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Actions, Not Documents, Save Marriages


Off the Radar
Practical Help Needed

Last November at their annual meeting in Baltimore, Maryland, the U.S. bishops passed the pastoral letter Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan. The document is one of the final parts of the bishops' multiyear National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage, which began in November 2004 and will conclude in 2011.

During the meeting, the bishops engaged in quite a lengthy discussion about the document, with some bishops expressing concern over the document's pastoral tone and content. Two rounds of amendments and nearly 100 changes to the document later, the body of bishops eventually voted 180-45 to pass the document, with three bishops abstaining.

The document's introduction lays out its purpose, stating: "We intend this pastoral letter to be a theological and doctrinal foundation. It can be a resource to help and encourage all those who are moving toward marriage, who are journeying in married life, and who are accompanying and assisting those who are called to the vocation of marriage."

The letter addresses issues such as divorce, cohabitation, contraception and same-sex marriages.

The document does a nice job of laying out the Church's position on many of those issues, but the question remains: How will this document translate into practical help for married couples?

The document says it is addressed "first and foremost to the Catholic faithful in the United States." Why then are the bishops using phrases such as "intended to be fecund" when addressing conjugal love? (By the way, fecund means "fertile" or "capable of producing much vegetation or many offspring," in case anyone else was wondering.) And in the original draft, before the amendments, the document made reference to both cohabitation and contraception as "intrinsically evil." The document now refers to contraceptive practices as "objectively wrong" and "essentially opposed to God's plan for marriage and proper human development."

Is language such as this really the best way to connect with the Catholic faithful?


Off the Radar

I read this document as part of my job. But I suspect that a good number of married couples are not even aware of this document or the bishops' multiyear initiative on marriage. To confirm my hunch, I asked some married couples ranging in years married from just a few to more than 50. None of them had heard anything about the "For Your Marriage" initiative.

I too have seen little promotion of this initative, which has been going on since 2005.

So how do the bishops expect married couples to get on board? The trickle-down effect of many of the bishops' documents is minimal at best. I know I haven't seen mention of this in my parish bulletin. And that's a problem if the bishops really want to get their message out.

I can't say I'm overly surprised that the marriage initiative has flown under the radar. The day I walked down the aisle 15 years ago with my husband, Mark, and said, "I do," was the last time I heard anything of significance from the Church concerning our marriage. All those years and three kids later, nothing has changed.

While I appreciate the bishops' desire to reach out to married couples, it still feels as if their message isn't reaching us. For far too long, married couples have been overlooked as an ongoing ministry in the Church.

Don't get me wrong: What the bishops have put together with this initiative at is a big step forward. The information on the site is practical and useful, but documents and Internet sites aren't going to do the job if no one knows about them. The bishops need to meet married couples where they are. And the best way to do that is to get the message to their priests, parishes and local programs.

Hopefully, the final phase of the initiative, which is slated to develop pastoral resources, will help fulfill this need. And hopefully it will take into consideration that marriages rise and fall as much on the everyday issues of children, finances and finding time to spend together as the ones the bishops address in this document.

In the conclusion of their document, they say, "The vision of married life and love that we have presented in this pastoral letter is meant to be a foundation and reference point for the many works of evangelization, catechesis, pastoral care, education and advocacy carried on in our dioceses, parishes, schools, agencies, movements and programs."

Let's hope that, as they move forward into the next phase of this initiative, the bishops follow through on that statement. And that in the process they give us married couples some tools and programs we can use to enhance our marriages for years to come. Maybe they could ask their married nieces or nephews. Or enlist members of the leadership teams of Engaged Encounter, Marriage Encounter or similar groups to get the word out. And we can help, too. Tell a friend, sibling, relative or neighbor about the initiative. If married couples want more attention we should step up and speak up. I'm sure those of us on the front lines could offer the bishops a thing or two. All they have to do is ask..--S.H.B.

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