by Fr. Tommy Lane
Sometimes we hear people say about the Church’s teaching on the family and marriage, “The Church must modernize itself”, “The Church must bring itself up to date”, “The Church must keep up with society.” Also at this time there are movements in many different countries to redefine the family. Long before the time of Jesus the Jews had “modernized” their understanding of marriage and the family and, to use the lingo of today, they had brought themselves up to date. They had introduced divorce. The discussion at the time of Jesus about modernizing was not about introducing divorce but about how liberal their divorce laws should be. The Pharisees asked Jesus (Matt 19:3) under what circumstances it would be okay for a man to divorce his wife, “Is it against the Law for a man to divorce his wife on any pretext whatever?” Jesus told them that divorce is not in God’s plan. He reminded them of God’s plan for marriage from the book of Genesis at the beginning of the Bible, “This is why a man leaves his father and mother and becomes attached to his wife, and the two become one flesh.” Then Jesus went on to say, “They are no longer two, therefore, but one flesh. So then, what God has united, man must not divide.” So at the time of Jesus the Jews had drifted away from God’s plan for marriage and the family, and Jesus reminded them again of God’s plan for the family. The Jews had modernized and brought themselves up to date and in doing so they had wandered from God’s plan. Notice that they did not even know they had drifted away from God’s plan for marriage and the family. Could we say the same about ourselves now?
When Jesus pointed out how they had drifted from God’s plan they had a further question. Since divorce was already in Jewish law how did it happen that divorce which was contrary to God’s plan was already in Jewish law? Jesus replied, “It was because you were so hardhearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but it was not like this from the beginning. Now I say this to you: anyone who divorces his wife…and marries another is guilty of adultery.” (Matt 19:8-9)
When I hear people say things about the Church’s teaching on the family and marriage such, “The Church must modernize itself”, “The Church must bring itself up to date”, “The Church must keep up with society” I cannot but remember that at Jesus’ time the Jews were also discussing “modernizing” family life and Jesus told them they had wandered from God’s plan. He reminded them of God’s plan for the family. The mission of the Church is not to keep up with society; the mission of the Church is to do like Jesus, to remind people of God’s plan. And even if 10% or 20% or 90% of people wander away from God’s plan, we have compassion on them and want to help them in any way we can, but the Church cannot be unfaithful to God’s plan simply to be popular. The Church teaches that those who remarry civilly without having had their first marriage annulled or those who are in any sinful relationship may not receive Holy Communion as long as they are in that situation. This is because their lifestyle is a direct contradiction to the unity signified by the Eucharist, and people would be led into error and confusion about the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Everyone recognizes the difficulty and cross that exists in the lives of those in irregular situations and we want to lighten that burden in any way we can and show them compassion. For that reason a Vatican document states, “Pastors are called to help them experience the charity of Christ and the maternal closeness of the Church, receiving them with love, exhorting them to trust in God’s mercy and suggesting, with prudence and respect, concrete ways of conversion and participation in the life of the community of the Church.” (Congregation of the Doctrine of the faith Reception of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried §2, 1994)
When I hear people saying about the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family that the Church must modernize itself I ask them to consider what the Sacrament of Marriage really is. A sacrament is received not only for a certain length of time, but is received for life. The Sacrament of Marriage is for life unless nullity is shown which means there never was in fact a marriage. When a couple marry it is not just the couple getting married, it is three people entering into a union or covenant of love, the two spouses and Jesus. The Sacrament of Marriage is not just living together; it is much more beautiful, it is Jesus united with and blessing the couple. There are three people in the Sacrament of Marriage, the couple and Jesus. That is why the Sacrament of Marriage is for life, and not just for a time. So when people say that the Church must modernize I ask them to reflect on what the Sacrament of Marriage really is. Could it be that now, as at the time of Jesus, society has wandered from God’s plan and the Church like Jesus must remind society of God’s plan for marriage and the family?
Copyright © Fr. Tommy Lane 2013
More homilies on Marriage and the Family
Related Homilies: Bear with one another charitably, love your children
Preserving virginity before marriage
stories about family
excerpts of Enjoying the Bible: Creation of man and woman