Volume > Issue > Defending Marriage in the Pope Francis Era

Defending Marriage in the Pope Francis Era


By Richard A. Spinello | May 2021
Richard A. Spinello is Professor of Management Practice at Boston College and a member of the adjunct faculty at St. John’s Seminary in Boston. He is the author of The Splendor of Marriage: St. John Paul II’s Vision of Love, Marriage, Family & the Culture of Life, along with numerous other books and articles on ethical theory, applied ethics, and the writings of Pope St. John Paul II.

On December 26, 1957, Lucia dos Santos, one of the three child visionaries from Fatima, gave her final public interview. The other two visionaries, Francisco and Jacinta Marto, had died shortly after Mary appeared to them in 1917. Sr. Lucia lived until 2005 and received additional Marian apparitions in the Carmel of Coimbra over the 57 years she lived there. Many of those apparitions reinforced the original message of Fatima. In that final interview, given to Fr. Augustín Fuentes, she proclaimed the content of one of those apparitions: “Mary told me that the Devil is engaging in a battle with the Virgin, a decisive battle. It is a final battle where one party will be victorious and the other will suffer defeat. So, from now on, we are either with God or with the Devil; there is no middle ground.”

In the summer of 1959, the chancery office in Coimbra issued an anonymous report condemning Fr. Fuentes’s interview with Sr. Lucia as fraudulent. Fr. Fuentes, however, would later be vindicated. Sr. Lucia herself publicly testified that her statements to the Mexican priest were authentic and true.

Many years later, Sr. Lucia delivered the same message, but this time it was more specific: The final confrontation, she said, would be centered around the Sacrament of Matrimony. The message was conveyed in a letter she wrote to Carlo Cardinal Caffarra in 1984. Its contents were revealed in 2008, three years after her death. Cardinal Caffarra, good friend and associate of Pope St. John Paul II, was responsible for establishing the Pontifical Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, later named after the Holy Father. The new institute met with hostile resistance both within and outside the Church. As the institute was to be placed under the patronage of Our Lady of Fatima, Cardinal Caffarra wrote to Sr. Lucia and asked for her prayers to support the Pope’s initiative. In response, she wrote him a letter that elaborated on the apocalyptic revelation of her 1957 interview: “Father, a time will come when the decisive battle between the kingdom of Christ and Satan will be over marriage and the family. And those who will work for the good of the family will experience persecution and tribulation. But do not be afraid, because Our Lady has already crushed his head.”

In a 2017 interview, Cardinal Caffarra remarked, “What Sr. Lucia wrote to me is being fulfilled today.”

Given the controversies raging over marriage and sexual morality at this cultural moment, Catholics cannot ignore the import of this prophesy, which deeply affected the late Cardinal Caffarra. Two recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions — Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) and Bostock v. Clayton County (2020) — suggest the depth and difficulty of this battle. Obergefell equates same-sex relationships with marriage and denies the truth of marriage as conceived by the Creator. Bostock broadens the interpretation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (1964) that precludes discrimination based on sex by concluding that sex includes “gender identity.” That identity can be altered after it is “assigned” at birth and therefore has little to do with our sexually differentiated bodies. As a result, Bostock essentially undermines the male-female duality and therefore also marriage and the family. Both decisions signify how modern culture has lost its way.

John Paul II might not have been familiar with Sr. Lucia’s words, but he had already described the confrontation between the Word and the anti-Word in his prophetic book Sign of Contradiction (1975). The anti-Word of Satan tells us to shape morality not in obedience to the will of the Creator but according to our own desires and self-centered aspirations. Opposition to the biblical idea of marriage represents the anti-Word because it blatantly contradicts the Word of God. Many Catholics have fallen for Satan’s siren call because they prefer pleasure over chastity, and personal autonomy over the responsible sexual behavior demanded by the Gospel.

But who will engage in this “decisive” battle against the forces of Satan’s anti-creation? Who will stand with the Virgin and her Son to oppose the Father of Lies? For the most part, the current Catholic hierarchy has not taken up arms to defend the Catholic vision of marriage and family, rooted in Sacred Scripture and the doctrine of the Church. Instead, the institutional Church under Pope Francis seems determined to compromise with modern culture, perhaps out of the fear expressed by Sr. Lucia of the wrathful opposition to those who dare defend the traditional notion of marriage and human sexuality. Most bishops and cardinals have been quite diffident in their defense of indissoluble, heterosexual marriage. When Bostock was handed down, very few American bishops came forth to condemn this decision, though USCCB president Archbishop José Gómez of Los Angeles did issue a modest statement of “concern.” Meanwhile, many bishops are quick to issue statements about racism and immigration. Those statements are fitting, of course, but bishops, who are public teachers of the faith, must also be witnesses to the Gospel of Life and Marriage.

Most bishops, it seems, find it easier to ignore these volatile issues. When they do speak out, they end up qualifying the Church’s teaching, or they make ambiguous statements about the sovereignty of conscience. Others, like Robert Barron, auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles, go a step further. In a long interview with John L. Allen Jr. in the book To Light a Fire on the Earth: Proclaiming the Gospel in a Secular Age (2017), he insists that the Church should no longer devote valuable resources to promoting her teachings on sexual morality and marriage because doing so has become an exercise in futility. Better to allocate the Church’s scarce resources to battlegrounds in which the odds are more favorable. If this convenient and defeatist attitude is taken seriously by others in the hierarchy, it could easily sound the death knell for Catholic marriage.

In reality, the Church has not committed vast intellectual or material resources to this effort. Catholic leadership began its retreat from the task of defending marriage when Pope St. Paul VI promulgated Humanae Vitae in 1968. The widespread dissent from and indifference to that prescient encyclical was the first step in reconciling the Catholic Church with the advancing sexual revolution. Hierarchical opposition to Humanae Vitae has remained in force, despite John Paul II’s brilliant efforts to elaborate its anthropological meaning in his “theology of the body.” During 2018, the 50th anniversary of Humanae Vitae, few Church leaders seized the opportunity to articulate and confirm the Church’s teaching against artificial contraception.

On the contrary, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna gave his support to the encyclical’s determined but misguided critics. For Humanae Vitae’s golden anniversary, the official website of the Austrian bishops published a series of heterodox articles undermining the key principles of this encyclical, as did Schönborn’s own archdiocesan website. One of the articles, written by theologian Martin Lintner, claims that Paul VI’s teaching must “evolve,” especially as his arguments against artificial birth control are “ultimately not convincing.” In keeping with the sentiment of the current pontificate, Lintner further insisted that the Church cannot ignore “the decisions of conscience on the part of the faithful.” It seems safe to assume that Cardinal Schönborn has some sympathy with this viewpoint, considering his archdiocese presented it without rejoinder.

Nowhere is this retreat from defending the Church’s timeless teachings more evident than in Pope Francis’s apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (2016), which continues to be a source of confusion and discord in the Church. According to this exhortation, it is now possible to admit to Holy Communion a person who, although bound by a valid marital bond, lives in a second civil marriage without abstaining from sexual relations. How does the Pope reach this unwarranted conclusion? He declares in Amoris Laetitia that there are two ways in which an action that violates a moral rule (such as the prohibition against adultery) can be excused. First, there may be extenuating circumstances that warrant an exception. According to Francis, “It is reductive simply to consider whether or not an individual’s actions correspond to a general law or rule, because that is not enough to discern and ensure full fidelity to God in the concrete life of a human being” (no. 304).

Second, there may be no extenuating circumstances, so the act is objectively evil, but the person is not culpable due to a lack of knowledge or freedom. Amoris Laetitia contends that not only do these conditions mitigate blame for what transpired in the past, they also mitigate the subjective culpability of a person’s present situation. Thus, Francis stipulates that those who live in an “irregular situation” may not necessarily be in a state of mortal sin because they “have great difficulty in understanding the ‘inherent values’” of the moral rule in question, or they are in a concrete situation that does not allow them “to act differently and decide otherwise” (no. 301). So, if there is no mortal sin, they should be able to receive Holy Communion, even though they are involved in an invalid second “marriage.”

There is no doubt that the ambiguities and inconsistent application of Amoris Laetitia have contributed to the dissipation of orthodox moral theology consistent with Scripture and the Church’s conciliar tradition. Those who are inclined to defend the Pope by insisting that Amoris Laetitia can be read in continuity with the teaching of his predecessors seem to overlook the fact that the Pope himself enthusiastically endorsed the interpretation of the Argentinian bishops, who maintained that, according to the norms of Amoris Laetitia, under some circumstances, a divorced and re-married Catholic who does not have a declaration of nullity can receive the Eucharist after a period of discernment, especially if there are circumstances that mitigate culpability. Pope Francis’s 2016 letter to the Argentinian bishops, promulgated in Acta Apostolicae Sedis, the official repository of papal teachings, asserted that their interpretation was accurate and “completely explains the meaning of Chapter VIII” of Amoris Laetitia. “There are no other interpretations,” Francis wrote.

Yet this viewpoint cannot be reconciled with Scripture or Sacred Tradition, as it clearly undermines Jesus’ definitive teaching on adultery and the indissolubility of marriage (cf. Mt. 19:4-9). John Paul II re-promulgated this doctrine in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981), in which he unequivocally confirmed the need for denial of Communion to divorced and invalidly remarried Catholics unless they abstain from sexual relations (cf. no. 84). To be sure, subjective capability must be taken into account. But, except in rare and extreme cases, every Catholic can easily comprehend the “inherent values” of the moral law that prohibit an adulterous second union. These Catholics presumably attended pre-Cana sessions in their local diocese and received the Sacrament of Matrimony in a Catholic church, where they pledged fidelity to their spouse until the day they died. They surely had every opportunity to inform their conscience about the matter.

Regrettably, the language and tone of Amoris Laetitia seem to signal a retreat not only from the notion of exceptionless moral norms (such as the norm forbidding adultery) but also from the doctrine of absolute indissolubility, which is presented so clearly in the Gospels. The exhortation never refers to Jesus’ declaration that the person who divorces his spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf. Lk. 16:18; Mt. 5:32). And it fails to mention indissolubility when it prescribes how the Church should minister to those who are divorced and civilly remarried (cf. nos. 291-312). In sections in which indissolubility is discussed, it is presented as one aspect of the ideal of marriage. We are only told that “the ideal of marriage [is] marked by a commitment to exclusivity and stability” (no. 34).

But this commitment is not just an ideal. According to Gaudium et Spes, Vatican II’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” every marriage is an unbreakable covenant that “has been established by the Creator and qualified by His laws” (no. 48). Pope Francis in Amoris Laetitia seems to obfuscate this essential truth, reaffirmed by John Paul II, that the indissoluble bond of marriage is a “sacred and sacramental reality, rooted in the dimension of the covenant and grace” (general audience, July 1984).

It is fair to say that Amoris Laetitia is an albatross around the Church’s neck as she strives to defend marriage against those who are keen to destroy it. But this unfortunate development does not dispense the Church from the obligation to hold the line against the destruction of marriage. Those who are willing to answer the call of Our Blessed Mother and Sr. Lucia must confront what John Paul II called a crisis of truth. According to the Holy Father, “A crisis of truth means, in the first place, a crisis of concepts. Do the words ‘love,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘sincere gift,’ and even ‘person’ and ‘rights of the person’ really convey their essential meaning?” (Letter to Families, 1994). There are many signs even within the Church of entrenched confusion about the nature of love, the limits of personal freedom, and the definitions of marriage and family. This conceptual confusion easily evolves into a confusion of conscience.

In the wake of these unsettling secular and ecclesial developments, there is urgent need for both clarity about sexual morality and principled objections to the world’s errant ways. The confusion about these issues is unnecessary given the Church’s long tradition of moral philosophy and theology, not to mention the intelligibility and inerrancy of Scripture. In response to a question from Pharisees about divorce, Jesus placed His answer within that inherited moral tradition and the original order of creation, defining marriage with exceptional clarity:

“Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason, a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Mt. 19:4-9)

Thus, Jesus Himself tells us what marriage is: the union of one man and one woman that lasts as long as this couple lives, a union that is exclusive and indissoluble. Jesus’ disciples were shocked by this requirement of marital permanence because it was so countercultural. Jesus’ explicit teaching leaves little room for the ambiguity of Amoris Laetitia or the distortions put forth by moral theologians who make the case for same-sex marriage or deny marital indissolubility, arguing that anyone who cites the unambiguous words of Jesus about marriage is guilty of rigorism or fundamentalism. But those responses are inconsistent with the requirements of practical reason. They also ignore the Gospel message of Jesus Himself, whose Word is, as Vatican II taught, “the source of all saving truth and moral teaching” (Dei Verbum, no. 4).

Marriage can be properly understood and defended through both faith and reason. But a hierarchy that seems to fear man more than God risks irrelevancy if it refuses to engage in this most decisive of all human battles

Ed. Note: The Feast of Our Lady of Fatima is May 13.


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