The Gospel of the Family in the Secularized West

By Cardinal Camillo Ruini

ROME, October 13, 2014 (Chiesa) -- That fundamental cell of society which is the family is going through a period of extraordinarily rapid evolution. 

Premarital relationships are now lived out in the open and divorce is almost normal, often as a result of the breaking of conjugal fidelity. This is pulling us away from the traditional physiognomy of the family, in countries and cultures marked by Christianity.

In recent decades moreover, at least in the West, we have entered into unexplored territory. Inroads have been made, in fact, by the ideas of “gender” and of “homosexual marriage.”

At the root of all of this is the primacy, and almost the absolutization, of individual freedom and of personal sentiment. So the family bond must be capable of being molded at will, and in any case not binding, to the point of disappearing or becoming practically irrelevant.

According to the same logic, this bond must be accessible to every kind of couple, on the basis of the assertion of a complete equality that admits no differences, above all those that can be attributed to an external will, whether this be human (civil laws) or divine (the natural law). 

The desire to have a family and if possible a stable family, however, remains strong and widespread: a desire that is translated into the reality of many “normal” families and also numerous authentically Christian families. These last are certainly a minority, but substantial and rather motivated.

The sense that the family properly understood is disappearing is therefore to a large extent the result of the distance between the real world and the virtual world constructed by the media, although it must not be forgotten that this virtual world has a powerful influence on real behavior.

In a serene and balanced view, therefore, there seems to be little foundation for unilateral pessimism and resignation with regard to the family and its future. What the pastoral care of the family needs instead is the attitude of Vatican Council II toward the new times, an attitude that we can summarize as a spirit of welcome that redirects everything toward Christ the savior.

In concrete terms, with “Gaudium et Spes” nos. 47-52 we have a new approach to marriage and the family, more personalistic but with no rupture from the traditional conception. Then the catecheses on human love by Saint John Paul II and the apostolic exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” constituted a great exploration that opened new perspectives and confronted many current problems. Although these catecheses could not explicitly deal with more recent and more radical developments, like “gender” theory and same-sex marriage, they already laid the foundations, to a large extent, for addressing them.

Without a doubt, pastoral practice has not always lived up to these teachings - and moreover could never do so completely - but it has followed their guidelines with important results: our young Christian families, in fact, are also the fruit of these.


Now, with Pope Francis, we have two synods on the pastoral challenges of the family in the context of the new evangelization, after the consistory of last February that already began to examine this topic: a further step in this journey of welcoming and reorientation that the whole Church is called to undertake with trust.

The perspective of the two synods must be clearly universal, and no geographical or cultural area can demand that the synod concentrate only on its own problems.

Having established that, the most significant questions for the West seem to be the more radical ones that have emerged in recent decades. These urge us to rethink and to present anew, in the light of the Gospel of the family, the meaning and value of marriage as a covenant of life between man and woman, oriented to the good of both and to the procreation and education of children, and endowed with a decisive social and public significance as well. 

Here the Christian faith must demonstrate true cultural creativity, which the synods are not able to produce automatically but can stimulate, in believers and in those who realize that what is at stake is a fundamental human dimension. 


But there are other questions that continue to confront us and seem to become ever more urgent, already repeatedly addressed by the magisterium. Among these is that of the divorced and remarried.

“Familiaris Consortio,” no. 84, has already indicated the attitude to adopt: not to abandon those who find themselves in this situation, but on the contrary to take special care of them, striving to make the Church’s means of salvation available to them. This means helping them not to consider themselves separate from the Church by any means, and instead to participate in its life. It also means carefully discerning the situations, especially those of unjustly abandoned spouses as opposed to those who have culpably destroyed their own marriage.

“Familiaris Consortio” however also reiterates the practice of the Church, “which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried.” The fundamental reason is that “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.”

What is in question is therefore not their personal blame, but the state in which they objectively find themselves. This is why a man and woman who for serious reasons, like for example the raising of children, cannot satisfy the obligation of separation, in order to receive sacramental absolution and the Eucharist must take on “the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.”

This is undoubtedly a very difficult commitment, which is taken on by very few couples, while the divorced and remarried are unfortunately ever more numerous.

A search for other solutions has therefore been underway for some time. One of these, while holding firm the indissolubility of ratified and consummated marriage, maintains that the divorced and remarried could be allowed to receive sacramental absolution and the Eucharist under precise conditions but without having to abstain from the acts proper to spouses. This would amount to a second table of salvation, offered on the basis of the criterion of “epicheia” in order to unite truth and mercy.

This way does not seem viable, however, mainly because it implies an exercise of extramarital sexuality, given the continuation of the first marriage, ratified and consummated. In other words, the original conjugal bond would continue to exist, but in the behavior of the faithful and in liturgical life one could proceed as if it did not exist. We are therefore facing a question of consistency between practice and doctrine, and not only a disciplinary problem.

As for canonical “epicheia” and “aequitas,” these are very important criteria in the area of human and purely ecclesial norms, but they cannot be applied to the norms of divine law, over which the Church has no discretional power.

In support of the aforementioned hypothesis one can certainly bring in solutions similar to those proposed by some Fathers of the Church that have also entered into practice to some extent, although these never obtained the consensus of the Fathers and were never in any way the common doctrine or discipline of the Church (cf. the letter of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith to the bishops of the Catholic Church on the reception of Eucharistic communion on the part of the divorced and remarried faithful, November 14, 1994, no.4). In our time, when the problem of civil marriage and divorce has been raised in contemporary terms, there exists instead, starting with the encyclical “Casti Connubi” of Pius XI, a clear and constant position of the whole magisterium, which goes in the opposite direction and does not appear modifiable. 


It could be objected that Vatican Council II, without violating the dogmatic tradition, proceeded with new developments on questions, like that of religious freedom, on which there existed encyclicals and decisions of the Holy Office that seemed to preclude them.

But the comparison is not convincing, because a genuine conceptual elaboration was produced on the right to religious freedom, attributing this right to the person as such and to his intrinsic dignity, and not to the truth as conceived of abstractly, as had been done before.

The solution proposed for the divorced and remarried, however, is not based on such an elaboration. The problems of family and marriage also impact the daily life of persons in an incomparably greater and more concrete manner compared to that of the foundation of religious freedom, whose exercise in countries of Christian tradition was already guaranteed to a large extent before Vatican II.

We must therefore be very prudent in modifying, with regard to marriage and the family, positions that the magisterium has proposed for a long time and in such an authoritative manner: if not, the consequences for the Church’s credibility would be rather heavy.

This does not mean that every possibility of development is precluded. One way that appears viable is that of revising the processes of nullifying marriages: these are in fact norms of ecclesial law, not divine.

There must therefore be an examination of the possibility of replacing the judicial process with an administrative and pastoral procedure, essentially aimed at clarifying the situation of the couple before God and the Church. It is very important, however, that any change of procedure must not become a pretext for granting in a surreptitious manner what in reality would be divorces: hypocrisy of this nature would bring great harm to the whole Church. 


One question that goes beyond the procedural aspects is that of the relationship between the faith of those who marry and the sacrament of marriage. 

“Familiaris Consortio,” no. 68, rightly places the accent on the reasons that induce one to maintain that those asking for canonical marriage have faith, albeit in a weakened condition that must be rediscovered, strengthened, and matured. It also emphasizes that social reasons can licitly enter into the request for this form of marriage. It is therefore sufficient that the engaged couple “at least implicitly consent to what the Church intends to do when she celebrates marriage.”

The attempt to establish further criteria of admission to the celebration, which would take into account the level of faith on the part of those to be married, would instead involve grave risks, starting with that of pronouncing unfounded and discriminatory judgments. 

In fact, however, there are unfortunately many baptized today who have never believed or no longer believe in God. This therefore raises the question of whether they can validly contract a sacramental marriage.

On this point, Cardinal Ratzinger’s introduction to the booklet “On pastoral care for the divorced and remarried,” published in 1998 by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, retains its fundamental value.

Ratzinger (Introduction, III, 4, pp. 27-28) maintains that it must be clarified “whether every marriage between two baptized persons is ipso facto a sacramental marriage.” The Code of Canon Law affirms this (can. 1055 § 2) but, as Ratzinger observes, the Code itself says that this applies to a valid marriage contract, and in this case it is precisely the validity that is in question. Ratzinger adds: “Faith belongs to the essence of the sacrament; what remains to be clarified is the juridical question of what evidence of the ‘absence of faith’ would have as a consequence that the sacrament does not come into being.”

It therefore seems to have been established that if there truly is no faith, neither is there the sacrament of marriage.

With regard to implicit faith the scholastic tradition, with reference to Hebrews 11:6 (“anyone who approaches God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him”), requires at least faith in God as rewarder and savior.

It seems to me, however, that this tradition must be updated in the light of the teaching of Vatican II, on the basis of which the salvation that requires faith can also be obtained by “all men of good will in whose hearts grace is invisibly at work,” including those who maintain that they are atheists or in any case have not come to an explicit knowledge of God (cf. “Gaudium et Spes,” 22; “Lumen Gentium,” 16).

In any event, this teaching of the Council by no means implies an automatism of salvation and a trivialization of the need for faith: it instead places the accent not on an abstract intellectual recognition of God but rather on an adherence, however implicit, of him as the fundamental choice of our life.

In the light of this criterion, it could perhaps be maintained that under the current circumstances there are more baptized persons who do not have faith and therefore cannot validly contract sacramental marriage.

It therefore seems truly opportune and urgent to strive to clarify the juridical question of that “evidence of lack of faith” which would make sacramental marriages invalid and prevent nonbelieving baptized persons from contracting such marriages in the future.

We must not conceal the fact, on the other hand, that this opens the way for much more profound and difficult changes, not only for the Church’s pastoral care but also for the situation of nonbelieving baptized persons. 

It is clear, in fact, that like every person they have the right to marriage, which they would contract in civil form. The greatest difficulty does not lie in the danger of compromising the relationship between the canonical order and the civil order: their synergy has already become very weak and problematic, through the progressive distancing of civil marriage from what are the essential requisites of natural marriage itself.

The effort of Christians and of those who are aware of the human and social importance of the family founded on marriage should instead be aimed at helping the men and women of today to rediscover the significance of those requisites. They are founded on the order of creation and precisely for this reason apply to every age and can be made concrete in forms adapted to the most diverse times.

I would like to end by recalling the common intention that animates those who are taking part in the synodal debate: to hold together, in pastoral care for the family, the truth of God and of man with the merciful love of God for us, which is the heart of the Gospel.

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