Catholic marriage vs. secular culture

| March 21, 2017 | 16 Comments

How Pope Francis’ ‘Amoris Laetitia’ is shaping the work of the local Church

It’s a nearly one-year-old document that continues to make headlines.

“Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis’ “love letter to families,” as it has been described, is the product of two synods on the family in 2014 and 2015. The post-synodal apostolic exhortation, which translates to “The Joy of Love,” was published in April 2016 as an address to the entire Church. Prior to its release, Pope Francis said the document was to “summarize all that the synod said,” including topics of broken families, the importance of serious marriage preparation programs, raising and educating children, and “integrating” divorced and civilly remarried Catholics into active parish life, even if they cannot receive Communion, Catholic News Service reported in December 2016. A footnote in the 165-page text about Communion to divorced and civilly remarried Catholics has stirred controversy, from the Church hierarchy to the people in the pews.

“Because of that, it has generated a lot of press and discussion, more so than any other post-synodal exhortation ever has,” said Father Michael Johnson, judicial vicar for the Metropolitan Tribunal in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, whose role includes overseeing annulments.

Despite the muddle, local Catholics are trying to unpack the many facets of the document, which clergy and the laity alike have recommended that the faithful read in its entirety.

“The Holy Father has seen exactly what we as priests are seeing in the parishes,” Father Johnson said, “which is actually reassuring to us as priests. He gets it.”

The culture of marriage

Father Johnson came to the tribunal in 2015 after studying canon law at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. Before that, he worked in parish ministry. In reading marriage cases and talking to people as they go through the annulment process, he sees how secular culture has influenced people’s marriages. And in the Church, he said, “We’re left to sift through the aftermath of what our culture has wrought on the family. And it’s very sad.”

One of the key topics that kept emerging during the synod on the family was how the Church, particularly clergy, guides people who are divorced and civilly remarried. Pope Francis revised the code of canon law in December 2015, streamlining the annulment process for timeliness and costs.

“This last year, we’ve seen the effects of that document in the changes to canon law in the tribunal. It’s been a huge impact … for the better,” Father Johnson said.

Largely because of the changes to the canonical process for annulments, the number of annulments that the tribunal processed nearly doubled in one year; in 2015, the number was 140, followed by 270 in 2016.

“It’s a fantastic thing, because then these people are going through the annulment process, getting clarity about their state in life, and then they can go and get married in the Catholic Church,” he said. “Some people do get negative [rulings], but regardless, they have clarity about what happened.”

Most people apply for an annulment because they have plans to get remarried, Father Johnson explained. Others want closure. And some contact the tribunal to get their marriages “corrected.”

Since “Amoris Laetitia” was released, and the issue of divorce and Communion has been in the news, other Catholics have also been informed and motivated to go through the proper channels to have their marriage recognized by the Church. Father Johnson noted the “surprising” number of people who side-stepped Catholic wedding vows, getting married outside of the Church.

“They came at it with an idea of what the culture proposes marriage to be,” he said. “And what the culture proposes marriage to be is not Christian marriage.”

Father Johnson said Pope Francis continues to keep “Amoris Laetitia” in the forefront of people’s minds.

“Aside from one footnote in a 350-paragraph or more document, [Pope Francis] is beautifully expounding upon what Christian marriage ought to be — the troubles, the joys, the fruits, the pitfalls, pointing them out and presenting the Catholic Church’s teaching in all its beauty.”

Clarification, accompaniment needed

Jill Murray can’t help but focus on that footnote. The parishioner of All Saints in Minneapolis and mother of three is separated from her husband. She’s been discouraged with the general lack of support and understanding from fellow Catholics, some who’ve suggested she “just get a divorce.” Non-Catholics wonder why she chooses to be “shackled” to the Church’s teachings.

But she’s more concerned about how the separation — and what could come in the future — affects her children, ages 15, 12 and 5, and especially their faith lives.

“I think the children then see that the Church, what they’ve been taught about marriage, is not true,” said Murray, 49. “So when we teach them marriage is not dissoluble, they would look at [a particular] situation and say, ‘Yes it is.’”

Murray points to children being influenced by secular society and also what their friends experience when it comes to separation and divorce.

And based on her own experience, Murray acknowledges a lack of education that has put some people in these situations. As a self-described “revert,” she was married outside the Church, and when she discovered the “wisdom of the Church” and returned, she didn’t know specific rules about receiving Communion.

She’d like to see the Church focus on educating and providing spiritual guidance to get people “to the right place with God.”

“Our culture is so much about what’s easy now,” Murray said. “It shows a lack of faith. I wish the Church was working as hard on keeping families together.”

Murray has found consolation in the group Faithful Spouses, sponsored by the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life. She described its members as Catholics who are separated and divorced — “abandoned by their spouses” — trying to remain faithful to their vows and to Church teaching. But the group has been struggling with the footnote in “Amoris Laetitia,” trying to comprehend what it means for them. She described it as the “elephant in the room,” which hasn’t been addressed in the formal group setting, but in sharing articles about the text among individual members.

“We’re standing for the Church on marriage, and we are obeying the teachings of Christ and two of the commandments,” Murray said. “And we want the Church to stand with us.”

Last September, U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke and three other cardinals wrote a formal request to Pope Francis — called a “dubia”— to clarify “Amoris Laetitia,” particularly its call for the pastoral accompaniment of people who are divorced and civilly remarried, or who are living together without marriage. The cardinals published the letter in November 2016 after Pope Francis did not respond to it. CNS reported Jan. 9 that Cardinal Gerhard Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the pope doesn’t need “fraternal correction” because he hasn’t put the faith and Church teaching in danger.

“I do not see any opposition: On one side, we have the clear doctrine on matrimony, and on the other the obligation of the Church to care for these people in difficulty,” Cardinal Muller had said.

Although Lyle Bowe doesn’t share the experiences of those in the Faithful Spouses group, he attends some of their meetings to support them.

“I really see the power of this group, where they’re remaining faithful to their covenant until the Church says otherwise,” said Bowe, 56, a parishioner of St. Joseph in West St. Paul. “I think it really speaks to the building of a culture of life that leads to a permanence of marriage.”

The stay-at-home father of three adopted sons is using his master’s degree in counseling from the Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio to minister to families. He’s using Pope Francis’ points on the importance of fathers to bolster his evangelization efforts with men.

As for the Faithful Spouses group, he’d like members to get the support they seek from Church leadership, calling them “heroic” but a “forgotten bunch.”

“If you look at the intentions at Mass, it’s always for the families, but there are never any prayers for these spouses who’ve been abandoned that are courageously staying true to their covenant. Yet, they feel like they don’t have a home anymore,” Bowe said. “They’re shunned, almost.”

Marriage preparation

Carol Arend is a pastoral minister and the wedding director at St. Thomas More in St. Paul. She said “Amoris Laetitia” has reinforced her work with couples preparing for marriage and those newly married, and it has provided “marching orders” for the parish’s continued work.

“The document really emphasizes the parish community or the Christian community as the support of people in marriage,” she said, “and so that is something also in the last year or so that we’ve tried to emphasize.”

Sometimes couples can view marriage preparation requirements, which come from the archdiocese, as hoops to jump through, Arend said, but most couples are willing and excited to learn.

“It’s not just about them and their marriage,” said Arend, 51. “This is a public sacrament. It affects the whole community, and in turn, we want to affect them with our prayer and our support.”

She said the challenge of mentoring couples is identifying their relationship struggles, whether they be with family or with the Church. Meeting people where they are and trying to be a positive part of their connection to the Church is important, Arend said, because “if this is the first time they’ve really been connected to a church in a while, we want it to be a merciful experience.”

Arend thinks that although “Amoris Laetitia” talks about the challenges of family life, overall, it’s a positive depiction of what the Church is trying to accomplish. She said many Catholics don’t know “the whole story.”

“The Church wants people to be happy, the Church wants people to live the life God wants them to live, and the Church wants to help. And the Church is merciful,” she said. “But I think we don’t get that message, especially when it comes to relationships and marriage and sexuality. The message on the street is not the real message, and so I think to read this document really shows that this is where the heart is. And this is what the Church wants versus, we’re not just telling [people] not to do things.”

She’s collaborating with the parish’s faith formation director on more relationship enrichment programs. And the parish plans to host a group reading of the document. “It’s readable,” she said. “It’s not going to make your head spin.”

Christian vocation

It’s this kind of boots on the ground work that the Church needs to do, Father Johnson said. He noted that the pope’s annual January address to the Roman Rota, the highest court of appeal for marriage annulment cases, deviated from the usual topic of jurisprudence and instead focused on how the Church can prevent marriages from ending in divorce. Pope Francis talked about the need for a new catechumenate for married couples and the need to work on evangelizing couples coming to the Church for marriage preparation.

And in February, Pope Francis told an audience of priests who were at the Vatican for a marriage preparation course that it’s their responsibility to concretely apply the Church’s teachings on marriage in their daily contact with families, CNS reported. He said in ministering to people in “irregular unions,” priests will have to do so not as “experts in bureaucratic proceedings or judicial norms, but as brothers who take on an attitude of listening and understanding.”

Overall, it’s marriage preparation that needs to improve, Father Johnson said, because the Church inaccurately presumes couples have a faith life.

“Pope Francis, in ‘Amoris Laetitia,’ talks about a lack of faith … giving rise to an invalid marriage,” Father Johnson explained. “And what we’re seeing is because they’re not converts to Christ, because they’re not enmeshed in a Christian worldview, they then bring all these ideas from the culture into marriage. All of that beauty [and] all of that theology is lost. And that’s what Pope Francis is trying to address.”

Father Johnson said that because parish priests typically don’t know what comes from the pope’s annual address, communication needs to come from tribunals to diocesan family life offices, for instance. And there are necessary changes for the Church.

“We need to take a sober look at the state of the sacrament of marriage within our Church, and how we’re living that, how we’re preparing people for that [and] how we’re helping people through difficulties,” he said.

“It needs to start from birth,” he continued. “We need to witness good, Christian marriages, good Christian families that are able to reconcile their differences to show mercy and unconditional love [and] forgiveness — the virtues that are going to be essential for them to form that relationship later in life. That’s the remote preparation for marriage.”

He said the Church also needs to talk about the Christian vocation of marriage during confirmation and through high school, explaining how it’s not the next step from dating, but a sacramental union, and what it means to say vows and how they’re lived.

“Those vows aren’t there for the better times, the happy times, the good times,” Father Johnson said. “They’re for the hard times — when we’re poor, when we’re sick. The vows are meant to keep people in it during those times. And that’s actually when the power of the sacrament is so beautiful, because they begin imaging Christ on the cross. They begin imaging Christ’s forgiveness, Christ’s mercy, unconditional love, sacrifice [and] faith.”

Jean Stolpestad, director of the archdiocesan Office of Marriage, Family and Life, said the office is working with other archdiocesan offices and organizations to develop an intentional approach to helping young people, as well as those who prepare couples for marriage, understand and convey the sacredness of the sacrament. It also plans to use “Amoris Laetitia” in conjunction with St. John Paul II’s 1981 “Familiaris Consortio” (“On the role of the Christian family in the modern world”) as a blueprint for ongoing ministry to parishes and family life.

“‘Amoris Laetitia’ helps us to better appreciate what it is to accompany a person, to be aware of the reality of situations and environments in which people live and in which they develop their conscience,” Stolpestad said. “The heart or context of what is marriage and who may marry has not changed; however, the starting point of the conversation about marriage and our part in it has.”

Resource meant to strengthen

Ultimately, Father Johnson said, “Amoris Laetitia” is a document meant to strengthen marriage. He encourages Catholics to read the text, describing it as “complex,” but “accessible, practical and beautiful.”

“[Pope Francis] fundamentally realizes that the human experience is a messy experience. Yet, through the light of faith, through the light of Christ, through the Gospel, through the vows that husbands and wives have made, there’s actually redemption in that,” he said. “There’s actually beauty in that, and there’s fulfillment in that. And he wants people to experience that to its fullest.”

As a way to strengthen marriages, Stolpestad recommends chapter 4, which is a reflection on St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians about the meaning
of love.

“While this document has been the center of much controversy, the truly beautiful and rich elements cannot be overlooked,” she said. “Since families spend less time together, many of the foundational elements of marriage and family life have been lost. Pope Francis challenges us to commit to building deeper relationships within our families, parishes and communities.”

Art, iStock/yaruta

True love and the cross

Bishop Andrew Cozzens recommended that a group of newly married couples read “Amoris Laetitia,” especially chapter 4, Pope Francis’ meditation on 1 Corinthians, chapter 13, which includes the oft-quoted verses, “Love is patient, Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.”

“This love is going to allow me to live this on the cross,” he said, referring to the trials and suffering inherent in marriage.

Bishop Cozzens shared his advice with couples attending the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ annual Newly Married Retreat Feb. 4 at St. Charles Borromeo in St. Anthony.

He told them that the chapter from Corinthians — which is commonly read at weddings — can be a useful tool for an examination of conscience if one replaces “love” with his or her name. Then someone can reflect on if he or she really is living as love requires.

True love “wills the good of the other,” Bishop Cozzens said, and it’s in coming to know God — the source of love — that one learns to love others.

The bishop encouraged the couples to develop a relationship with God through consistent prayer, resisting materialism, and setting aside time regularly to focus on each other and to work through struggles.

He said that when someone struggles with his or her spouse — he gave the example of impatience — the person should recognize it, pray about it, receive God’s love and grace, and then respond to the trial with that peace.

“It’s through this experience of the cross that we come to true life,” he said.

— Maria Wiering

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