In this era of the Synod on the Family, I’ve noticed that a certain expression has become common – almost omnipresent. I’ve seen this expression many times in secular news reports on the synod, I’ve read it in speeches of and interviews with synod fathers, I’ve found it in the comments of Catholic writers, and I recently heard it in a Sunday homily. The expression I refer to is: “ideal.” The teachings of Christ and His Church on Marriage are allegedly an ideal.
Marriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines the term “ideal” in this way:
“1: A standard of perfection, beauty, or excellence 2: one regarded as exemplifying an ideal and often taken as a model for imitation”
By this definition, and according to the popular understanding of the expression “ideal,” it appears that the teachings of Christ and His Church on Holy Matrimony are standards we should try to imitate, high marks we should attempt to reach, but which most of us will miss simply because the ideal is just too high and too impractical. After all, that’s the nature of an ideal: only a gifted few can attain it, while the ordinary masses cannot.
The teachings of Christ and His Church on Marriage are not an ideal; rather, they are a definition, a truth, a reality revealed by the Creator of Marriage, restored by the Savior of Marriage, sanctified by the Holy Spirit of Marriage, and entrusted to the Church to expound and uphold forever. In Christ we have been taught by God both what Christian Marriage is and what it is not. We have not been given an ideal; we have been shown a truth that peoples, cultures, nations, and religions have denied and continue to deny with an increasing militancy. And to the degree we begin to consider Christian Marriage only an ideal, only a lofty standard to shoot for, we will begin to justify and accept as “close enough” a thousand worldly standards that are not Christian Marriage.
Let me give a related example – the topic of priestly celibacy. Christ and St. Paul both highly commended the renunciation of marriage for the sake of the Kingdom of God (Mt. 19:12; 1 Cor. 7:32-35). The purpose of celibacy is to sanctify individuals and free them for a life of undivided devotion to God and service of His Church. Protestants generally believe that this teaching is biblical but optional for ministers, and many Catholics now feel it should be the same for priests. In other words, celibacy is an ideal, but it should not be a rule or requirement for all. The priest himself should be free to decide whether or not he will marry.
Now, how does celibacy as an “ideal” exist in the Protestant world? Remember, Protestants generally do not deny that celibacy is a biblical teaching; they simply claim that, as an ideal, it is optional.
Celibacy among Protestant clergy is nearly non-existent. I’ve never met a celibate minister and I’ve never heard of a celibate minister. I presume that celibate ministers exist somewhere, but I can’t prove it. And the minister that was celibate would be a loner, an odd-ball who would be a cause of suspicion for going against a long-standing Protestant tradition of married ministers.
Often, in order to lead people to follow the hard and narrow way, that way must be made into a rule. It must develop from an “ideal” into a norm or requirement for all. Otherwise, people – succumbing to their fallen nature which always prefers ease to exertion – will invariably follow the wide and easy way, to the near total abandonment of the other way. Such is the case with celibacy and such is the case with marriage. And yet, Christian Marriage is more than a rule: it is a truth. Marriage, as a life-long union of one man and one woman, is not a precept or law, but a reality defined by the Creator. And whatever imperfections had crept into it through the hardness of human hearts and had been tolerated during the Old Testament period, Christ has removed. Such corruptions – including divorce and remarriage, and polygamy – have been excluded by our Lord in restoring marriage to the original will of the Creator.
If Christ had presented His teachings on Holy Matrimony only as an ideal, rather than as a restored truth, then He would have had nothing new to say about it. Then His ideas would have gone unnoticed; they would have been the same as the rabbis of the time, and, in fact, the same as the Gentile world in its widespread acceptance of divorce and remarriage and even polygamy. What sets the teachings of Christ and His Church apart from the ways of pagandom is the refusal to dignify in any way, and to any degree, the grave sin of adultery. And where a valid sacramental marriage has been confected, divorce and attempted remarriage constitute adultery. To receive Holy Communion in such a state is to commit a grave sin of sacrilege. That is the unchangeable Gospel truth.
It is not that Christian Marriage is an ideal or a high mark to shoot for, below which other less ideal forms of marriage are also acceptable; rather, it is that these “lesser forms” – cohabitation, divorce and remarriage, same-sex unions, and polygamy – are not marriage at all but are grave offenses against the nature and dignity of marriage.
Just as Christ would not dignify adultery before the Pharisees, neither can the Catholic Church dignify it before the world, not even in the name of an alleged “mercy” that only makes Christ Himself appear most unmerciful for having given the teaching in the first place For He, and not man, is the Author of the Church’s teaching on Christian Marriage. It is not a Pharisaical addendum to the Gospel, but a central principle of it.
Every difficult marital situation was foreseen by our Lord, and yet, He did not propose a lame compromised version of the marital covenant, such as many are proposing in the Church today. This is not pastoral sensitivity to real situations; it is an incomprehensible arrogance that holds that Christ’s standard is just too high, too much to ask for; hence, man must improve upon it by lowering that standard. Such a denial of a central Gospel truth is unworthy of any person who dares to call himself a Catholic, never mind a pastor of souls.