Our readings today are clearly centred on the relationship between man and woman that we call marriage. It is both a most natural yet deeply mysterious relationship -- involving passions which promise great joys but also occasion deep sorrows -- that it is understandable that there have been and still are many wrong ideas and false attitudes in its regard. However, by considering this difficult but fundamental relationship we can gain a deeper insight into the nature of our Catholic faith, so let us proceed.
Jesus told the Jews that they had, so to speak, twisted Moses’ arm into his giving them an inauthentic attitude to both the divine purpose and the human experience of ‘marriage’; an attitude which, by making it easier for men to get out of arising difficulties or even pursue fancied options, only served to prevent them from being able to appreciate and attain the true beauty and fulfilment of that relationship.
Note first of all that, as Jesus explains, Jewish ‘marriage’ was intended by God to bring about social benefit of women: affording them greater security and promoting a deeper appreciation of their dignity. But for us Catholics and Christians, marriage is a sacramental union which a man and a woman – presuming the necessary freedom and knowledge -- bestow on each other before Jesus and His Church; and its supreme purpose is to ‘supernaturalize’ nature in man and woman that they may thus be enabled to adequately provide for and bring up their children as children of God and, for themselves, find marriage a social blessing and a divinely guided pedagogy in the ways of Jesus (e.g. humility, patience, love and commitment before self and satisfaction) leading to and preparing for their personal fulfilment and eternal happiness before God.
According to Protestant teaching the fullness of Christian doctrine is to be found in the Bible expressed in the written words contained there; and because the words are there to be seen and read by all, a devout Protestant can appreciate the Scriptures as both the source of what is generally acceptable in faith and practice and also as the quarry where individual, personal, preferences can be diligently discovered and duly adopted. Of course there are some difficult passages which might need explanation but, fundamentally, such difficulties do not affect the basic position which is, that what one can see and read in the Bible forms the basis of belief, and ‘my’ serious belief is as good as anyone else’s because it is ‘my’ personal and sincere response to what is written objectively in the Scriptures.
It has never been like that in the Catholic Church … and remember, the Christian body of believers in Jesus has always been called Catholic; indeed, before 1054 it had no other title whatsoever, being simply known as the Catholic Church. And so it is today, to the extent that we always consider ourselves as Catholics, members of the Catholic Church, even though others in our Christian fraternity insist on referring to us as Roman Catholics. We are not ashamed to be called Roman Catholics for, understood aright, it is quite true; nevertheless, we are most of all attached to that title which has always been ours, Catholic.
Now, Catholics are and always have been -- first and foremost -- hearers of the word of God, not readers of it:
But how can they call on Him in Whom they have not believed? And how can they believe in Him of Whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone to preach? And how can people preach unless they are sent? As it is written, "How beautiful are the feet of those who bring (the) good news!" But not everyone has heeded the good news; for Isaiah says, "Lord, who has believed what was heard from us?" Thus faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ. (Romans 10:14-17)
It was ever so, even in the very founding structure of the Church: preachers, as you heard, had to be sent, and those originally sent by Jesus Himself were the Apostles proclaiming the ‘Gospel of Peace’; and as a consequence of that original Apostolic mission those Churches were called Apostolic Sees that had either received the Gospel from such an Apostle, or had developed a specially close and proven historical connection with one such See that other centres of Christianity did not have. Such Apostolic Sees – having heard and received the Gospel from Apostolic preachers -- were accepted as the criterion for catholicity. Churches not thus founded on or by an Apostle were regarded as members of the Catholic Body only if they were in communion with those Sees properly called Apostolic; and it was supremely the Church at Rome -- recognized as founded upon the two supreme Apostles, Peter and Paul -- that was regarded as the God-willed witness to Catholic Truth and ultimate criterion for membership of the authentic Catholic Communion.
In that Catholic Communion our initial Scriptures were the Jewish Scriptures in the Septuagint Greek translation which Mother Church subsequently termed the ‘Old Testament’, because she regarded them as God’s revealed word only as read and understood in the light of Jesus. Those Jewish Scriptures of themselves, she believes, are an imperfect revelation because they are preparatory: they were preparing the way for the coming of Jesus and can only be understood aright when interpreted in the light of His Person, His Good News, and His history. Our own New Testament Scriptures, on the other hand, are final; and apart from the fullness of Old and New Testaments together, there is no other divine revelation to be found or to be expected.
Nevertheless, though originally ours, those New Testament Scriptures also need to be understood, interpreted aright, for they are a witness to the original Gospel proclamation made by Mother Church before anything was written down, and as such they are always to be understood according to the Church’s Rule of Faith which gave them birth and which they were originally meant to express, preserve, and extend.
Therefore, in our attitude to marriage, we Catholics cannot accept the Jewish approach condemned by Jesus, nor can we adopt a Protestant attitude which allows an individual to read the Scriptures and ultimately form his own opinion about ‘my belief’. As Catholics we receive our Christian identity and life by our faithful response to the Church’s Rule of Faith for, we are ‘hearers’ of the living Apostolic preaching not ‘readers’ of ancient and unchanging books. For those books, supremely venerable though they are for the divine truths contained in them, are only infallible as guides when understood in accordance with, and as expounded by, the living Rule of Catholic and Church Faith.
Many today seem to assume for themselves the title ‘catholic’ while having but a minimal concern with faith. They are not ‘hearers’ of the Church’s proclamation of the Gospel message to which they have obediently committed themselves in a response of faith. Neither are they true ‘readers’ of that Gospel, who can, indeed, at times be so devoted to what they read that they are willing to sacrifice all for it except that right to personally quarry their own beliefs from the Scriptures. Rather, they are seekers of a message of pleasant and peaceful accommodation with the world around them offering the additional spin-off of a measure of personal spiritual comfort. They don’t want to hear the Gospel, they don’t even want to read the Gospel, they prefer a gospel they can ‘feel’.
There are, however, some staunch Catholics to be found in parishes today who, somewhat surprisingly, show themselves to be of this persuasion by their habit of giving their attention, first of all, to weighing up, assessing, the person of the messenger sent them and critically studying his style of presentation before attending to the message itself: they want first impressions to persuade them to like the person of the priest or find his presentation interesting and attractive before they recognise his authority or attend to his message. Only if those first and personal requirements are fulfilled will they seriously consider giving both hearing and a measure of commitment to the authoritative message proclaimed and presented to them by their ‘new’ priest.
However, for us Christians and Catholics who are hearers -- people called by God through the proclamation of messengers sent by Him -- it is the message of God’s Good News that counts. That is precisely the nature of our vocation: we hear the word of God, and we recognize it as the word of God, thanks to the Spirit of God given to the Church and working within all whom the Father calls to faith in His Son. And if -- once having been reborn through faith in baptism -- we are to go on and become mature children of God, we have to be able to recognize the message proclaimed by the Church as Jesus Himself addressing us through the words of her messengers: He is the Speaker to Whom we attend, His alone is the message to which we respond; all that we can require of the messenger is that he has the necessary authority to back up his message, for Jesus Himself always spoke with authority. Such required authority, however, is not to be accorded him by listeners who like his personality or his presentation, but by the Church of Christ which -- sure of his ability and knowing his sincerity -- guarantees the authenticity of his Catholic teaching:
We are of God. He who knows God hears us; he who is not of God does not hear us. By this we know the spirit of truth and the spirit of error.
Amen, amen, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives the One Who sent Me. (1 Jn. 4:6; Jn. 13:20)
To put things very simply and somewhat bluntly, it is a matter of distinguishing between the provisional packaging and the contents which abide. If the packaging is attractive it helps, but the contents, God’s gracious gift, are alone what matters.
The attitude of wanting, demanding even, to be superficially pleased before considering the message or receiving the gift, can have most serious repercussions even to the message of faith itself. Take the example of the Pharisees questioning Jesus in the Gospel:
The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing Him. He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?" They replied, "Moses permitted a man to write a bill of divorce, and dismiss her." But Jesus told them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment.”
Jesus, on the other hand, taught:
From the beginning of the creation, 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'. So they are no longer two but one flesh.
Then He went on to add the most solemn words of all:
Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.
In modern society however, as the person and personality of either spouse becomes less pleasing over the years, when their mutual love is no longer felt so powerfully, and when difficulties inevitably surface in the course of their shared life, some -- who through selfishness and superficiality never recognized any call to regularly re-assert and confirm their original commitment -- abdicate their own, personal, responsibility for the permanence and beauty of the bond which they sealed before God and claim a totally pagan freedom to ‘start afresh’ and satisfy personal whim and pleasure rather than seek God’s good will, cultivate moral forgetfulness and ‘lots-of-work-to-do’ as a substitute for peace of mind and heart.
The Chosen People -- a people formed and prepared by the grace of God over two thousand years to enter into and maintain a unique relationship with Himself and thus to hear, recognize, and proclaim His Law of truth and love to all the nations -- likewise turned out to be an unfaithful spouse, entering into illicit relationships with the gods of the surrounding nations. Having failed to hear and respond to the proclamation of God’s word by prophets raised up from their midst, they ultimately – contrary to their very being as His Chosen People – rejected the decisive proclamation of God’s word because the ultimate Messenger, the Son of God Himself, did not come up to expectations they had sinfully indulged for too long.
Dear People of God, in Mother Church we have to become children of the truth:
Assuredly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it. (Mark 10:15)
As new-born babies, desire the pure milk of the word that you may grow thereby, if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is gracious. (1 Peter 2:2-3)
As children of God, we have to long for God’s truth, we cannot pick and choose, even from such a quarry as the Scriptures, to form our own selection of items for belief; we must embrace the Apostolic Faith offered to us by the perennial proclamation and continued preaching of the living and universal Catholic Church.
Mother Church, ever rejoicing in the divine truth of her Gospel message which is the word of God amongst us still, lives by the Word she proclaims, enabling us who are born of her proclamation to be born alive; let us therefore, endeavour -- in the power and beauty of that living truth -- to love the Lord at all times, to seek His blessing in all circumstances, and to praise and proclaim His glory before all peoples.