By Cardinal Justin Rigali

At last week’s meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Bishops approved a Pastoral Letter with the name of this week’s topic. Let us introduce this letter this week.

Pastoral Initiative
There is no doubt that we live in an age of marvelous technological advances. In the areas of communications and medicine, we have experienced these advances to a marked degree. Certainly, this is beneficial to society. Many of us have benefitted from the marvels of modern medical technology and, in the area of communications, there are many benefits to be had, even as a means of preaching the Gospel, as Pope Benedict has reminded us. However, along with these technological advances, there goes the subtle message that everything good is technological or the product of human invention. If we begin to think this way, we will lose sight of the foundational elements of the human person and of society.

Five years ago, the Conference of Bishops approved what was called a “Pastoral Initiative for Marriage.” We Bishops undertook this program because we recognized that marriage and the family, which have been from the beginning, and continue to be, the basic elements of society, were threatened with not being appreciated for their value and for the joy and fulfillment they offer to those who are generous enough to take advantage of these great gifts of God.

Before the Bishops approved the Pastoral Letter, Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, Chairman of the Committee which prepared it, gave a very fine introduction. He spoke of this document as both summarizing the work and aims of the Pastoral Initiative for the past five years and giving bishops, priests and all the faithful a valuable tool for the future. It is in this spirit and with these aims that I summarize this document for you this week. I will use the same headings that are given to the sections of the Letter as titles to each paragraph of this reflection.

What Is Marriage?
The Pastoral Letter reminds us that marriage is not merely a private matter. Even by looking at all the elements that traditionally surround marriage, we will find that to be true. A license is issued by the state because the state has a great interest in marriage because it is the foundation of society. There generally are guests at a wedding, reminding us once again that marriage is a public act and an act of the community. The process of falling in love and being filled with a desire to spend one’s life with another is not something that has to be taught because it is part of our very nature.

God has also given to couples a marvelous, physical means of expressing the intangible love in their hearts. When this is exercised in the stable, committed, loving relationship of marriage it brings great joy. If it is abused, without any thought of commitment, the ill-effects on each of the persons, on any children born of that union and on society itself are very great.

Challenges to Marriage
The Pastoral Letter enumerates the principal challenges to marriage in our day: Contraception; same-sex unions; spanorce and cohabitation. In each of these challenges, the purpose of marriage, placed within our hearts by our Creator, is not completely fulfilled. We are not speaking of being unkind to anyone or displaying a lack of understanding of human weakness. In fact, in pointing out these challenges we are attempting to show understanding to the many challenges faced by many well-meaning people in our present day world.

In all these areas, the complete purpose of marriage is thwarted. The total giving of self, of one person to the other, is thwarted through contraception because it separates what are called the unitive and procreative purposes of marriage. That is, the expression in a physical way of a total love of and commitment to the other and an openness to the possible conception of a child. Even our common sense tells us that to treat conception as a mere accident of physical intercourse is a denial of reality.

For similar reasons, same-sex unions are not in accord with God’s plan. This does not deny a possibility of love and generosity of heart, but it cannot be called marriage because marriage and same-sex unions are totally different realities.

spanorce likewise is an offense against the permanent nature of spousal love, which spanorce claims to break. Once again, we need only to look at the statistics of the harm done to children, inspaniduals and society by the breaking of the bond of marriage, which is meant to be permanent and total.

In the case of cohabitation, there is a “holding back” of the complete giving of self. A certificate of marriage is not “just a piece of paper,” as some claim, but the outward testimony of the complete giving of self of a man and a woman to each other for a lifetime. We also cannot ignore the negative effects of cohabitation on the couples themselves and on any children who may be a part of this relationship.

Marriage as a Sacrament
We say that Jesus took marriage, which existed from the creation of man and woman, and elevated it to the dignity of a Sacrament. In doing this, he healed the rupture inflicted on the communion between man and woman that original sin brought about. Just as Jesus loves the Church and died for her, in total union with her, so spouses are called to an intimate union with each other that is both love-giving and life-giving.

Marriage and Family:
A Communion of Love
Loving parents often call their children to “higher” things. While the child or the young person may lack confidence or may want to do what everyone else is doing, loving parents call their children to the greater realities of what their possibilities are and what they are called to. Likewise, the Church, our loving Mother, calls us to the greater realities of life. In marriage, the Church reminds couples of the glorious vocation that is theirs. We are even able to say that marriage is an image of the Most Blessed Trinity!

This is because marriage is a communion of love between equal persons, eventually extending to all the members of the family. Also, just as the love of the Trinity gives life, so a married couple’s love conceives and cares for children. The Second Vatican Council calls the family the “domestic church.” Community, prayer, love, sacrifice and thanksgiving are all found in the Church. In a loving family, those same qualities are found, making the home a sacred place.

Let us remember that marriage is a vocation, a call by God to fulfill a specific and serious purpose in His plan. Those who are married are called to fulfill their vocation through fidelity to one another, the bringing forth and proper education of children and the creation of a loving home, which brings untold blessings to those who live within it and many handicaps to those who do not enjoy this reality.

Growth in Virtue
Very often, on the occasion of the death of parents and grandparents, their children are touched by a genuine sorrow not only because someone they loved has died but also because someone they admired has passed from this life. Very often, upon reflection they will realize that the very virtues they have admired in these loved ones are the ones that are most in danger today: lifelong fidelity; a spirit of sacrifice; the fulfillment of responsibilities and the joys and sacrifices that go along with bringing children into the world.

It is important to remember that these virtues are eternal. As such, they can always be imitated, regardless of the age in which we live. Yes, the lives of young people may be different from that of their parents and grandparents but the virtues which they have seen and admired in them, the virtues Jesus presents in the Gospel and the patrimony of the entire human race made in God’s image, can always be lived in loving fidelity.

This is what the Bishops of the United States are recalling to our faithful. The joys of faithful and lifelong self-giving in marriage, generosity with God and with one another in the bringing forth of children, and chaste fidelity until death are not unattainable goals. They are glorious ones, which have been lived by many who have gone before us and which can continue to be lived by those called to the great vocation of marriage.

26 November 2009