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Our bishops should do more to promote the Church’s teaching on marriage and family

The common good depends on stable marriages open to life

By on Friday, 19 April 2013

Photo: PA

Photo: PA

As well as reading Anne Applebaum’s history of the early stages of the Cold War, which I mentioned in a recent blog, I have also been reading “Going Solo” by an American professor called Eric Klinenberg. Applebaum’s book concerned the suffering endured by the peoples of Eastern Europe under Communism; Klinenberg’s book describes a different kind of sadness (though he wouldn’t quite describe it like this): that endured by many people in the western world today. This is the sadness that comes from loneliness, the result of living in an atomised, individualistic society where old style communities have broken down, religious belief has dwindled and the population is aging rapidly.

Klinenberg provides two statistics that are worth pondering. In the US in 1950, 22% of adults were single; now the figure is more than 50%. Again, in 1950 only 1 in 10 Americans over 65 lived alone; today the figure is 1 in 3. The author does recognise there are social and demographic problems here; but his solution is not to challenge the status quo itself but to adapt public policies to give people a softer landing i.e. to plan for new forms of suburban living that allow for single units; to re-think care homes and community care for the elderly so they are not left neglected and so on. Instead of “Dinks” – double income no kids” – we now have “Sinks” – single income no kids; that pattern, the author argues, is here to stay because people now have the wealth and the freedom to choose this lifestyle; they like it this way.

All this is deeply depressing to anyone who thinks hard about what a healthy society is all about: marriage as the cornerstone of society, with flourishing stable families and sufficient children to keep the population at replacement level and provide care for the old and sick within the extended family unit. As I type this, and bearing in mind Klinenberg’s statistics, it seems already past history – and pie in the sky to want to reverse the modern trend. But is it possible to change the demographic in the affluent West of which the US, the society Klinenberg examines, provides the model?

Here the Catholic Church should have something to offer. The Church has always championed marriage and openness to life, frowned on cohabitation and taught that a contraceptive mentality runs contrary to God’s plan for marriage. Yet except in rare cases – couples practising natural family fertility, families who home-school, traditionalist families, families who are part of the new movements in the church, such as Opus Dei – most Catholic marriages today, in size and outlook, reflect their agnostic neighbours.

Defending marriage and explaining why Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae is a wise document and also consistent traditional Catholic teaching is not something our bishops have been vocal about in recent decades – to the detriment of society as well as families. But you cannot have a healthy society without the bedrock of strong family life. Klinenberg’s book reflects on the fallout from neglecting this principle.

An article by Clare Horsfall in the Family Edge section of the blog site for 3rd April 2013, entitled “The truth about big families”, provides a light-hearted (but also serious) rebuttal of the current situation, both here and in the US. Among the ten reasons she gives for stating why big families are a good thing, she lists economics: babies come cheap (and although she doesn’t say this, a large family under one roof is more ecologically sensible than many smaller individual units).

Although there are sacrifices with large families, they are outweighed by the rewards; the love that is generated in such families increases the capacity to love all round; parents will not have a lonely old age and children, surrounded by siblings, will be less lonely themselves (and less indulged by hothouse or helicopter parenting.) Why don’t our bishops regard this as the most important thing to tell lay Catholics? That the common good as well as individual good depends on stable, faithful marriage and that openness to life and that generously welcoming more rather fewer children would confront, in the most natural way possible, all the trends and demographics that Klinenberg’s book analyses?

  • kentgeordie

    Good. I feel that the battle we seem likely to lose over same sex marriage should have been fought decades ago over divorce, abortion and contraception. The bishops do seem to have woken up at long last, but if Humanae Vitae had been received with apostolic conviction, the world would be in less of a mess today.

  • franstheman

    I remember in 1984 the Catholic Conference of Irish Bishops published a Book on Marriage and the Family based on the Book of Songs which was one of the most uplifting and down to earth teaching on the Sacrament of marriage and the Personification of God in the human family I have ever read and the Consensus at the time was that it gave every reason why the Covenant of Marriage was so fulfilling and why Divorce was intrinsically wrong and would lead to so much suffering for the children of the Broken Marriage. This was issued to every Catholic in Ireland. I always said had that been reissued in the year Divorce was on the Agenda again it would have persuaded voters not to legalize it in Ireland. The negative effects are being paid for today

  • kentgeordie

    I think you are so right to stress that the traditional Catholic hot potatoes should be seen not as grim prohibitions but as beautiful and uplifting adventures – we should love our spouse for life, we should love the unborn however conceived and regardless of imperfection, we should live our sexuality to the full and not hamper it with industrial products.

  • anon

    There is a special difficulty to do with college, university ( campus lifestyle ) and low-income graduates, somewhat stranded, far from home.

  • $27740841

    ‘Our bishops should do more to promote the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family’
    But they WON’T, will they?
    Neither will they promote a truly Catholic religious life. Not everyone is called to marry.

  • Counterpoint

    The Holy Father has called for a “Church of the poor”. Traditional families are often poor, and understandably so.

  • ZuZuLamarr

    Bishop Mark Davies has hit the ground running on this one…
    … why aren’t other bishops doing the same with just as much grit and confidence?

  • LocutusOP

    Again, not much to disagree with, Mrs. Phillips. It is a real tragedy that the bishops do not seem to believe in the sacrament of marriage. One prime example of this would be the ease with which annulments are granted.

    If ordinations to the priesthood were invalid half of the time one would expect this to be at the top of the Church’s agenda, yet we seem content to see Catholic marriages being dissolved by claiming they were never marriages in the first place. I have no problem with annulments so long as they are granted under exceptional circumstances, but this hardly seems to be the case.

    If the Catholic church wants to promote marriage, it has to look at reducing the number of annulments and start treating marriage vows as though they meant something. If there are potential impediments to marriage, then the Church should investigate these before marriage and not use them as grounds to dissolve what in most cases are perfectly natural marriages but where the spouses (one or both) have lost interest.

  • la catholic state

    But eventually traditional families catch up financially. When the brood start earning and contributing…..and with no divorce to devastate finances….things begin to look rosy as time progresses.

  • Cestius

    Only relatively poor in terms of money. The best traditional families are rich in many other ways, love, grace, peace and caring for one another.

  • NewFranciman

    There is a deep yearning for a world that is almost no more and a belief that anything the Bishops say will reawaken an older way of life, is simply dreaming…..too strangely reminiscent of the old adverts of the benighted Panacea Society of Bedford. Most of us know what the church’s counsel of perfection is; indeed the popular media image of catholics is still the Liverpool ‘Bread’ caricature. We live in a world where husband and wife go out to work, where relationships are subject to great stress, where children are deeply influenced by the views of their contemporaries in particular through school and the social media sites, where children brought up on a very tight rein (like many moslem children), can get dangerously out of phase. I think the Bishops are quite wise and modest.

  • Jonathan West

    Actually, though it may seem strange to say so, I agree wholeheartedly with Francis Phillips that the bishops should be more energetic in the promotion of Catholic teaching on the family.

    In its lack of humanity and accommodation to the different circumstances that different people find themselves in, I can hardly think of anything better calculated to encourage large numbers of people to leave the church.

  • couissent

    Surely, it must be apparent to the Bishops by now that there is simply no option for a quiet life. We get flak even if they keep their heads down, and then we get no chance to influence the agenda. So why not a robust exposition of our precious and beautiful faith in all its aspects? There are many souls to be won and saved.

  • Charles Martel

    “Our bishops should do more to promote the Church’s teaching on marriage and family”. Or maybe just: “Our bishops should do more to promote the Church’s teachings”

  • Benedict Carter

    Yes, exactly right Charles.

  • Andrew Young

    I am reliably informed that the Church is getting a dificult time from many whom Rome wishes to appoint as bishops with many refusing to accept the invitation and that this is a particularly European issue. Who would blame them.

  • scary goat

    Well, they haven’t been….but one can live in hope.

  • Frank

    Yes our bishop’s should do more to promote the church’s teaching.
    It should be easier these days too because of the accumulation of such a vast amount of supporting evidence.
    Of course in presenting this it should be remembered that we are a Christian church and that many, including some of the great saints have previously lived a lifestyle that is incompatible with those teachings. So powerful is God’s Grace and it is always available.

  • scary goat

    Sorry, Jonathan, totally off the mark. Lack of humanity? The Catholic Church teaches the best form of humanity. How I regret not coming to the Church earlier :-( My life might not have been wrecked by liberal social trends if I’d have had the foggiest clue what I was doing.. At least coming to the Church prevents me from wrecking it any further.

    And as for “different circumstances”….people find themselves in “different circumstances” because, like me, they didn’t know what they were doing in the first place. The Church does her best to regularize the situation of those who are irregular….but we wouldn’t have been irregular if liberal society hadn’t misled us.

  • Frank

    “the Catholic Church teaches the best form of humanity”

    Thank you for your excellent post.

  • scary goat

    Thank you :-)

  • Benedict Carter

    Great post Scary. Spot on.

  • ZuZuLamarr


  • Jonathan West

    Yes, lack of humanity. For a simple example, allow me to point to the death of Savita Halappanavar.

  • Jonathan West

    Consider the following.

    A midwife manager at Galway University Hospital has identified herself as the person who told Savita Halappanavar that she couldn’t get a termination “because Ireland is a Catholic country”.

    Ann Maria Burke said that she now regrets the remark but explained that it wasn’t meant to be hurtful.

    “It was not said in the context to offend her. I’m sorry how it came across. It does sound very bad now but at the time I didn’t mean it that way. It was the law of the land and there were two referendums where the Catholic church was pressing the buttons.”

    Are you trying to suggest that the church did not campaign to maintain the ban on abortion in those two referendums? Do you think that if there were a further referendum the church would campaign in favour of a change in the law?

  • White Knight

    Meanwhile in France, the police beat our priests in the streets for defending marriage (start at about 4:00 ).

    Catholic men should be now preparing to fight and if necessary die in armed defense of our priests and bishops.

    ‘”I expect to die in bed, my successor will die in prison and his successor will die a martyr in the public square.’ Cardinal George

  • Julian Lord

    No, I’m saying that in such cases of clearly life-endangering pregnancies, doctors are taught by Catholic doctrine to save the mother’s life, not abandon it because abortion is forbidden. If saving the mother’s life entails the necessary death of the unborn child, then this death is unavoidable ; but the death of the mother is not.

  • scary goat

    That is one tragedy that shouldn’t have happened. I’m not going to argue the ins and outs of it….that’s been done on here already. But I see tragedies, so many of them all around me all the time. One tragedy, one mistake in judgement maybe, but the endless tragedies that have been brought about in our modern society by abandoning the rules of the Church….you cannot balance one against the other.

  • Jonathan West

    That would probably require a change in the law in Ireland. I await with interest to see whether the bishops will support such a change.

    Also, your interpretation requires that the doctors walk a tightrope. What degree of risk to the mother’s life justifies a termination? A small risk, a moderate risk or an almost certain risk? Does harm to the mother’s health but not life justify a termination? If so, what degree of harm?

    The present catholic teaching seems to require that doctors have to wait until the mother’s life is in significant jeopardy before they act. That is inhumane.

  • Jonathan West

    I gave a specific example and you responded with a generality. There is no discussion to be had here unless you are prepared to be a little less vague about both what you are defending and what you are disapproving of.

  • scary goat

    That’s ok. I’m not really that interested in continuing this discussion anyway. Fortunately it looks like Jabba’s picked it up, so you can carry on and discuss with him. :-)

  • James M

    “Our bishops should do more to promote the Church’s teaching on marriage and family”

    ## For that to be possible, the entirety of the Faith must be made known. It cannot be presented piecemeal, as though it were not an organic whole, for that is what it is. As a result, everything is so completely dependent on everything else, no matter how remote the connection between any two parts of it, that no part or parts it can be make full sense on their own. Marriage cannot be understood with the Church’s Faith regarding the Eucharist; the uniqueness of the Church is intimately connected with the uniqueness of God; the Unique Authority of Christ and the Universality of the Church’s mission & duty to preach the Kingdom of God cannot be separated; the Church’s doctrine regarding the Saints is inseparable from her doctrine regarding the Holy Spirit.

  • Julian Lord

    That would probably require a change in the law in Ireland

    No it would not — the doctors who failed to act to save that poor woman’s life –

    1) broke Irish Law, which required them to attempt to save her life

    2) broke Canon Law, which requires the same

    3) broke their Hippocratic Oath, which of course requires the same

    Basic and ordinary ethics and morality also required the same.

    It is ludicrous to carp on endlessly about how things need to change, whereas every single applicable moral and legal code that these doctors must be obedient to was completely ignored by them, in favour of a narrow and inhumane and uncatholic and illegal reading of the civil law.

    You cannot blame a Church nor a set of Irish laws for requiring them to do the exact opposite of what they actually did.

    The only positive part of this sad case is that at least the doctors now in Ireland will be more fully aware of their actual responsibilities in the face of life-endangering pregnancies than they were prior to this poor woman’s completely unnecessary and illegal death.

  • We are church

    It seems to me that Humanae Vitae was not taken seriously by many bishops when it appeared.
    Decades later, we see the disatsrous result. But we cannot blaim bishops only; the laiety carries a great responsibility for the decline of marriage. “Where good people do nothing, evil persists”.
    It is rare to come across cradle catholics who defend the church, who are openly proud of being catholic. Catholics in general, with some marvellous exceptions, are just as quiet and subdued when the topic of same sex “marriage” comes up, as any non believer, at least that is our experience.
    All of us must engage in the New Evangelization, proclaimed by the great Benedict XVI.

  • kentgeordie

    I take your point that all the faithful must defend their faith with commitment. But we are sheep and the flock needs strong leaders.

  • Jonathan West

    One of ther recommendations of the coroner, endorsed by the jury, was this.

    “The Medical Council should lay out exactly when a doctor can intervene to save the life of the mother in similar circumstances, which will remove doubt and fear from the doctor and also reassure the public. An Bord Altranais (the Nursing Board) should have similar directives for midwives so the two professions always complement one another.”

    In the present circumstances, the doctors had no chance, because the guidelines weren’t clear, and they legally didn’t know what they could do and when.

    And it is quite obvious that the guidelines aren’t clear because the law isn’t clear. And furthermore, it is obvious that the law isn’t clear because the Catholic Church in Ireland has campaigned against making the law clear, as part of its opposition to abortion.

    Had Savita Halappanavar had a timely abortion, and had the case gained publicity, I have little doubt that you would have been arguing for the prosecution of the doctors on the grounds that the risk to the mothers life wasn’t sufficient to justify the immediate and certain death of the baby.

  • Julian Lord

    Had Savita Halappanavar had a timely abortion, and had the case gained publicity, I have little doubt that you would have been arguing for the prosecution of the doctors on the grounds that the risk to the mothers life wasn’t sufficient to justify the immediate and certain death of the baby.

    Good grief, your prejudice about how people think runs deep.

    1) If that had been the case, as has been the case for many hundreds of other cases worldwide, this story would never have been news in the first place, as the doctors would simply have performed their duty

    2) Why on EARTH would I say one thing in circumstances A and its exact opposite in circumstances B ??? My opinions do not shift in the wind.

    Your point about guidelines, at least, has some merit — but these are presumably hospital or otherwise medical guidelines, and if they were poorly written, then the doctors and others who contributed to writing them up are to be blamed for that, NOT your usual suspects.

    I take note of the fact that you continue to argue your untenable and ridiculous “point” even though it has been pointed out to you, very clearly, that the saving of this poor woman’s life should have been paramount in these doctors’ minds as according to the very moral codes that you condemn.