71. The choice of civil marriage or, in several cases, simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance against the sacramental union, but from cultural situations or cultural contingents. In many circumstances, the decision to live together is a sign of a relationship that actually wants to navigate towards the prospect of stability. This will, which translates into a lasting bond, reliable and open to life can be considered a commitment on which to base a path to the sacrament of marriage, discovered to be God's plan for [the couple's] lives. The path of growth, which can lead to sacramental marriage, will be encouraged by the recognition of the distinguishing characteristics of a generous and lasting love: the desire to seek the good of others before their own; the experience of forgiveness requested and given; the aspiration to build a family that is not closed in on itself but open to the good of the ecclesial community and of the entire society. Along this route those signs of love that properly correspond to the reflection of God should be valorized into an authentic conjugal project.
I'm not going to go into who 'won' the Synod, what the Pope meant in his concluding remarks and post-Synod sermon, or the latest Sclafari interview. If we want public documents, whose wording has been pored over and voted on, this is quite enough. It is not a document with magisterial authority, but then none of the key moves in this game are about documents of magisterial authority.
Back in 1969, Catholics were told that the Traditional Mass had been forbidden, because of some slightly ambiguous but very emphatic language of Pope Paul VI in a public audience. That was the most the liberal fascists of that era were ever able to throw at Traditional Catholics to back up the claim that traddies were disobedient and schismatic. Of course, this kind of nonsense can the more easily be undone later on, as it was by Pope Benedict in 2007 when he said that it had never been forbidden after all. But it made very little difference for the intervening 38 years. 38 long, long, years...
So let us have a look at this paragraph, which will form what we might, in a secular context, call a mandate for something similar in a Papal Post Synodal Exhortation a bit further down the road, and heaven knows how many statements by bishops and journalists.
The preceding paragraph had been all about how couples didn't get married, often, because of financial considerations. Having had a go with that idea, the Synod fathers seem to have tired of it and now want to try another explanation: 'cultural contingents'.
The choice of civil marriage or, in several cases, simple cohabitation, is often not motivated by prejudice or resistance against the sacramental union, but from cultural situations or cultural contingents.
As a matter of fact the financial factors cited by cohabiting couples are themselves dependant upon 'cultural contingents', because it is obviously a 'cultural contingent' that couples think they can't get married until they have stable jobs and can afford a lavish wedding. So we can forget the special pleading of the previous paragraph, and get down to brass tacks with this idea.
With the very opening words, however, the Fathers of the Synod seem to have got into a muddle. The failure of couples to get married sooner, they tell us, is not 'resistance against sacramental union' - it is not because people reject marriage, but, instead, cultural contingents. But is it not the case, Reverend Fathers, that what you actually mean by a 'cultural contingent' is a view of marriage which lowers its importance to such a level there is no urgency about getting married, and that instead it is regarded as better to cohabit for a few years, or indeed forever? This cultural contingent, then, while not necessarily a total rejection of the state of marriage, is about the values of the couple, a set of values in which marriage is not understood or valued as it should be. The idea, then, of 'cultural contingents' as excusing, as opposed to merely describing, the de facto rejection of marriage, disintegrates. There is no contrast between a couple who reject marriage because of 'resistance against sacramental union' and a couple who fail to marry because of 'cultural contingents'. Their 'resistance against sacramental union', whether permanent or temporary, is a cultural contingent.
Notice that there is nothing in this paragraph addressed to or about couples who defy the cultural contingents which reject sacramental marriage. In their eagerness to see the culture as an excusing condition, as something which as it were removes moral responsibility from couples, the fact that many thousands of couples buck the trend and get married in church, is actually a little embarassing. Let's not talk about them.
Let us, instead, give the most optimisitic possible reading of de facto unions:
In many circumstances, the decision to live together is a sign of a relationship that actually wants to navigate towards the prospect of stability.
There is something truly pathetic about this statement, which the Synod Fathers like so much that they repeat it, in different words, three more times. They desperately want to believe that cohabiting couples are just waiting for the right moment to marry in church. I'm afraid they aren't. As a matter of sociological trends, there is no reason to assume, in the second decade of the 21st century, that a co-habiting couple has any aspiration to put on formal clothes and have a big party with their boring relations - which is all the word 'wedding' means to most of them. Oh, but 'in many circumstances' it may be heading for wedding cake and embarrassing speeches from the Best Man - I suppose this is true if the Synod Fathers can think of three or more instances. If that is what it comes down to, I feel sorry for them.
But even this they fail to express in a straightforward or indeed coherent way. It is the 'relationship', they tell us, that 'wants to navigate towards the prospect of stability'. Not the man and the woman involved, no - the relationship itself. The attribution of intentions to the relationship is peculiar, to say the least - there are precedents for attributing intentions to actions, but this takes things a step further. What is the point of talking in this strange way? Easy: the Synod Fathers don't want to confront the fact that it is frequently only one party to the relationship who would like things to go in this direction. It sounds a lot more positive to say the relationship in some mysterious way 'wants' to move towards marriage than to say that, for example, the girl wants to get married and hopes that by setting up house with a commitment-shy young man she can work on him to that end.
Allow me to ask a brutal question. When a man is dragged to the altar by hysterical threats of a break-up, or by an unexpected pregnancy - unexpected by him, at least: are these cases of a relationship 'navigating towards the prospect of stability'? Is this among the things the Synod Fathers have in mind?
Notice the extreme caution of the statement they make, however. It is not that the couple wants to get married - the Synod Fathers recognise that that would be too strong a claim. Instead, they propose that 'in many cases' the relationship 'wants' to 'navigate' - a charming metaphor, to be sure - whither? Not to marriage, not even to 'stability', but to the 'prospect' of stability. What in heaven's name is that? You are in your ship, and you navigate, not to the Islands of the Blessed, but to a 'prospect' of them: you can see them in the distance, perhaps with the help of a powerful telescope. And then what? Presumably, having satisfied your curiosity, you go home.
What comes next?
This will, which translates into a lasting bond, reliable and open to life can be considered a commitment on which to base a path to the sacrament of marriage, discovered to be God's plan for [the couple's] lives.
There may be cases of cohabitation which could be described as 'a lasting bond, reliable and open to life': you can't exclude such a possibility. As a generalisation, however, intended to guide a pastoral response to the phenomenon of couples not marrying in church, this statement can only be described as delusional. Reverend Fathers, are you not aware that the vast majority of marriages are not 'open to life'? That in many developed nations a third or even half of marriages end in divorce? And that, on both counts, non-marital unions are far worse, far less likely to be open to life, far more likely to end in a break-up? One can only wonder, at this point, if the Synod secretariat had put something psychedelic into the refreshments.
But this sentence is not just over-optimistic on the sociological facts. There is something extremely strange going on with the theology as well. Talking of a pseudo-marital relationship, we are told that it 'can be considered', presumably by sympathetic pastors, as a 'commitment on which to base a path to the sacrament of marriage'. Again, we have contorted, embarrassed, language, and the Synod Fathers are right to be embarrassed. Not the relationship, the 'committment' of the relationship, isn't a path, no, it 'can be considered' a path, to the sacrament. And what sort of path is it?
It is a pathway of sin, the kind of regular, habitual, conscious, and serious sin which ensures that the parties are in a permanent state of mortal sin, that they are incapable of entertaining sanctifying grace, that they are not in friendship with God, that their prayers can have no merit, that they can have no supernatural virtues, and that they can receive no grace from any of the sacraments: unless, of course, they leave this path, by repentance. If you are on a path of sin, I am sorry, Reverend Fathers, we know where that leads. It does not lead to a sacramental union and living happily ever after. It leads to hell. Only by turning off this path can the couple put themselves right with God and receive the graces of sacramental marriage.
And that, of course, is what sometimes happens. Many Catholics, over many centuries, have forsaken the sins of their youths, made a sincere repentance, received sacramental absolution, married, and embarked on a new life. They have done this because they were conscious that their previous lives were sinful. This possibility does not vindicate the Synod Fathers' mode of expression; it shows the rashness of it. It is only because the Church does not use this contorted language of sin a pathway to holiness that these sinners have understood the need to be reconciled with God.
Suppose a priest were to use the Synod's way of thinking and talking to encourage unmarried couples to pluck up the courage to tie the knot in church. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this strategy were successful? No, it would be a disaster. Because those couples would not be repenting of their sinful past lives; they would marry in a state of mortal sin, heaping an objective act of sacrilege onto their sins of fornication, and receive no graces from the sacrament. In modern conditions, a marital union without the graces of the sacrament of marriage is not a good prospect. Indeed, it is not too extravagant a speculation to suppose that the reason why the Catholic divorce rate is indistinguishable from that of the general population has a lot to do with couples not receiving the graces of the sacrament because of unrepented mortal sin. You don't, after all, repent of the pathway to the sacrament, do you?
It is matter of sociological observation that marriage following a period of cohabitation is more likely to end in divorce.
If you still need convincing, consider this. The Synod Fathers want us to believe that the fornication of a committed, long-term relationship is a pathway to marriage. As a matter of chronology, one can see what they have in mind. Let us take a larger view. Before the fornication of a long-term relationship, we generally see, chronologically, the promiscuity of 'playing the field'. Yes, that is how most people find their long-term sexual partners. So that is part of the pathway to holy matrimony too. And before that, there is generally a period of using pornography and solitary vice, at least for young men. Yes, that is how most men first engage in genital sexuality. So that is also part of the pathway, presumably. At the other end of the process, come to that, it will be equally valid to observe that marriage in church is itself, 'in many circumstances', a pathway to separation, divorce, and, particularly under the new rules, annulment and remarriage.
Is this the teaching of the Church? That a career of impurity, in which the conscience is deadened, emotional sympathy blunted, and sexuality objectified, is a preparation for the holy state of marriage which should be acknowledged and 'accompanied'?
No. The teaching of the Church is the teaching of Christ. It is a call to repentance.
The time is accomplished, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the gospel.
Quoniam impletum est tempus, et appropinquavit regnum Dei: poenitemini, et credite Evangelio. (Mark 1:15)
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