| November 18, 2009
Catholic Bishops' Pastoral Letter on Marriage
By Mike McManus
This week America's Catholic Bishops issued a major Pastoral
Letter, "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan." It is the first
such comprehensive declaration of support for marriage by any
denomination I have witnessed in nearly three decades of writing this
The Letter was prompted by the bishops' concern about several
First, while young people "esteem marriage," many are "reluctant
to make the actual commitment necessary to enter and sustain it."
Instead, many are choosing "to live in cohabiting relationships that may
or may not lead to marriage and can be detrimental to the well-being of
their children and themselves."
Second, they noted "the incidence of divorce remains high."
Further, many are viewing marriage as a "private matter, an
individualistic project not related to the common good."
Finally, the bishops want to oppose "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."
Quoting Genesis 2:23, they state, "Adam and Eve were literally
made for each other" and are related "precisely in their differences."
Marriage has two fundamental purposes: "the good of the spouses as well
as the procreation and education of children."
They eloquently state that, "procreation is a participation in
the ongoing creative activity of God…The transmission of life is a
sublime, concrete realization of this radical self-gift between a man
and a woman."
This conviction prompted the bishops to oppose same-sex unions
which "are incapable of realizing this specific communion of persons."
Such a stand sparks controversy.
Last week the Archdiocese of Washington warned the city's
government that if it legalized same-sex marriage and did not allow the
church to be exempt from any measure mandating benefits to gays, such as
allowing them to adopt children - that Catholic Charities would have to
terminate its contracts with the city that serve 68,000 people in
homeless shelters, foster care, job training, etc.
The Archdiocese urged the city to allow a referendum on whether to
legalize same-sex marriages. On Tuesday that was denied by the city's
Board of Elections.
The Pastoral Letter also argues that the Sacrament of Matrimony is
a "call to give oneself to one's spouse as Christ gave himself to the
The bishops reject the idea of some evangelicals that a wife is in
a "one-sided subjection" to her husband, based on Eph. 5:22 that "wives
should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord." They quote
Pope John Paul II as noting the previous verse: "be subordinate to one
another out of reverence for Christ" (Eph. 5:21).
They summarize: "Marriage is a communion of love between co-equal
persons." This is theologically sound analysis.
At times the bishops are as eloquent as they are profound. For
example, they write, "The Church is built on a foundation of marriage
and family life, which it cherishes as the school of a deeper humanity
and a cradle of the civilization of love."
The Pastoral Letter was debated by the U.S. Conference of Catholic
Bishops this week. Various bishops proposed minor changes in wording.
Instead of calling cohabitation "an intrinsically evil action," living
together was labeled "objectively wrong."
The drafting committee accepted 30 such changes. Those which the
committee rejected could be argued for by a bishop, with the amendment
voted upon by all bishops. In the end, the entire Pastoral Letter was
approved by a vote of 180 to 45.
What was disappointing was the Letter's failure to suggest
solutions for the problems cited of soaring cohabitation, plunging
marriages and a high divorce rate.
Bishop Gerald Gettelfinger of Evansville proposed an amendment
noting that in more than 200 cities Catholic priests have joined
Protestant clergy in creating Community Marriage Policies to reverse
these trends by training couples in healthy marriages to mentor others.
He stated, "Bishop John McCarthy initiated a Community Marriage Policy
in Austin, TX in 1996 and dropped the divorce rate 50% within 5 years,"
as did six other cities.
He also asserted that in four out of five divorces, "one spouse
wishes to remain married, but is legally silenced by No Fault" divorce
laws that allow one spouse to unilaterally end a marriage. He proposed a
change in state law: "In cases involving minor children, require mutual
consent for marital termination, unless a major fault, such as adultery,
abandonment or physical abuse, can be proven."
(Disclosure: Bishop Gettelfinger asked me to help draft the amendment.)
It was rejected and was not debated on the floor.
The Letter has 60 pages of eloquence, but few concrete strategies for
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same sex marriage,
abortion and infanticide,