Volume > Issue > Reflections on Marriage After Vatican II

Reflections on Marriage After Vatican II

Contemporary Perspectives on Christian Marriage

By Edited by Richard Malone and John R. Connery

Publisher: Loyola University Press

Pages: 385

Price: $19.95

Review Author: Marshall Fightlin

Marshall Fightlin, a marriage and family therapist, is Director of the Diocesan Office of Marriage, Family Life and Social Concerns in Duluth, Minnesota.

For a number of reasons I am interested in Christian marriage. By vocation I am a husband. By profession I am a marriage and family therapist. Al­though a great deal of my time is spent helping married couples on a practical level with such things as communication skills, acquiring a spirit of give and take, conflict resolution, and the psycho­logical differences between the sexes, I am well aware that good practice requires good theory. No one can help Christian married couples unless he first has a clear notion of what Christian marriage is supposed to be. Confusion over what marriage is leads to confusion over pastoral and professional approaches to couples in trouble.

Contemporary Perspectives on Christian Mar­riage is not a practical, how-to book for pastors or counselors. Nor is it inspirational fare for the mar­ried couple. Rather, it is a serious discussion of Christian marriage from a doctrinal and sacramen­tal perspective.

The core of the book consists of five articles, each written in 1977 by a member of the Interna­tional Theological Commission (set up by the Holy See to study theological issues). Each of the arti­cles corresponds to an area of debate that has aris­en since Vatican II: (1) marriage as institution; (2) marriage as sacrament; (3) the relation between marriage as contract-covenant and marriage as sac­rament; (4) indissolubility; and (5) remarriage af­ter divorce.

For one interested in the serious study of the­ology, the articles are a pleasure to read. The au­thors take full advantage of contemporary scrip­tural research. In their treatment of the Fathers, the scholastics, the Council of Trent, and the post-Tridentine period, they take seriously the historical context without relativizing Catholic doctrine. They incorporate contemporary cultural trends in­to their thinking while safeguarding the integrity of the faith.

Since the original articles were written before the papacy of John Paul II, none of them mentions his Familiaris Consortio. However, I found that reading this book while supplying hindsight from Familiaris Consortio made it all the more fascinat­ing.

Although the articles are all scholarly, the very questions they deal with spring from problems that pastors and diocesan family life offices are fac­ed with daily.

For example, consider the many couples who are living together without benefit of marriage. They rationalize their position by saying that mar­riage is “just a piece of paper.” The claim here is that the substance of marriage can be had without a wedding. Living together is seen as equivalent to being married. When I happen to encounter such couples, I ask them, “Well, if that piece of paper makes so little difference, why the hang-up about signing it?”

The response is invariably the same. The man and woman (especially the man) leap back in alarm at such a question, saying they aren’t ready for that. They recognize, however dimly, that getting married takes their interpersonal relationship out of their hands and gives it institutional perma­nence. This institutionalization requires a “letting go” which they are unwilling to do.

In his paper “Marriage as Institution and the Contemporary Challenge to It,” Wilhelm Ernst ex­plores this issue. Throughout, Ernst is careful not to oppose the institutional aspect of marriage to the interpersonal aspect. He shows how both aspects have always been present in the Church’s teaching, even if, especially since St. Augustine, the Church tended to focus one-sidedly on the institu­tional aspect. Rather than replace this one-sided-ness with an interpersonal one-sidedness, Ernst shows that institutional and interpersonal are com­plementary and call for one another.

The live-in unmarrieds are not the only pas­toral problem today. How often have marriage counselors and pastors seen marriages fall apart be­cause of a refusal to forgive? No marriage can sur­vive if each spouse demands perfection of the oth­er. Part of the realism of marriage is the awareness that both oneself and one’s beloved are imperfect, and will always be so. Therefore, the correlative to acceptance of self is patience with one’s spouse. The word about the beam in one’s own eye has its first application within the conjugal unit. But as young people are more and more raised in a con­sumer culture that shrinks from self-restraint, not only in sexual matters, but in everything, we can only expect impatience to intensify. Young people increasingly enter marriage unprepared for the rad­ical self-renunciation that respectful and loving treatment of one’s spouse presupposes. As couples struggle with this, forgiveness will be a daily neces­sity if their marriages are to endure. But what is the source of this forgiveness?

In his paper “Sacramentality of Christian Mar­riage,” Karl Lehmann explores the answer. For him the mystery of Christianity is Christ’s faithful love for his spouse, the Church. Marriage is a real share in that mystery. Just as Christ will never repudiate his bride, so the Christian couple manifest a fidel­ity to one another that is unbreakable. Hence, in Christian marriage, sacramentality and indissolubil­ity are correlated. The sacramentality and indissol­ubility of marriage point to a marital spirituality that sees mutual forgiveness as an essential ingre­dient in living out the conjugal mystery. Engaged and married couples need to be confronted with this much more than they are.

Another contemporary problem over which many pastors agonize appears in the young couple who, although baptized, no longer accept the faith, and yet are approaching the Church for marriage. Lehmann also agonizes: Can one with little or no faith receive a sacrament validly? After considering the problem from several angles, he concludes that “a trace of faith is necessary, not only for the fruit­ful reception of a sacrament, but also for the validity of that reception.”

It appears that, for Lehmann, this “trace of faith” may require more than simply “the inten­tion of doing what the Church does.” Here, Leh­mann, and a number of other theologians, takes a harder line than John Paul II will take later in Fa­miliaris Consortio. The Pope, by contrast, is sur­prisingly indulgent. He deals with the faith of the couple, not primarily as belief, but as obedience. He points out that marriage, unlike the other sacra­ments pertains to the economy of creation, since marriage was instituted by the Creator “in the be­ginning.” He concludes from this that “the deci­sion of a man and a woman to marry in accordance with this divine plan…really involves, even if not a fully conscious way, an attitude of profound obe­dience to the will of God, an attitude which cannot exist without God’s grace.” The Pope sees this obe­dience as sufficient for the Church to proceed without scruple with such a wedding: “these engag­ed couples…by their right intention…have ac­cepted God’s plan regarding marriage and there­fore at least implicitly consent to what the Church intends to do when she celebrates marriage.”

The Pope only allows the pastor to refuse to celebrate a wedding of baptized unbelievers when they “show that they reject explicitly and formally what the Church intends to do when the marriage of baptized persons is celebrated.”

From the issues raised in Lehmann’s article on sacramentality flow the remaining three articles.

Carlo Caffarra’s article “Marriage as a Reality in the Order of Creation and Marriage as a Sacra­ment,” relates the sacramentality of marriage to marriage-as-contract. Caffarra’s masterful paper provides the theological foundation for considering a number of problems having to do with civil mar­riages of Catholics that plague the pastor.

Another issue flowing from Lehmann’s paper on sacramentality is indissolubility. This is treated in E. Hamel’s paper “The Indissolubility of Com­pleted Marriage.” In his treatment of the history of the doctrine, he makes some interesting and, frank­ly, somewhat disconcerting observations.

First of all, he notes that the Church Fathers at times tolerated divorce and remarriage in cases of adultery “in order to preclude even greater mis­chief.” Hamel does not say what “mischief” he has in mind. He emphasizes that this was not approval, but only a tolerance through silence.

Nor does he hold this silence up as a model for today. He feels that we cannot go back to the past, whose pre-Christian culture was different from ours. Such a tolerance practiced today, says Hamel, would be a regression. The obscurities of those days have been cleared away since. This pro­gress cannot be undone.

One might feel that Hamel disposed of this is­sue too quickly. It is arguable that a case, even if not conclusive, might have been made for a similar­ity between the pre-Christian situation of the Fa­thers and the secular, post-Christian situation of to­day.

This is especially so, in light of Hamel’s treatment of the Council of Trent. Although the Eastern Churches allowed remarriage in the case of adultery, Trent refused to condemn this practice. The reasons Hamel attributes to the Fathers of Trent for this tolerance appear to be a mixture of false ecumenism and a certain end-justifies-the-means thinking:

Trent looked upon [remarriage] as something that can be conceded for the sake of avoiding greater mischief (ad vitanda peiora). To strike at the Greeks in the name of orthodoxy would have had an unpleasant result. They would have been deeply offended, and union with them would have become all the more difficult to achieve.

Yet, Hamel’s refusal to reinstate “tolerance” is sure sighted. Whatever may have been the actual situation during the patristic period and at Trent, it is clear that Pope John Paul II does not consider such tolerance of remarriage (even of innocent par­ties) as appropriate in today’s post-Christian neo-paganism. In Familiaris Consortio, he says:

It is a fundamental duty of the Church to reaffirm strongly…the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. To all those who, in our times, consider it too difficult, or indeed impossible, and to those caught up in a culture that rejects the indissolubility of marriage and open­ly mocks the commitment of spouses to fidelity, it is necessary to reconfirm the good news of the definitive nature of that conjugal love that has in Christ its foundation and strength.

The Pope means to include innocent parties. Later on he says:

But it is also proper to recognize the val­ue of the witness of those who, even when abandoned by their partner, with the strength of faith and of Christian hope have not entered a new union: these spouses too give an authentic wit­ness to fidelity, of which the world to­day has a great need.

And the final problem: How, then, should the Church respond to divorced Catholics who have re­married? With one out of two marriages ending in divorce, this is obviously a practical concern, since the majority of divorced remarry. In a brief but comprehensive essay entitled “Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Civilly Remarried Catholic,” Arch­bishop (now Cardinal) Eduard Gagnon provides di­rection.

As he sees it, the challenge of pastoral care for the remarried is to balance fidelity to Christ’s teaching on remarriage with fidelity to Christ’s teaching on compassion for sinners.

On the one hand, “the divorced and remarried must recognize the irregular character of their situ­ation…. The pastoral care of the divorced and re­married has as its end not resignation to their situ­ation but a true reconciliation with the Church and the law of God.”

On the other hand, our approach to the re­married should be characterized by humility: “all the members of the Church are sinners….” Hence: “It is necessary to assure the divorced and remarried of the possibility of exercising the rights of all Christians as sinners.”

Gagnon points out that the remarried, far from being rejected, should be encouraged to take part in the life of the Church as much as their situ­ation allows. This includes participation in public worship, and in various apostolic activities. Howev­er, they should not act as sponsors at baptisms or serve in leadership capacities or as official represen­tatives of the Church.

And, of course, they may not receive the Eu­charist. Gagnon does not elaborate on the reason for this. However, the motive is not punishment, but the integrity of the sacrament. There is a very close connection between the sacrament of mar­riage and the sacrament of the Eucharist. Each in its own way is a manifestation of the sacrificial fi­delity of Christ to his spouse, the Church. Pope John Paul II makes this point eloquently in Familiaris Consortio:

The Eucharist is the very source of Chris­tian marriage. The Eucharistic Sacrifice, in fact, represents Christ’s covenant of love with the Church, sealed with His blood on the Cross. In this sacrifice of the New and Eternal Covenant, Christian spouses encounter the source from which their own marriage covenant flows.

It is because of this intimate connection be­tween the Eucharist and the remarried person’s pri­or marriage, that reception of the Eucharist must be refused. As John Paul explains, “They are un­able to be admitted [to Eucharistic Communion] from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”

The editors have done the Roman Catholic Church in the English-speaking world a favor by publishing this collection of essays. The authors uniformly stimulate theological reflection on the sacrament of marriage that is open, contemporary, and faithful to the revealed sources. This volume and Familiaris Consortio illuminate each other, and should be read together.


© 1986 New Oxford Review. All Rights Reserved.

Enjoyed reading this?



You May Also Enjoy

The Future of Marriage in America

Perhaps the Church in America could take a lesson from Mexico, where the government does not recognize ecclesiastical marriages and Catholics must get married .

A Coming “Crackdown” in the U.S.?

Any serious effort to free American Roman Catholicism from the influence of neo-modernism will involve a confrontation with some of the bishops.

The Civilization of Love: the Pope's Call to the West

Ed. Note: What follows is a joint statement orga­nized and coordinated by David L. Schindler…