To my way of thinking, the single most important event that will occur during the 2015 Synod on Marriage and the Family will be one over which the participating bishops will engage in no discussion and take no votes. Indeed, I think the most inspired decision surrounding this whole Synod is to have the canonization of St. Thérèse’s parents – Zelie and Louis Martin – take place this Sunday.
The Church has always pointed to the lives of saints to teach us the great truths of our faith. In this case, the example is not only the fidelity of this holy couple, nor their obviously great conjugal love, nor the permanence of their union. All of these things can also be found outside Christianity, because marriage is a natural institution.
What the Martins exemplify, as do all holy Catholic marriages, is the integral and necessary role of chastity within marriage. True Christian marriages are chaste, and chaste marriages are always holy.
The holiness of the vocation of marriage within the sacrament of matrimony is a major theme of this particular Synod, as it was at Vatican II. What is not so clearly a theme is the integral relationship between this holiness and the chastity of the married couple. I suspect that this theme is mentioned at times, but it does not get the same level of attention as many other topics. Yet nothing will be more important for the renewal of Christian marriage than the reassertion of the Church’s teaching on chastity within marriage, and courageous and wise practical efforts to re-evangelize the Catholic laity on this point.
It doesn’t totally surprise me that the theme of marital chastity does not have quite the same emphasis in these discussions as it did in the past. Just recall the very title of Pope Pius XI’s great 1930 encyclical on marriage, Casti connubii, “of chaste wedlock,” which numerous times praises the wisdom of God contained in this “chaste and sacred fellowship of nuptial union.” Pope Pius XII, Paul VI, St. John Paul II all wrote beautifully extolling the greatness and holiness of chaste marriages. But today, after a half-century of radical sexual transformation of our western societies, chaste marriages are rarely found – or understood – even among Christians, and sadly even among many Church leaders.
When Pius XI wrote his encyclical on chaste marriage, he was responding to the sexual revolution taking hold in the Church of England, which had just given moral acceptance to the practice of contraception at the Lambeth Conference. Today, we can easily see, if we have eyes to see, the devastating effects of contraception on marriage and society: the terrible breakdown in marital fidelity, the breakdown of conjugal love leading to divorce, and the tragic demographic suicide of virtually all Western countries that have adopted contraception as a way of life both within and outside marriage.
Much of this devastation was foreseen by Pope Pius XI and was restated by both Pope Paul VI and St. John Paul II. What they profoundly understood was the intimate connection between the contraceptive lifestyle and the destruction of chastity within marriage. Unfortunately, this close connection is not always understood by Church leaders. And even more unfortunately, the value of chastity itself has been deeply undermined, both within marriage and in the single life.
Some years ago I came across a powerful editorial statement from 1931, by the editor of the Washington Post, a Methodist layman, who understood this connection every bit as much as Pope Pius XI. This insightful layman concluded that the decision of the major Protestant denominations to approve contraception would produce a moral and spiritual disaster: “Carried to its logical conclusion, the committee’s report, if carried into effect, would sound the death knell of marriage as a holy institution by establishing degrading practices which would encourage indiscriminate immorality.” He also understood that contraception would destroy the very holiness of the marriage vocation and world inevitably lead to indiscriminate immorality, unchastity, both inside and outside of marriage. He was right, as were the Popes, a first prophetic ecumenical agreement.
It makes me suspicious about most of the attendees at the Synod, apart from certain outspoken bishops and lay observers, is the fact that the topic of contraception got so little attention in that final document of the 2014 Synod, as if it were just a minor problem affecting Christian marriage. Yet all the religion polls tell us that a vast majority of Catholics in most Western countries have rejected the Church’s constant teaching on the immorality of contraception. That means unchastity has become a dominant feature of contemporary Christian marriage. So the question arises, how can this Synod hope to make any real impact on the renewal of Christian marriage and family life if it refuses to recognize the central importance of chastity within marriage, and the impact of contraceptive practice on that conjugal virtue?
The fact that one marriage, the holy union of Zelie and Louis Martin, could already have produced three saints – and so many vocations to virginal chastity – is not unrelated to the practice of the heroic virtue of chastity by the parents. This has often been the story of holy marriages in the history of the Church.
If marriage is in trouble today in the Catholic Church, and if vocations to religious life and priesthood are also in trouble, certainly the crisis of marital chastity is at the root of this problem. I suspect that if you polled all the popes back to Peter, they would agree with that assessment. Let’s hope these canonizations will also have some impact on the final deliberations of the Synod. It almost certainly will have an impact on the life of the Church. For that, thank you, Pope Francis.