Holy Matrimony

Homily at St Philip Evans, on the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B.

Two wedding rings around a gold crossThere’s a story about a traveller lost in the Irish countryside, who pulls up alongside a farmer and asks the way to Tipperary. “Ah,” says the farmer, “If I were trying to go to Tipperary, I wouldn’t be starting from here!”

The Gospel we’ve just heard touches on the sensitive and often painful subject of divorce. It’s a reality we can’t avoid in Church, because it’s a subject Jesus didn’t avoid in his preaching and teaching. Even the language our Lord chose is challenging – “anyone who divorces one partner and marries another is guilty of adultery”. Why would Jesus teach such a thing? To understand this, we have to understand the big picture of Christian Marriage, and I want to address my words today especially to those teenagers and young adults among us – you who are not yet married but are considering your future. If you are not such a person, then I offer you these words as wisdom for you to pass on to the young people in your lives. But before I offer you this advice – my “Directions to Tipperary” – I should first speak to those among us who wish they were not starting from here.

Many among us will have known the pain of a failed relationship. I want to remind you that simply being divorced against your will, or even agreeing to a divorce to settle the finances of a past relationship, is not in itself a sin. A Catholic who is merely divorced is not automatically barred from Holy Communion. As for a Catholic who enters a new civil marriage without the Church annulling their previous marriage, I have no power to soften the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel, but I do echo the words of recent Popes who thank you for your faithfulness to attending Mass while refraining from receiving Holy Communion. Pope Francis has recently acted to make it simpler to pursue an annulment, and I am always willing to make an appointment to speak to anyone who wants to discuss their marital situation. Perhaps the Bishops meeting in Rome this month will find further ways to extend the mercy of Christ, but whatever the Church does will have to honour the very difficult teaching present in today’s Gospel.

And now, my message for our young people.

My dear young friends, have no doubt that God loves each one of you and has a plan for your life. Most of you will be called by God to enter a state of Holy Matrimony. And I use such old fashioned language rather than the word “Marriage” because what the Church calls “Marriage” and what the society around us now calls “Marriage” are two very different things. I want to share with you today, God’s vision for Holy Matrimony.

How would you like to have one person in your life whose top priority was your well-being? Someone who would always be loyal to you, no matter how you offend them? Someone who would work to help you in good times and in bad? Someone who would always tell you that you are loved and cherished, even when tired or distracted? Someone who will forgive you and take you back however you might fail them?

God would like you to have such a partner in life. But there’s a catch. For you to have someone like that as a partner, you must be that partner to someone. And that’s quite demanding!

What sort of parents would you like to have? Two who would always work hard to make up a quarrel as soon as possible? Two who always pull together, not apart? Two who never force you to choose between them?

Once again, do unto others as you would have them do unto you – if you want to have such a parent, you must be such a parent.

I can’t imagine a child wanting their parents’ relationship to fail rather than be healed. I can imagine a person wishing to try a series of different relationships rather than enjoy the blessings and challenges which come with an exclusive partnership. But serial relationships come with a price. You know how a piece of sellotape loses its sticking power if you use it two or three times? In the same way, the more relationships you allow to reach a very intimate level, the less depth and freshness each one will have.

When Jesus read the Book of Genesis, he saw in it a clear message from God-the-Father that God’s plan was for a man and a woman together to become one flesh, and to form a family unit, a unit which no earthly power should dare to divide.

If what Jesus teaches is true, it has serious consequences.

We’re not free to define marriage as we see fit. Holy Matrimony can only exist between a man and a woman.

We’re not free to declare that a marriage has ended. Holy Matrimony is founded on a pledge to be faithful until death, in sickness, poverty, and ‘for worse’. Each partner in Holy Matrimony has promised, in advance, to be faithful to their spouse even if that spouse should fall into a 20-year coma or run off and abandon them.

Nor should we try before marriage anything we should keep as a gift to our partner on our wedding night. Jesus doesn’t speak about that in today’s Gospel, but he does warn us to avoid lust, and St Paul writes at greater length about the kind of purity which is expected of Jesus’ followers.

“Wait a minute, God, what business is it of yours? It’s my body, after all.”

Actually, no. St Paul says that if we are Christians, our bodies belong to the Lord and we must use our bodies to give glory to God. Today’s Second Reading reminds us that even Jesus Himself couldn’t avoid suffering when He was obedient to His Father’s Will. We are free to say that we don’t want to do God’s will. We are not free to pretend that God hasn’t made the laws which Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel – and the same God who made the laws knows better than any one of us the agonies which take place in the human heart when we’re drawn to any relationship outside those laws.

God loves us, and makes these laws for our own protection. Above all, God doesn’t want a single human being to be a tool used for someone else’s pleasure and then abandoned. St John Paul II wrote at length about how terrible it was for one human being to merely use another, part of the writings we now call the Theology of the Body.

So my dear young friends, God’s plan for you is that, unless you are called to the single life, you should enter a state of Holy Matrimony. This is not easy; it requires you to be a living sign of how faithful Jesus is to us – and the Lord will never abandon us in His Church, no matter how we might fail and sin. Be the committed partner you want your husband or wife to be for you. Be the loving parent who embodies the very best of what your parents are for you. Be a servant of God who follows God’s plan for Holy Matrimony, not your own – and God’s blessing will go with you always.

  • You can read my more extended reflection on Catholic teaching on marriage and sexuality.
  • Lots of resources for Supporting Marriage are available online.
  • Thanks to Kaye Smith for first showing me the ‘sellotape’ analogy.

Why I Did Not Sign That Letter

Recently, 461 Catholic priests signed a letter to the Catholic Herald which ended with the following call: “We urge all those who will participate in the second Synod in October 2015 to make a clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, so that confusion may be removed, and faith confirmed.”

I was not one of them.

Like many other priests in England & Wales, I was offered the opportunity to put my name to this letter. I chose not to do so, because I felt that the letter lacked trust in what the Synod was trying to achieve.

Doctrine has always developed in the Catholic Church. Unlike a democratic Prime Minister or President, a Pope cannot reverse a policy of his predecessor once it has been clearly identified as doctrine. But there is often room to nuance things. I do not believe the Synod – an organ of our Church, guided by the Holy Spirit – is in danger of reversing that which is clearly established. It is clear Catholic teaching that a ratified and consummated sacramental marriage between a man and a woman cannot be dissolved except by death of one of the spouses. It is clear Catholic teaching that a person in mortal sin should not receive Holy Communion. The Synod will not change these teachings, because it cannot.

For the record, I believe that the only appropriate context for a sexual act is between a man and woman married to each other.

For the record, I believe that Jesus did teach us that we are called to a form of marriage which does not admit of divorce.

I have taught and will continue to teach these clear truths as a Catholic priest.

But… I also think there are legitimate questions which the Synod can explore.

We know that there are reasons why a relationship which apparently was a marriage might not have reached the kind of mutual consent required to forge an unbreakable bond. Perhaps there are other grounds, beyond those already accepted, which might prevent something becoming a true Christian marriage in the first place?

We know that while those in mortal sin should not approach Holy Communion, those struggling with venial sin should, because Communion is medicine for the soul. Might there be circumstances where a person in a relationship which is gravely sinful would lack the freedom or knowledge to make that grave sin a mortal sin?

There are no easy answers to these questions; but these and similar questions are precisely those which our bishops should be exploring in a Synod; perhaps there will be innovative answers which develop the Catholic tradition without contradicting it. There again, perhaps it will become clear that there is no room for any practical change on these matters. Whatever position the Magisterium takes, when the Synod process results in a final document with Papal approval, that is what I shall teach.

Meanwhile, I could not, in good conscience, sign a letter asking Synod participants to make a “clear and firm proclamation of the Church’s unchanging moral teaching”. The implication of this would have been that nothing further can possibly change, making the Synod a pointless exercise. I would gladly say to the Synod participants: “Without wavering from those points which are firmly established as the Church’s unchanging moral teaching, please clarify those things which can usefully be clarified at this point in the Church’s development of doctrine.”

May God bless the forthcoming Synod and all who take part in it; and may God also grant grace to those who are called to live out the church’s teaching yet struggle to do so in practice.

Signed – Revd Gareth Leyshon