What is the Church saying today about marriage and marriage difficulties?

A letter from the New Zealand Catholic Bishops' Conference February 2006

 "Therefore as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves in compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues, put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity."

(Colossians 3:12-14)


In 1988, the Hamilton Diocesan Commission for the Family published a booklet in support of married couples. Having found that only about 20% of married couples regularly attend Mass, the Commission was concerned to do something for the other 80%. They were thinking especially of the divorced, divorced and remarried, de facto couples, and mixed marriages, as well as some ethical issues within marriages. They wanted to offer them an update on what the Church is saying to them today, and the forms of spirituality available to them in the real world of day-to-day married life.

The bishops of New Zealand have revised the original booklet, offering it to the Catholic people in all our dioceses. The objectives are the same: to help Catholics identify the spiritual opportunities that are theirs, whatever their circumstances, and to address especially those who wonder whether the Church has anything for them, given their particular circumstances.

Perhaps many of those who most need the Church's encouragement and assurances will not be among those who read this. We still hope to reach them, however, through those who do read this letter and who recognise our shared responsibility to be accurately informed and to reach out to people in any kind of need.

We are indebted to the Bishops of England and Wales for quotations from their letter Cherishing Life. In a very special way, cherishing life is the vocation of married couples.

One: Support for Marriage

Individuals, and society itself, have a deep need for stable relationships. Marriage failure is normally experienced as disappointment or even tragedy, because every wife and husband set out at the dawn of their marriage in the hope of sharing life with each other, for life. The breakdown of their marriage can still be hurtful even when it is sometimes better for them to separate. They have a right to the Church's support.

Marriage breakdown can also be devastating for children, leaving deep scars. Children, and struggling parents, deserve all the support the rest of us can give them:

Those (parents) who manage on their own and on very limited resources to give children a good upbringing and education deserve all the help they can get. Employers should be flexible so as to attract and keep workers who are lone parents, but governments should not coerce parents with sole responsibility for small children to take up further paid work. Mothers who have chosen the path of life and love by keeping their child deserve financial help from government and practical help from the Church. Volunteers who raise money to help women in these situations are a powerful witness to the Christian way of life. (Cherishing Life, Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, 2004, para. 144).

Marriage failure can also leave younger people wondering whether it is worth taking the risk of making a permanent commitment. Some prefer just to live together.

All sorts of pressures, including poor housing, unemployment and low incomes, as well as some negative attitudes towards marriage, can create an environment hostile to marriage.

It is for all of us to help create the kind of environment that gives marriages a chance to deepen, grow and succeed.

In addition to this, it is especially important for couples themselves to nurture a loving, respectful and prayerful environment within their marriage.

Family prayer has for its very own object family life itself.. Joys and sorrows, hopes and disappointments, births and birthday celebrations, wedding anniversaries of the parents, departures, separations and home-comings, important and far-reaching decisions, the death of those who are dear, etc. all of these mark God's loving intervention in the family's history. They should be seen as suitable moments for thanksgiving, for petition, for trusting abandonment of the family into the hands of their common Father in heaven. The dignity and responsibility of the Christian family as the domestic Church can be achieved only with God's unceasing aid, which will surely be granted if it is humbly and trustingly petitioned in prayer. (Pope John Paul II, The Christian Family in the Modern World, para 59).

Two: Preparation for marriage more important than ever

Preparation for marriage is more important than ever. The Church provides marriage preparation programmes that are accessible, realistic and comprehensive. We thank all who are involved in providing them.

It is usually success that breeds success. Good parenting is really where preparation for marriage begins, as children see the love and care their parents have for each other and for them. Responsible and sensitive sex education also plays an important role in laying good foundations for our children's future relationships, and we encourage parents to take an active interest in this at home and at school. Successful marriages are not possible without sacrifices, sensitivity and deep respect for each other. This is why the virtue of chastity matters so much. It is about respect for one-self; respect for the sacredness of others, and self-restraint. For those not yet married it is about preparing for relationships based on deep respect. Such respect for each other within marriage will not be easy if it has not been practised during one's growing-up years.

Finally, the Church is at pains to emphasise that preparing for marriage must always be considered a higher priority than simply preparing for the wedding. The wedding lasts for a day; the marriage is for life.

In each diocese there are lay organisations, and programmes, that support marriage and family life, and preparation for marriage.

For details contact the Bishop's Office in your diocese.

Three: Sharing lives sharing faith

The Church - the community of Jesus' disciples - treasures and blesses the special relationship called marriage, and has a special responsibility for Christian marriage. At the same time, we want every person to experience the Church's love and respect, whatever form of living together they have entered into.

The Church's life revolves around Christ. Christian marriage involves a couple's sharing their faith in him walking in His way, telling His story, sharing in His life. For Christians, their faith is part of who they are. And who they are is what they share in marriage.

There is a sense in which couples whose Christian beliefs are the same have more in common with each other than those whose beliefs are different. Sometimes it can be a lonely road if couples are unable to share what they believe matters most in life. But this doesn't have to be the case. Christians in inter-church marriages have a special opportunity to deepen their understanding of each other's beliefs, especially if there is a commitment to share their spiritual life on whatever level possible. By continuing to practise and develop their faith, and sharing with their children their Christian faith in its fullness, they also contribute to the journey of the Christian churches towards unity.

In fairness to his or her intended spouse, a Catholic partner should always explain at an early stage of their relationship the obligations Catholics have regarding the practice of their faith. Any diminishing of one's own beliefs or practices amounts to offering one's partner something less than they deserve to receive from their Catholic partner. It involves hiding part of who one really is. The same respect which the Catholic expects is equally to be accorded to the partner who is not Catholic.

Four: Sacrament and Vocation

A true marriage between two baptised Christians, including inter-church marriages, is a sacrament. A sacrament embodies and makes present something that God is doing. What God is doing for husband and wife is embodied and made present in what they are doing for each other. Their love for each over, their sacrifices and their faithfulness are the human forms that God's love for them takes. And so the whole of their married life becomes a sacrament“ a sign of God's love for them and their family.

But there is more: the special vocation of Christian husbands and wives is to reflect the characteristics of Christ's love as best they can. His love for us was complete, to the point of dying for us; it was faithful even though we had been unfaithful; it was unconditional even though we had been undeserving. His forgiving and life-giving love is what he showed above all by his death on the cross. In the Christian tradition, the altar is a symbol of Christ's love because that is where his sacrifice on the cross is made present. So when Christians marry "before the altar", and especially if they have chosen a nuptial Mass, it is because they want their love for each other to mirror Christ's love for them: "this is my body. my blood given for you." (My very self I share with you.) In this way they become a sign to others of what Christ's love was, and is, like life-giving to themselves, and beyond themselves. That is their special apostolate in the world.

They will often fail, of course, but they will have set a goal. Gradually, they progress towards what Pope John Paul II called

"....an ever-richer union with each other on all levels physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual." (cf The Christian Family in the Modern World, 1981, para. 19).

Five: Other Relationships

Not every form of "living together" can be called a true marriage. At the same time, the Church understands the difficulties people can experience, and recognises that sometimes it is not easy to come out of a relationship that one may have entered into at a particular time in one's life. If children are involved, their parents have an ongoing responsibility to them even if the relationship is not marriage.

It can happen too easily that people in these situations feel the Church is less interested in them, because parish activities tend to revolve around regular Catholic family life. But people in these other relationships also belong. They too need acceptance and spiritual nourishment, and the Church is just as much theirs as it is anyone else's.

The respect we must have for them is the same respect that Jesus showed to all he met, regardless of the difficulties they faced in their lives. Jesus' approach then, is his approach now. It was out of love that He said "go and don't sin any more" (John 8:11). And his offer of forgiveness was for all without exception. People in difficult situations should find a similar welcome from parish leaders and parishioners. If sometimes Church statements seem fairly stark, we ask you to look to the compassion that is included within them. If the words do a poor job for you in your situation, then picture Jesus himself speaking, and reframe the words to the ones you think he would use. Would the meaning be different?

Six: Separated and Divorced

In our pastoral letter When Dreams Die (1982), we explained that the fact of being separated, and the fact of being divorced, do not prevent a Catholic from being a fully participating member of the Church. It seemed necessary to say this because an impression had grown up among some Catholics that separation and divorce are themselves sinful.

Causing a marriage to break down can indeed be sinful. But sometimes people are more the victims of another's sins, or even the victims of their own misunderstandings and mistakes.

In our pastoral letter Healing Love (1983) we quoted with appreciation what was said in a letter to one of us, from a person whose marriage had ended:

"Don't judge us harshly. When we married it was with the intention of making a go of it, to have it enduring throughout our lives. It is a source of great grief that it has become necessary to part, to break up the family and lose the family home. Many of us feel broken and carry the burdens of loneliness and hurt. It is hard to have our children in single-parent situations and to see our standard of living and opportunities for socialising cut right back. Remember that we are still persons seeking acceptance in the Church and in the world."

The bishops know very well that the trauma of separation and divorce often leads to a grief no less painful and no less disturbing than the grief that follows separation through physical death. For some people, the grief from the death of a marriage is more difficult to bear because all the persons involved remain alive. Through separation and divorce you are parted from someone who was once accepted as a life partner someone with whom you hoped and planned to share all the challenges of living together. Separation is normally the cause of grief for children too, even if they are not able to show it.

The general claim that divorce is a better option, for the sake of the children, than continuous strife between the parents seems to underestimate the harm that the process of divorce itself involves. Nevertheless, the Church accepts the legitimacy of seeking legal separation in sufficiently serious circumstances. A civil divorce may be needed to give legal and social protection to one or other of the partners that cannot be obtained simply by living separately. Those who divorce normally need help and support and should not be subject to stigma or discrimination. Yet, as civil divorce does not truly dissolve the marriage, the divorced person is not free before God or the Church to marry someone else (Cherishing Life, para. 134).

We had previously spoken (Healing Love, 1983) of the need for healing, especially emotional healing, which restores dignity and brings new confidence. It allows personal growth, leading to a love of self that is characterised not by self-pity, but by self-awareness and a readiness to contribute to community life. Here parish or regional support groups can play a vital role.

We commented on the opportunities offered by retreats and programmes such as the Beginning experience and Lazarus Experience weekends, and pointed out that the healing love of the parish community should be found in local support groups, and also in acceptance of separated and divorced persons in the ministries of the parish. "People who have been hurt often need extra evidence that they are not thought less of. It is up to us to walk the extra mile with them" (Healing Love).

Seven: Divorced but not re-married

Those who have suffered the trauma of a broken marriage and who decide for conscience sake not to "remarry" are witnessing to the sanctity of marriage. Their sufferings and sacrifices increase the power of their witness.

Like those who are single because they are widowed, or because they have never married, they deserve the love of good friends and the practical support of their parishes and of society. Their difficult circumstances may also become circumstances of profound spiritual growth, enabling them to offer to others the compassion and peace of Christ in a special way.

Loneliness and other difficulties are often the lot of separated spouses, especially when they are the innocent parties. The Church community must support such people more than ever. It must give them much respect, solidarity, understanding and practical help, so that they can preserve their fidelity even in their difficult situation; and it must help them to cultivate the need to forgive which is inherent in Christian love, and to be ready perhaps to return to their former married life.

The situation is similar for people who have undergone divorce, but, being well aware that the valid marriage bond is indissoluble, refrain from becoming involved in a new union and devote themselves solely to carrying out their family duties and the responsibilities of Christian life. In such cases their example of fidelity and Christian consistency takes on particular value as a witness before the world and the Church (The Christian Family in the Modern World, para. 83).

Eight: Divorced and Remarried

Some separated partners move beyond separation and divorce into new relationships. Even here, the Church's attitude is to be characterised by compassion and careful discernment. This is well illustrated by Pope John Paul II:

Pastors must know that for the sake of truth, they are obliged to exercise careful discernment of situations. There is in fact a difference between those who have sincerely tried to save their first marriage and have been unjustly abandoned, and those who through their own grave fault have destroyed a canonically valid marriage. Finally there are those who have entered a second union for the sake of the children's upbringing, and who are sometimes subjectively certain in conscience that their previous and irreparably destroyed marriage had never been valid (The Christian Family in the Modern World, para. 84).

Even though the Church must teach that Christian marriage is intended to mirror the irreversible faithfulness of Christ's love, this does not mean there is nothing in the life of the Church for you. You, too, have a spiritual life. Jesus always recognised that people can only start from where they are, which includes their present circumstances and relationships. God has pledged strength to all those who ask for it. Ask with confidence and you shall receive. Keep knocking, and it will be opened to you, if not in the manner you envisage, then in some other way that reflects God's love for you.

When the Church is unable to invite people to receive Holy Communion, it is because all of us must bear witness to Jesus' teaching about marriage. Nevertheless, they are not separated from the Church and when they take part in the Mass and other liturgies, their prayers are united with the prayer of Christ and the whole Church. They can be in communion with Christ even when this communion cannot be sacramentally expressed. Pope John Paul II encouraged all, including those who cannot receive Holy Communion, to experience the "strength, consolation and support" he experienced spending time before Christ in the Blessed Sacrament.

Nine: Annulment

Sometimes knocking at the door means exercising your right to enquire whether your previous marriage might not have been a true marriage. It can happen that with the best of intentions, and in spite of one's hope of being married for life, something essential for a true marriage was missing at the time of the wedding. Sometimes this only comes to light later on. If so, the granting of an annulment only acknowledges the truth the truth that sets you free.

Nor need you worry about what this would mean for your children. The Church teaches that their status is based on what was presumed to be a true marriage. They are not affected by what happens later. They do not become "illegitimate".

It is very understandable that people sometimes don't want to begin nullity proceedings because they don't want to go back over a painful past. Nevertheless, when this is done sensitively and professionally, the going back over what happened can be enlightening, liberating and healing. Many Catholics who have been through this process can testify to this.

Some of the factors that can make a "marriage" invalid at the outset are:

  • One partner might have been influenced by the widespread perception that marriage is not necessarily for life, and so did not really intend a truly permanent commitment. "Hoping" it will last falls short of "intending" a permanent commitment.
  • It is not unusual for couples to begin their marriage with the intention of postponing children. But if one or other of them intended positively to exclude children altogether, then something that pertains to the very nature of a true marriage was being excluded from it. Natural infertility is a different matter.
  • Sometimes a person who wants to be married is simply not capable of carrying out some of the core responsibilities of marriage.
  • Some people lack the ability to properly understand the nature or responsibilities of marriage. They cannot intend what they are not really able to understand.
  • Sometimes one partner's intention might have been made subject to some condition or proviso that is not consistent with total commitment.
  • Sometimes the experience of fear or pressure or shame can lead a person to make a commitment that he or she did not really want to make, and so did not make with sufficient freedom.

Each diocese makes provision for such possibilities to be properly explored. This is the pastoral ministry it carries out through a "Tribunal". The personnel who conduct these enquiries are thoroughly trained for their work. They are not interested in deciding "who is to blame". Finding blame is not the point. The only point that matters is whether something necessary for a valid marriage was missing even if no one was to blame!

The Tribunal must start from the presumption that each marriage was a true marriage. It is the contrary that has to be proved. The Church assures couples that it regards their marriage as valid unless it declares otherwise. This presumption in favour of each marriage's validity safeguards people against unnecessary anxiety. At the same time, the Church takes seriously its obligation to help people whose broken marriages might have been invalid from the beginning, so that they can know whether they are still free to marry.

Details can be obtained from the Tribunal of the Catholic Church for New Zealand:

Auckland: Judicial Vicar Phone: 09 360 3030 Email: tribunal.auckland@catholic-tribunal.org.nz
Hamilton: Phone: 07 856 6989 Email: tribunal.hamilton@catholic-tribunal.org.nz
Palmerston North: Contact Bishop's Office: Phone: 06 357 1980 Email: bishop@pndiocese.org.nz
Wellington: Assoc. Judicial Vicar Phone: 04 496 1727 Email: tribunal.wellington@catholic-tribunal.org.nz
Christchurch: Director Phone: 03 366 9869 Email: mmurphy@chch.catholic.org.nz
Dunedin: Phone: 03 455 2305 Email: dntri@xtra.co.nz

Ten: Conscience, Church Teaching and Contraception

Each one of us becomes the kind of person we are called to be through faithfulness to our conscience. This is a gradual process. It is called moral development. Because it is gradual, it can happen that at particular stages in life, or in particular circumstances, the individual's judgements about what actions are right or wrong might not match with what the Church teaches about those actions. Even after conscientiously studying the Church's teaching, it can happen that some believe, in good faith, that the Church's teaching does not apply in their circumstances, or even that it is wrong. This can happen especially if one is experiencing pressure, or what seems to be a conflict of duties.

The Church's teaching role does not substitute for the judgements the individual must make as part of taking responsibility for his/her own life. As Pope John Paul II said, the Church's teachings are "at the service of conscience" (The Mission of the Redeemer, para 39).

Pope John Paul II acknowledged that the Church's teaching on contraception is not easy for everyone to understand or to live up to at various stages of their life. But they still have a right to know what the Church teaches, which is why its teaching should not be silently passed over. Like any other aspect of life that challenges our understanding, we have to work at it. A close look at the Church's teaching reveals enormous wisdom.

This is not always obvious because there is another kind of thinking more prevalent today which can also appear to be wise and prudent. This is largely because the development of hormonal medications that can prevent ovulation, and the development of new technologies which can bring about conception in the laboratory, have effectively separated procreation from sexual intercourse in people's thinking. Procreation now seems to be something people can add to their sexual intimacy if they want to. It is not thought of as belonging intrinsically to sexual intimacy. Consequently, to many people, such things as contraceptive intercourse, homosexual relationships, and procreation achieved in the laboratory, don't even need to be questioned. They are just examples of sexual intimacy separated from procreation, and of procreation separated from sexual intimacy. All that is needed is a good reason.

In contrast to this, the Catholic Church still teaches that a good reason is not enough to justify one's action if the action itself is wrong.

Marital intercourse has an intrinsic orientation towards fatherhood and motherhood that is part of its meaning. That is the part of its meaning that contraceptive practice takes away. In this sense it is wrong. The couple's sexual intimacy is "body language" for expressing the complete gift of each to the other. If they remove from intercourse its potential to procreate new life, what they then give to each other is something less than what intercourse is naturally intended to express. Their body language has been partly falsified. (It is a different matter when it is intercourse between people who do not owe each other the complete gift of themselves because they are not married. It is also a different matter when the purpose of using a protective device is to prevent the transmission of disease, not to prevent conception, which is then a side-effect.) A moral dilemma arises when one of the partners uses a contraceptive. If the other partner does not condone this and intends his or her own gift of self to be as complete as it can be in the circumstances, he or she is not excluded from the sacraments.

It should be the desire of every couple to embody in their own marriage those characteristics of married love which Pope Paul VI described in his landmark encyclical on Human Life (Humanae Vitae, 1978):

This love is first of all fully human, that is to say, of the senses and of the spirit at the same time. It is not, then, a simple transport of instinct and sentiment, but also and principally an act of the free will, intended to endure and to grow by means of the joys and sorrows of daily life, in such a way that husband and wife become one only heart and one only soul, and together attain their human perfection.

This love is total personal in which husband and wife share everything without undue reservations or selfish calculations.

This love is faithful and exclusive until death. The example of so many married persons down the centuries shows, not only that fidelity is according to the nature of marriage, but also that it is a source of profound and lasting happiness.

Finally, this love is fruitful; it is not exhausted by the communion between husband and wife, but is destined to continue, raising up new lives. (para. 9).

Eleven: Responsible Parenthood

A couple's planning for the arrival of children needs to be based on both generosity and prudence. And the means they use for planning their pregnancies must be in accordance with the meaning of intercourse. The use of Natural Family Planning is in accordance with the meaning of intercourse because it accepts the natural cycle of fertility and infertility.

Abstaining from intercourse during the fertile periods makes it necessary for a couple to find new ways of expressing their love for each other including ways that might not be found or even looked for if they could have intercourse at all times. This can lead them to learn more about each other and work together in an intimately respectful and generous manner. This greater respect for and generosity to each other will normally show up in other aspects of their lives.

It is also arguable that couples who can recognise the signs of fertility and then choose to either have or not have intercourse are in greater control of their lives than those who take some kind of blocking action to counteract the natural consequences of their own actions.

And, of course, there are also health benefits in having one's body free of additional drugs and interferences.

Twelve: When does life begin?

Again, the Bishops of England and Wales have expressed this well:

At conception or fertilisation, the fusion of the gametes from each parent produces a new biological individual, a cell with a completely new genetic identity. From the beginning, the embryonic human exists within a network of relationships: as the offspring of a mother and a father and as the gift of God the creator. Each embryo is a living being, possessing the dynamic potential to develop, in interaction with his or her mother, passing through many stages of development first inside the womb and then outside.

The qualities we think of as being most distinctively human do not show themselves until much later in life. However, we should not judge things only by how they appear at one particular time; we must also consider what they have in them to become. Babies are human beings before they can walk and talk, even though many of their abilities have not yet become fully apparent. With an embryo we are considering the very earliest stages of human development, but the principle is the same. The humanity of the embryo should therefore be regarded as 'not a potential human being but a human being with potential' [Abortion and the Right to Life, 1980, paragraph 12] (Cherishing Life, paras. 55 & 56).

It is for this reason that Pope John Paul II, faithful to the Catholic tradition, teaches that "the human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the first moment of conception" (The Gospel of Life, 1995, para. 60).