The 2014 Extraordinary Synod on the Family began last Sunday, with the aim of considering the “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization,” including the substantial gap between Catholic teaching on marriage, sex, and the family and actual belief and practice.
Among the Cardinals and Bishops attending, at least a few see this gap as an obstacle for evangelization, while others see it as an opportunity for evangelization. The former group seeks to re-interpret Catholic moral teaching in ways less “idealistic” and more “realistic.”
The latter group—with whom I sympathize—insist that the Church’s moral vision is not the problem, but that we need more effective evangelization and catechesis so that these teachings, while challenging, will be seen as God’s great “yes” to the innate hunger within every heart.
Consider Lee and Michele, a couple I met them a few years ago during a “40 Days for Life” prayer vigil outside a local abortion clinic. They were also there to pray.
Both were on a significant journey. Lee was a cradle Catholic who married in the Church but later drifted from the faith and was divorced and civilly remarried (to Michele). Michele was not raised Catholic but now desired full communion with the Church. Because Lee had remarried without a declaration of nullity, he was unable to receive Eucharist, and Michele (who also had a prior marriage) was unable to be received into full communion.
Pope Benedict XVI spoke of people like Lee in 2005: “Those who were married in the Church for the sake of tradition but were not truly believers, and who later find themselves in a new and invalid marriage and subsequently convert….are in a particularly painful situation.” He called the original marriage of the nominal Catholic “a sacrament celebrated without faith.”
Nevertheless, the Church cannot deny objective reality, and must always begin with the presumption of marital validity unless shown otherwise. Thus, a civil “remarriage,” when the original spouse or spouses are still living, constitutes an objective and ongoing state of infidelity. Emotional struggles can never be used to suppress or deny the truth of the original martial bond.
In the early days of Lee’s reversion and Michele’s conversion they mistakenly thought they were able to receive communion, and they did so with great personal joy. But when they realized otherwise, they ceased receiving Eucharist and began the process of catechesis and waiting.
In our conversation, it was clear that Lee and Michele believed the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage; their struggle was not one of bitterness, but of longing. They were both yearning for the Eucharist; having tasted the sublime glory of Christ’s real presence.
The more they spoke of their desire for Eucharist, I felt an urging in my soul that I now discern was the work of the Spirit. Please understand—I am not one to hear locutions or have regular revelations. Usually I’m as deaf as a fence post to the inner promptings of God.
Yet I knew what God wanted me to say to them; that if they wanted the Eucharist this badly there might be another solution while they wait. Perhaps—in counsel with their pastor and with approval from the Bishop—they could vow to abstain from sexual relations.
I thought to myself, “I can’t say something this extreme. I just met them, for heaven’s sake.” Finally, though, just as our prayer hour was ending, I sheepishly said, with my eyes to the ground, “You know, if you really want the Eucharist, there might be a way even now for….”
“Hold it right there,” Lee interrupted. “We know where you’re going.” “Uh oh,” I thought to myself. He continued, “And we’re ready for it.” Michele smiled and nodded. They had already been interiorly convicted about the inappropriateness of sexual intimacy in their present circumstance. Their marriage has since been validated, but I marvel at their spirit of obedience, their Eucharistic hunger, and the freedom they found in sacrificial faith.
They have taught me a lesson: never underestimate the willingness of people to embrace the truth, no matter the cost, especially when truth is not an abstract concept but the Person of Jesus who has redeemed and transformed them. Once we help people meet Jesus, the yoke of discipleship will be more liberating than restrictive, and nothing is more “pastoral” than that.