Bottom line: The Church does say, "no," to many practices - some of them widely accepted in our society. But we do so for one reason: to say, "yes," to Jesus and, "yes," to the beautiful love he proposes.
You may have heard about the politician accused of being anti-Catholic. Worried that he would lose Catholic votes, he defended himself. "My fellow citizens," he said, "I am not anti-Catholic. I love Irish Catholics. I love Polish Catholics. I love French Catholics. I love them all." He paused for a second, then added, "The only ones I don't like are those Roman Catholics!"
The joke contains an elements of truth. Very few people are anti-Catholic in the sense of hating Catholics. Many people, however, have an aversion to Catholic teaching. Part of the reason is that they only hear the Church say, "No." No sex before marriage, no pornography, no cohabitation, no adultery, no homosexual acts, no contraception, no in vitro fertilization.* They hear the Church say, "no," but they don't know the reason why.
Well, this Sunday we have the answer. Jesus lays out the basis for our teaching on human sexuality. Quoting the book of Genesis, he says, "God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh." Then Jesus adds, "What God has joined together, no human being must separate." No judge, no court (not even an ecclesiastical court) has power to separate what God has joined.**
This teaching surprised Jesus' hearers - including the disciples. When they got inside, they questioned him. Jesus did not back away, he did not water it down. Rather he said more bluntly: If a man divorces his wife and marries another, he commits adultery. And with an eye to the Roman Empire, where the woman as well as the man could file for divorce, he says, "If she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."
Jesus does not mince words. You and I, nevertheless, are not Jesus. Only with the greatest delicacy should we apply his words to a specific case. I don't know about you, but I've got plenty of my own problems. I hope none of us would judge someone who has gone through a divorce. On the contrary, we identify with their hurt and want to support them as best we can. At the same time, we know the truth of Jesus' teaching. And, ironically, those who have gone through the wrenching experience of divorce sense that truth even more deeply than the rest of us.
The truth is this: God calls us to an exalted standard of fidelity and love. The union of a man and woman can never be casual - or recreational. St. Paul goes so far to say that "anyone who attaches himself to a prostitute is one body with her, since the two, as it is said, become one flesh." (1 Cor 6: 16) They are doing it for base motives (she for money, he for passing pleasure) but, no matter, says St. Paul, they form a union that has eternal consequences. As Pope John Paul pointed out, the use of sex outside of marriage always contains an element of deception. The "language" of the human body expresses a total self-donation that is only honest within marriage.
This teaching, though difficult,*** continues to fascinate people. All of us, especially the young, desire a beautiful love - a love that gives oneself without reservation. That is what Jesus teaches - and, let's face it, it makes many uncomfortable. People cohabiting sense that their relationship lacks something. Those engaged in promiscuity have a gnawing feeling - something is wrong. The ones pursuing an affair know that their deception is causing great damage. People drawn to a gay lifestyle wonder if they are really doing the right thing.
Once again, we do not judge those involved in fornication, adultery or homosexual activity. Heaven knows that all of us - especially in today's society - have difficulty living Jesus' teaching on sexuality. But out of love for others (and for own sakes) we continue to put forward the ideal of a beautiful love - a love that involves a total self-giving, a love that expresses itself in the life-long commitment of marriage.****
So, by way of conclusion: The Church does say, "no," to many practices - some of them widely accepted in our society. But we do so for one reason, to say, "yes," to Jesus and, "yes," to the beautiful love he proposes. And he knows what he is talking about. He was there when God created us male and female.
*Today's Gospel would lend itself to an instruction regarding reproductive technologies. Artificial insemination and in vitro fertilization go against the heart of marriage by separating the man and woman - and putting a third party between them (the medical technician). They also negate the rights of the child. “The child,” says the Catechism, “is not something owed to one, but is a gift...In this area only the child possesses genuine rights: the right ‘to be the fruit of a specific act of conjugal love of his parents,’ and ‘the right to be respected as person from the first moment of his conception.’” (#2378)
This is a hard teaching, but we are beginning to see the consequences of ignoring it. Recently a couple received terrible news from a fertility clinic: the embryo (child) implanted in the woman came from a union of sperm and ovum of a different couple. They had a choice: either destroy the baby or give the child to the biological parents. The drama made national news, but few news stories faced the deeper issue: A human child had become a piece of property: conceived in a Petri dish, at the hands of technicians, far from the protection of its mother’s womb. The media focus all the attention on the parents – and in this case, the unwitting surrogate mother. The child, effectively, had become a piece of property.
Of all the teachings contained in the Catechism – and they are the teachings of Jesus – one of the hardest is this: a child is a gift, not a right. Is it not significant that, after giving his teaching on marriage, Jesus embraced and blessed little children? His teaching not only calls men and women to a beautiful love - but to embrace and protect the child as "the supreme gift of marriage." (Ibid.)
**The Marriage Tribunal does not "annul" a marriage. Rather, after an extension investigation, it may determine that no true marriage existed. Here is a link that gives a detailed explanation of what is involved in a "Declaration of Nullity.
***Sometimes people will write off celibacy (or abstinence in general) as "unnatural." If by that they mean, "against our natural tendencies," who can argue with them? If, on the other hand, they mean, "impossible," there is plenty of evidence they are wrong.
****In a different homily, I discuss the relationship between marriage and priestly celibacy.
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