I saw a statistic on the Internet this morning: 40% of American births are to unmarried women (which means that 40% of births are to unmarried men too -it is just not always so readily apparent.) I have not done the work to determine the accuracy of that statistic, but I have no trouble believing it. About ten years ago my family had a reunion of the descendents of my grandparents. At that time, there were 6 children in the 4th generation from my grandparents (the grandchildren of my siblings and 1st cousins). Of the 6, not one had married parents. And that situation has hardly changed in the inter intervening decade.
There is a lot of ink being spilled (it's actually not "ink," because it is mostly on the googlenets; but "spilled ink" sounds better than "spilled electrons." We need a new metaphor.) about Pope Francis' celebrating a wedding ceremony at which he witnessed the vows of some couples who already had children and/or who were cohabiting (the churchified word for "living together before marriage." I kinda like the old expression "without the benefit of clergy..."). People are scandalized that such open defiance of church teaching was given quarter in no less a place than St. Peter's Basilica. Oh, the horror!
When I first read about this, I had an immediate double reaction: First, I thought "The press is making a mountain out of a molehill." The secular press, in their desparate attempt to make it look like the Pope is going to overturn several millennia of Judeo-Christian sexual morality, are attempting to turn a "dog bites man" story into a "man bites dog" story. What do I mean by that? For every priest in the Western World that does weddings, this is a non-story. It is simply the norm. We are sometimes (relatively often) asked to celebrate weddings for cohabiting couples and couples who already have children. My literal immediate response was "the Pope's wedding ministry looks a lot like mine."
To read the secular press (and the knee-jerk Catholic reaction), you would think that the Pope put an ad in the local Catholic paper asking for couples in "irregular relationships" to come have them publicly "regularized." I have no idea how the couples were chosen or who prepared them for marriage; but, in a sense, it doesn't matter. Would it be any less scandalous were the Pope to have advertised for "chaste virgins who go to confession every day, have never had an impure thought and will promise to have a child a year for their naturally fertile life?" The fact is that the Holy Father only has one option: to witness the vows of sinners marrying other sinners. Sorry commentor. Sinners are the only ones getting married these days. So if the Holy Father wants to highlight the importance of the sacrament of matrimony by hosting a mass wedding Mass at St. Peter's, the only option he has is to invite couples who are sinners (hopefully sinners who understand that God has called them to the vocation of marriage as a means of helping each other get to heaven.) Period.
My second reaction was: "the Holy Father just made my job harder because there are going to be those who will see this as permission to live together before marriage." I have repented of that reaction, not because it is not true (in fact, I have already heard it cited as a justification for cohabitation this week), but because it is not the Holy Father who did this; it is the secular press. My resonse: GROW UP! One of the hallmarks of Catholic marriage preparation is that we only prepare ADULTS for marriage - if they want to use such a childish argument as "he did it first!" then we have the obligation to help them see how childish their argument is, and to move on from there. But, again, the press wants this to be so much more significant than it actually is. Papal blessings are offered to newly married Catholic couples on a regular basis at public audiences at St. Peter's. Sometimes those couples have cohabited, have children, are in second marriages - in other words, they look like the Church. Pope Franics is in on the secret: sometime - lots of times - people who are not married to each other have sex. It seems this is not a new reality. It has always been thus. And sometimes the people who are not married to each other who are having sex decide to get maried. Good for them. That's what we want, right? Like me, the Pope's first question for a couple who approaches him about being married is not their sex life (or lack thereof) - Marriage is so much more than that. We will get around to discussing those things during preparation. But now let's celebrate that you want to enter into this important sacrament. That is what the Pope celebrated with the couples last week - the Sacrament - not, as has been accused - the fact that siome of them were in am "irregular relationship."
Pope Francis is, above all, a priest. He, even as Pope, wants to stay connected to his priestly life and to be an example of that priestly life. I LOVE THIS! As a priest, I am so happy to have a Pope whose ministry looks like my own. And I am so happy to have a Pope whose ministry might remind us of Jesus, who, after all, was criticized by religious people for spending too much time with sinners. When challenged about his not hanging out with holy people (or religious people who thought themselves holy), but choosing rather to be with social outcasts, Jesus told us that healthy people were not in need of his healing. It is a "because that's where the money is" response. Why did Jesus hang out with sinners? Because THEY needed him. Why does the Pope invite sinful couples to experience the blessing of a Vatican wedding (aside from the obvious point that I made above that sinners is all there are)? Because they are the ones who need it. I am sure that there were some people in that ceremony who "did everything right." And good for them! But the Church's sacraments are not just for those who "do things right."
Some principles that I learned about marriage and weddings during my priestly formation:
Marriage is about so much more than sex. Marriage is about so much more than the selfish desires of a man and woman. It is the sacrament of family. It is an integral part of God's plan for the salvation of the human race. It is about the care and nurturing of children. It is essential to life of the Church and the world. To reduce it to questions about who's having sex and who's not having sex (which is really what all the press - secular and Catholic - is about) is to denigrate one of the most important realities of Christian life. Jesus taught us that marriage was an important spiritual reality (Mt 19); those of us involved in helping couples prepare to marry each other (from parish marriage teams right up to the Pope)need to keep our eye on the ball.
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP
Fr. Bart Hutcherson, OP is a Roman Catholic Priest & a Friar of the Dominican Province of the Most Holy Name of Jesus-USA. He is on the Pastoral Staff at Most Holy Rosary Parish in Antioch, California, and uses this page to post Homilies and Scripture reflections.