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If pastoral progress is to be made, we have to pay closer attention to terms

January 30, 2015

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, recently called upon participants in an international conference on laity and families to consider how practicing Catholic spouses can witness to those who “are not living the ‘fullness of Christian marriage’”. That notion, namely, that of not living the fullness of Christian marriage—warrants careful reflection lest confusion about Church teaching on marriage arise and pastorally dubious programs be built on that confusion.

First, many Christians do not “live the fullness of Christian marriage” because they are not married: most priests, all religious, widows and widowers, children, etc. Second, many married persons do not “live the fullness of Christian marriage” because they are not Christian: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so on. The cardinal doubtless had no intention of including these groups in his remarks, but the phrasing he used admits them and, in that sense at least, he is speaking imprecisely.

Those groups aside, however, there are many married Catholics who do not “live the fullness of Christian marriage” because, say, they practice contraception or they consistently fail to model the Faith properly to each other and to their children. If the cardinal has these persons in mind as needing the special witness of couples in Christian marriage who try to live in accord with the teachings of Christ and his Church—and some of the prelate’s remarks suggest that he did have them in mind—then one can only say “Amen!” and pray that some concrete suggestions for offering good witness to them come from the conference.

But, I fear, the wider context of the cardinal’s remarks suggests that the primary referent for his phrase ‘those not living the fullness of Christian marriage’ was not as above, but rather, that he meant Catholics who are divorced-and-civilly-remarried—if so, then a very serious error has slipped in.

Setting aside a few hypothetically possible scenarios, the vast majority of Catholics who are divorced-and-civilly-remarried are not ‘failing to live the fullness of Christian marriage’, as they are not married at all. Such persons are, of course, in obvious need of pastoral outreach, but to describe them as being in “Christian marriage” at all is to speak as if a tertium quid existed between single Christians and married Christians, as if, in other words, “sort-of married” Christians were doctrinally possible. But, they aren’t.

Too many married Christians fail to ‘live the fullness of Christian marriage’, but to approach those who are not married and who do not have the sacraments as if they were in essentially the same pastoral condition as those who are married and who do have the sacraments, is to try to build, of all things, a pastoral plan on a seriously mistaken foundation.

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