Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Blessed Pope Paul VI: Interceding for Life on Earth and in Heaven

At the end of the contentious Synod on the Family, Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI, who was best known for reiterating the Catholic Church's objection to artificial birth control in the late 1960s. This beatification may signal more about the current pontiff's vision for the Church than his refusal to choose sides in the often acrimonious Synod debates between bishops over cohabitation, homosexuality, and pastoral care for the divorced and civilly remarried. This article originally appeared at Aleteia.


The Church canonizes a pope, not a papacy, as the saying goes, but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish the man from the office he holds. Pope John XXIII’s canonization seven months ago amounted to a public declaration of the worth and validity of Vatican II, with which Pope John XXIII was so strongly identified. And when Pope Francis beatified Pope Paul VI this past week, it was as if the current pope put to rest all doubts about the Church’s continued adherence to Pope Paul VI’s most infamous encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which affirmed the Church’s stance against artificial birth control.

The timing of the canonization could not have been more powerful. The Extraordinary Synod on the Family, which took place from October 5 to October 19 in Rome, brought us images of cardinals raising their voices, challenging each others' views and intensely debating issues that to many of us seem undebatable – the Church’s doctrinal opposition to homosexual acts, sex outside of marriage, and divorce and remarriage outside the Church. In his closing speech on October 18, Pope Francis complimented the bishops for speaking their minds and criticized both “traditionalists” for their “hostile inflexibility” and “progressives” for their “deceptive mercy.” In light of calls for the pontiff to pick a side in the debates, he pointed out what he saw as flaws on both sides equally.

But Pope Paul VI’s beatification, which took place at the closing Mass of the Synod on October 19, displayed unity and unalloyed respect for a man labeled as a traditionalist and a progressive – a traditionalist for his proclamations on birth control and a progressive for his support of Mass in the vernacular.

“Few people understood how comprehensively he saw things,” noted Deacon Scott Dodge of the Cathedral of the Madeleine. At Pope Paul VI’s beatification, Pope Francis praised his predecessor’s heroic virtue in “hold[ing] fast with farsightedness and wisdom – and at times alone – to the helm of the barque of Peter.” If the beatification signified anything about Pope Francis’ plans for the future, it signaled an intent to stay the course, and not change what cannot be changed.

Similarly, the final report of the Synod mentioned the need for a positive reception of Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae, a reception which few Catholics have been willing to give it. One man who was ahead of the curve in this respect is Dr. Thomas Hilgers, who has based his entire medical career on answering the call of Humanae Vitae.

While a senior in medical school, Dr. Hilgers read the encyclical and became an “instant convert,” as he explained to me in a videoconference from Rome where he had participated in the beatification ceremony.

At the death of Pope Paul VI in 1978, Dr. Hilgers vowed to create an institute that bore the late pope’s name – the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction. In 1985, Dr. Hilgers broke ground on the institute. And this year, he was invited by the Vatican to read the prayers of the faithful in English for an audience of more than 300,000 attendees at the historic occasion of Pope Paul VI’s beatification.

What impacted Dr. Hilgers the most about Humanae Vitae were the calls to action to medical professionals and men of science, encouraging the development of modern methods of natural family planning. Dr. Hilgers went on to create the Creighton Model of fertility care, which blends family planning with reliable diagnosis of reproductive disorders, and NaPro Technology, which provides moral medical solutions to those disorders. He dreams of one day finding a cure for infertility based on these methods, he said.


Despite having trained more than 600 doctors through his fellowship program and having established over 280 fertility care centers across the country, Dr. Hilgers claims that educating the medical profession is not enough to create the health care revolution he yearns for. “This is a revolution that will occur not because of the doctors, but in spite of the doctors,” he told me.

“People are getting hurt” by modern medical agendas fueled by the culture of death, stated Hilgers, and the proof is widely available. “The data is there,” he explained, “the sociological data of destruction – abortion, divorce, sexually transmitted diseases.” According to Hilgers, the downhill trend started with the advent of the birth control pill. When the medical profession began prescribing the birth control pill not only for contraception but for numerous gynecological disorders, it started down the path of masking symptoms without treating the underlying problems, he explained. 

“We’ve wasted 36 years of really good research capability” into curing things like post-menstrual syndrome, post-partum depression, and infertility, he lamented. A lot of research money has been poured into the technologies of in vitro fertilization, which lead to many more embryos being destroyed than being implanted in a woman’s womb and still don’t solve the root causes of infertility. 

Hilgers’ research, on the other hand, has been dedicated to discovering and fixing underlying reproductive disorders. By learning how each woman’s cycle functions, in a way as unique as a fingerprint, Hilgers has been able to detect hormonal problems that can be corrected. In developing laser surgery of the reproductive organs that leaves minimal scarring, he has made great progress in surgical methods of overcoming fertility problems. But “there’s an enormous amount of work that still needs to be done,” he acknowledged.

A lot of that work amounts to education in overcoming biases against natural family planning, which has often taken on the connotation of the old and ineffective “rhythm method.” Education about the benefits of natural family planning “has to start with very young people,” Hilgers said. Dioceses could also throw themselves more wholeheartedly into promotion of NFP, according to Deacon Dodge, who is an NFP instructor himself. Most dioceses require engaged couples to take a three-hour introductory course in NFP as part of pre-Cana instruction, but a full course lasts several months, in order to enable couples to analyze data from several cycles. Some dioceses do require a full course as part of pre-Cana, but others are faced with a shortage of NFP teachers, stated Deacon Dodge. For such a requirement to work, most dioceses would need to train more teachers, he added.

The most pressing need, according to Dr. Hilgers, is to “develop the richness of Humanae Vitae – not the words of Humanae Vitae, but the values of Humanae Vitae.” In the last 40 years, we have descended to a “great depth of spiritual poverty,” he said. But in his practice, he has seen patients come back to the Church because they are “overwhelmed by the goodness of this teaching” on life issues.

The beatification of Pope Paul VI sends a strong and beautiful pro-life message. The miracle required for beatification was in fact a pro-life miracle – the healing of an unborn baby in the womb. Pope Paul VI’s intercession in that case demonstrated his love for life extending beyond the borders of heaven. Pope Paul VI, enthused Deacon Dodge, has proven himself to be a “powerful intercessor on behalf of life and on behalf of marriage and family.” Blessed Pope Paul VI, pray for us!


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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Catholic Author Jean Heimann of CatholicFire Tells Us How to Stay Married 10 Years & Then Some

Following up on last week's blog tour where I reviewed Jean Heimann's new book Seven Saints for Seven Virtues, Jean and her husband Bill return to Can We Cana? for some advice on How to Stay Married 10 Years & Then Some.


1. How many years have you been married and how many kids do you have?


Bill & Jean:  We have been married 22 years and have no biological children. Bill has an adult son from a previous marriage, which was formally annulled by the Catholic Church prior to our marriage in the Church in 1992.


2. Name 3 things that have helped you to stay married this long.


Jean: Our strong Catholic faith bonded us from the beginning and has kept us together over the years. We are “equally yoked” as the Protestants say. We were both actively involved in leadership roles in various ministries prior to our marriage (and continue to be) and saw eye to eye on the important issues that face engaged couples: openness to life, putting God first in our lives, serving others, stewardship, our roles as husband and wife. We were highly compatible from the beginning and continue to remain that way. We both view marriage as a covenant bond and as lifetime commitment and plan to remain together until death do us part.  Second, I believe that while I tend to expect perfection from myself, Bill has never expected that from me, probably because he knows how truly imperfect I am. He is very understanding when I fail or make mistakes and also very forgiving. Forgiveness is essential in marriage, as there are times when we disappoint or fail our partner. If Jesus can forgive others, we, too, need to be able to emulate that quality. Third, a sense of humor along with a strong trust in God during trials and times of difficulty keeps us on the right track. Bill has taught me how to take myself and situations less seriously. He knows exactly what to say to make me laugh and how to help ease the tension during stressful times.

Bill: When we were married, it was Bill, Jesus, and Jean who were joined in union in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. Jesus has always been at the center of our marriage. Jean and I make time to pray together every day.  I always remember the saying, “The family that prays together, stays together.” We pray the Night Prayer, the Rosary, a daily prayer to St. Joseph, as well as our Family Consecration prayer to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. We were prayer intercessors for a diocesan prayer group before we met and we continue to pray for the needs of others. I am fortunate to work at a job where I am able to recite the Rosary and I often offer up my Rosary for Jean’s special intentions. I know that Jean prays for me every day and she encourages me when I am going through tough times – that means a lot to me. Due to my work hours, I am only able to attend Mass one extra day besides Sunday, but it helps to know that I have a wife who attends Mass daily and is offering up prayers for me at Mass. Second, our love for one another is a permanent, lasting commitment. We are growing old together and are blessed with one another’s company. Third, listen to one another. It’s important to have someone there for you who will listen to you and encourage you.


3. What role has your faith played in your marriage?


Jean: Our Faith has sustained us in numerous trials: illnesses, long periods of unemployment, financial difficulties, inability to have children of our own, deaths of family members, and many other sufferings we never anticipated. God has blessed us with abundant graces to sustain us and even transcend these trials. All these sufferings simply make us stronger and help us grow closer to one another and to God, if we surrender them to Him.

4. What advice would you give people who are dating and considering marriage?


Jean: Be yourself. Don’t ever compromise your values to please the other person. Be chaste. Save your virginity to give to your spouse as a wedding gift on your wedding night. Be honest and sincere with yourself and with the other person about your expectations in marriage. Don’t be afraid to discuss all the “hot button” issues that you will be facing in marriage. When you have found that special someone, schedule an appointment with a priest to prepare yourself and your partner for marriage.

5. What advice would you give newlyweds?


Jean: Be patient with one another. Never go to bed angry. Pray together every day.

6. What advice would you give new parents or couples who are trying to have children?


Jean: Learn about Natural Family Planning and practice it, if necessary. It is natural, holistic, healthy, and a practice in partnership. It creates a natural bond between the married couple, drawing them into a more intimate union. Avoid artificial means of contraception, which separate the sexual act from pro-creation. The Church disapproves of these because they block the self-giving relationship between husband and wife, which should be a natural part of marriage, but they also are very unhealthy. They can endanger the woman’s health, cause an early abortion, and eventually ruin the couple’s love life.

Be aware that there are many methods of helping couples who are infertile today. I had been diagnosed with endometriosis ten years prior to our marriage and had three surgeries performed by a Catholic gynecologist for it. When we were married, I was told that I had a 50-50 chance of conceiving, but it never happened. I was devastated until I accepted the fact that it was not God’s will for me. Today, there are more effective methods for helping couples conceive that coincide with Catholic teachings, such as the CREIGHTON MODEL FertilityCare™ System (CrMS) and the new women's health science of NaProTECHNOLOGY.  [Editor's Note: For my interview of the founder of the Creighton Model and NaProTechnology on the occasion of Pope Paul VI's beatification in Rome, click here.] There are also now a number of support groups, including some that are Catholic, for those who deal with difficulty in conceiving a child. There are also now Catholic clinics, such as the Pope Paul VI Institute for the Study of Human Reproduction and the National Center for Women's Health in Omaha, Nebraska.

~ copyright Jean M. Heimann October 2014

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Sex and the Synod: What Women Think

In talking to my sources on the Synod, I noticed many of my emails beginning with "Dear Gentlemen." So I set out to discover what women think of the Synod. To my pleasure and surprise, I was able to interview Prof. Janet E. Smith, known for her expertise in the Theology of the Body, as well as marriage policy expert Maggie Gallagher, and my friend Sr. Anne aka "nunblogger".  Here's what they had to say in this article that originally appeared at Aleteia.


          Although the Catholic Church has often faced accusations of waging a war on women, many intelligent, successful, and accomplished women strongly support the Church’s countercultural teaching on marriage, family, and sexuality. Confronted with secular voices falsely depicting the Church’s teaching on sexuality and forces inside the Church pushing the Synod fathers to overturn settled doctrines, women like Prof. Janet Smith, Sr. Anne Flanagan, Maggie Gallagher and others stand firm.

Married Sex and the Synod

            Many eyebrows were raised when a lay couple from Australia told the Synod fathers, in explicit terms, how important sexual intercourse was to their marriage. NBC’s Ann Curry characterized this “sex talk” at the Synod as a stunning contradiction of the view within the Church that married sex is only “’ an imperfection that is permitted.’”  But Theology of the Body expert Prof. Janet Smith explained that Ann Curry got it wrong. If any Catholics have gotten the impression that their religion barely tolerates married sex, “that means they have been taught badly,” said Prof. Smith. 

            Curry’s stereotype expresses a “reductionistic view of what the Church teaches on sexuality,” agreed Dr. Deborah Savage, professor of philosophy and theology and Director of the Masters Program in Pastoral Ministry at St. Paul Seminary in Minnesota. “The old and somehow lingering perception that the Church thinks sex is bad” is positively “medieval,” she continued. “It made me laugh!” Pre-Cana programs like the Archdiocese of New York’s teach instead that “when two people totally give of  themselves” in free, faithful, and fruitful married love “they image God,” explained Marga Regina, Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese.

            These days, it is “unlikely anyone ordained” – particularly the bishops at the Synod – “would not know about the beauty of the marital act and the importance of marriage as a vocation,” stated Dr. Savage.

            “The problem is people have convinced themselves that all the Church gives is rules to follow” about sexuality, said Savage. But particularly through Pope St. John Paul II’s groundbreaking Theology of the Body, the Church offers a complete understanding of what it means to be human, created by God in his image and with the ability to generate new life through the sexual act.

             “At least in the United States many bishops have held sessions for their priests on the Theology of the Body and Natural Family Planning. I suspect they are very accustomed to speaking frankly about sexuality,” Prof. Smith opined. Most U.S. seminaries are now doing a good job educating future priests on these topics, according to Smith, who holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. “The Institute for Priestly Formation has formed a large portion of the recently ordained and they speak freely about sexuality and provide an excellent formation based on the TOB. The Theology of the Body Institute [also] has first rate programs for priests and laity,” she continued.

            John Paul II’s teaching on the Theology of the Body may not be as well known outside our borders, however. “It does seem to me that the Theology of the Body is much better known in the U.S. than in other countries,” stated Smith. “The predominance of speakers at international conferences are Americans, though some countries, such as Ireland, Portugal, Australia, some places in India and Africa, have strong programs,” she added.  Moreover, the 2014 Theology of the Body Congress in Philadelphia, where Dr. Savage delivered the keynote address, had attendees from 18 countries. So interest is definitely spreading.

            Greater dissemination of the Theology of the Body should go a long way to correcting any false views that linger in the way sexuality is taught, according to Prof. Smith. The Synod fathers could help by encouraging Catholics worldwide to take greater interest. “My view is that if the Church made wide use of the materials already available we would make rapid progress,” opined Smith.

Homosexuality and the Synod

            In an effort to put pressure on so-called “anti-LGBT bishops,” the homosexual advocacy group Human Rights Campaign (“HRC”) has organized a series of vigils called "Pray, Listen, Discern" to take place while the Synod is occurring. HRC’s stated goal is to convince Church leaders to "recognize our humanity and our right to seek civil recognition of our relationships and our families." Such tactics have become the norm, according to Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. Advocacy efforts previously targeted at the “mushy middle” are now being directed at Christian churches and communities, she said.

            In HRC’s fact sheet about the Synod, the group claims that 71% of U.S. Catholics support same-sex marriage and 60% favor allowing same-sex couples to adopt children.  Although Gallagher emphasized that “polling on gay marriage varies depending on the wording of the question,” she noted that other polls have also found that at least a slight majority of mass-going Catholics now support same-sex marriage in the United States.

             “The cultural pressure to conform is very strong,” Gallagher continued, “and I suspect Pope Francis’ call to us to show mercy is getting translated [into] ‘standing down in anything that smacks of culture war’ in the minds of many U.S. Catholics.” She nonetheless sees nothing wrong with HRC’s hope that the Synod could secure "the baptismal sacrament for children of LGBT Catholic families." Caring for a “child’s immortal soul” does not amount to political support for same-sex marriage itself, Gallagher said.

            To avoid misinterpretation, however, it is important for the Synod to confirm “the complementarity that characterizes men and women,” who alone can cooperate in procreation, stated Dr. Savage. The purpose of sexuality is not only to unite the couple, but also to result in new life. By removing the possibility of procreation from their sexuality, practicing homosexuals show a “confused understanding of what their sexuality is for,” explained Dr. Savage. If the Synod doesn’t come out with a clear restatement of Church teaching on the meaning of sexuality, “it will only add to the confusion,” she warned.

Communion for Divorced and Remarried

            Prominent American nun Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, formerly with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, recently cast her lot with Cardinal Walter Kasper who has repeatedly urged the bishops to find a way to allow the divorced and civilly remarried to receive Holy Communion. The Synod “dare not do nothing,” Walsh argued, or the Church will face a wave of dissent similar to that following the papal encyclical Humanae Vitae, which upheld Church teaching against artificial contraception despite broad public expectation of doctrinal change.

            “Nonsense,” responded theology professor Dr. Savage. “The Synod is under no obligation to change doctrine.” Moreover, Humanae Vitae’s dire predictions that greater contraceptive use would lead to more infidelity and less respect for women have been proven to be prophetic, in her opinion. “People were upset about Humanae Vitae, but they were wrong,” she proclaimed.

            Prof. Janet Smith, who has authored several works on Humanae Vitae, was likewise undaunted by implicit threats of dissent. “There is much more fidelity in the Church today than there was at the time of Humanae Vitae. We have had over 40 years of struggle within the Church and fidelity, in important ways, has won out over dissent,” she said.

            One of Walsh’s proposals resembled a sort of do-it-yourself annulment process, in which individuals “convinced that their first marriage was not sacramental [can] approach Communion according to their own well-formed conscience.” Rejecting that proposal out of hand, Prof. Smith declared that “marriages are governed by law not by conscience. A well-formed conscience would want to submit to the Church.”

            Sr. Anne Flanagan, known as “nunblogger” to her more than 15,000 Twitter followers, similarly looked askance at Walsh’s proposal. “Even in ordinary human matters, we are often quite blind to things we really ought to know about ourselves. How can we appraise our own spiritual condition, especially in matters of the heart?” asked Flanagan. She emphasized that reception of the Eucharist involves much more than the individual’s personal relationship with God, because it is also a public act of communion with the Church.

            “The communion issue is so huge for people today … because at this point, Catholic life has been reduced to Sunday Mass,” continued Flanagan. “Fifty+ years ago, it was not odd to see five or six people remain in a pew at Communion time, and communicants had to awkwardly step between kneelers and legs to get to and from the aisle.  … While frequent Communion was the ideal, it was not a given as it is now.” She mourned a lack of vibrant parish life that could fully welcome people in social and communal activities outside of Mass. 

            Dr. Savage similarly sympathized with the divorced and civilly remarried, seeing them as “victims of a culture that has taught them that marriage is a convenience.” But she cautioned that we must “be realistic” in our hopes of providing them with a warmer welcome without breaking with the history and traditions of the Church. The Synod “isn’t a Vatican Council [such as Vatican II]. We need to peg our expectations to the forum,” she stated. The Synod’s role is merely to advise Pope Francis.

            Observing that not all Catholics run in the same circles, Dr. Savage noted that “some people are anxious for change, and others are hopeful that the Church will stay the course. I’m with [the latter group]. I see the Church as the last bastion in pushing back the tides of secularism.” There’s a tidal wave of cultural collapse looming, she predicted, and “there’s one wall left.” That wall is the Catholic Church.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

How Sinner-Turned-Saint Augustine Can Teach You Temperance

In the midst of constant media kerfuffle over the Synod on the Family taking place in Rome, I'd like to take a deep breath and return to the fundamentals of personal holiness -- the only real engine of evangelization. Personal holiness derives from the pursuit of virtue, and the saints are our best guides since they have run the race before us and won the victor's crown. So today I'm going to talk about Jean Heimann's new book Seven Saints for Seven Virtues, which was just released by Servant Books on October 7 -- the Feast of the Holy Rosary. I'm thrilled to participate in the launch week blog tour with other luminaries like EWTN personality Donna-Marie Cooper O'Boyle and Catholic Writers Guild president Ellen Gable. Be sure to check out their posts on the tour as well!


Prior to his conversion, St. Augustine led a pretty debauched life, shacking up with a mistress for 15 years and fathering an illegitimate child with her. So I was initially surprised when Jean Heimann's new book Seven Saints for Seven Virtues chose St. Augustine as a role model for temperance -- "the cardinal virtue that helps us overcome weaknesses of the flesh," as Jean put it. Can a man who once famously prayed, "give me chastity but not yet," really teach anyone how to live a life of temperance?

Then I remembered wise words of advice from my former voice teacher: "The best teacher is someone who shares your flaws, but has overcome them." Without a doubt, St. Augustine fought fierce battles with a temptation to intemperance, describing himself at one point as a "slave to lust." Sometimes he won the battle, and sometimes he lost. As Jean notes:
Although he desired to break away from his sexual addiction, it was difficult for him to do so. He was very attached to his sins, as we all are, even though he desired to be celibate. He gradually overcame this sin through prayer, Scripture reading, the graces of the sacraments, and his own willpower and strong determination, based on his strong love for Jesus Christ.
This classic recipe of success in the spiritual life is an excellent guide for us all to follow in developing temperance (or any other virtue).

Seven Saints for Seven Virtues particularly recommends St. Augustine as a role model for cohabiting couples who feel that marriage is unnecessary, pointless, or even constricting. St. Augustine cohabited with his mistress for 15 years, never marrying her and never attaining true happiness. His heart ached when she left him, but he didn't hesitate to move on to someone else afterward. The book explains, "Couples who cohabitate are involved in a charade. They are pretending to be committed when neither one of them has made a true commitment." True love, on the other hand, remains unsatisfied by anything less than a total and definitive self-surrender either to God in celibacy or to each other in Holy Matrimony. This lesson, which St. Augustine lived and learned, has great impact for us today.

The other chapters of Jean's book similarly highlight one saint whose example can teach us one virtue -- Mother Teresa of Calcutta for charity, St. Joseph for humility, and so on. Each chapter also profiles a modern role model of virtue, bringing home to us the truth that people today share the same struggles as saints throughout the ages and with God's help we are equally capable of choosing truth, goodness, and beauty.

The pursuit of virtue and the imitation of the saints, far from being dry and dull, launches us on "the adventure of a lifetime," as prolific author and CatholicMom founder Lisa Hendey reminds us in the book's foreword. Seven Saints and Seven Virtues provides an excellent road map for the quest.

My thanks to the author for providing a free review copy.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Marriage vs. The Cult of Momentary Well-Being

Maggie Gallagher liked my last article on Pope Francis' Synod on the Family, so she agreed to share her thoughts with me for this next article. For all those currently worried by the press coverage on the Synod on the Family, I encourage you to be not afraid! Pope Francis and the bishops are searching for the right balance between justice and mercy, and they will find it with God's help.


The current crisis in marriage and family life arises from “a cult of momentary well-being,” stated Cardinal Peter Erdö, the relator general of the 2014 Synod of the Family. In his opening speech, one which traditionally sets the tone for the whole synod, the Cardinal emphasized that “many look upon their lives not as a life-long endeavour but a series of moments in which great value is placed on feeling good … . The future appears threatening, because it may happen that in the future we will feel worse.”

This view of the current marriage crisis is shared by Maggie Gallagher, founder of the National Organization for Marriage and the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy. “Too many of us no longer believe it is possible to make a lifetime vow of love and live up to it,” so we become trapped in “alienation from our deepest longings,” she explained.

This widespread emotional and spiritual malaise can only be overcome by a “truth cure,” that is, the joyful good news of sacramental marriage, according to Cardinal Erdö. The main ingredients of this truth cure, he remarked, involve cooperation between bishops and priests, laypeople, Church juridical structures, and social institutions. Bishops and priests need clearer directions, laypeople need better education in the faith, annulment procedures need reform, and governments need better policies. To reverse the decline in stable, life-long commitment, everyone needs to work together.

Clear Direction to Pastors

In light of ongoing disputes in the Church over how to treat cohabiting couples, same-sex couples and their children, and the divorced and civilly remarried, it comes as a relief to hear that the Synod hopes to offer “clear guidelines” to bishops and pastors on how “to help those living in difficult situations,” as Cardinal Erdö announced. “It is unrealistic to expect that by themselves” the bishops will find the right solutions, he continued. Above all, local pastors must avoid “the improvisations of a ‘do-it-yourself ministry’ which ends in making the acceptance of the Gospel of the Family more difficult,” he said.

The Cardinal cautioned that the Church must offer truth tempered with mercy, rather than a superficial form of tolerance that hides “a basic indifference and inability to be attentive.” The Church should combat error and “affirm the indispensable value of the truths of the indissolubility of marriage,” but with “recourse to the medicine of mercy rather than … the weapons of rigidity,” he noted.

Although specific Church teachings on marriage and family are not well-known, “this does not mean that the teaching, in principle, is put in doubt.” Therefore, “what is being discussed at this synod of an intense pastoral nature are not doctrinal issues, but the practical ones,” he said. This further insistence by Synod leaders that doctrinal issues are not up for grabs will, one hopes, silence those who are clamoring for impossible and impractical doctrinal changes.

Better Marriage Preparation

As cultural conditions have degenerated to the point where pro-marriage messages are rarely heard and barely understood, the burden has fallen increasingly on the Church to showcase the goodness of married and family life. Marriage preparation, or “pre-Cana” programs, are an essential way to spread that message, and the cardinal’s opening speech focused strongly on them. Cardinal Erdö stressed that the primary tasks of pre-Cana programs are to “show the value and attractiveness of a life-long bond” and help engaged couples “conquer their legitimate fears” about their emotional and financial security.

“The number one burden” that engaged couples bring into a pre-Cana program “is fear,” in the experience of Marga Regina, Marriage Preparation Coordinator for the Archdiocese of New York. “The fear of divorce is tremendous,” she stated, noting that some cohabiting engaged couples might have already experienced the breakdown of multiple previous cohabiting relationships.

Marriage preparation instructors welcome the emphasis that the Synod has so far placed on their programs, and they have well-thought-out ideas for how to accomplish the goals the Synod has announced.

Deacon Scott Dodge, of the Cathedral of the Madeleine in Salt Lake City, Utah, believes that first of all, “it is crucial to have married couples prepare couples for marriage.” Regina agreed that engaged couples often admit that they don’t have a good example of marriage to follow, so “they like to see a married couple witnessing to the faith.” The importance of this type of everyday witness will take center stage at this year’s Synod on the Family, where the bishops and cardinals will begin each day of discussion listening to a short presentation from a married couple.

Marriage preparation by lay couples needs to present an authentic picture of “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of married life, maintains Deacon Dodge. “Staying married is a huge challenge for virtually every couple,” and there is “no need for unrealistic, overly idealistic, witness.” Married couples should share how God’s grace through the Sacrament of Matrimony has helped them to persevere through their inevitable struggles.

Second, Church teachings on sexuality and contraception should be central. Most engaged couples have no idea “what does it mean to be open … to children, what does it mean to be male and female,” stated Regina. “Women are afraid the idea of the feminine will bind and constrain them. Men are growing up with fewer and fewer images of and incentives for civilized masculinity,” agreed marriage policy expert Gallagher.

Cardinal Erdö stated that the Church needs to re-promulgate the positive message of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical which, while praising the married couple’s mission of love and fertility, prohibited the use of artificial contraception.

Unfortunately, marriage prep is often “the last rung on the ladder” of a religious education that should have begun in childhood, according to Regina. “Children must grow up with an appreciation … for their masculinity and femininity, seeing it as a great gift, as a talent to be multiplied,” concurred Deacon Dodge. Instruction in Natural Family Planning is also crucial to teach couples about the gift of their fertility, he maintained.

Regina stressed that, as a third essential element of marriage preparation, engaged couples should have the opportunity to go to Confession while attending their pre-Cana program. She added that programs in the Archdiocese of New York routinely make the sacrament available to couples. People are “very open to the whole notion of healing” that comes through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, she observed. “When you talk to where their wounds are, that’s when they begin to trust,” she said. “The very thing you don’t want to talk about … is the very thing Jesus says ‘give it to me, and I’ll heal it,'” she added. The graces of Confession and of sacramental marriage can set us free “to love authentically and be loved authentically,” she said, and “we all want” that.

Reform of Annulment Procedures

It seems clear from Cardinal Erdö’s opening speech that annulment reforms will occupy a great deal of discussion at the Synod. In addition to reiterating several of the reforms already proposed, the Cardinal also suggested that “in each particular Church, at least one duly prepared priest is needed, who can offer counsel, without charge, as a first step for parties in ascertaining the validity of their marriage.”

Aldean Hendrickson, Director of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal of New Ulm, Minnesota, enthusiastically welcomed this proposal. Tribunal staff, he explained, “spend much time in back and forth” trying to explain the annulment process and how it might apply to a couple’s particular situation. “A single trained point of entry … could well ultimately lead to a more efficient start to cases,” he noted.

On the other hand, many tribunals already have advocates to assist people requesting an annulment. “Why would such an office require priestly ordination?” wondered Anthony St. Louis-Sanchez, judge of the Diocesan Marriage Tribunal of Colorado Springs. “It sends the message that the Church is taking this duty seriously. But otherwise, it seems to be reinventing the wheel. Priests do not receive this kind of training in the seminary. …In the end, this office would seem to be the same thing we already have, just repackaged,” St. Louis-Sanchez concluded.

The success of any reforms will depend mostly on the people implementing them. Tribunal Director Hendrickson pointed out that, “the marriage nullity process has been set up to fail by many tribunals, some of which cut corners or ignore portions of the process as it is carefully prescribed in canon law, and others, at the other extreme, that focus on the finest minutiae of the procedural law but seem blind to the human beings whose lives are represented on the pages of the case file.”

Tribunals should instead learn to balance, “careful observation of the procedural norms,” and, “loving pastoral care of the people,” never forgetting, “the inevitable third party in every case implied: the spouse from the first marriage.”

These first spouses, “are not seeing anything in the current coverage of the Synod that indicates that the Church is concerned for them and their plight. So I am increasingly concerned by every proposal to make the annulment process any more ‘pastoral’ until it is clearly looking out for the spiritual interests of ALL parties involved, not just those who are eager to move on with their lives,” Hendrickson added.

Improved Governmental Policies

Although better marriage preparation and streamlined annulment procedures may help, the Church alone can’t solve the crisis in marriage and family life, because it is a societal problem influenced by external pressures. “With regard to external pressures, increasing job insecurity is a nightmare for many families; migration often creates large imbalances in the family,” Cardinal Erdö pointed out.

The Church cannot offer adequate support for families “without a pro-active commitment through appropriate policies by governments and public agencies responsible for the protection and promotion of the common good,” he continued. In particular, caring for people from conception to natural death “requires … creating, at the institutional level, the conditions which make this care possible.” The Cardinal warned against the “privatization of love,” a phenomenon in which “the Western world risks making the family a reality entrusted exclusively to the choices of the individual, totally detached from a regulatory and institutional framework.”

According to Ms. Gallagher, though, “the Church should avoid becoming just another voice on political policy … because it diverts our time, energy and commitment away from things we can and should do.” If we blame or shift responsibility to institutions outside of our control, “it leads to lethargy and inaction,” she added.

With regard to the “privatization of love,” Gallagher agreed that “we have a much reduced sense of the centrality of marriage to children and society.” But on a political level, “we have ‘publicized’ not privatized love in America and Europe in the sense that the government is now involved in regulating and supporting (and interfering with) families in strikingly extensive ways,” she noted. Ultimately, the Church needs to do the best it can within the governmental and societal framework in which it exists. We all hope that the Synod on the Family can help show us the way how.

This article appeared at Aleteia under the title "What Maggie Gallagher and Other Marriage Experts Think About the Synod's Agenda." It also appeared on Catholic Lane.