Marriage and the failure of pastoral care

The Church is failing in its teaching on marriage

Archbishop Diarmuid Martin and Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome have both been addressing themselves to the same theme over the last few days, namely the lack of understanding of the Church’s teaching on marriage among many Catholics.

Both men’s comments were prompted by the same thing, that is, the upcoming Synod on the Family to take place in October.

The issue that has been attracting most of the serious attention has been whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive Communion. Currently they cannot because strictly speaking their second relationship is adulterous.


Cardinal Walter Kasper has also weighed in on the matter. He is casting about for a way to give divorced and remarried Catholics Communion under certain circumstances while at the same time maintaining the Church’s teaching that marriage is indissoluble.

He suggested that “pastoral and spiritual procedures” be developed in order to help couples who are convinced that their first union was never a valid marriage.

If the first marriage was never valid, then their ‘second’ marriage is really their first and therefore they can receive Communion.

But this would introduce a very subjective element into the matter. It would be very easy for a person to convince themselves that their first marriage was not valid because it would suit their purposes.

Therefore, says Kasper, the decision cannot be left only to the couple, meaning the Church would have to pronounce on their decision.


Frankly it is hard to see how this can work. If he believes the couple’s pastor should validate the couple’s own decision, then the temptation once again will simply be to take the easy route and agree with them and possibly end up pretending that their first marriage was invalid.

Or are the annulment rules simply to be made easier which Cardinal Müller himself has already suggested?

However, as this newspaper reported a fortnight ago, the number of Catholics who even want their marriages annulled has plunged over the last few years.

This is almost certainly because many Catholics don’t believe they need an annulment in order to enter a second union. In other words, they do not believe Jesus was correct when he said that marriage is indissoluble, or they have not heard this and had it properly explained to them.

This tendency to second-guess Jesus is, of course, another symptom of the highly individualistic culture we live in. It undermines commitment to anything whether it be to a community of belief like the Church, or even to our marriages. It is all about personal freedom.

A few weeks ago in The Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole criticised me and The Iona Institute for exaggerating the decline of marriage in Ireland.

He pointed out that in 1960 there were 15,465 marriages in Ireland and in 2012, there were 21,245.

He did not point out that there has been a much bigger increase in the size of the population since then.

Nor did he point out that the number of births outside marriage now stands at more than one in three, or that we have a cohabitation rate on a par with Britain’s or that the number of Irish people who have experienced a broken marriage has increased from 40,000 in 1986 to 240,000 in 2011.

Finally, he did not point out that the number of children being raised outside marriage has grown from 12% of the total in 1986 to over 28% today.


In other words, marriage as an institution is indeed in decline in Ireland just like in other Western countries and the principle victims are children and areas of social disadvantage where the decline has been particularly sharp.

In any event, what the figures also show is that the Catholic Church is dismally failing to get across its teaching on marriage. Indeed, it is hardly even trying.

Why? Perhaps because it doesn’t want to cause offence, in other words out of a desire to be ‘pastorally sensitive’. Or perhaps the Church is simply scared of a backlash and it’s easier and safer to be silent.

In the final analysis, however, this is a failure of charity. Cardinal Müller got it exactly right when he said, “Doctrine and pastoral care are the same thing. Jesus Christ as pastor and Jesus Christ as teacher with his word are not two different people.”

The truth is pastoral so long as the truth is sensitively taught. Failure to properly communicate what the Church has to say about the family is ultimately a pastoral failure as we can see from the huge rise in broken marriage etc. in this country.

Personal freedom

The Church needs to be frank about the fact that its teaching on marriage does not seek to maximise personal freedom. Instead it seeks to maximise the welfare of the family as a unit and above all to maximise the welfare of children.

The Church also needs to realise that its teaching on the family actually works. A study by one of America’s leading scholars on the family, Paul Amato, looks at some of the factors that buttress marriage. One of them is regular church attendance. Another is not having lived together before marriage. A third is putting your children first. A fourth is not having been a child of divorce yourself. A fifth is not believing in divorce as a solution to problems.

And it is not simply that couples with these characteristics are less likely to divorce because they’re willing to stick with an unhappy marriage, they are also more likely to be happier in their marriages in the first place. This is not to say they don’t have their problems, but they are more likely to work them out.

So the Church needs to realise that its teaching on marriage and the family is humane and pastoral in the fullest sense of those words.

Insofar as it fails to properly teach what it believes about marriage it fails countless numbers of ordinary people and which in turn fails Jesus in his twin role as both teacher and pastor.