Why I signed the letter urging the synod to stand firm on marriage

Pope Francis with a newly married couple (CNS)

Back in the day, shortly after the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae, a group of well-regarded British Catholics wrote a letter to The Times expressing their dissent from the teaching of the encyclical. This at the time, I once heard, caused quite a sensation. Virtually every signatory of that letter of dissent must be dead by now, but I can remember someone pointing out an elderly retired University chaplain to me as a signatory some years ago, purely as a matter of historical curiosity. The letter of dissent to the Times has been forgotten. The encyclical letter Humane Vitae lives on, and indeed has only become more important, in my opinion, as time has passed.

Now we have a new letter, but not of dissent: nearly five hundred British priests (of which I am one) writing in support of traditional Church teaching, in obedience to the Bishops who asked us to make our views known, and indeed in obedience to the Pope, who has asked people to speak freely, indeed boldly. That is what the word “parrhesia”, of which the Pope is quite fond, means.

I had not the slightest hesitation in signing the letter, and I was grateful to the organisers for undertaking the task. There are several reasons for this. Here are a few of them…

First, I am a moral theologian. That’s my job, and it seems incredibly important to me that the underlying moral issue is not obscured here. Yes, there are pastoral issues, but there can be no pastoral solution without taking account of moral truth. Rather oddly there seem to be very few moral theologians taking part in the Synod. Pastoral theology is about the application of moral theology. Talking about pastoral provisions without reference to morals is a bit like having a discussion in a room from which the oxygen has been pumped out.

Secondly, I am, like almost all the signatories, a parish priest. As such I know that divorce is no longer really an issue in the way it was. There are, of course, people who are divorced and remarried in my parish. But there are many more who have never been married. Divorce is not the problem in developed societies like ours: the problem is that divorce has been so successful that it has undermined marriage. Marriage has become “a piece of paper”, a devalued currency. We need to rebuild the institution of marriage from the foundations up.

This applies to developed societies like ours. What about developing societies? I spent four years in Nairobi working in many pastoral situations as well as teaching, and there too we are building an awareness of marriage; and we need to keep on building. We need to build up the Christian model of marriage, against the models of polygamy and temporary marriage and concubinage. We have made a start, but there is a long way to go. It is vital that the Synod does not undermine the task either here, or in the developing world.

Thirdly, I signed because I worry about the future. What will a society without marriage look like? We seem to be heading that way. If we somehow or another allow or give permission for second unions, where the first union has been proved to be consummatum ac ratum, we effectively give permission for temporary marriage, and worse than that, we make every marriage, formerly absolute, contingent. This would be a catastrophe.

This has already happened in other spheres. The civil wedding ceremony (and please remember we regard civil marriages between non-Catholics as binding) speaks of permanence and a lifelong union, but given the ease of divorce, are people who witness civil weddings convinced that they are seeing a lifelong partnership being undertaken? Again, speaking to a friend in another ecclesial community recently, he told me that his own church, which has a wedding ceremony that speaks of lifelong union, has effectively abandoned the concept. “Every marriage is indissoluble,” he said, “until we say it is dissolved.” Is this the way we want to go?

Finally, as Rowan Williams once said – Jesus is the one who questions our answers, rather than answers our questions. And he has certainly done this in the field of marriage. The words of the Lord are clear, words the historicity of which no one has seriously questioned:

The Pharisees approached and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him. He said to them in reply, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her. But Jesus told them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.’ In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’ (Mark 10:2-12).

No one can deny, either, that this is a challenging teaching. But let us not despair. We can rise to the challenge. That’s why Christ died on the Cross for us.