Intentional Discipleship and the Indissolubility of Marriage

The Catholic Church recognises two kinds of marriage bond – natural and sacramental. Under certain circumstances, a natural bond can be dissolved. A sacramental bond, however, lasts until the death of one of the partners.

The Church has to acknowledge an indissoluble kind of marriage, because of the words of Our Lord which forbid divorce. (Mt 5:31-32 & 19:7-9, Mk 10:2-12 & Lk 16:18)

The Church also has to acknowledge circumstances where a valid marriage can be set aside, if that marriage is an obstacle to one partner becoming a Christian. (I Cor 7:15)

Over the centuries, the language of “sacramental bond” and “natural bond” developed to express the Catholic Church’s understanding of these two situations. When two baptised Christians pledge themselves as lifelong partners to one another, a sacramental bond is ratified. This bond becomes indissoluble as soon as the relationship is then consummated.

If one of the partners is not baptised, the bond is only a natural bond. But if there is a subsequent conversion, as soon as both partners are baptised their bond becomes sacramental, and the next time it is consummated, it becomes indissoluble.

If at least one of the partners is a Catholic, but they exchange wedding vows without the official involvement of the Catholic Church, no bond is created. However, if the Catholic partner later wishes to reconcile with the Church and the other partner is unwilling to re-make the vows in church, there is a procedure called radical sanation whereby the Church can retrospectively recognise the original vows, thereby bringing a bond into existence; if the other partner is also baptised, this is a sacramental bond, which becomes indissoluble the next time it is consummated.

You will see in the summary above that a great deal depends on the question of whether both partners are baptised. However, in nations such as the UK where a large proportion of the population were raised in a church culture which baptised infants (Church of England/Church in Wales, as well as Catholics and several Protestant traditions), there are many adults who have never willingly made a commitment to Christ, yet whose marriages are sacramental by virtue of their infant baptism.

As a pastor, most of the couples who approach me for a church wedding consist of a non-Catholic engaged to a non-practising Catholic. Since the Church position is that Catholics have a (qualified) right to the sacraments (Canons 213 and 843), while I do use the marriage preparation as an opportunity to point the couple towards an active faith in Christ, in most cases I conduct a wedding sensing that the couple are not about to become regular churchgoers. In short, most of the spouses at whose weddings I have officiated are not disciples of Christ – though most would sympathise with his humanitarian teachings.

When Our Lord gave his challenging teaching against divorce, he explained that Moses had allowed divorce because the people were “hard-hearted” (Mt 19:8) – a Biblical expression which indicates being unteachable rather than uncompassionate. The implication – reinforced by the closing words at Mt 19:12 ‘let anyone accept this who can’ – is that Jesus is giving an instruction that those who are serious about following his teaching (intentional disciples!) must not divorce.

The Church’s current teaching on when a marriage is a sacramental bond, is clear. Yet there is an apparent unfairness in the reality that a person can be caught in a sacramental bond because they were baptised in infancy into a faith which they never made a personal commitment to. So perhaps there is room for the Vatican’s theologians to look again at what makes a bond a sacramental bond rather than a natural bond? Allow me to speculate…

Given the importance of ‘teachability’ (the defining quality of a disciple) in Mt 19:8, might we not argue that a sacramental bond requires the one making the vows to be personally committed to following the commands of Jesus? This might be difficult to define, but perhaps no more so than the other qualities which make the marriage vows valid – that a person intended to seal a lifelong and exclusive covenant not deliberately closed to the procreation of new life. Might the Church be able to recognise that the absence of a personal commitment to follow Jesus would result in marriage vows forming only a natural bond?

Alternatively, our sacramental theology already tells us that we do not receive the grace of a sacrament unless we are in a ‘state of grace’. If a young person receives the sacrament of confirmation, although their status in God’s eyes becomes ‘confirmed’ they do not receive the grace promised by the sacrament unless they are living in accord with God’s commandments and have confessed any serious sin. The grace of the sacrament of marriage is similarly suspended if the Catholic partner is, say, non-Massgoing.

Might we not take one further step and ask whether the sacramental bond itself is not established until the couple are in a state of grace? Might we suggest that the bond is only rendered indissoluble when consummated by a couple who have not only consented to marriage, but who are currently in a state of grace? Since a ‘state of grace’ requires a Catholic to be attending Sunday Mass (unless physically or morally impossible) and to have made confession from time to time this reflects a level of religious practice – which hopefully implies at least a rudimentary sense of discipleship.

Let the record show that I do not intend to question the indissolubility of a truly sacramental marriage.

Further, if the Magisterium has already expressed the opinion that neither lack of personal conversion, nor absence of a state of grace, can affect the nature of the bond, then I state my willingness to submit to this position.

But if there is room for a development of doctrine which requires more than merely “baptised status” in order to render a marriage bond sacramental rather than natural, let us begin the conversation!

No Quick Fixes

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Seventeenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C – the DAY FOR LIFE in England & Wales.

Episode 3 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Prayer takes time. Care takes time. Human life takes a lifetime.

Today, the Catholic Church in England and Wales marks its annual Day for Life, when we celebrate the value of human life from conception to natural death. Today is meant to remind us that human life lasts a lifetime, and even in today’s fast-paced world, a lifetime is a long time.

Hollywood and soap operas present us with the edited highlights of a life, squeezed into a 30-minute or 2-hour package. Even the Bible offers us the edited highlights of the story of Jesus: the most remarkable miracles, the prayers which were answered immediately. But don’t be fooled. It takes months to make a movie, and it takes persistence to gain the answer to a prayer.

We don’t see many examples in the Bible of Jesus having to persist in prayer. Usually he gets instant results, though he did once have to pray for the same blind person twice, and at the Last Supper he prayed that all his followers be united – a prayer far from answered when we look at how Christianity is split into denominations and factions across the world. But today Jesus tells us quite clearly that if we need a good thing, and we believe God has the power to give it to us, then we should keep on knocking on the door of faith until we receive our answer.

Prayer takes time. If we feel let down by God, who has not answered our prayers on our terms, have we prayed with the kind of persistence which Jesus taught us to embrace?

Meanwhile, as we reflect on the value of human life, we remember that many of us are called to be carers for a significant part of our lives. As parents, we bring up children. As the children of agèd parents, we care for those who brought us into the world. When illness afflicts our families in other ways, we find ourselves giving more attention to the relatives in need. And some of us earn our living in the caring profession, where we must resist the temptation to treat it as “just a job” – because whatever pressures we are under from targets and managers, every human being we work with has an innate dignity which must not be ignored.

Care takes time. Jesus lives within each human person, and whenever you have cared for a child, a parent, a friend or a patient, you have been tending to Jesus himself.

On this DAY FOR LIFE, let us take stock of our situation. How do we treat Jesus, hidden in those who have most need of our care? The laws of England and Wales have already permitted abortion for many years, and renewed efforts are being made in Parliament to legalise euthanasia. We can and should pray for our politicians to recognise the value of human life, and especially to protect the medical profession so that all doctors and nurses remain committed to care, not killing. I commend to you the ongoing efforts to maintain a prayerful presence against abortion in Cardiff, which continued with a special prayer vigil in the Cathedral on Friday last. Local leaders are currently discerning whether there would be enough support in Cardiff to run another 40 days for life vigil in the autumn – they would love to hear from you if you would be willing to take part.

Not all of us are called to pray on the streets of Cardiff, but all of us are invited to pray for the conversion of human hearts. Yes, this is the hardest of all things to pray for, because God will never take away a person’s free will; yet we do believe that God will invite souls to soften their hearts, and that we should persist in prayer for this to happen: nothing is impossible for God.

When Our Lady appeared in Fatima in 1917, she asked for prayers for the conversion of those who would otherwise enter Hell. When Our Lord appeared to St Faustina Kowalska shortly afterwards, he asked her to make a novena during Easter week, during which she would bring before God those souls most in need of God’s Mercy. Let us not doubt God’s power to answer such prayers – but let us also recognise that receiving the answer takes time, and that God has sent these messages from heaven to remind us that if we want to see human lives change around us, we must be persistent in prayer, not for a week, not for a year, but for a lifetime.

Human life takes a lifetime. Let us defend human life with a lifetime of prayer.

If you are a carer, and especially if you are caring for someone who lacks the ability to speak for themself: THANK YOU.

If you are a pray-er, and especially if you have been praying for the pro-life cause, for vocations to the priesthood, or the needs of this parish, on a long term basis: THANK YOU.

If we were once in the habit of praying a daily rosary or other prayers for souls in need, I invite you today to rediscover that habit.

If you have never formed such a habit, then this DAY FOR LIFE is the perfect day to begin. Pick a cause for prayer. Indeed, ask God to give you an inner sense of what kind of prayer He wants to answer through you, or simply choose one of the causes I have just mentioned.

Prayer takes time. Care takes time. Human life takes a lifetime. And today is the first day of the rest of your life.

The Better Part

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 2 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Mary has chosen the better part. But Martha has her defenders!

A few weeks ago, we pondered today’s gospel passage at the Churches Together Bible Study here at St John Lloyd. Many of those who came rushed to Martha’s aid. Surely she was doing something good, and right, and proper, by tending to the needs of Our Lord and the other guests who came with him?

No-one is saying Martha was doing something bad. She was doing what was expected of her in that culture, where taking care of guests was extremely important. Apart from her uncharitable comment about her sister, we can commend her for doing her duty. Jesus didn’t say she was doing anything wrong. But he did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

Perhaps that doesn’t sit so well with us. We might question whether Jesus really said it. But the Gospels are our best link to the words and action of Jesus, and our Church is confident that they teach the honest truth about what he said and did. So yes, I think we have to accept that Jesus did say: “Mary has chosen the better part.”

If he said it, do we have to agree with it? That depends whether Jesus is a member of your panel of religious advisors, or your Lord. If you are developing your own religion based on those sayings of Jesus which you agree with, then it’s up to you. But as Catholics, we profess every Sunday that we believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ… true God from true God”. This is why St Paul could say to the Christians in Colossae: “God made me responsible for delivering God’s message to you, the message…now… revealed to his saints. It was God’s purpose to reveal… the Christ we proclaim.”

If Jesus is God, he isn’t going to make a mistake. If we call him Lord, we are implying that we will follow his teachings. And what Jesus wants to teach us on this occasion is that what Mary chose to do is better than what Martha chose to do.

As for why it’s better… ah! Now we can begin to have an open-ended conversation!

Let’s look again, and what do we see? Mary, sitting, listening, at the feet of Jesus.

Martha, “distracted” by the serving, asking Jesus to intervene in her relationship with her sister, and being politely but firmly told, no, because Martha was fretting about “many things” when Mary had chosen “the better part”.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was that she jumped to her own conclusion about what was needed, while her sister was willing to listen. Love is patient!

Perhaps Martha’s fault was too much attention to detail – were the “many things” the preparation of an elaborate meal when a simple snack would have been enough? Love is not expressed in the detail so much as in the simple act of caring.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was wanting her sister to hold exactly the same values as herself. Her exasperated request for Jesus to put Mary to work reveals something about very ordinary family tensions, revealed here because Jesus was already a friend of the family. Love allows other people to be different from yourself while still respecting and cherishing them.

Painting by Otto van Veen - Martha protests with Jesus while Mary sits at his feet.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in wanting to bring her sister down from her boldness in daring to sit at the feet of Jesus, the rabbi – a place where only men would normally sit in that culture. But Jesus seems unconcerned. He often questions the Jewish traditions of his day, so perhaps he’s saying that it’s better for the ladies to learn from their rabbi, on this one-day-only opportunity, than to take on the normal duties of hospitality. Love does not seek to embarrass others for their boldness.

Perhaps Martha’s fault was in not recognising that the Lord of the work is more important that the work of the Lord. The Church needs Marthas – it needs activists who get things done. But even the most active Catholic needs to take time to stop and listen to God, and here Martha is hosting God in person, yet missing out on his words of life.

But don’t despair. The Martha we are speaking of is Saint Martha – a friend of God recognised for her true holiness. It was Martha, not Mary, who recognised that Jesus was the true Christ before he raised Lazarus from the dead. Martha is part of the company of heaven, and if we follow her example we will do much good.

Yet… “Mary has chosen the better part.” For this reason our Church prizes women and men who respond to the call to be hermits, monks and nuns. In the eyes of the world, their existence seems futile. But to our eyes of faith, those called to a lifestyle of daily prayer and contemplation are the ones who have responded to the deepest invitation to “choose the better part”.

Is today’s Gospel about the excellence of spending time with Jesus, in holy listening? Is it about the importance of living simply even when a guest is at hand? Is it about avoiding jealousy in sibling relationships? It could be any or all of these things. You are free to pick your own interpretation, so long as you agree up with one basic conclusion:Mary has chosen the better part. So go, and do likewise.

I have no enemies, but…

Homily at St John Lloyd, for The Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 1 of 4 in our new series, The Teachings of Jesus.

Jesus stands in the background as a man of peace calms an angry man with a gun.Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you… For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. Rather, love your enemies and do good to them!” (See Luke 6:27-36.)

Love your enemies.

Jesus taught us this by his words, and by his actions.

In his life, he sought out those his own society had rejected: tax-collectors, lepers, those living on the margins because they were deaf, blind or lame.

At his death, he healed the ear of one of his assailants, pardoned the Good Thief crucified next to him, and cried out, “Father, forgive, they do not know what they are doing!”

When he rose, he breathed peace upon his disciples who were all-too-ashamed of having abandoned him in his hour of need, and restored Peter to leadership of his followers.

He left us no room to doubt, no room to argue: by telling us the Parable of the Good Samaritan, and by giving the challenge I’ve just quoted from an earlier passage in St Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is teaching us one of the key values which sets us apart as his followers. We are to love our enemies.

The word “love” which the Bible uses here is agape. In the language of the New Testament, this word means: “Choose the well-being of another.” Jesus is not commanding us to feel good about our enemies; no-one can conjure up good feeling just like that. But it is always within our power to treat other people well, and this is the root meaning of agape love.

Love your enemies.

“But,” I hear you protest, “I have no enemies!”

Let’s just check that out a moment.

What happened the last time a driver cut you up on the motorway, or a shopper arrived at the checkout just ahead of you? How did you feel? And how did those feelings cause you to act?

When Jesus said “pray for those who mistreat you”, I don’t think he was suggesting a self-righteous prayer. “Lord, make that person a more considerate driver!” I think he was challenging us to a whole new level of generosity. “Lord, that woman who stole my place in the queue – bless her, give her a wonderful day, help her deal with any stresses in her family situation. That man on the motorway – help him at work today, make all his business ventures successful, bless his family.”

There’s the person whose bad habit just gets on your nerves. St Therese of Lisieux was so irritated by the way one nun clicked her rosary beads, she made a firm resolution to be extra-kind to that sister so that no bitter feelings could poison that relationship.

Then there are the relationships with our own grown-up brothers and sisters. Whatever rivalries we had in the family home when we were growing up, will leave traces in our adult behaviour. Is there room for us to behave more warmly to one of our brothers or sisters?

If we are employed, or undertake voluntary work, we have rivals for promotion and recognition. Those we regard as friends suddenly become enemies when there is only one promotion available, or the department is downsizing and all employees suddenly have to re-apply for jobs! In such circumstances, it is all the more important to pray for the well-being of our rivals. This, of course, requires that we trust in God’s love for us as well as for them; there is no need to fear that God is going to answer our prayer by blessing the other person and hanging us out to dry – for nothing will seduce God more than the generous heart of a person who prays for others. This was the heart Jesus placed in the Good Samaritan, who wanted no expense spared at the inn!

Finally, consider that most anonymous of enemies – “The System”. At work, in church and in other voluntary groups you can and will run across well-meaning individuals who ask you to comply with Health & Safety Policies or fill out an 8-page application booklet so you can work with children or vulnerable adults. You will be tempted to say “Blow this! Just getting involved is too much like hard work.” That’s a temptation! Don’t let the system become your enemy. Love is patient! Love is kind! Love endures all things! Love even complies with Health & Safety and fills out Safeguarding paperwork with a smile. We can all do this – but we have to choose to do this.

Our democratic nation’s highest value today is toleration. Our politicians create space where we are each free to do our own thing, as long as it doesn’t affect others too much. When is a noisy neighbour too noisy? When is one homeowner’s cherished extension a neighbour’s blot on the landscape? When does free speech become the incitement of hatred? Politicians pass laws in an attempt to balance each person’s liberty.

Jesus did not say “Tolerate your enemies, and reach an uneasy truce with them.”

Jesus said: “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

Today’s Gospel is an invitation to love our neighbour, so why have I been talking about loving our enemies? Some of our neighbours are friends. You don’t need to be commanded to love your friends! But among your neighbours are those with poor driving skills, bad manners at the supermarket, rivals for promotion at work, gossips, and well-meaning volunteers bearing tedious paperwork.

Love your enemies.

Have you worked out who they are yet? Your enemy is the person you are tempted to treat as a second-class citizen.

Our Christian faith requires a radical commitment to the wellbeing of those who oppose us. So I invite you, here and now, to pick an enemy. When we have a silent pause in our bidding prayers in a few moments, use that pause to pray blessings on the person you have chosen. And before the next week is out, put that love into practice through a word, a gesture, or a kind deed.

Do this, and eternal life will be yours!

Bonus items for on-line readers:

Twenty-six steps to loving your enemies from the writings of St John Chrysostom – follow these steps and you will be a saint in no time!

Take Care of Your Local Parish!

Homily at St John Lloyd, for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C.

Episode 5 of 5 in our current series, Knowing and Following Jesus.
Jesus stands in the distance, waving. Bemused listeners hold survey slips saying

[This is the version for Sunday morning Mass.]

When Jesus had a task which needed doing, he did not ask for volunteers.

He looked at those who were following him, and appointed 72 of them to do the work.

There are more than 72 of us here this morning – probably about 120.

We represent 50% of the active Catholics in Trowbridge and St Mellons.

If God has work for his Catholic people to do in our parish, we represent half the workforce.

More than that, ONLY those of us who are here this morning, can make this morning’s gathering what God wants it to be. We represent 100% of the people God has called to this morning’s Mass, and nearly 100% of the people who regularly come here on Sunday mornings.

Our goal is to make this Mass the best place to be in Trowbridge on a Sunday morning. It should be a place where people want to come – where people want to stay. If it is going to be easy for parents with small children to attend, it is because we, here and now, are providing Children’s Liturgy and kindergarten facilities. If it is a welcoming environment, it is because we are the welcomers and ministers of the environment. If there were refreshments afterwards, it would be us who were providing them.

Now, I don’t know which 72 of you to appoint, because I am not yet familiar with all our gifts and talents. So for the next few minutes I am going to invite you to fill in a questionnaire. It’s in two parts, a white sheet about ways you might assist our parish community, and a blue sheet – which will not have your name on it – to help me take the spiritual temperature of our parish. I am asking each one of you to be generous in your answers on the white form. Some of the questions are about things that are done apart from Mass, and require a bit of your time. But many roles take place during this Mass, and need little extra time, only a willingness to help. For instance – it would make it much easier for parents with small children to attend this Mass if we could offer a Children’s Liturgy or a kindergarten every week. But the only people who could make this happen tonight are here sitting on the pews right now. As Parish Priest, I can make training and moral support available – but only you can provide the hands to do the work.

Did you notice in the Gospel that immediately after telling his followers to “pray for labourers for the harvest”, Jesus said, “By the way, you are the answer to your own prayer?”

Dear friends in St John Lloyd, because you love this parish, because this is your church, please fill in these forms as honestly and generously as you can. I would like each person present aged 10 or above to fill in their own form, because each one of us has something to offer. When we take the collection, the collectors will also gather the responses which you offer, as your personal gift to building up this parish. There will be separate baskets for the blue and the white forms, so you can be confident that the blue form is truly anonymous. The harvest of St John Lloyd in the years to come depends on the seed you will plant today.