Some of the most important and memorable words spoken by Pope John Paul II in support of the family were these: “The future of the world and of the Church passes through the family” (Familiaris Consortio, #75).
Indeed it can be stated with equal certainty that the future of the family rests upon the foundation of a strong marriage. As Pope Benedict XVI has taught:
The family…is the “cradle” of life and of every vocation. We are well aware that the family founded on marriage is the natural environment in which to bear and raise children and thereby guarantee the future of all humanity. However, we also know that marriage is going through a deep crisis and today must face numerous challenges. It is consequently necessary to defend, help, safeguard and value it in its unrepeatable uniqueness. If this commitment is in the first place the duty of spouses, it is also a priority duty of the Church and of every public institution to support the family by means of pastoral and political initiatives that take into account the real needs of married couples, of the elderly and of the new generations. (Angelus Talk, February 4, 2007)
The U.S. Catholic Bishops have taken these words seriously and made a serious, extensive commitment to the support of family life by identifying as one of their pastoral priorities the strengthening and protecting of marriage.
The National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage
In 2004 the bishops, acting as an episcopal conference, began a project known as the National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage. By adopting this Initiative the bishops expressed their desire to join with other persons of good will to build a culture that promotes and esteems marriage as God has willed it for the good of humanity. Specifically, they pledged to employ the resources of Catholic teaching and pastoral practice, the findings of social science, and the experience of married couples in accomplishing the goals of:
- proclaiming and witnessing to the true meaning of marriage and its value for persons, families and society;
- offering support and practical resources to those who are responsible in the Church and in society for all aspects of strengthening and protecting marriage.
The Bishops Conference, along with many collaborators in dioceses, national associations and movements, educational institutions and church-related organizations, has in the past five years undertaken a variety of activities to implement these two goals.
- The Conference has engaged in research about the strengths and weaknesses present in marriage today.
- It has convened groups of pastoral leaders and experts for consultation.
- It has worked with dioceses to organize groups of engaged and married couples in order to learn about their realities.
- It has produced many resources that can be used by educators and others responsible for ministry to marriages.
- It created a national media campaign to promote a positive image of married life and to encourage couples to take practical steps to strengthen their marriage. The campaign, entitled “For Your Marriage,” has utilized the many tools of mass communication including radio, television, the internet and its several applications in the realm of social networking and information sharing.
Most recently, in November 2009, the U.S. Bishops issued a pastoral letter entitled “Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan.” This letter is a high point of the National Pastoral Initiative. It presents the points of Catholic teaching on marriage that are essential for understanding the nature and purposes of marriage, for living it faithfully, and for preserving and defending it as a unique and necessary institution. The bishops intend the letter to be a foundational document for pastoral activity at all levels including the formation of couples and the many expressions of pastoral care. It is being distributed in several formats and in both English and Spanish.
The Defense of Marriage
The main thrust of all these activities has been to strengthen and support those who are living their marriage as the exclusive union of a man and a woman. However, the bishops have also focused attention on the serious external challenge to marriage that arises from legislative and judicial attempts to change the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples and to accord them the rights and benefits of marriage.
With financial support and other kinds of assistance from the Knights of Columbus, the U.S. Bishops in 2008 organized a major project concerning the defense and protection of marriage as the exclusive union of a man and a woman. This project intensified the previous activities of the bishops, including their publication of a pastoral statement in 2003 entitled “Between Man and Woman: Questions and Answers about Marriage and Same-Sex Unions.”
The bishops’ national effort in defense of marriage seeks to recover and proclaim the truth about marriage as something that is received from God, not something that humans arbitrarily create or alter. The campaign has adopted as its overarching theme “Marriage: Unique for a Reason.” The activities of the campaign are unfolding on two levels: a catechetical effort intended primarily for young adults aged 20-30 and an advocacy effort aimed at influencing legislation and public policy.
The catechetical component of the bishops’ work is being constructed around four key points:
(1) the sexually-differentiated complementarity of male and female is the anthropological foundation of marriage;
(2) children are the fruit of marriage and they deserve to have both a mother and a father;
(3) reserving marriage to one man and one woman does not constitute unjust discrimination against homosexual persons;
(4) legalizing same-sex unions as marriage has a serious negative impact on the religious liberty of individuals and institutions in our society.
These points are being crafted into catechetical presentations and resources consisting of videos, written materials and a special website.
The public advocacy component of the campaign consists mostly of working within the Catholic community and with other religious groups to overcome or overturn court decisions or legislative acts that have recognized same-sex unions as marriages. Marriage law in the United States operates primarily at the level of the states. Five states and the District of Columbia recognize a legal right to same-sex marriage. While this might seem like a distressing trend, it should also be noted that thirty states have passed marriage protection amendments to their state constitutions and forty states have enacted marriage protection legislation. Recently, in California, Maine and New York, attempts to legislate same-sex marriage were defeated.
At the federal level, the Bishops Conference is very engaged in resisting many different attempts to erode the meaning of marriage that arise from legislation that would grant spousal benefits to same-sex partners.
The Continuing Priority of Marriage
In November 2009 the U.S. Bishops recognized the importance as well as the achievements of their efforts to strengthen and protect marriage by adopting this as one of their priority goals for the next two years. Their decision ensures that certain resources of the Bishops Conference will be allocated to projects dealing with marriage and family life.
Many of the activities already begun in recent years will continue and grow in the coming years. Also there will be new efforts to disseminate and utilize the pastoral letter in dioceses, parishes and schools. There will be a second wave of the media campaign “For Your Marriage.” There will be increased emphasis on producing Spanish-language educational materials. The “Marriage: Unique for a Reason” campaign will continue and undoubtedly intensify as additional needs are identified and new challenges to marriage are encountered. Efforts to mobilize Catholic organizations and to have them work collaboratively will continue.
For over twenty-five years the Bishops Conference, with generous financial assistance from the Knights of Columbus, has offered leadership and resources for Natural Family Planning (NFP) education in the context of the Church’s teaching on sexuality, marriage and responsible parenthood. Emphasis has been placed on enabling diocesan and parish NFP programs to provide services to couples both at the point of marriage preparation as well as during married life. This work continues to be an integral part of the bishops’ pastoral priority for marriage. In 2006 the bishops expressed their commitment to the ministry of Natural Family Planning by issuing a pastoral statement entitled “Married Love and the Gift of Life.” This statement articulated in a clear, readable manner the Church’s teaching about the dual purposes of marriage and the moral question of contraception.
Although the majority of dioceses (87%) provide some degree of NFP instruction in their marriage preparation programs, still a very small percentage (around 7%) of couples take the necessary steps to use NFP in their married lives. Much work remains to be done.
Finally, the U.S. Bishops Conference through its Committee on Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth is planning to new projects that will further implement the pastoral priority of strengthening and protecting marriage. The first is the development of a framework that can be used by parishes in order to become intentionally a “marriage-building parish.” This framework will consist of certain important elements that should be expressed in parish ministries if that community is to be truly and comprehensively focused on promoting and supporting the vocation of marriage. The framework will function as a pastoral plan for assessing and guiding parish ministries and for adapting them to local circumstances.
The second upcoming project will be concerned with the practice of marriage preparation in dioceses and parishes. Nearly all U.S. dioceses have a policy mandating a program of marriage preparation. The implementation of such programs varies from place to place in scope, intensity, methodology, etc. The national project will assess the current situation and produce a set of guidelines that can be used locally to identify best practices and raise the standards of quality in the programs.