In light of the recent United States Supreme Court decision that enabled the redefinition of marriage to include same-sex couples, it is helpful to consider the words of the Holy Father:
These many and glorious fruits were ever the product of marriage, so long as it retained those gifts of holiness, unity, and indissolubility from which proceeded all its fertile and saving power; nor can anyone doubt but that it would always have brought forth such fruits, at all times and in all places, had it been under the power and guardianship of the Church, the trustworthy preserver and protector of these gifts. But, now, there is a spreading wish to supplant natural and divine law by human law; and hence has begun a gradual extinction of that most excellent ideal of marriage which nature herself had impressed on the soul of man, and sealed, as it were, with her own seal…There exists not, indeed, in the projects and enactments of men any power to change the character and tendency with things have received from nature. Those men, therefore, show but little wisdom in the idea they have formed of the well-being of the commonwealth who think that the inherent character of marriage can be perverted with impunity.
While these words are as applicable today as they were the day they were written, they are not the words of Pope Francis, Pope Benedict XVI, Pope John Paul II, or even Pope Paul VI. They are from Pope Leo XIII’s 1880 encyclical Arcanum, written in response to the increasing ease and acceptance of divorce in European countries.
Once the permanence of marriage was undermined by divorce, the procreative purpose of marriage was compromised by contraception.
The 1930 Anglican Lambeth Conference began the acceptance of contraception within marriage by mainstream Protestant denominations. Pope Pius XI responded to the assault on marriage with his encyclical Casti Connubi in which he wrote:
Armed with these principles, some men go so far as to concoct new species of unions, suited, as they say, to the present temper of men and the times, which various new forms of matrimony they presume to label “temporary,” “experimental,” and “companionate.” These offer all the indulgence of matrimony and its rights without, however, the indissoluble bond, and without offspring, unless later the parties alter their cohabitation into a matrimony in the full sense of the law.
Our current culture is plagued by divorce, contraception, abortion, and cohabitation. Clearly, efforts to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples are only the latest in a long line of “new species of unions.” Pope Francis, while archbishop of Buenos Aires, vigorously opposed Argentina’s ultimately successful effort to include same-sex couples in the legal definition of marriage: “This is not simply a political struggle, but it is an attempt to destroy God’s plan. It is not just a bill but a ‘move’ of the father of lies who seeks to confuse and deceive the children of God.”
In his first encyclical, Lumen fidei, Pope Francis again defined marriage solely as the union of one man and one woman:
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.
Sadly, history gives little cause to expect that a papal proclamation alone will stem the cultural tide.
We are faced with a movement to recognize same-sex couples as “married” because we Catholics did not heed the teachings of the Church and the previous exhortations of our popes on divorce, contraception, and cohabitation.
We are facing the prospect of legal recognition of homosexual “marriages” because we have failed to protect a proper and beautiful understanding of marriage. We made marriage about self-satisfaction when we allowed husbands and wives to abandon their vows because they found being married had lost its appeal and emotional vigor.
When we allowed contraception to enter the marital relationship we distorted the generous life-giving nature of marriage. When we accepted cohabitation as a respectable lifestyle we demeaned the dignity and uniqueness of marriage.
Our challenge today is a fight for authentic matrimony as inscribed in our nature, defined by Christ, and safeguarded by the Church. It is not pastoral or compassionate to turn a blind eye when others make a mockery of marriage with quick no-fault divorces.
More pastors and parents must have the courage to tell young couples that there will be no elaborate wedding if they are living together before marriage. Marriage preparation should leave no doubt that using contraception is a serious break from the teachings of the Church.
But such teaching cannot be presented as a litany of prohibitions. Couples must also be told of the joy and rewards of chastity. They must hear about the benefits of Natural Family Planning. Marriage requires a complete gift of self as surely as does a vocation to the priesthood or consecrated religious life. Engaged couples must know that marriage is less about the love they have for each other and more about how their love for each other will serve the will of God. It is the responsibility of every married couple to make their life a clear witness to the vocational nature of marriage.
Today the push is for same-sex relationships. Tomorrow it will be for polyamory or incest between consenting adults (and indeed there is already, lurking in the shadows, an organized and well-funded push for such relationships). Who can know what innovation will follow. With each assault the societal image of marriage and family becomes less recognizable.
Until we recover a cultural understanding that marriage is the unique relationship between one man and one woman, brought together in love by the grace of God for his service and, if it is God’s will, to share in the creation of new life, then we will never successfully defend marriage against whatever perversion popular culture puts forth.
Now is the time for bishops to unwaveringly teach the truth about marriage, priests to courageously preach the truth about marriage, and the laity to faithfully live the truth about marriage.