful, self-centered pleasures of our culture, one can journey, in Christ, toward the discovery of an intimacy that is deeply satisfying because it is a participation in the intimate self-giving of Christ."

4. Pastoral Letter Is One Activity of National Pastoral Marriage Initiative

Titled "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan," the new pastoral letter on marriage represents one facet of the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage undertaken by the U.S. bishops in 2004. The pastoral initiative also includes an English-language pastoral Web site on marriage, www.foryourmarriage.org and soon will start "Por Tu Matrimonio," a Spanish-language Web site on marriage.

The pastoral initiative encompasses various additional resources on married life and a public-awareness campaign, and it has conducted both research on marriage and focus groups of married couples.

The pastoral letter "extends and enriches the work" of the marriage initiative, the bishops explain, adding that they started the initiative in order to:

1. "Communicate from the riches of our Catholic faith the meaning and value of marriage."

2. "Offer support and practical assistance for it to flourish both in society and in the church."

The bishops describe the pastoral letter as a sign of the priority they "have given to marriage in the evangelizing mission of our bishops' conference." Moreover, it expresses their "esteem for the gift of married life and love that couples share so generously for the benefit of church and society."

5. A Multidimensional Pastoral Letter

The U.S. bishops' pastoral letter on marriage is at once doctrinal and pastoral. It also is at once a defense of marriage and a call for the communities of the church everywhere to proactively and concretely support struggling couples. It is at once theological and practical.

I think it safely can be said that the pastoral letter, like the overall pastoral initiative for marriage, is complex. In a sense, it is neither this nor that; rather, it encompasses some of both this and that.

It should be noted that Archbishop Joseph Kurtz of Louisville, Ky., head of the U.S. bishops' Subcommittee on Marriage and Family Life, which oversaw the pastoral letter's development, also is chairman of the bishops' Ad Hoc Subcommittee for the Defense of Marriage. I found it interesting to note how the archbishop spoke recently -- in almost the same breath - both of the defense of marriage and of concrete pastoral action to support couples.

The archbishop addressed a convocation of Ohio's priests in early November on the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage and the pastoral letter, which was to be approved less than two weeks later. Speaking in Columbus, he defended marriage as a "gift and a blessing," and a "received truth." He stressed that even if church and state regulate marriage, they do not create it - do not define what marriage is.

At the same time, Archbishop Kurtz strongly - and at some length - called upon Ohio's priests to actively serve married couples and families. There are opportunities at a pastor's "doorstep" for doing this, he proposed. The archbishop told the priests that there is a "need for you and me to have a resolve that we can do something, and then to be equipped to be able to do something."

He urged priests "to preach marriage," saying that "we need to preach it with conviction, we need to preach it attractively and we need to inspire people to be witnesses."

Archbishop Kurtz perhaps was defending the institution of marriage in his Columbus speech when he said the church is urgently concerned about marriage today because so many fewer couples are turning to the church for sacramental marriage, so many also are cohabiting without marrying and so many young people now express a distrust and fear of marriage. Furthermore, he said the church is urgently concerned about marriage because so many children today do not grow up in intact families with a mother and a father.

It seemed to me that the archbishop spoke pastorally when he encouraged his audience of priests to endeavor actively to get newly married couples involved in church activities. He said that "a tremendous opportunity at your doorstep" is missed by "not following up with" such couples. And he stated plainly, "We need smarter ways to help couples be enriched."

Thus, it seemed to me that the archbishop may have spoken in one breath of doctrine and pastoral action because he viewed them basically as united and not as divided areas of concern.

6. Purposes of the Pastoral Letter

The U.S. bishops say in their newly released pastoral letter that its vision of marriage "is meant to be a foundation and reference point for the many works of evangelization, catechesis, pastoral care, education and advocacy carried on in our dioceses, parishes, schools, agencies, movements and programs."

The pastoral letter is addressed "first and foremost to the Catholic faithful in the United States," the bishops explain. They call upon Catholics "to stand against all attacks on marriage and to stand up for the meaning, dignity, and sanctity of marriage and the family." The bishops add that "in a spirit of witness and service" they also are offering this message "to all men and women in the hope of inspiring them to embrace this teaching."

The pastoral letter intends to offer "a theological and doctrinal foundation," the bishops explain. It is a resource to "help and encourage" -

-- Those "who are moving toward marriage."

-- Those "who are journeying in married life."

-- Those "who are accompanying and assisting" others "who are called to the vocation of marriage."

The bishops "recognize that couples face many challenges to building and sustaining a strong marriage" and that "conditions in contemporary society do not always support marriage." Their pastoral letter notes, for example, that "many couples struggle to balance home and work responsibilities; others bear serious economic and social burdens."

The bishops add that some challenges today "are fundamental in the sense that they are directed at the very meaning and purposes of marriage." A key part of their pastoral letter discusses "four such challenges: contraception, same-sex unions, divorce and cohabitation."

While the bishops "rejoice that so many couples are living in fidelity to their marital commitment," they state early in the pastoral letter that they "are troubled by the fact that far too many people do not understand what it means to say that marriage -- both as a natural institution and a Christian sacrament -- is a blessing and gift from God."

For example, the bishops continue, "some people esteem marriage as an ideal but can be reluctant to make the actual commitment necessary to enter and sustain it." Also, "some choose instead to live in cohabiting relationships that may or may not lead to marriage and can be detrimental to the well-being of themselves and any children."

The bishops note too that "the incidence of divorce remains high. The social sanctions and legal barriers to ending one's marriage have all but disappeared, and the negative effects of divorce on children, families and the community have become more apparent in recent decades."

Again, the bishops express alarm "that a couple's responsibility to serve life by being open to children is being denied and abandoned more frequently." The bishops point to "a loss of belief in the value of [the purposes of marriage] when couples readily treat, as separate choices, the decisions to get married and to have children." The bishops say that this "indicates a mentality in which children are seen not as integral to a marriage but as optional. When children are viewed in this way, there can be damaging consequences not only for them but also for the marriage itself."

Another "disturbing trend" views marriage "as a mostly private matter, an individualistic project not related to the common good but oriented mostly to achieving personal satisfaction," the bishops state.

And finally, the bishops "speak out against all attempts to redefine marriage so that it would no longer be exclusively the union of a man and a woman as God established and blessed it in the natural created order." In opposing same-sex marriage, the bishops make clear that "the church upholds the human dignity of homosexual persons, who are to be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity."

7. On Divorces and Annulments

While stressing the permanence of the marriage bond, the U.S. bishops also focus at one point in their marriage pastoral letter on divorce and the church's divorced members.

This section of the pastoral letter begins with the bishops stating that "by its very nature marriage is meant to be a lifelong covenantal union. Fidelity until death is what couples aspire to and what they promise to each other."

In all marriages, "conflict, quarrels and misunderstandings can be found," the bishops comment. For, not only do marriages "reflect the impact of original sin," they "also reflect modern stresses" such as "the conflict between work and home, economic hardships and social expectations."

The bishops "urge couples in crisis to turn to the Lord for help" and to "make use of the many resources, including programs and ministries offered by the church, that can help to save marriages, even those in serious difficulty."

Yet, the bishops state that "in some cases divorce may be the only solution to a morally unacceptable situation." A specific example "is a home where the safety of a spouse and children is at risk." The bishops reiterate a point they made in a 2002 pastoral message on domestic violence, "namely, that no one in a marriage is obliged to maintain common living with an abusing spouse."

The bishops "assure people who are caught in the tragedy of an abusive marriage that the church is committed to offering them support and assistance."

Moreover, the bishops express understanding of the pain experienced by "those for whom divorce seemed the only recourse." Divorced people are urged "to make frequent use of the sacraments," especially the eucharist and reconciliation.

Encouragement is offered "to those who have divorced and remarried civilly." The pastoral letter states, "Although the church cannot recognize such subsequent unions as valid marriages, she hopes that people in this situation will participate in parish life and attend the Sunday eucharist, even without receiving the sacrament."

The bishops "encourage divorced persons who wish to marry in the Catholic Church to seek counsel about the options that exist to remedy their situation, including the suitability of a declaration of nullity when there is no longer any hope of reconciliation of the spouses."

A declaration of nullity represents the "finding by a church tribunal, or court, that no valid marriage bond was formed because the requirements for valid consent were not met at the time of the wedding," the bishops explain. Thus, "if a declaration of nullity is granted, and there are no other restrictions, both parties are free to marry in the Catholic Church."

The bishops point out that while "the purpose of this canonical process is to determine whether or not a marriage bond truly existed," it is a process that also "can often result in healing and closure to a painful part of one's past."

8. Notable Quotes From the Pastoral Letter

Infertility. "It is true that some marriages will not result in procreation due to infertility. Indeed, this situation often comes as a surprise and can be a source of deep disappointment, anxiety and even great suffering. When such tragedy affects a marriage, a couple may be tempted to think that their union is not complete or truly blessed. This is not true. The marital union of a man and a woman is a distinctive communion of persons. An infertile couple continues to manifest this attribute."

Natural Family Planning: "Natural family planning (NFP) methods represent authentic family planning. They can be used both to achieve and to postpone a pregnancy. NFP makes use of periodic abstinence from sexual intercourse, based upon the observation of the woman's natural signs of fertility, in order to space births or to limit the number of children when there is a serious reason to do so. NFP methods require that couples learn, accept and live with the wonders of how God made them. This is essentially different from contraception."

Violating Marital Chastity: "A truly serious violation of marital chastity is adultery. It violates the marriage covenant and erodes the basic trust needed for a persevering total gift of self, one to the other. It is important that this be acknowledged as seriously sinful behavior, undermining the promised exclusive fidelity, sowing the seeds of marital breakdowns and causing incredible harm to children. A strong defense against these temptations is a marriage that is continually growing in physical, emotional and spiritual intimacy. Communication and relationship skills are crucial to building such intimacy. As spouses learn to improve their communication, they can better respond to each other's need for love, acceptance and appreciation. They deepen marital intimacy and strengthen their practice of chastity."

Marital Hospitality: "Since the eucharist 'commits us to the poor,' so the hospitality of Christian marriage becomes enlarged as a commitment to the 'preferential option for the poor' by training each family member to recognize the image of God in each other, even the least. Thus, the natural virtue of marital hospitality is nourished and formed even more widely by the spouses' eucharistic life. Their hospitality, in turn, will build up the church, making the church a more hospitable or homelike place and thereby an even stronger witness to Christ's love in the world."

9. Vocation to Grow in Holiness

As a vocation, marriage, like every other vocation in the church, needs to be "understood within the primary vocation to love," according to the pastoral letter. Marriage also is "a vocation to grow in holiness."

Within the universal vocation to holiness, "God calls some men to the priesthood or to the diaconate, other men and women to the consecrated life. For the vast majority of men and women, however, God places this universal vocation to holiness within the specific vocation of marriage," the pastoral letter says. Of course, it adds, there are some people "whose circumstances in life do not include marriage, ordination or consecration." These people also are "called to discern and make a personal gift of self in how they live a Christian life."

The pastoral letter recalls the teaching of Vatican Council II on the universal call to holiness. Getting married does not "magically confer perfection," it comments, but it suggests that over time "the love to which the spouses have been configured is powerful enough to transform their whole life's journey so that it becomes a journey toward perfection."

It is a journey with a purpose, therefore. The spouses are more and more "conformed into the likeness of Christ so that they can ever more perfectly love one another as Christ loves his church," the pastoral letter says.

Thus, one way couples grow in marriage is by growing in virtue. The pastoral letter says that as a husband and wife grow in virtue, "they grow in holiness." And by growing in this way, the spouses acquire the "interior qualities that open them to God's love and allow them to share in his love more deeply," it says.

10. Marriage Reflects Self-giving Love of the Trinity

A thread running throughout the pastoral letter on marriage tells of the ways the love between a husband and wife reflects the life and love of the Trinity. Indeed, this is a theological theme of the pastoral letter. But this theme has practical applications due to the kind of love it reveals as a model for husbands and wives.

The bishops explain that "since the mystery of the Trinity is the source of all the other mysteries, the revelation of this mystery sheds light on all the rest." This, they add, "includes both the mystery that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God, and the mystery that is marriage and family life."

The bishops refer to the Trinity as "a loving and life-giving communion of equal Persons." Similarly, marriage is a loving, life-giving community of two equal, but different, persons, the bishops suggest. They state that "marriage is a communion of love between co-equal persons."

In addition, the bishops call attention to the "communal life of the Trinity," noting how this indicates that "to be created in the image and likeness of God" does not mean that human beings reflect "the life of a solitary deity." In fact, according to the bishops, "human beings were created not to live solitary lives, but to live in communion with God and with one another, a communion that is both life-giving and loving."

The love in a marriage also is described by the bishops as Godlike because of its selflessness. "Throughout history God has shown us his selfless love," the pastoral letter observes. And it states:

"As we learn from the mystery of the Trinity, to be in the image and likeness of God is not simply to have intelligence and free will, but also to live in a communion of love."