My Thoughts for Pope Francis, Part Two: What Family Is, Naturally


Intro | Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five | Part Six

I hope you didn’t think I’d forgotten about this little series! This is the third in a series of posts about the preparation for the synod on marriage and the family. I invite you to add your responses in the comments or on your own blog.

Please offer a prayer for the synod. All the participants need our prayer more than anything! It begins on Sunday, October 5, and continues through October 19.

On to the next set of questions!

Marriage According to the Natural Law

a.k.a. What Marriage Actually Is, Naturally, Despite What We May Think It Is or Desire It to Be

What place does the idea of the natural law have in the cultural areas of society: in institutions, education, academic circles, and among the people at large? What anthropological ideas underlie the discussion on the natural basis of the family?

In academics, natural law is seen as philosophy and only one of many ideas. It’s not taken seriously, or it is seen as religion in disguise. I’ve never heard anyone outside of the Church even mention natural law (with one exception: Dr. J. Budziszewski), but then again, I’ve never studied philosophy. The cultural study (anthropology) of family is seen as fluid and changing: family is whatever you want to call it, parents are anyone with enough money and science behind them, and marriage is outdated in the modern world.

Is the idea of the natural law in the union between a man and a woman commonly accepted as such by the baptized in general?

Baptized churchgoers are more likely to be attuned to the natural law even if they don’t know it by name. They know deep down that some things just ought to be a certain way. Many don’t see an application of any aspect of Church teachings, including the foundation of natural law, to any sphere outside the Church. I don’t know about the “baptized in general.” If you happen to be baptized but not religiously involved at all, then you probably live in about the same way as the unbaptized religiously apathetic person.

How is the theory and practice of natural law in the union between man and woman challenged in light of the formation of a family? How is it proposed and developed in civil and Church institutions?

Parts of the civil world outside of the Church are still clinging to the natural law of marriage, but they don’t always have the words or philosophy to back it up. They cling to history or social popularity, which is not nearly as strong a foundation. If “equality” means “treating everyone in exactly the same manner,” then “marriage equality” proponents might have a point. (I don’t think that’s what equality means.) The idea of family has been so far separated from the identities of individual men and women, and even of couples, that it doesn’t even come up in the same conversation.

In the Church, there is enough confusion that “denying” someone marriage to a person of the same sex is seen as cruel by many people. When civil marriage lost its goal of permanence, making divorce more common, it was only a matter of time before the complementarity of man and woman and the goal of family became lost, too. On the other hand, demonstrating the fruitfulness of marriage by raising large families has become a way to demonstrate faith. If you don’t have many children, people will think you’re being unfaithful. A family can be just a couple without children; fruitfulness comes in other forms, too. Everyone’s point of view is skewed.

In cases where non-practicing Catholics or declared non-believers request the celebration of marriage, describe how this pastoral challenge is dealt with.

Cohabiting couples are a distinct and modern challenge. Many pastors are neutral on the cohabitation of never-married couples requesting the sacrament, not requiring them to separate or even suggesting it. The few that insist upon separation are seen as “not being pastoral” (a.k.a. not being nice). There is something to be said for the hope that the grace of the sacrament will convict cohabitors of their sin, but there is also something to be said for such couples setting a scandalous example. If a cohabiting couple can be married with the same ceremony as a chaste couple, what motive is there for the chaste couple to remain so? On the other hand, if a cohabiting couple is turned away from the sacrament, will they ever receive it, or will they seek civil marriage or simply never marry? How do we account for sexually active (fornicating) couples who don’t cohabit or who all-but-cohabit? In welcoming their decision to regularize their situation, do we implicitly condone their past behavior? We can never prove receipt of the sacrament of reconciliation, so are we inviting cohabiting couples to potentially receive the sacrament of marriage while in a state of mortal sin?

Non-practicing Catholics are often also cohabitors. If they are not, then there is the possibility that a Church wedding is nothing more than a big, pretty party. Baptized Catholics are allowed to be married in the Church, all other obstacles notwithstanding. Marriage might even be the way they return to active practice. If it’s not, though, we’re just helping them put on a show.

As far as (unbaptized) nonbelievers go, I think it’s fairly well-known that at least one member of the couple must be Catholic to have a Catholic wedding. If neither is, that sounds like just the opportunity for RCIA.

That’s the second section. It was much more philosophical, but there’s plenty of real life that stems from our ideas about the way life should be. Have you ever heard of natural law outside of a religious context (or just outside of a Catholic context)? Do you think marrying cohabitors in the Church sets a bad example? Pope Francis asked for your opinion, too!


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