The well-being of married people and of those whose marriages have failed is the concern of all Catholics. The Church - all the baptised - has a special responsibility to minister to those in need. To enlist even further support and to show our own, we, the Catholic Bishops, offer these reflections on marriage, on preparation for marriage and on the situation of separated and divorced Catholics.
Catholics expect their Bishops to be realistic and to understand human difficulties; they also expect us to point to the highest ideals for married couples - those whose marriages succeed and those who suffer the breakdown of their marriages. These ideals are those which derive from our Christian faith.
Human and Divine : Marriage is God’s Plan
In God, love and life are one. This unity of life and love is shown in his plan for marriage.
God calls husband and wife to give themselves to each other in a partnership that is exclusive and lasting. God wants them to find in each other a certain fullness of life through their giving and receiving of love.
One of the fruits of such love is new human life.
God shares with married partners his own work of giving life to new persons and of bringing them up in readiness for eternal life.
The fact that some children are born outside marriage does not mean they are loved less by God. It only means they were born without that security which derives from their parents total commitment to each other - the commitment made in the marriage vows.
These parents who, outside marriage, accept and love their children are to be commended for courageously allowing their children to be born and for the many sacrifices they inevitably make to provide their children with a secure environment and balanced upbringing.
The special vocation of Christian husbands and wives is to be a sign of what Christ's own love is like. He was the visible image of what God's love is like. St Paul says marriage points itself to the love which Christ has for all his followers - his "body" (cf. Ep 5:28-33).
In the marriage of two Christians, Christ makes their commitment to each other the outward sign of his commitment to them. And so marriage is a sacrament - the human dimension embodies the divine.
From the moment of marriage Christ's love for the couple will be mirrored in every aspect of their love for each other. The love of husband and wife for each other is intended to show the very characteristics of Christ's love.
Christ loved us unselfishly, even died for us. His love set no limits and once given was never taken back. It was unconditional and remained faithful.
To love like that is not easy because we are often so weak. But just to try to love as Christ loved us shows that Christ shares his own risen life with us. In this way, our lives demonstrate his power at work - even in the midst of human weakness.
So many failed marriages might prevent us from acknowledging Christ's faithfulness, especially when many forces in society work against marriage. Therefore, we pay tribute to those hundreds and thousands of couples who -despite the pressures-mirror his faithfulness to them in their constant faithfulness to each other.
Preparing For and Celebrating Marriage
We are grateful to those lay people and priests who help young people prepare for marriage. Much is at stake - people's whole lives, their happiness and their children's future.
To help others prepare well for marriage is a most important apostolate; it belongs especially to married people, who help by what they say, by how they live and the witness to their own successful commitment.
We know that there are many pressures on marriage and that even people's expectations of marriage have changed. Difficulties about employment and housing may cause great stress. It is now common for both partners to have their own careers and also for careers to change. Grown children leave home sooner and life expectancy is longer. These factors - and many others-mean that people who marry need high levels of personal maturity and unselfishness if their marriage is to succeed.
Preparation for marriage makes good use of what the human sciences can teach us, especially about understanding ourselves well: self-awareness, sensitivity to one another, open honest communication between couples, how to cope with crises and so on.
Pre-marriage courses are intended to help couples develop stronger relationships and good marriages. Some may even learn that their proposed marriage is a mistake and courageously make the right decision before the marriage takes place. It is wise to commence such courses well ahead of the wedding day.
But marriage preparation needs more than what we learn from the human sciences. It requires discernment of God's will.
What God wants for each of us is that which we ourselves most deeply want when we are most free - free from self-deception, self ambition and peer pressure
This unity between our deepest desires and God's will shows how intimately God identifies with each person and his or her well-being.
God loves us even more than we love ourselves. But we can come to the clear-sighted discovery of what God wants, and what is best for us, only by learning to obey every genuine prompting of the Holy Spirit and our properly formed conscience.
Knowing God's will does not just happen at important moments if we are not used to it.
We each need to be a person of prayer because when we know that God is looking at our most personal thoughts and intentions, then are we more likely to be honest with ourselves.
The ability to pray and to discern God's will should be common ground between Catholics and other Christians, and other people of good will. Therefore, Catholics need not feel shy to talk about God's place in their lives and in their relationships, even when their partners are not Catholics.
If two people really love each other they will want what is really best for each other. They cannot have that by excluding God. To pray together is a natural part of preparing to share their whole lives together. Likewise, it should be natural to want God to be explicitly part of their wedding day.
We know that God is everywhere in creation, including the garden where some prefer to have their marriage. But Christians are those who are privileged to know that God chose a more personal way of being present among us: in the person and life of Jesus Christ, and in his continuing real presence among us in the Eucharist.
To celebrate marriage with a Nuptial Mass, or at least before the altar, allows Christian spouses to make their commitment to each other in the context of what Christ has done and continues to do for them - the giving of his life for them and the giving of himself to them - which is what we celebrate in the Eucharist. On their wedding day - as afterwards - the Church wants only the best for them. It would be surprising if the Church was happy just to settle for a pleasant social occasion.
The Church can never settle for a merely secular approach to marriage. The vocation of Christian husbands and wives is to witness to Christ's marvellous love. For that they need his blessing. For the same reason, the Church's interest in them does not finish with the wedding. But, we repeat, they themselves and all the baptised are the Church.
As teachers in the Church it is our fervent wish that married couples find more ways of supporting one another in their marriages and family lives, especially through difficult times. We are grateful to all those married couples who already do this. We commend those who promote or participate in marriage enrichment programmes, such as Marriage Encounter.
Separated and Divorced Catholics
We now turn to those whose marriages have broken down.
Many separated and divorced Catholics have expressed appreciation of the encouragement and understanding they found in our earlier letter: When Dreams Die (Pastoral Letter, 1982.) We stand by what we said then and we invite them to read that letter again.
Since then, more parishes have ensured that separated and divorced people feel part of parish life. Many priests, religious and lay persons have equipped themselves to minister to the special needs of the separated and divorced. Church-sponsored events should not be exclusively couple-orientated.
We also commend those who seek ways to prevent avoidable failures, through the Christian Family Life Education programme, for example, which we set up a few years ago to promote a wholesome understanding of human relationships.
In "When Dreams Die" we emphasised that marriage failure does not, by itself, exclude Catholics from full membership of the Church, even when divorce is involved; nor do separated and divorced Catholics thereby exclude themselves. They remain fully part of the Catholic community.
Too often, however, many who have been hurt by marriage failure still feel "out of it" or "second-class". They believe they don't "belong" as much as others do. Even to take steps which come easily to the rest of us can be hard for them. Often, people who have been hurt need extra evidence that they are not thought less of.
It is for the rest of us to walk the extra mile with them.
In the Manner of Jesus
When Jesus showed himself to the disciples on the evening of that "first day" of his Resurrection, he had the ideal opportunity to put them in their place. They had let him down, denied him, abandoned him. But he greeted them with, "Peace be with you" and added "as the Father sent me, so I am sending you" (John 20:20-21). His acceptance of them, in spite of their failure, enabled them to step out into the world as his messengers. Jesus was sent by the Father to heal, to lift up, and to help others grow. His followers must also be compassionate healers.
The ministry of Jesus was characterised by a love that enabled people to awaken to their true potential. His presence encouraged confidence; his understanding and compassion lifted hearts in hope - and healing happened.
It is this same healing love that should characterise the work and words of those who minister in the name of Jesus today. Through their acceptance of all who turn to them in need, healing is possible - even the healing of broken or disfigured love.
A divorced Catholic from one of our dioceses, in a letter to the Bishop, clearly showed that meeting the hunger for acceptance is a key principle in any care offered to the separated and divorced.
"Don't judge 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."
We recognise the hurt and the longing for acceptance expressed in statements like this. And we feel all the more obliged to speak up against the selfishness, possessiveness, materialistic values and sinful choices which lead to the break-up of marriage and family life, and to such hurt affecting the partners themselves and their children.
Clarifying the Different Situations
In preparing this statement, we have been greatly helped by the suggestions and concerns made by many separated and divorced Catholics, especially in the early stage of writing. So we address you personally and thank you for your openness and honesty. We know you will want us to be just as open and honest in what we say concerning your situations. We again assure you that marriage failure does not change your status as full members of the Church. What happens after marriage failure is another matter.
Some make heroic decisions which positively increase their participation in the life of grace and in the life of the Church. Others do not make the choice which they are called to make and thereby diminish their participation in the life of the Church. We can understand that some of you who have experienced marriage failure would like to marry again. Those who follow Jesus faithfully will not make a choice inconsistent with his teaching:
The man who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery, too. (Mark 10:11-12.)
We admire those who choose to remain faithful to the teaching of Jesus concerning marriage and witness to it by their faithfulness. From the discussion between Jesus and his disciples it is clear that they and he were fully aware of how difficult this can sometimes be. But Jesus commends them as people who witness both to God's original intention and to the kingdom of heaven (cf. Mt 19:11-12). It was of them that John Paul II wrote:
To bear witness to the indissolubility and fidelity of marriage is one of the most precious and most urgent tasks of Christian couples who, though encountering no small difficulty, preserve and develop the value of indissolubility: thus, in a humble renewed - of the unfailing fidelity with which God and Jesus Christ love each and a great need . . . Loneliness and other difficulties are often the lot of separated situation . . . (Letter on Marriage and Family Life, 1981, nn. 20, 83.)
Some among you ask the Church to help determine whether your first marriage was in fact a true marriage. Perhaps it lacked something essential from the outset, even if entered into in good faith. The effort to clarify and resolve such questions sometimes has its own kind of pain. But we encourage those who are considering re-marriage to approach the Tribunal whose specially trained staff of priests, religious and lay persons are qualified and willing to help.
We are also conscious of those among you who have chosen to enter a second marriage which the Church has not been able to recognise (because of the first marriage). To you we say two things:
First, we cannot approve of your action but we do not judge whether you are in good or bad conscience; we pray for you and we look forward to the day when you will be able to live more fully the Church's teachings. Secondly, we ask you trustfully to understand why the Church believes it cannot invite you to receive the Eucharist: the Church is the community of Jesus' disciples, who - all together - must bear faithful witness to his teaching.
The Church cannot, on the one hand, proclaim with integrity his teaching concerning re-marriage, while at the same time give the impression that his teaching can somehow be put aside. False "solutions" are not satisfying.
For every one of us, Christ's way is our life, and his teaching is the truth that sets us free - free for healing and growth and peace of mind. As long as you feel in bondage to human frailty or circumstances outside your full control, your suffering is our suffering; the whole Church's suffering.
We cannot act as if there were nothing wrong with the situation in which you find yourself. But at the same time, we want to assure you that your limited participation in the life of the Church is not in vain. God hears the prayers of the distressed, and through the liturgy your prayers are united with the prayers of Christ and the whole Church.
Christ at Work in His Body, the Church
The risen Christ is present in the lives and actions of those who are his body - the Church (cf. John 14:9-14). Jesus' promise to act in the lives of those who are united to him comes true whenever Christian people really put into practice the love of Christ. We acknowledge that much is already done in parishes and other groups to reach the broken-hearted. But we also believe that much more can be done.
We commend the opportunities offered by retreats and programmes such as the "Beginning Experience" and "Lazarus Weekends". Parish financial support for these is an investment in leadership. Parishes make it possible for people in need to participate, for example, by organising home help and assistance with travel costs, showing in such ways that their love is "not just words or mere talk" (cf. 1 John 3:18).
A Catholic separated and divorced group is a means of encouragement, help and support; a place to work through your trauma of brokenness to healing and finally to wholeness, to new life with renewed hope.
In so far as any of us loves and heals one another and brings the sorrowing to new life, we renew and build up the whole Church. God's kingdom becomes ever more visible and compelling.
Remember, however, that ministry to the separated and divorced does not keep you in support groups forever. It helps you move into the larger body of the Church when your healing time has passed and you have been refreshed in your commitment to Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Saviour.
The ministry of healing love will also help you find courage and consequently inner peace, to continue to love and cherish your estranged partner through prayer, and practical things like good communication with other family members.
It will also allow you to seek forgiveness, for yourself, or for your spouse.
In this letter we ask all concerned with pastoral care to be sensitive to your needs. (Appropriate training is available for those who do not feel equipped to counsel in this specialised area, particularly to help people cope with grief.)
We have reached out to those who have known the suffering of broken marriages. We have acknowledged the heroism of those whose faithfulness is often at great personal cost. We have addressed the whole Catholic community which has a responsibility both to support and strengthen marriage and family life, and minister to those in need of greater support. We do so, remembering that together we are the Body of Christ, in which we all need each other