The recent two-week-long synod on the family in the Vatican has been an on-going source of headlines around the world, and not just in Catholic media. After a year of reflection, it will resume next year. In the meantime, many critics are claiming that it is impossible to reconcile traditional Catholic teachings on sexuality with 21st century compassion. Jennifer Roback Morse sees things differently.
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My husband I attended a marriage preparation retreat in a small town in central California a few weeks ago. We were by far the oldest people there. The retreat was developed by an order of priests who are very orthodox in their teaching about marriage, family and human sexuality.
They do not soft-pedal anything. They do not cut corners. In fact in the small-group breakout sessions, one of the young couples said “this is not the easiest place in town to get married.” All the other young couples in the group nodded in agreement. “But this is my parish. This is where I was baptized. We wanted to get married here.”
So I feel confident when I say that these priests are holding the line on orthodoxy. Over the course of the weekend, the presenters told their personal faith journey. Almost all of the presenters at this conference had had some significant irregularity in their marriage situations.
What I saw was the Church “welcoming sinners.”
One couple recounted their journey from civil marriage to sacramental marriage. Their priest asked that they live together “as brother and sister” in the months leading up to the con-validation of their marriage in the Church.
For the uninitiated, this means: they had already been married civilly for some time and had children. One party had become Catholic. They wanted to get their marriage validated so they could have a sacramental marriage. Since they were not married in the eyes of the Church, they could not licitly have sex with each other. So their priest asked them to abstain until their wedding.
I heard no whining and complaining from this couple. What the husband had to say was quite astonishing. He spoke about how beautiful it was to have that period of time with his wife where they were not being sexual with one another. He spoke of how it deepened their love for each other. They were both grateful to the priest for making this challenging demand of them. They obviously could have reported on the difficulty of the request. But there they were, telling the 20 or so 20-something couples, how grateful they were.
Another couple shared that they had each been married before. One of their marriages had ended through death, the other through an annulment. Each of them had sterilized themselves during the course of their first marriages. The husband had made the decision to have a vasectomy. The wife decided to have her tubes tied. She decided this without consulting her then-husband. She had it done while she was in recovery from delivering her third child.
This couple was the most powerful couple of the whole weekend. They sat in front of us weeping openly about these decisions to sterilize themselves. They came to see that the reasons they gave themselves originally were not good enough. They spoke of their regrets. The most powerful regret was that they could not become parents together with their new sacramental spouse.
They spoke of their love for the church. “No one told me it was wrong.” The man said repeatedly, through his tears. “If only I had known. If only someone had told me.”
I thought to myself: there are probably millions of stories like this. People who followed the Teachings of the World. People who found out only too late that the Teachings of the Church were more profound than they had ever been led to believe.
My point here is twofold. First I am amazed how much these people love the church. I was amazed at how much they felt that the church’s teaching had been wiser and more humane than all the things they had been doing before.
Second, the World would have us believe that an order of very orthodox priests could not possibly be “compassionate” or “pastoral.” Yet there they were, both “welcoming” and orthodox.
These very orthodox priests were obviously not compromising one iota on church teaching. And yet somehow they were finding a way to help people work through their marriage irregularities and their past sins. What they had at the end of that process was not just ordinary-everyday-humdrum Catholics. They had really passionately committed Catholics.
I can attest to this pattern from personal experience. When I went back to the Catholic Church after a lapse of twelve long miserable years, I was lucky. The chaplain at George Mason University, where I taught at the time, welcomed me back gently. He heard my confession. I was in the Diocese of Arlington Virginia, which has a reputation for orthodoxy. I was able to learn more and more about the beauty of the Catholic faith and its teaching on marriage, family and human sexuality.
I am grateful that Fr Cilinski didn’t take any nonsense from me. I am grateful for the witness of the writers in the Arlington Catholic Herald, especially Elizabeth Foss. I learned so much from her.
It seems to me that this must be the very sort of thing that Pope Francis wishes for all of us to do. Find people where they are. Whatever their situation might be, throw them a life preserver. Get them on board the ship and help them recover from what they’ve been through. And those people will be our deepest and most committed next-generation of active orthodox committed Catholics.
If you are in an irregular situation, the Church will work with you to make it right. Go to the priest, and tell the truth, the whole story. He will help you.
Orthodoxy is welcoming, because it is truthful.
Jennifer Roback Morse, PhD is founder and President of the Ruth Institute. She was named one of the Catholic Stars of 2013 by Our Sunday Visitor, one of the largest and oldest English-language Catholic newspapers in the US.