On February 25, Pope Francis had an audience with priests who are preparing couples for marriage. He stated that the priests have a solemn duty to meet couples where they are and help them move further towards a fully sacramental, valid marriage.
As usual, his words have been taken out of context and misinterpreted.
The pope said that couples who have chosen to live together without getting married in the church “are, in spiritual and moral terms, among the poor and the least, toward whom the Church, in the footsteps of her teacher and Lord, wants to be a mother who doesn’t abandon, but who draws near and cares for,” look upon such couples with “tenderness and compassion.”
The pope’s critics interpreted his words of mercy as condoning cohabitation. However, in the full context, the pope was upholding marriage as a sacrament of salvation. He continued, by pointing out that the parish is “the place, par excellence, of the salvation of souls.”
The parish priest is the one who is acutely aware of the social realities of the local culture and the complexities of individual situations: couples married in the church; common-law unions; civil unions; failed unions; and happy and unhappy families and young people. He is the one young people turn to when seeking to be married in the church and whom married couples experiencing difficulties may turn to for help “to rekindle the faith and rediscover the grace of the sacrament” or to ask about an annulment.
Working with his flock, the parish priest witnesses in an intimate way the often torturous path of learning to love and be loved. There is great joy and great sorrow as people search for love and fail. Each sad, complicated story involves real people in real families.
The priest sees first hand the broken homes, broken hearts, broken lives and broken loves. The modern situation with love and marriage too often resembles a battlefield—littered with the wounded and dying.
In the midst of this the church is a field hospital and the priest is a medic—bringing what healing and help he can.
The damaged lives we see when love goes wrong remind us why the church has such stringent standards when it comes to sexual sin. Catholic rules about sexuality are not random. The rules about sex are not a long list cooked up by old men in red robes in Rome who thought they should be party-poopers and stop everyone from having fun.
Catholic rules about love and marriage are not arbitrary prohibitions. They are disciplines that protect marriage, protect children and protect men and women from being casualties in the risky battlefield called love.
One of the common claims about the sexual behaviors the church calls “sinful” are that they don’t hurt anyone. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sexual revolution, like all revolutions is violent. The church says certain behaviors are sinful because the long saga of human history has shown that they do indeed hurt people very badly.
We don’t have to think very hard and long to see how this is so. Adultery hurts the spouse who was lied to and betrayed. Adultery hurts the children in a marriage when trust in the adulterous parent is broken. Adultery hurts the whole family when the marriage ends in divorce.
Adultery endangers the soul’s health because the offender has trampled on a sacrament. Adultery offends the common good because the family is the building block of society and every divorce weakens the foundation of a good and just society.
Cohabitation destroys trust because both the man and woman realize that the other person will sleep with someone without being married to them. Cohabitation hurts the woman because without a marriage commitment the man will abandon her much more easily than he otherwise might.
Without a commitment of trust, hearts harden and marriage becomes more difficult, not easier. Cohabitation hurts other family members because it weakens their belief and commitment to marriage when they witness the couple cohabiting. Cohabiting offends the common good because marriage is mocked and weakened and so the foundation of a good and just society is eroded.
Pornography, masturbation, prostitution, sexual abuse of children, sodomy, artificial contraception, surrogate motherhood, sado-masochism, promiscuity…the whole long list of sexual sins hurt people because they are rooted in selfishness, not selflessness.
They bring about broken homes, illegitimacy, single moms, poverty, abandoned children, abortion, human trafficking, fatherless children, sexually transmitted diseases, sterility, loneliness and despair.
The world, the flesh and the devil would like us to believe that complete sexual freedom is the path to a carefree and happy life. It’s a lie. The potent force of human sexuality brings the most happiness when it is channelled in the faithful union of one man and one woman for life.
Pope Francis is right that priests need to be there in the middle of the marriage mess, trying to bind up the broken, guide the lost and encourage the despairing. But while we are there to welcome the wounded, we are also there to warn others to avoid the traps and snares of sexual sin and seek the true happiness of faithful, self giving love.