You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘Marriage and family’ category.

MegaphoneIreland, of all places, was recently the first country to hold a public referendum in which the public approved the legalization of gay marriage.

The response of the Vatican was loud and clear.

The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, referred to the vote as a ‘defeat for humanity’, a step which must be countered by the Church in efforts to ‘strengthen its commitment to evangelization’. I, for one, hope that means something other that shouting its teachings more often and more loudly until someone listens.

When it comes to a ‘defeat for humanity’, my mind turns more to thoughts of Hitler, Stalin,  Boko Haram, ISIS, and institutionalized slavery as historic episodes where humanity came close to defeat. Not so much thoughts of gay marriage.

Of course, what was so stunning in the vote (which wasn’t even close), is that in what had been a staunchly Catholic country, the public apparently doesn’t care what the Church teaches when it comes to marriage and human sexuality.

So how did we get to this point?

You cannot separate the Church’s position on homosexual marriage from the broader perspective of the nature of human sexuality and the place of marriage in God’s plan.

If we are to get past the hand-wringing and angry recriminations that do little good, we need to reflect on two issues as we consider how the words we use and the actions we take render a message easily ignored:

  1. A look at what is taught with regards to marriage and human sexuality
  2. How to enforce teachings in a modern, connected world

What is taught.

I admit, as a person who has occasionally challenged teachings and proclamations that sound a discordant note with something inside of me, I started to research this topic with the intention of uncovering what exactly it was in our catechism teachings with which I disagreed, tenants that could explain the dismissal of Church teachings on a national scale. (Not that I disagree with the teachings of contraception, but I have a friend…)

But despite my most cynical efforts, when it comes to the teachings about sexuality and marriage, I found that the core essence of what was being expressed was indeed consistent with a ‘truth’ that I could not deny:

The intimacy of sexual unions should never be considered casual; they embody a deeply personal sharing that are reserved for a man and wife. The sacrament of Matrimony marks the flow of grace to strengthen the union between husband and wife and their role as parents for the gift of children.

Who can disagree with that?

Regarding homosexuality, the Church calls those with such an inclination to chastity.

“What’s the problem with that?” wrote the heterosexual blogger.

There are two little words from the teachings however, that give me pause.

Paragraph 2370 from our catechism includes the definitive statement on the Church’s position on artificial contraception as initially described in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae:

“…every action which, whether in anticipation of the conjugal act, or in its accomplishment, or in the development of its natural consequences, proposes, whether as an end or as a means, to render procreation impossible” is intrinsically evil.


There certainly is a difference between the ‘marital act’ which is solely unitive in nature, and one which  includes the possibility for procreation. Married adults get that. Most, if not all married Catholic couples cherish and welcome those opportunities when intimacy and pleasure combines with the knowledge that new life is possible.

But when Church teachings argue that any instance when married Catholics use artificial contraception is an act that turns their intimacy into a something evil, then one begins to understand the meaning of overreach.

The teachings on marriage and procreation set the backdrop for today’s politically charged stage.

The Church’s opposition to gay marriage centers around the view of the family as the core unit of society, a family that originates with the love between a man and woman that brings forth new life. Relationships that are not open to procreation are something less than marriage, and society shouldn’t pretend that they aren’t.

I sometimes wonder how much better that message would be received if it weren’t for the catechism’s use of the word ‘disordered’ elsewhere in its teaching.

The catechism is pretty liberal with the term ‘disordered’, attaching it to everything from venial sins, unhealthy desire of a neighbor’s goods, the nature of warfare, masturbation, …and homosexual inclinations.

No spin by professional catechists and no impassioned statement contending a ‘love for the sinner while hating the sin’ can hide the common man’s interpretation that if you have homosexual inclinations, you are disordered.  There are no kind synonyms here. Attempts to disassociate inclinations from character fall short.

I do not understand the gay lifestyle. I firmly believe and accept that our sacrament of Matrimony is reserved for a man and woman. And I certainly accept the role of a married man and woman in raising the children they receive as gifts from God.

But there is something very wrong with language that, in effect, moves us to look askance at our gay brothers and sisters as ‘disordered’. At some time in our lives, we are all disordered as we act in ways that distance us from God. If ‘disordered’ must be used, apply it to the first person plural.

Given the Church’s reasoning behind the nature of marriage in which many heteros are engaged in ‘evil’ acts, and the perception that Catholics look at gays as persons who are disordered creations of God, is it a surprise that those outside the Church would question Her rationale in arguing that lifelong gay companions don’t deserve the legal protections afforded to married heteros?

And if you disagree.

The catechism is clear about the requirement that persons with homosexual inclinations cannot be the subject of discrimination.

It is quite different, however, if one publicly endorses activities in the civil setting that runs counter to Church teachings.

  • The Vatican refuses to accept the nomination of a French diplomat as ambassador to the Holy See because he is a gay Catholic
  • A music minister who had served his church for 8 years was dismissed after marrying his partner of 23 years
  • A manager of a Catholic parish’s food pantry was dismissed after coming out as gay
  • The Archdiocese of Miami has issued a warning to all employees that anyone opposing the Church’s position on gay marriage may be dismissed
  • A senior administrator for Catholic Relief Services resigned after person posted an un-official image of the administrator’s marriage to a partner of the same gender.

The Church bureaucracy has every right to expect its employees and representatives to uphold Catholic Christian teaching. It is legal and acceptable that our Church officials set standards that determine whether or not a person can be part of the club.

But if that is the case, why shouldn’t all public political activities be subject to review?  Shouldn’t Catholics who publicly support the Affordable Care Act be fired?  Should Catholics who voted in favor of abolishing the death penalty be promoted (assuming they haven’t previously been fired)?

Don’t any other teachings matter?  Isn’t belief in the Resurrection the key tenant of our teaching? How about the Trinity? Do employment applicants accept the responsibility to care for the poor? Are all heteros faithful to their spouses? Are married employees practicing artificial birth control? Should the next staff meeting ask employees for a show of hands about masturbation? (Stop giggling).

If adherence to Church teaching is a requirement, shouldn’t there be some kind of written test, and what is the passing grade for employment?

Church officials may argue that they are building an institution with persons whose beliefs support Church teaching, but in practice, such policies focus on the public behaviors that clash with teachings on sexuality and marriage. Name one person fired for questioning the doctrine of Purgatory.

Intended or not, the public practices of dismissing gay ambassadors and terminating administrators and educators who support civil gay marriage is part of the overall message the Church sends to the world, a message that says something like ‘we love them, but if they love someone, they’re fired.’

So what to do?

Teach the truth.

Earlier I mentioned that the core essence of Church teachings contain a wisdom and beauty that captures the kind of persons God calls us to be. But if the core truth of our Church teaching is a symphony, the things we do and words we use sometimes sound like a guy playing a kazoo. And like the musician who has no intention on changing the melody and its arrangement, attention turns more to the need to improve the skill of its delivery.

And there is opportunity here.

At a time when the Church’s apparent teaching authority is sorely suspect, there is an opportunity during the upcoming Synod of the Family to issue a re-statement of truths, a re-statement that will presumably be read, understood, and appreciated by the average reader.

I pray that someone, somewhere is drafting a new summary section that appears in the various sections of the catechism, a newly worded summary of what we know to be true of marriage and sex:

We know that the Catholic sacrament of Matrimony is granted to men and women as we pledge a new life of commitment to each other and to the family we pray we will be blessed with. We understand that the intimacy of sexual relations is a deeply personal gift to be exchanged between men and women who are committed to the permanence of this new life. Sexual relations outside this permanent commitment, and closed to the possibility of new life, are activities that are something less than what is possible between people of faith – and God never asks us to be less.

And if the Vatican editors really have a pressing need to use the words ‘evil’ and ‘disordered’, we could add a follow-up that puts those words where they need to be:

Any sexual activity conducted for self-gratification that disregards the spiritual, emotional, or physical interests of a partner, especially activities that violate persons who are physically or emotionally unable to understand or resist the nature of sexual relations, are evil activities that are intrinsically, gravely, disordered.

I don’t think there are any truths here that have been ‘changed’. In fact, one could argue that the second paragraph more forcefully and broadly condemns any act that takes advantage of a partner, including forms of sexual abuse between spouses as well as some of the more heinous acts against minors and the elderly.

What to do about civil gay marriage?

It is apparent that the handwriting is on the wall when it comes for Church’s need to separate civil marriage from our sacrament of Matrimony. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be pretty. But for those persons wanting a more fully developed sense of ‘identity’, the rite of Matrimony, as a service distinct from that of a civil ceremony, would remain everything Catholics have always said it should be. No compromises, no redefinitions,  just people praying for God’s grace to support a man and woman who pledge eternal faithfulness to each other and God’s plan.

In terms of ‘enforcement’ of Catholic identity through employment practices, the success of a Catholic institution has been, and always will be in its ability to carry out the mission of service. If institutional leaders believe that its employees must adhere to Church teachings, then be fair about it and require documented tests that cover all the essentials of our teachings in order evaluate how good a Catholic a person has to be in order to be employed.

And if one thinks that such a policy is an exercise of futility that focuses more on image rather than substance, then have the employees of Catholic institutions sign a piece of paper that includes the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Beatitudes. Then tell them get back to work in service to the Gospel.

This is about marriage and the family.

The Church is correct in the importance of family as a societal unit.

But the language used in some of Her teachings, and in the hyperbole used by some members of the clergy, fly in the face of the truth understood by all people that you do not build something up by tearing others down.

The US Catholic Church has invested significant financial resources in the support of civil campaigns to prevent legalization of same sex marriages. In Minnesota alone, the church directed $650,000 to a 2012 campaign in support of an amendment defining marriage as something between a man and woman. The amendment lost by a narrow margin.

Regardless of how much the Church has spent nationally, 37 of the 50 states in the US, representing nearly 70% of the population, have approved same sex marriage. Not that popularity makes right. But such a widespread trend paints a picture that calls for better work to be done.

And if the Church objectives are to strengthen the family, the objective measures of success should involve something that has to do with Catholic families.

More than one in four marriages involving Catholics end in divorce, accounting for 11 million individuals. While Catholics have a divorce rate lower than other Christian denominations, there is evidence that more needs to be done to minister and support single heads of households and to root out the main causes of divorce. Heterosexual marriages aren’t failing because gays are living with each other.

That means greater emphasis on the (counter-cultural) view that a person’s promises and commitments should actually mean something, approaching millenials to better articulate the role of cohabitation in reducing the likelihood of a successful marriage between young persons, improved spiritual development programs for adults that place God’s plan above financial aspirations, and broader, more visible programs to provide recovery services from substance abuse and intervention programs to help marriages in trouble.

We have been working to bring the light of truth to our world for 2,000 years (4,000 if you count our Jewish buddies). We are now rightfully being called to be part of a New Evangelization to apply ‘new ardor, new methods and new expressions’ of the Gospel; to do so we must honestly asses how effectively the truth is being proclaimed in word and deed.

Our commitment to God’s promise is deep, but our passions and the shortcomings of human language sometimes project a message that fails to capture what can only be experienced.

When our message fails, our commitment to its truth demands that we focus less on blaming the listener, and more on examining if what we say and what we do truly reflect what we mean.





presenceSo, what did you give for Christmas?

It provides a bit more insight to the character of a person when prompted to describe the gifts given during this holiday season. (Unfortunately for this writer, the insight is far too disappointing – but I digress.)

The question is particularly interesting in the context of recipients who, from all appearances, have every material thing they need. A similar relationship exists with persons whose needs far exceed the resources or abilities of the gift giver. Both dynamics pose the same question, what do you give someone who has no need for the things you can afford to buy?

The question makes us squirm, especially if the recipient is someone we care for – a close friend in emotional distress, an elderly parent, or a young person struggling with some health issue. All these are examples of someone with needs that can’t be met with a quick trip to Target or a McDonald’s gift card.

For these situations, it is best to consider some form of post-Christmas gift exchange.

After the wrapping paper is disposed, the gift ribbons removed from Fido’s head, and the gift socks packed away (for the only time they will be a matched pair, in my case), it may be appropriate to give those who are important to us, those who need us, the gift of our time.

These are days where families are ‘hyper scheduled’ with school and athletic events crowd out any free space on our calendars. These family calendars also contend with a new business world in which decisions must always be made, tasks completed, and problems solved as workers find themselves wired to a 24×7 global workplace.

The situation is even more compounded by a dynamic, though sometimes chaotic economy that sometimes scatters families to all corners of the country, leaving some of us to rely on e-mail and Facebook ‘likes’ to keep in touch with those around us in what are becoming increasingly  ‘virtual’ families.

And in the middle of all this comes Christmas, a hybrid religious/secular day when we challenge ourselves to give gifts of meaning to those around us. All the while, we all fully understand that the only real gift that means anything is the gift of our time.

I remember my days as a child – we lived in a house that was close enough to the airport where my dad and I could watch the passenger jets approach and depart. My dad sometimes worked three jobs to pay the bills. But there still were the occasional summer evenings when we would just sit on our back patio, he with a beer and a cigar, me with a glass of Vernor’s ginger ale. We didn’t say much, kind of just sat there, enjoying the summer evening with each other, watching the jets come and go. Some nights we would walk out of our driveway and just stare at the stars, my dad would say something like ‘have you ever seen anything so beautiful?’ — I would elaborate at length, ‘Nope.’

Funny how I don’t remember many of the Christmas gifts I received from my parents, but the moments with my dad looking at the stars, and with my mom as she worked in the garden, were all moments of few words, but deep connections.

And as my wife and I have watched our parents age and pass to the Kingdom, we have had the fortune to experience (all too infrequently) the joy of simply sitting with them, sometimes chatting, sometimes just listening to music, musing about the challenges of parenting, of growing old, of facing the inevitability of transition.

We have any number of different forces tugging at our schedules – yet the gifts of time we have given those whose only real need is time to share, are gifts that we learn must be given with joy.

I do not dismiss our secular tradition of gift giving. There is a true joy that people encounter as they stress to find the perfect gift for loved ones – I would even suggest that parents’ gift giving is a self-centered exercise, for nothing gives joy to parents more than the sound of squealing children as they bulldoze their way through their presents. And there  is real magic that happens when we successfully find  that special gift to celebrate the connection that exists with those we love.

But our faith also calls us to remember those around us who have needs that go beyond things given.

For those who spend the rest of the year alone, in physical or emotional loneliness, struggling with serious issues, or just dealing with a life that seems to have lost its luster, there is always a need for Christmas.

It wouldn’t take much work for us to think of those who could use such a gift — friends with ill children, with threatened marriages, friends or relatives who grapple with substance abuse, persons who feel their mistakes in life make them unworthy of any year-round present.

Pope Francis recently said that  “our life is made of time and time is God’s gift”. I suggest we  share that gift by using our fancy calendar technology to schedule a ‘gift  appointment’, three months, six months, nine months from now with someone who doesn’t need anything.

These may be scheduled or spontaneous exchanges, so long as they take the form of a real, personal visit, a short walk, a cup of coffee, a quick beer (and/or ginger ale),  in any setting that provides for the sharing of a few moments, be they moments of lively chatter, bantering about bygone days, or spent quietly looking at the stars.

Such a gift can be presented in any number of ways — with a note enclosed with those socks we were going to give, a family calendar with appointment dates already marked out, an automated invite spewed by that fancy calendar service we use, or maybe a socially networked message that arranges a meeting to remind us that there really is nothing ‘virtual’ about meaningful social engagement.

And when the gift is redeemed, sometime weeks or months from now,  both the gift giver and receiver will be reminded that Christmas was never meant to be a day, but an eternal fulfillment of a promise that we will never be alone.

Merry Christmas to all.



“Tell me who ghandsAsHeartsets to live. And why?”

That pointed question was asked by National Catholic Reporter blogger Phyllis Zagano in a posting that railed against our slide towards a society where life is cheap and futures disposable. It is a question that needs to be asked loudly, and pointedly, as we sample the potentially toxic mix of technological advancement and self-empowerment.

While recent news about the church’s challenges have (rightfully) focused on the socially ‘hot’ topics involving gay rights, same-sex marriage, and reconciliation of remarried divorced Catholics,  issues at the intersection of Catholic morality, bio-ethics, and personal choice are beginning to loom large for our all in our church.

I write this a couple of weeks after the tragic story of Brittany Maynard, the 26 year old lady who chose the path of suicide to avoid what had promised to be a torturous end caused by incurable brain cancer. Her decision became the immediate hot topic discussed by supporters (those espousing  ‘Death with Dignity’), and critics.

Both the official Vatican response as well as the Pope’s direct words were blunt and to the point: there is no dignity in suicide.

(Before anyone casts words critical of Ms. Maynard’s choice, I suggest reading of what happens to persons with brain cancer. Even a cursory review of the literature will make the most ardent critic drop the stones that were to be cast and walk away in prayer.)

Such issues come down to probably those most emotionally charged word in the Christian’s vocabulary: choice.

In the secular world, we demand information and knowledge so we may make an informed choice. We have such expectations for the products and services we buy, the places we live and the leaders we elect.

We also make choices to purchase drugs and therapies that affect the way we look and the way we feel, always trying to look young enough and feel energetic enough to sidestep the natural processes that would choose otherwise.

But as these choices move into more serious domains, those areas that infringe on the natural processes of birth and death, we begin to stray into dangerous territory.

The problem is that we are used to having choices that make life better, easier, and more convenient for us. Life choices often involve the coming and going of others . Even when we think we are making choices that involve our rights, our actions set examples for those around us and affect those who follow. And we all see that when given information that disappoints – or worse – information that portends a future that we didn’t expect or want, we don’t always choose wisely.

Consider that when presented with diagnostic tests that reliably predict the occurrence of Down syndrome, 90% of these would-be parents choose to abort the fetus. Yet many parents who choose to raise  Down syndrome children insist their experience bears many of the same fruits shared by other parents.

And then there are choices we make to enhance the process of creation.

At its simplest core, in-vitro fertilization (IVF) seems like a promising technique that allows families to bear children which, due to health reasons, they could not conceive. But as genetic testing technologies improve, parents who need to use IVF will soon have the ability to choose the characteristics and traits of their offspring. A recent feature report on CNN touched on the process to create ‘perfect babies’ – in the promo the host made the common sense observation that when given the choice, why wouldn’t parents pick donor cells that demonstrated strong likelihood to result in strong, healthy good looking children.

Once such techniques for genetic modification are perfected for couples who used IVF because of the inability to conceive, how long before genetic modifications are made available to all parents?

With people poking at the cell’s DNA to encourage strength and intelligence, who will worry about stepping on the genes for kindness, artistic creativity, or even spiritual sensitivity? Would parents choose genes for a good sense of humor over the traits that may provide greater financial stability for the future generation? If we choose the good-looking child what happened to the brilliant musician who was offered to us? Do we have any idea of what we are doing?

Fast-forward to end-of-life issues.

The Brittany Maynard case is one of those relatively infrequent (though not rare) circumstances where a person is actually informed of how they will die, and in this case, informed of a process that rightly terrifies.

The Pope may warn against decisions based on a ‘false sense of compassion’, but I somehow don’t think there was anything false about the gut-wrenching emotions her family had to endure.

But from the perspective of our society, do we really want to accelerate, make more easy and convenient, the ability to end life when health fades?  What would remind us of the need to cure disease if termination becomes more cost-effective, more dignified?

If we become too quick to choose the end of life when we see fit, before aging or suffering robs us of the person we want to be,  who will remain to remind the rest of us of the need for compassion?

The church teaches that nothing should interfere with the natural process of creation and death – that is God’s work. There will be families that will struggle to have children, but the answer is not to develop processes that manufacture children to our liking.

End-of-life is to be left the the natural process that God has left with us. And while steps need to be taken to reduce pain and to comfort the sick, we simply cannot accept a societal view that the best way to deal with those who are suffering is to hide or dispose of them.

That said, our church MUST do a better job of educating the flock – not by telling what is right and wrong, but by explaining her teachings in contemporary terms that connect people to the confidence and comfort of Christ-centered decision making.

All families will soon be dealing with some moral decisions as they start families, raise children, and care for elderly parents. Some of these decisions will be very, very difficult with no paths to a happy ending. Those are times when they will need options, both in terms of support from church and in the availability of brick-and-mortar care facilities, so that a choice involving community, support, and love is always an available course of action.

And hopefully, if we find ourselves in circumstances that demand the unthinkable from us, we at least take the time and pray for the strength to do the right thing. And when some of us fall short of sainthood, I hope our church will remember its responsibility to project compassion, mercy and reconciliation.


I had always struggled with the creation story — wondering why God wouldn’t want us to know the difference between good and evil, right and wrong – why couldn’t we have that knowledge and take the apple?

But after reflection, I now understand that fruit itself had no special power and imparted no new skill to our mom and dad. It was, for all intents and purposes, just a plain old apple.

The knowledge of doing wrong came simply from Adam and Eve’s choice – the decision to discard what they knew to be true while listening to someone whose intentions had nothing to do with their well being.  The choice to act in their own self-interest – to be like God without listening to His counsel – alone was enough to give them the knowledge of what was wrong. Comparatively, knowing what was wrong also enlightened our first parents of the ‘right’ choice that was discarded.  A choice made, an experience that teaches what is wrong and reminds us of what was right. Out of the garden and into the weeds we go.

It still goes on today – we make choices that are convenient for us, choices that make life easier, for us. When looking for guidance, we too often listen to the voices we want to hear, voices suggesting that our lives can be made better by making choices that are easy – choices with only pleasurable consequences.

But our lives were given to us for something more than our own self-gratification, and lives entrusted to us as parents and caregivers are gifts given by a Creator who doesn’t answer to us. These gifts carry the responsibilities of care, love, and respect.

The gifts of life we receive, in all their forms, aren’t gifts to be returned.


National Catholic Bio-ethics Center

“Children of Choice – Freedom and the new Reproductive Technologies”, John Robertson, Princeton University Press

Image from

“The sensus fidei fidelis also enables individual believers to perceive any disharmony, incoherence, or contradiction between a teaching or practice and the authentic Christian faith by which they live. They react as a music lover does to false notes in the performance of a piece of music. In such cases, believers interiorly resist the teachings or practices concerned and do not accept them or participate in them.” – Sensus Fidei In the Life of the Church.

In October this year, the bishops of the world will be traveling to Rome for the “Synod on Family”. The synod will be the first of two meetings called by Pope Francis to confront the pastoral challenges of today’s world.

Packed away in their luggage will be the results of a recent survey sent to Catholics to gage their sentiment regarding Church teaching on issues of family life.

The fact that some bishops even bothered to ask Catholics (about a third of the dioceses made the survey easily accessible on their websites) is laudable, but initial feedback from some bishops hint that the problem with adherence to church teaching lies primarily with effectiveness of teaching, rather than the content of the lesson.

Which brings up the question, does the laity have any options (besides silent disregard) to  respond to the magisterium (the teaching authority of the church) when teachings run counter to some inner sense of right and wrong?

The blueprint of guidance for the relationship between the church’s teaching authority and the laity can be found in the Vatican publication –  ‘Sensus Fidei – In the Life of the Church’.

This publication, issued by the International Theological Commission, describes the basic instinct of faith shared by all in the church (sensus fidelium), and further explores that sense as experienced by individuals and shared throughout the community. It would be fair to say that if any publicly accessible document describes the roles of the church hierarchy and laity in sensing the truth of our faith, and implementing that sense in doctrine and action, Sensus Fidei is it.

Sensus Fidei (or SF as I will call it) is one of those writings that can be cherry-picked by anyone wishing to justify or criticize any of the church’s cast of characters (including the laity). Persons looking for references to criticize church leaders can find just as much fodder as those who argue that her people have all the common sense of a flock of lost sheep.

But taken in-toto, the writing strikes me as an encouraging and cogent (if not a bit tedious) explanation of how the sense of faith from the laity of the church is to be integrated into her teachings.

The writing includes topics covering the scriptural basis for the sense of truth in all followers of the gospel, the nature of the sense of faith as it evolved in church teaching and structure, how the sense of faith is discerned by individuals, and how this interaction is to be played out in what the church teaches to be true.

While certainly not a ‘Reader’s Digest’ version of Sensus Fidei, I humbly attempt to highlight some of its points that are a relevant tonic for today’s culture war mentality.

In the beginning there was the beginning.

Even at the very start of the church, the process of deciding how the truth was to be taught in words and practice involved a balancing of the knowledge that all persons of faith have an instinct for what is right, with the pragmatic view that not all people are invested enough in the church to earn a role as decision maker.

Early church leaders well understood Jeremiah’s words which described the place that truth held in all the hearts of the faithful – as, the essay cites:

“I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me.”

SF further points out that Augustine asserted that Christ is ‘the interior Teacher’ who enables the laity as well as their pastors not only to receive the truth of revelation but also to approve and transmit it.

Nevertheless,  St. Paul warned that sometimes communities are ‘still of the flesh’, and need to mature a bit in order to perceive the real truth behind Christ’s example.

But although some Christian communities were ahead (or behind) the learning curve in understanding the nature of faith, there evolved a general understanding that all true followers of the gospel have an intimate understanding of the truth, and that “the general consent of Christians functions as a sure norm for determining the apostolic faith”.


That Darned Reformation

The 16th Century Reformation built much of its foundation on the nature of scripture as interpreted by the priesthood of the faithful. The importance of tradition and the role of the ecclesiastical hierarchy (primarily bishops) as primary teachers of the faith were – somewhat successfully –  challenged.

In response, Catholic theologians of the day argued that anything taught by the bishops was really the truth as experienced and accepted by all the faithful of the church.

But other church leaders began the process to justify the importance of the hierarchy’s teaching role by contending that the bishops were ‘actively infallible’, while the laity (students) were only ‘passively’ infallible. Other Catholic theologians started to more forcefully emphasize that pastors were incapable of erring in matters of doctrinal judgement, since their decisions were guided by the Holy Spirit.

Regardless of the rationale used by church leaders in response to the Reformation movement, its counter-arguments didn’t always win the day during the foment of 16th-17th centuries, and her policies and practices to hold things together (e.g. the Roman Inquisition of Galileo) didn’t work out all that well (my commentary).


Vatican II and the ‘Organic’ View

The role of the laity in active participation in the sense of the faith earned greater emphasis during the 20th century, particularly with the writings of the Second Vatican Council. The emphasis on the distinction of roles of teacher (hierarchy) and student (laity) gave way to a more organic view. As SF cites theologian  Yves Congar, “The Church loving and believing, that is, the body of the faithful, is infallible in the living possession of the faith, not in a particular act or judgment. The teaching of the hierarchy is at the service of communion.”

SF also points out that the Council’s writings described how the Apostolic Tradition makes progress in the church:

  • through the contemplation and study of believers who ponder these things in their hearts,
  • from the intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience
  • and from the preaching of the bishops who have received … the sure charism of truth


So what does this all mean?

Once the reader gets past the lessons in history and theology, the real crux of the matter is approached. There is little doubt that we are all in this together.  Based on scripture and tradition, the truth is sensed by all members of the church (episcopate, clergy, and laity).

Today’s church leaders who will attend the Synod on the Family, and those of us who anticipate their work,   find ourselves somewhat mired in contentious topics that are more intimately experienced by the laity than the clergy, topics involving family life, marriage and divorce, gay rights, etc…

Before all of us stands the question –  how do we know that any perceived need for change is based on  true spiritual growth, and not the often fickle nature of public opinion?

This is a matter of the individual heart. Are we looking for God’s annotation that Jeremiah spoke of, or are we reacting as consumers in a secular marketplace, making a demand that provides something more akin to gratification than meaning?

Here SF does add some guidance – a list of criteria if you will, that gives an individual the light necessary to identify calls for change – or orthodoxy – based on a real sensus fidei.

All those  previous SF references to the church’s laity pre-suppose a community of active believers. You have to be a believer and a doer, someone engaged in her gospel mission, in order to be considered part of the team that helps set her direction.

If there is any part of SF that I recommend, it is Chapter 4, Section 1 – the ‘Dispositions needed for authentic participation’. It is pretty clear what the Vatican is asking for as the price to pay in order to be part of the discussion:

  • Be part of your church, attend liturgy and receive the sacraments.
  • Listen for God’s word
  • Be open to reason, be respectful
  • Understand that this magisterium thing is a joint responsibility to stay true to Jesus’ teaching
  • Stay humble and joyful
  • Stay focused on making our church better

Doesn’t sound like an unreasonable request to me.


Let’s Summarize

I started this writing with my favorite paragraph from Sensus Fidei. It is as accurate a simile as any that seems to capture what some, feel about what they see in our church. Sometimes I am not certain that all such discord is a matter of the truth that we all seek, but maybe more a matter of differing perspectives and experiences that result in unfortunate language and unneeded virtrol.

I think I am being true to the message of Sensus Fidei in the following points that provide all followers of all perspectives with a good set of ground rules for meaningful engagement:

  • Our church wants us to be involved in the discussion. “Everyone is free either to criticise or to support her[the church]. Indeed, she recognises that fair and constructive critique can help her to see problems more clearly and to find better solutions.”
  • We all have a sense of the truth of the gospel. Inside all of us, laity, clergy, ecclesiastical leadership, have been baptized in the faith and as such, have been visited by the Holy Spirit with a gift of an instinct for the teachings and beliefs that take us closer to the Truth.
  • There are real expectations of the laity — you have to be sitting inside before you get to throw stones at any glass houses. People who fully engage in ministries to serve the poor, the disadvantaged, those who know who Mark, John, Luke and Matthew are, persons who see and deal with the broken among us and who witnessed and sought to comfort the hearts of those who experience true suffering, those folks have as much a place in the magisterium as any bishop or cardinal. On the other hand, persons who want to contest a teaching simply because it is a church teaching need to go to some personal ‘time-out’ space to think about what they are doing. There may be validity to one’s question or challenge, but the fact of the matter is that unless you have really committed to Christian service, you don’t have enough skin in the game to take over and drive.
  • Public opinion is not always truth. Sensus Fidei rightly points out that the majority public opinion may have little in common with the truth of Christian faith. It correctly reminds us that there have been many instances in history where majority opinion supported views that were clearly contrary to the message of the gospel, and that in the beginning, it was the Christian message that was clearly a minority opinion on the world stage.
  • Teachings and policies that run counter to genuine personal spiritual experiences of the faithful are likely to be discarded. When the faithful who live with a sense of humility sense some off-notes in the lyrics from the pulpit, they are justified in some selective listening (and in asking to speak with the conductor).

Sensus Fidei isn’t a perfect document. But that is OK because I am not a perfect reader. But its wisdom is sound, and it makes the point that if we all want to be teachers, we also need to be students – open to the lessons as delivered in the witness of all the perspectives of those truly seeking the truth of the gospel.




family“What is the purpose of marriage?”

I knew the answer to this one.

“Marriage is a solemn commitment between a man and woman to build a new life together, to sacrifice the interests of yourself and permanently commit to meeting each other’s needs — to live as we think Jesus would want us to.”

It was the late 1970’s, and my (hopefully) wife to be and I were sitting at our final Pre-Cana meeting with her parish priest. We had been living in separate cities at the time, so the Pre-Cana groundwork had to be done in different parishes with the ‘final exam’ taking place at my beloved’s church.

Though a bit nervous, I was confident that my answer would get us the passing grade needed to get married in the Church.

“And…?” he replied.

And? I began to think I was in trouble. I came up with something that sounded like a Hallmark card, mentioning something about everlasting love and sharing life’s challenges.

“And….?” he repeated. He didn’t even blink.

Now I really began to panic. I had taken my best shot and it was a swing and a miss. What could be left?

My betrothed kicked me under the table. In doing so, she knocked loose one of those stock answers we had prepared in case something like this happened.

“Make babies?” I answered.

“Yes, my son, have children”. He signed the necessary paperwork and saw us to the door. I swear he said something like “thank you for playing”, but I think I just made that up. My wife to be and I made light of the exchange, but somewhere inside I felt just a bit less like a future husband and a bit more like breeding stock.

Today, that episode seems relevant to me as once again, Church teachings conflict with government policies that, to some at least, appear to make perfect sense. Today, we muse and fume over everything from the Affordable Health Care act to the Supreme Court decision striking down regulations that deny gay couples employment benefits guaranteed to heteros. It’s a time when the US bishops demand that our secular government formally define the nature of marriage, while also demanding the secular government not define what constitutes health services that can be covered by public (secular) dollars.

The Pre-Cana episode is appropriate because it exposed me to an element of Church teaching that seemed so contrary to common sense — yet there was no real explanation, no real dialog as to what the foundation of the teaching was, especially since I knew it was a whole lot easier to make babies than to get through four weeks of Pre-Cana and get married.

Frankly, I never really got the point of the Church’s teaching that the primary reason for marriage is procreation which implied lifelong commitment between husband and wife. I always thought it should be the other way around – a lifelong commitment to build a new life together which implied an acceptance of children as the ultimate blessing of such a union.  The Church’s stand is clear: large families are a sign of God’s blessing, and any conjugal act between a husband and wife that isn’t intended to bear fruit may be considered an act of selfishness.

I guess I should have studied more.

But this isn’t about my need to do extra homework to avoid a failing grade as a Catholic, this note is about two points:

  • The Church needs to do a better job of explaining the reasoning and foundation of its teachings in terms that can be understood and appreciated by followers who don’t have the benefit of a degree in theology.
  • It is time for the lay persons of the Church to stop relying on the state to do the hard work of changing human hearts.

The need to properly explain the nature of Church teachings is essential, since a poor job of explanation can make our Church look incapable of expressing the relevance of the truth in the modern world. (And like it or not, we are in a modern world).

The two hot button topics illustrate just how important it is for the Church to get its message right.

Bishops and Church leaders continue to rail against insurance coverage for contraceptives made possible by the Affordable Health Care Act. But for millions of families who have seen employers reduce (or remove) health care benefits – AHC provides a much needed portability that makes possible the freedom to select employment opportunities without being held hostage by a health insurance plan. And for the growing number of underemployed who may not have been to doctors or dentists in years, AHC gives an opportunity to access a reasonable level of medical care.

If the episcopate wants to be effective in arguing against the provisions of the AHC, they will have to find some way to better express their disdain than by telling our neighbors who live on the margins that a program that offers vital access to medical care constitutes an attack on religious freedom.

And those listening may rightly ask that the Catholic employers be more effective in convincing their employees of the moral correctness of the position opposing use of artificial contraceptives; then such services wouldn’t be used – and the rest of those covered could finally get around to seeing a doctor.


The second point involves the Supreme Court’s recent ruling that struck down policies that denied federal marriage benefits to gay couples (DOMA) and another decision that effectively let stand a lower court ruling that a public vote violating the Constitution’s Equal Protection clause is invalid.

The Church was quick to respond, with US Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone writing that “the future of democracy” is “very worrisome”, and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops writing that the court decision marked a “tragic day for marriage and our nation”.

Aside from the fact that I don’t think a member of a hierarchical organization based in Rome is the right person to be commenting on the future of a democracy, this voter wants to know exactly how the ruling threatens the institution of marriage and, as argued by the bishops, how it will deny the right of a child to be raised by his/her own mother and father.

The argument that bases opposition on the denial of the right of a child to know his mother and father is particularly vague, as the USCCB writings, as well as the talking heads on the news tour never really describe how the lives of children, particularly those already from broken families will be further damaged by these rulings.

How can granting health insurance coverage to a child adopted by gay parents be worse than raising a child without healthcare coverage? Or be worse than leaving the child in an institution without any family?

I also think that maybe other factors are much more serious threats to marriage than the striking of DOMA. What about the pandemic of divorce that began in the 1970’s and 80’s with the adoption of no-fault divorce? While no-fault divorce made the process easier, there are also trends that have assaulted our idea of the traditional family.

Recent studies show that the top three causes for divorce are infidelity, incompatibility, and substance abuse. Of all the hetero marriages that took place in the 1990’s, 43% will end in divorce. (Maybe the emphasis of the purpose of marriage should shift slightly towards future parents — but I digress).

It is hard to see how civil marriage between gays (3-5% of the population) will come close to doing the damage to marriage that has already been done by other trends in our society – trends that allow people to walk away from marriages that are no longer convenient, or our media’s emphasis on everything young and beautiful, or on the habit to turn a blind eye as substance abuse tears a friend’s family apart.

Is marriage under attack? Sure. But the adjective “tragic” is more appropriate for what we have already allowed to happen, not what the Supreme Court ruled.

I have always believed that children are the ultimate blessing for a married couple, even though I think that we too often ignore the emotional health of the parents who are the real bedrock of the family.

And I feel strongly that the Catholic sacrament of Matrimony be celebrated only for a man and woman – as our tradition rightly teaches us that there is a special bond between a man and woman who pledge a lifelong commitment to each other – a commitment that will hopefully yield a new generation to witness God’s work through the love of parents and family.

But while we need to proclaim a staunch defense of life and family, we are too quick to blame others in the secular world for not doing our job. The Supreme Courts interprets the Constitution, not Paul’s letters. We turn to federal and state governments for security, health and educational services, and the mechanics of running a diverse country. We turn to our Church to help guide us to live the best lives we can within that secular setting.

And as we turn to our Church for guidance and leadership, we need our spiritual leaders to do a better job of explaining the reasons behind the public proclamations – the passage of time does not enable a poorly repeated message to become better understood.

And finally, to really strengthen our families, the Church’s limited resources are best directed at the big problems that already exist – doing everything it can to support the truly holy, permanent nature of marriage as marked by the sacrament of Matrimony.

But in this case, when I refer to Church, I mean us.

The bishops will do what they think they must do, and many overworked clergy and professional staff do wonders in delivering badly needed services to young families struggling to find their way.

But there are too many of ‘us’, the lay persons of the Church, who are sitting on the sidelines when it comes to taking an active role in helping to support our families. Too many of us spend too much time shouting and complaining, and too little time helping.

What are needed are our contributions of time and money to improve the delivery of mental health and counseling services where needed. How many of us donate time or money to Marriage Encounter programs and their like? How many of us assist in delivering high quality marriage preparation programs? Who works to bring programs such as Retrouvaille into their own communities? And how many of us extend the support required by divorced members to allow them to heal their emotional wounds and continue to carry on in their role as Catholic adults?

How many of us? Not enough of us.

The family is the lynchpin of our society and the core from which God’s presence becomes known to us.

It needs our help. Not our rhetoric.

Catholic teachings on sexuality and birth control (

Catechism of the Catholic Church: par 2373

America Magazine: USCCB on Supreme Court Decision: “Tragic Day for Marriage and Our Nation”:

United States Conference of Catholic Bishops Amicus Brief:

People’s Reasons for Divorcing: Gender, Social Class, the Life Course, and Adjustment’s%20Reasons%20for%20Divorcing.pdf

Statistics on divorce: