Faithful Heralds of the Joy of the Gospel of Marriage
Archbishop Samuel Aquila FAITH MAGAZINE May-June 2014
Ahead of October’s Synod of Bishops on the Family, Archbishop Samuel Aquila of Denver writes exclusively for Faith magazine on the key issues his brother bishops may wish to reflect upon during their deliberations in Rome later this year.
This coming October Pope Francis will convene an extraordinary synod dedicated to the “pastoral challenges to the family in the context of evangelisation”. Interestingly, the Holy Father used his first apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, to speak about the joy the gospel brings him and to provide a sort of programme that should guide the synod. He wrote: “I want to emphasise that what I am trying to express here has a programmatic significance and important consequences.”1 In light of these words, the participants at the synod will have to face the great pastoral challenge of being faithful heralds of the joy of the gospel of marriage.
The joy of the gospel of marriage springs from charity:2 the same charity that compels bishops3 to faithfully proclaim the good news of marriage revealed in Christ; the same charity that is inseparable from the Truth, who frees the human person and reveals to him what it means to be human.4 Only in Jesus does every human being discover what it means to be truly human, to be made for God and to live in relationship with God, to have true happiness.
In his dialogue with the Pharisees about the legality of divorce,5 Jesus offers a precious departure point for the synod participants. As John Paul II taught, Christ avoids the Pharisees’ trap and does not fall into their casuistry, which ends up opposing God’s law in the name of pastoral love and mercy for the human person.6 Instead, Jesus appeals to the truth about marriage revealed by God “from the beginning” and brought to fulfilment in the New Law. This truth is not man-made. The truth about the human person is a reality that is discovered, acknowledged and received. It is a truth to be conformed to. Furthermore, for the faithful herald of the gospel, this truth about marriage and family is the most pastoral and merciful path. This truth is evangelium because it saves the human person7 and brings about the joy that Jesus desires for every disciple.8
In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis explained that he wanted “to listen to everyone and not simply those who would tell him what he would like to hear”.9 This is exactly what he has done by using the synod’s preparatory document to seek input from a broad range of the faithful. Predictably, the secular media has responded by reporting on the disparity in the responses between what the Church teaches and what people believe.
Some sectors of the people of God have said that, in their view, the gospel of marriage proclaimed by Christ is impracticable and, consequently, non-pastoral; that it conveys no joy to them; that it is passé and archaic; in sum, that it is not good news at all. Considering these opinions, are we to manufacture a pseudo-truth about marriage in the name of being “pastoral” and change the teaching of the Church received from Christ and the tradition? I do not think so.
Listening attentively to these opinions as bishops, we should draw the correct conclusion. In my view, these opinions expressed by the people of God should compel bishops to declare a profound mea maxima culpa. They point to our failure as pastors, teachers and spiritual fathers. We have not succeeded in proclaiming the joy of the gospel of marriage to our people.
Hence, the solution is not to adopt a pseudo-truth about marriage or a falsely pastoral approach permeated with the casuistry of the Pharisees. Instead, the solution is fidelity to the only Truth that really saves the human person: Jesus Christ!
Perhaps we have not been able to place this gospel in its proper context, namely the adequate anthropology revealed by Christ and so well explained by John Paul II. Perhaps we have wrongly assumed “that our audience understands the full background to what we are saying, or is capable of relating what we say to the very heart of the Gospel”.10 In examining our consciences, we should ask ourselves whether or not we have fallen, or are about to fall, into the Pharisees’ rationalisations, which Christ said were rooted in a hardness of heart. Let us repent!
When I was Bishop of Fargo I mandated that a full course of natural family planning, along with the theology of the body, be taught to couples preparing for marriage. Many of the couples were resistant to the change at first. However, as they participated, their hearts changed and they became open and receptive to the teaching. A letter I received from a young woman captured the change of heart that occurred.
She wrote: “At first I was angry that I had to take the course on natural family planning along with the theology of the body. But now, Bishop, while I am deeply grateful for what I have learned, I am angry, and I ask you, ‘why was I not taught this much earlier, in high school?’ I would have been saved much hurt and heartache in college if I had been taught this earlier and not listened to the voice of the world. My younger sister is still in high school and I am going to teach her what I have learned so she does not make the same mistakes I did.” After receiving the letter I mandated that Theology of the Body for Teens be taught and promoted in Fargo’s Catholic high school and in all religious education programmes.
Hence, the solution is not to adopt a pseudo-truth about marriage or a falsely pastoral approach permeated with the casuistry of the Pharisees. Instead, the solution is fidelity to the only Truth that really saves the human person: Jesus Christ! What we need to do is to relate the truth about marriage and the family to the heart of its gospel; that is, to the Father’s plan expressed already in the original unity between Adam and Eve, prior to the fall and original sin, and to the joy that belongs to the ethos of redemption and the New Law. From the perspective of God’s saving grace and restorative mercy, the truth about marriage revealed by Christ is practicable and most pastoral.
However, mercy cannot be confused with tolerating an evil. A person is merciful when, being affected by the sorrow and misery of another as if it were their own, they endeavour to dispel such misery.11 This is exactly what Christ does in the Gospel. He does not merely tolerate our wickedness. He is merciful. Through his suffering he conquers sin and dispels our misery.12 In his mercy, Jesus frees us from sin and enables us to live in the freedom of God’s children.13 But it is important to understand that the freedom of God’s children is lived in harmony with the truth; it does not seek to subordinate truth to itself.14 This truth includes, obviously, the truth about marriage revealed in Christ. If pastoral solutions to the contemporary challenges to marriage are not grounded in what God has revealed about marriage, they will not lead to real freedom and happiness. They will not be seen as genuine, practicable responses.
Some have argued that pastorally the Church should leave marriage and all sexual matters up to the conscience of the person. However, in a world formed by relativism, conscience is not well understood, and often becomes a case of listening to “my voice” rather than “the voice of God”. Furthermore, the voice of the evil one can draw us away from the truth. Conscience, in fact, is not infallible and can be erroneous.15
Vatican II makes clear “that all men should be at once impelled by nature and also bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth. They are also bound to adhere to the truth, once it is known, and to order their whole lives in accord with the demands of truth”.16 This is why the human person has a right and an obligation to listen to the gospel of marriage revealed in the beginning and brought to fulfilment in Christ. For that very reason, bishops have an obligation to form the consciences of God’s people. Thus formed, consciences will truly be attentive to God’s voice.17 Hence, listening carefully to the opinions presented in the surveys done and sent to Rome, one may conclude that we, as bishops, have not formed our people’s conscience.
Let us ask for God’s grace and mercy in preparation for the synod. Let us teach by example. Let us remember the words we pronounce at the ordination of priests: “Let them meditate on your law day and night, so that they may believe what they have read, and teach what they have believed, and practise what they have taught.” Allowing ourselves to be transformed by these words once again, we will have the authority of those who live what they preach. We will teach as good teachers who resemble Christ, the Teacher.18 Then, we will effectively proclaim the joy of the good news of marriage and the family, asking married people to be open to conversion and to God’s grace and mercy.
As a young seminarian I read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book The Cost of Discipleship. His distinction between “cheap” grace and “costly” grace changed my heart about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This “costly” grace of discipleship brings with it a mercy that separates sin from the sinner. Indeed, Christ condemns sin. Yet, he loves the sinner and restores his innocence. For instance, although the adulterous woman’s sin was condemned by Jesus, she was not.19 Instead, she was loved with God’s regenerative mercy that truly freed her from the power of sin and death.
Something similar happened to the Samaritan woman who encountered Christ. Jesus made clear to her that he knew she had had five husbands, and that the one with whom she was living now was not her husband.20 Christ did not compromise the truth for the sake of being “pastoral”, nor did the woman try to deny the truth of her situation. Jesus neither fell into the mindset of the Pharisees nor opposed God’s law to show her love and mercy. The Samaritan woman was affected by this truthful and merciful encounter with Christ. Thus, she became an evangeliser, who asked others to come and see someone who told her, with truth and mercy, everything she had done.21
This is the kind of pastoral approach that we should adopt for this synod on the family. We should imitate God, whose works are always justice, truth and mercy.22 Indeed, Pope Francis clearly states that the joyful proclamation of the Good News, which includes marriage, is “to communicate more effectively the truth of the Gospel in a specific context, without renouncing the truth.”23
Therefore, applying the heart of the gospel to the contemporary challenges to marriage and the family must by founded on restoring men and women to true friendship with God by immersing them in the truths he has revealed. As Christ said: “You are my friends if you do what I command you.”24 As bishops, we must be faithful to Jesus’s mandate: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”25 We must be compelled by a charity that rejoices in the truth26 and continues to hand on the received teaching no matter the cost. In doing so, we will adequately prepare for this year’s synod by becoming faithful heralds of the joy of the gospel of marriage.
Archbishop Samuel J Aquila
1Evangelii Gaudium, 25.
2Cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, II-II, q. 28, a. 1.
3Cf. 2 Cor 5:14.
4Cf. Jn 8:32; Gaudium et Spes, 22;
Caritas in Veritate, 1.
5Cf. Mt 19:3-9.
6Cf. John Paul II, Man and Woman
He Created Them, 1:2.
7Cf. Rm 1:16.
9Evangelii Gaudium, 31.
10Evangelii Gaudium, 34.
11St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae,
I, q. 21, a. 3.
12Cf. 2 Cor 5:21.
13Cf. Rm 8:21.
14Cf. Jn 8:32.
15Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1790-1794.
16Dignitatis Humanae, 2, emphasis added.
17Cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1795-1798.
18Cf. Mt 23:8.
19Cf. Jn 8:11.
20Cf. Jn 4:17-18.
21Cf. Jn 4:29.
22Cf. St Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I, q. 21, a. 4.
23EG, 45, emphasis added.
26Cf. 1Cor 13:6.