Catholics must find the courage to “stand up” and defend the institution of marriage, one of the youngest bishops of England and Wales has said.
Fear is preventing many couples from committing to each other in marriage, according to Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury.
Society has become so badly hit by family breakdown that many young people are now afraid to enter into lifelong and exclusive unions with each other, he said in a homily last weekend.
He also said their preference for “partnerships” – which, he said, were neither lasting nor open to the procreation and education of children – was reflected in the reticence of politicians to speak out in defence of marriage.
He said marriage was not “a mere lifestyle choice or social convention but the plan written into our hearts by God”, adding that Catholics had a duty to bear witness to the Church’s teaching on marriage in their lives.
Bishop Davies, who became Bishop of Shrewsbury in October, also praised Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions Secretary and a Catholic, for finding the courage to speak out in defence of the institution.
“Awkward as it might be I want to speak of the importance of standing up as witnesses to marriage,” the bishop told a congregation gathered for the Diocesan Celebration of Marriage in St Columba’s church, Chester.
“It is heartening to hear a senior politician this week urge politicians of all parties to speak up for marriage at a time when we’re told almost half of children in our country are not being born in homes founded on the stability of marriage,” he said.
“Yet, despite all the benefits which marriage offers for the well-being of children and society, that our leaders in public life might be reluctant to speak up for marriage tells us something of the state we are in.
“And so we need to remind ourselves of what the Second Vatican Council taught half a century ago, which stands for us today: ‘The wellbeing of the individual person and of both human and Christian society is closely bound up with the healthy state of marriage and family life’.”
He continued: “We have to confess that the situation within the Catholic community often differs little from these disturbing patterns within society as a whole. The good news of marriage has not always been heard or received even amongst us. The substitution of ‘partnerships’ which are not from their foundation faithful, lasting or open to the procreation and education can never replace the plan of God himself.”
Bishop Davies then quoted the conciliar document Gaudium et Spes to emphasise that “God himself is the author of marriage” and the Catechism of the Catholic Church to stress that most men and women have a vocation to marriage. Finally, he reminded worshippers that the Catholic Church believed that Jesus Christ himself had elevated marriage to the dignity of a sacrament.
Bishop Davies said: “Today I wish to thank each of you for not only speaking up for marriage but standing up as witnesses to marriage. For it is often fear which holds couples back from making those promises: ‘For better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part’.
“In this we don’t set out to condemn but to offer hope in the way St Francis de Sales memorably described: people will always respond more to a spoonful of honey than a barrel full of vinegar.
“Today you are that spoonful of honey, that hope for the Church and society represented in your own lives, never without difficulties or human frailties, but witnessing to a love which is faithful, lasting and open to the gift of life and family.”
Aged just 51, the Manchester-born bishop is the youngest of all of the bishops of England and Wales. Formerly a priest of the Salford diocese, he served as private secretary to the then Bishop Patrick Kelly before becoming vicar general.
In February last year he was ordained coadjutor Bishop of Shrewsbury with right to succeed Bishop Brian Noble when he retired in the autumn.
Bishop Davies’s homily on marriage came at the conclusion of National Marriage Week and just days after Mr Duncan Smith gave a speech in which he described marriage as a “fundamental” institution, criticising fellow politicians who over the years had “frowned” at its mention.
The Minister said that although successive Governments had shied away from “proper discussion” about marriage the tide was turning with the “role of marriage in family life and the importance of stable families” becoming an “important topic”.
He said it was an “absurd and damaging assumption” to suggest that to support marriage meant stigmatising those in irregular situations.
“Support for our most basic and successful institution does not mean that you cannot be sympathetic to and supportive of families where one parent is left with the difficult responsibility of bringing up the children”, Mr Duncan Smith said.
“Fashionably dismissed or taken for granted, the commitment of two people to put selfish interest to one side for the sake of each other and the children they raise is simply the very best of us as human beings.”