Pope St. John Paul II famously said at Fatima in 1982, “In the designs of Providence, there are no mere coincidences.” That hard-won papal insight — spoken on the one-year anniversary of the attempt on his life by Mehmet Ali Agca — resurfaced during the first week of the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family, which opened on Oct. 5.
As the synod fathers heard Catholic couples discuss the weakened state of marriage and family life and the problems associated with parish outreach, headlines back in the United States reported that the U.S. Supreme Court had let stand appellate rulings in favor of same-sex “marriage.” Five more states would immediately begin issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And the high court’s ruling was expected to pave the way for “marriage equality” in six additional states that fall under the jurisdiction of the three appeals courts.
The news offered a reminder, if any were needed, that Church and society are both roiled by the implosion of marriage. And while same-sex couples and their advocates celebrated a major legal victory, data confirm that large numbers of young heterosexual men and women cohabit and raise children without the benefit of marriage.
How did we arrive at the place we are in today? How can we begin anew to foster and strengthen sacramental marriage, while rebuilding a national marriage culture based on the union of one man and one woman?
For now, at least, the Supreme Court appears disinclined to address the merits of legal arguments that uphold the state’s interest in marriage as a union oriented to the procreation and education of children, as Ryan Anderson notes in our page-one story. In contrast, the synod fathers are engaged in a candid discussion about the origins of the Church’s own marriage crisis and the best way to support Catholic couples affected by divorce and other problems.
According to much of the media’s coverage of the synod, the best way to address the crisis is to remove or modify teachings and practice regarding matrimony that alienate 21st-century Catholics from the Church. In this equation, the failure of the Church to attract sufficient support for its teachings is proof that the discipline should change, they contend.
However, Jeffrey and Alice Heinzen, the only Catholic married couple from the United States invited to address the synod, offered a different solution. Based on their firsthand experience overseeing marriage programs in the Diocese of La Crosse, Wis., the Heinzens concluded that the methods and scope of most diocesan marriage initiatives are woefully inadequate to address the situation on the ground.
“We have seen the number of marriages decline each year and the rate of cohabitation increase. We have seen a steady drop in the number of baptisms,” stated Alice Heinzen. She described a reality that many Catholics know to be true. But her solution will discomfit those who believe the Church is asking too much of its flock, especially the sheep who have strayed.
“We must develop more robust and creative methods to share the fundamental truth that marriage is a divine gift from God, rather than merely a man-made institution,” said Heinzen. “This will require us to examine the methods by which we teach our children about the nature of human sexuality and the vocation of marriage. When speaking of the call by God to serve, marriage should be included in all programs designed to explore vocations. And it should compel us to ask how we provide for the aftercare of marriage that can help couples deepen their relationship,” said Heinzen.
She said that she and her husband reached this conclusion after they reflected on the fruitful witness of their own parents, who led their families in the daily recitation of the Rosary, encouraged their offspring to treat their siblings with love and inspired their households to care for those in need. She noted that the Church’s model of catechesis is based on the understanding that parents are the first and primary educators of the young. While that principle still applies, she also observed that many children are raised by parents who do not know the faith, and other youngsters live in households shadowed by divorce or where adult males come and go. These changes helped pave the way for acceptance of same-sex “marriage,” which reflects what Ryan Anderson describes as a “consent-based idea that marriage is a commitment marked by emotional union.” For these couples, marriage — once defined by vows of permanence, faithfulness and fruitfulness — has been adapted to a new worldview.
In a similar if limited way, some Church leaders and Catholics seem equally tempted to adapt sacramental marriage to fit today’s fashions.
Robert Royal, covering the synod for The Catholic Thing website, noted with concern that at the Oct. 7 synod press conference, “the English-language presenter, Father Tom Rosica, claimed that ‘one of the salient interventions’ argued that ‘language such as living in sin, intrinsically disordered or contraceptive mentality are not necessarily words that invite people to draw closer to Christ and the Church. ... There is a great desire that our language has to change in order to meet the concrete situations.’”
Royal then offered his own guidance: “Dear bishops, be pastorally sensitive, but don’t set out on this fool’s errand of trying to make moral arguments in language that seems ‘inoffensive.’ It only further confuses suffering people and leads to more wrecked lives.”
In the months following the synod, the debate over tactics and messaging will continue. The Church has no choice but to energetically and creatively offer solutions to the implosion of the family and the related decline in the number of practicing Catholics.
The Church cannot supplant the work of mothers and fathers, as some would direct the state to do. The family, as we are reminded in both the Old and New Testaments, is the way of the Church. Flesh-and-blood mothers and fathers — just like the ones who showed the Heinzens how to pray the Rosary and save their pennies for the poor — need to be equipped by the Church to fulfill their roles as the heads of domestic churches. It is past time for Catholic leaders and their flocks to roll up their sleeves and figure out how we can bring the hope and healing of Christ’s teaching on marriage to the people in the pews and the fringe.
Said Alice Heinzen: “In all of our pastoral planning, we must remember that ‘nothing is impossible with God’ (Luke 1:37). Solutions to the identified crisis can be found. … Let us open our minds and hearts to the Holy Spirit so that God’s will may be accomplished.”