Bishop Urges Summit Participants to Build a Vibrant Culture of Marriage
The church’s pastoral care for married couples is a cornerstone of the effort to build “a vibrant culture of marriage,” Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Ind., said in an Aug. 2 address in Milwaukee. He addressed the “first-ever summit for representatives of Catholic organizations that minister in various ways to marriage and the family.”
Three additional cornerstones vital to a marriage-building church are catechesis and education, public policy, and prayer and worship, Bishop Rhoades said. He chairs the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth.
“Our collaborative efforts must help couples to build or to rebuild their marriages on the foundation of faith in Christ and reliance on his grace, or else we are missing the boat,” he told summit participants.
The Aug. 1-3 summit at Jesuit-run Marquette University was convened by the National Association of Catholic Family Life Ministers in collaboration with the bishops’ committee. Sixteen national Catholic organizations were represented.
Couples Need Ongoing Pastoral Care
“Important expressions of pastoral care” need to be made “more readily available” to married couples, Bishop Rhoades said. He indicated that such pastoral care includes “mentoring programs, Marriage Encounter weekends or couples’ retreats, seminars on communication and intimacy and other important issues, instruction in natural family planning, pastoral and professional counseling services, and support programs such as Retrouvaille for couples who are struggling or separated.”
A 2007 survey of adult U.S. Catholics on marriage found that more than half of those currently divorced became divorced during their marriage’s first 10 years, Bishop Rhoades noted. He concluded that more must be done “to support couples during that critical first decade.” The survey, commissioned by the U.S. bishops, was conducted by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate in Washington.
In making recommendations for pastoral care, Bishop Rhoades spoke of “a duty to support in a special way those couples who are dealing with circumstances and difficulties which tend to put additional pressure on a marriage.” He said one way to support these couples is by sponsoring “gatherings or groups where those who share the same cross can come together to receive emotional support and spiritual guidance.”
Among couples he mentioned were “those struggling with infertility or subfertility; couples who have been given an adverse prenatal diagnosis; those who have children with disabilities or other special needs; couples dealing with military deployment; spouses struggling with addictions of any kind, including an addiction to pornography, which we know wreaks terrible havoc on many marriages today.”
Bishop Rhoades suggested that because only some 15 percent of divorced Catholics “say they have sought a decree of nullity from the church,” there is a need to encourage them to “embark upon the annulment process” if reasonable grounds “indicate that their marriages may not be valid.”
He added, “For those who choose not to pursue this path or for whom a decree of nullity is not possible, we need to offer compassionate spiritual support through programs and other resources.”
A “revealing statistic” from the 2007 CARA survey showed that fewer than one-third of adult Catholics seemed to view marriage is a vocation, a calling from God. Bishop Rhoades said “this finding indicates a clear pastoral priority.”
The bishop encouraged summit participants to create opportunities for married couples to reflect upon the discussion of marriage as a vocation and sacrament in the U.S. bishops’ 2009 national pastoral letter, “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.”
The pastoral letter’s final section, “A Commitment to Ministry,” calls for a comprehensive ministry to marriages and served as “a springboard” for the Milwaukee summit, Bishop Rhoades pointed out.
Need for Catechesis and Education
Accenting the role of public policy in building a culture of marriage, Bishop Rhoades expressed concern that U.S. society has reached the point of having little agreement “as to what marriage even means.”
He told summit participants that the “battle to defend marriage between one man and one woman will likely be fought both at the federal level and state by state.” He urged organizations represented at the summit “to do what you can in this ongoing struggle.”
Becoming a marriage-building church requires working hard “both in catechizing our Catholic community and in educating the general public,” Bishop Rhoades said. He emphasized that “much we know about what makes for good marriages is not strictly a matter of faith, but simply a matter of fact.” So a concerted effort is needed “to share this information with the general public.”
He recommended that increased attention be paid to four “facts of life” in particular:
— “Early sexual activity and cohabitation are associated with higher rates of divorce.”
— “The diffusion of contraception did not strengthen marriages but led to a sharp rise in the divorce rate.” However, “natural family planning … safeguards the meaning of sex as a sign of total self-giving, and its practice tends to strengthen the very qualities that make for strong marriages.”
— “Children thrive best in an intact family where the father and mother are married.”
— “Many married couples who stick it out through difficulties later report that they are happily married.”
It is fitting that the Milwaukee summit took place in the year marking the 30th anniversary of Pope John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, “Familiaris Consortio,” Bishop Rhoades commented. He explained:
“With this exhortation, Blessed John Paul II made the pastoral care of marriage and family an urgent priority, both in light of the great good that they represent for the church and for the world, and because of the breakdown in marriage and family life that was already well under way.”