Books blog: The cardinals writing to defend Church teaching on marriage

Cardinal Robert Sarah, centre, pictured at last year's extraordinary synod (CNS)

Ignatius Press, which operates from San Francisco (its UK distributor is Gracewing) has produced a stream of excellent Catholic books over the years. I rarely discover an Ignatius book that I don’t want to read. They often deal with contemporary issues that affect the Church. I always know that what I read will sustain and teach me more about the Faith – rather than sow seeds of doubt and uncertainty by the covert introduction of seemingly attractive and progressive ideas that are contrary to it.

Recently Ignatius has been addressing the theme of the synod, on marriage and the family. One new publication is Christ’s New Homeland – Africa, written exclusively by African prelates and responding to certain aberrant proposals by some western cardinals; another is God or Nothing, an autobiographical interview with Cardinal Robert Sarah, an African cardinal who leads the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and which I hope to review shortly.

The third initiative is Eleven Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint, which I am reading at the moment. The cardinals include an Italian, Carlo Caffarra, a Dutchman, Cardinal Eijk, a German, the Emeritus Archbishop of Cologne, Joachim Meisner, Cardinal Savino of Caracas and Cardinal Sarah from Guinea.

To read these essays is an exercise in understanding how the Holy Spirit works in the Church. Outsiders often scoff that we live in a Church run by elderly celibate men who can have no understanding of the problems encountered by lay married people. On the contrary, through their vigorous and faithful teaching on marriage and their obvious love for Christ himself, the cardinals in these pages show they are inspired by the Holy Spirit to protect and defend the Church’s consistent teaching on marriage, precisely in order to guide couples towards a deeper understanding of it – and consequently to live richer and happier lives.

Carlo Caffarra, the Archbishop of Bologna, writes insightfully on the much debated question of what “mercy” in the Church should mean; as he emphasises, there can be no such thing as forgiveness without conversion: “If forgiveness does not change the direction of his freedom and he does not convert, we cannot truly say a man has been forgiven.” Mercy without conversion is, he tells us, “the mistaken pity of an incompetent and weak physician.” I wonder if he had certain German cardinals in mind when writing this.

Describing the customs surrounding marriage in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the Indian Cardinal Cleemis shows how the whole community is affected and involved when couples aspire to marriage; the concept of “nuclear families” is alien to a community where strong marriages are seen as vital for the whole of society. To encourage couples to be open to life, in his own archdiocese of Trivandrum he always baptises the fourth child in every family “as a gesture of encouragement for the couples.” One is prompted to comment that there would hardly be a population crisis in Europe and the UK if more bishops and cardinals adopted this custom.

Cardinal Duka of Prague calls readers’ attention to something we have probably forgotten, the flight from the priesthood of a large number of religious and priests in the latter half of the past century. He writes that it is “a scandal that we must confess humbly in the presence of husbands and wives who, amid the thousand difficulties of their life… are fighting to remain faithful to their promise, to their word, to the oath that they made to each other and to God.”

Cardinal Meisner of Cologne admitted that “preaching about the truth, meaning and sense of sexuality in Germany is practically non-existent.” Cardinal Sarah noted that in Africa and Asia “human love in its natural dimension is less degraded than in the West” (this is probably the reason why, when African bishops speak out in defence of natural marriage, they cause shock waves in the more decadent West.) Cardinal Onaiyekan of Nigeria writes of the problem of barrenness in African marriages where children are always seen as a blessing and where sometimes a second wife is taken to produce an heir.

A constant theme in all these essays is the need to reconsider, reflect on and reorganise the nature of marriage preparation.

Cardinal Sarah’s essay is particularly strong on this subject. He is emphatic that marriage is not a “merely human ceremony” and that “a programme that does not propose a true path of conversion, a true life of holiness in imitation of Christ, would be woeful preparation for marriage.” Even more startling to western ears is his direct quotation from, and support for, St John Paul II’s encyclical Familiaris consortio, that “when in spite of all efforts, engaged couples show that they reject explicitly and formally what the Church intends to do when the marriage of baptised persons is celebrated, the pastor of souls cannot admit them to the celebration of marriage.”

In answer to the question, “what good fruits have come from the recent synod?” I can now answer with sincerity, “This book.”