The collapse of marriage culture throughout the world is indisputable. More and more marriages end in divorce, even as increasing numbers of couples simply ignore marriage, cohabit and procreate. The effort to redefine “marriage” as what we know it isn’t, and to enforce that redefinition by coercive state power, is well-advanced in the West. The contraceptive mentality has seriously damaged the marriage culture, as have well-intentioned but ultimately flawed efforts to make divorce easier. The sexual free-fire zone of the West is a place where young people find it very hard to commit to a lifelong relationship that inevitably involves sacrificing one’s “autonomy.” And just as the Christian understanding of marriage is beginning to gain traction in Africa, where it is experienced as a liberating dimension of the Gospel, European theologians from dying local churches are trying to empty marriage of its covenantal character, reducing it to another form of contract.
Rome, we have a problem.
Pope Francis understands the crisis of marriage culture in its multiple dimensions, just as he understands that the family, which begins in marriage, is a troubled institution in the post-modern world; that’s why he’s summoned two Synods on the topic of the family. And that’s why the Synod, fully aware of the gravity of the situation, should begin, continue and end on a positive note, offering the world a pearl of great price: the Christian understanding and experience of marriage.
The Synod discussion, in other words, should take the crisis of marriage and the family as a given and then lift up Christian marriages, lived faithfully and fruitfully, as the answer to that crisis. The Synod should begin with what is good and true and beautiful about Christian marriage and Christian family life, and show, by living examples, how that truth, goodness and beauty respond to the deepest longings of the human heart for solidarity, fidelity and fruitful love.
It’s quite obvious that the Church faces real pastoral challenges in dealing with broken marriages and their results. But to begin the discussion of marriage and the family in the 21st century there is to begin at the wrong end of things. For it is only within the truth-about-marriage, which was given to the Church by the Lord himself, that compassionate and truthful solutions to those pastoral problems can be found.