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November 18, 2009
Column #1,473
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 column.

       The Letter was prompted by the bishops' concern about several disturbing trends.

      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 Church." 

      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 reform.

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