Many today are calling for the Church to change her teachings on marriage and sexuality. The reality is that the Church simply cannot do so. To remain faithful to the gospel message of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church cannot abandon the institution of marriage on the altar of public opinion or modern secular sensibility. The teachings of Jesus Christ on marriage are not something that past popes have invented or present or future popes can change.
Recently Pope Francis asked that teachers of the faith present these teachings “in a context” and the context is Jesus. He assumes as Pope John Paul II did, that “Christ would not be ‘surprised’ by any of these [modern] situations, and I suppose that he would continue to refer above all to the ‘beginning.’” (Theology of the Body 23.2)
In the Gospel of Matthew 19:1-8 Jesus engages in a heated conversation with the Pharisees who argue that divorce was allowed by Moses. Jesus responds, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.” Jesus’ answer to modern objections: look to “the beginning” in order to understand God’s original plan for marriage. The beginning provides the proper context to understand what Jesus did in redeeming man and woman. And there are many modern objections such as, “no divorce, that’s oppressive,” “no contraception, that’s against freedom and sexual liberty,” and “no gay marriage, that’s bigotry.” What is the proper context for the Church to answer these objections? Of course the context is Jesus and the proposal of the Gospel.
Jesus’ answer to the Pharisees begins with the beginning when God created them male and female and in marriage “the two shall become one.” In this brief passage in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus affirms that marriage is between one man and one woman and insists on the indissolubility of marriage. The redemption of marriage begins the revolution in human relationships that is the result of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus did not come to give men and women some kind of partial redemption; a salvation that is only concerned with what happens to us after we die. In introducing the gospel at the beginning of his public ministry Jesus said “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 4:17) The kingdom is here now!
When Jesus talks about redemption he speaks in the present tense. When he speaks about redemption in reference to the poor, he does so in the present tense. Gospel charity is not a social enterprise for its own sake; it is part of bringing about the Kingdom, part of bringing the grace of redemption to bear in the present. Jesus came to heal the hardness of our hearts in every aspect of our lives. In marriage this means that there cannot be divorce because the reason for that exception was hardness of the heart and Jesus came to solve that defect to give us a “heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 11:19)
Our defense of the plan of God for marriage is in no way in opposition to our proclamation of the gospel message. In his first encyclical Pope Francis highlights the central mission of the family in infusion of faith in the world.
“The first setting in which faith enlightens the human city is the family. I think first and foremost of the stable union of man and woman in marriage. This union is born of their love, as a sign and presence of God’s own love, and of the acknowledgment and acceptance of the goodness of sexual differentiation, whereby spouses can become one flesh (cf. Gen 2:24) and are enabled to give birth to a new life, a manifestation of the Creator’s goodness, wisdom and loving plan. Grounded in this love, a man and a woman can promise each other mutual love in a gesture which engages their entire lives and mirrors many features of faith. Promising love forever is possible when we perceive a plan bigger than our own ideas and undertakings, a plan which sustains us and enables us to surrender our future entirely to the one we love.” (Pope Francis, “The Light of Faith” Lumen Fidei, 52)
In part two of this series we will look at the meaning of love and how “promising love forever” in Christian marriage is one of the most powerful ways to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ.
Dino Durando is Director of Marriage and Family Life for the Diocese of Kansas City – St. Joseph.