On the Record: Abstract ideas versus concrete experience on marriage

Edward Vacek, S.J., [email protected]

Recently, Pope Francis concluded a two-year synod, a gathering of bishops, on the topic of contemporary family life. The stand-your-ground conservatives contended with the charge-ahead liberals.

Those who upheld the abstract essence of marriage and those who wanted to change it occasionally hurled accusations at one another, including the charge of heresy. At the end, under Pope Francis’s nudging, both sides lost, but without losing face.

Instead, the pastoral approach won. Pastors and the people in their parishes got a yellow light: proceed, but with caution. A pastoral approach starts with the messy lives of people before imposing abstract ideas. Let me explain through two scenarios.

Jack and Judy get married. They vow to give themselves totally, without reserve, in everything they do, for the rest of their lives. They are open to have as many children as God will give them. They will be happy and fulfilled by their love for one another, for their families, friends, church, all other people, and above all God. This beautiful picture is Pope John Paul II’s abstract idea of marriage.

Mike and Mary have been living together for sometime. Mary gets pregnant, and they decide to get married for the sake of their child. Nominal Catholics, they persuade a priest to marry them. In the year after the wedding, life goes from good to bad to worse. They divorce. Mary meets Bob, falls in love, and the two get married in a secular ceremony. Mary and Bob have many more ups than downs in their marriage, and they find weekly church really helps them. That is the pointilist picture Pope Francis has when he thinks of marriage.

For John Paul II, anything less than perfect is sinful. Any reservation in total self-giving in sexual activity means that there is absolutely no love involved.

For Francis, everything we do is less than perfect, and that is why God’s mercy is so important. He follows Jesus who said that the perfect did not need him. Rather, Jesus came to open God’s arms to the imperfect.

For John Paul, the message is that abstract truth comes before love, so “Get your life in order, and then come join us for communion.” He is right that people need to know what marriage is before they can intelligently make their marriage vows.

For Francis, the pastoral message is that love often comes before abstract truth, so, “Come join us, and we’ll figure out some sort of path to marital sainthood.”

It has often been said that the best is the enemy of the good. The abstract concept of marriage can be the enemy of actual marriages.

In John Paul II’s abstract view, Mary and Bob are not married, even though their experience is that they are really married. In the abstract, they are adulterers, and so spiritual food must be indigestible. In their experience, they, like the rest of us, have “good enough” lives. They need to be fed, not denied, spiritual bread.

The final document of the synod of bishops does not take the abstract approach of John Paul. Francis moved the synod to say, in effect, about this or that divorced and remarried couple, “Who am I to judge?” As a result, the synod decreed simply that it is up to the people who live in this messy world to sincerely figure out what will foster their holiness.