The two synods on the family and the Holy Father’s exhortation published last week provide guidance for Catholics who are enmeshed in what I call the Marriage Mess.

The fact of the matter is, the whole human race–and not simply Catholic Christians are going through a crisis that is bigger than just the question of divorce and re-marriage. Divorce and re-marriage are part of a much larger problem that has hit us, and this problem goes to the very roots of who we are as human beings and God’s creatures.

Since the mid 1960s a range of different factors have hit the human race which have come together to create a perfect storm. That perfect storm is the Marriage Mess. We’re in the midst of this perfect storm now and it a huge number of people have been thrown by it, and the problem is only going to get worse: much worse. It is difficult to over estimate the continued destruction and damage that will be caused to the human family because of this perfect storm.

The symptoms of the Marriage Mess are sexual confusion, the breakdown of the family unit, lack of social cohesion, breakdown of traditional morality and subsequent sexual anarchy and chaos. Why has this massive amount of confusion and chaos happened? Here are ten factors in no particular order:

    1. Geographical Mobility – Since World War II with the growth of air travel people have been able to move around the world with increasing speed and frequency. National boundaries are porous. Individuals and families not only move around the country but around the world. Families used to be extended and local. In other words, we all lived near our siblings, parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and an extended community. Most people belonged to a local set of family and friends who belonged to the same religion, the same ethnic group and the same socio economic group. This local reality contributed to strong marriages and families. Increased mobility has dissolved the local, extended family. Marriages were made with people one met while traveling, at college or in a new town or country, and those marriages were not supported by the strong bonds of a local, extended family.
    2. Social and Educational Mobility – As people travelled and an increasing number of people became more highly educated they also became socially and economically mobile. As individuals went away to college they also went away from their extended families and often moved away from the religion, morals and worldview with which they were raised. As they moved away in an individualistic fashion, they also moved away from many of the structures that would have supported and defended and helped to establish a strong and permanent marriage. Marriages were formed on more sentimental, erotic and individualistic foundations rather than the shared foundations of a strong extended family unit and the deep roots of a shared value system and a stable socio economic environment.
    3. Moral Relativism – Situational ethics was  taught in colleges and universities and filtered down to the general public. Absolutes of moral behavior were discarded in favor of individualism and personal choice based on erotic attraction, sentimentalism or peer pressure. The idea of religious binding solemn vows was given only lip service. There were no absolutes so people had to establish their own rules and regulations. This philosophy does not value permanent, life long marriage and sexual fidelity.
    4. No Fault Divorce If ever there was a lie this was it. “No fault divorce?” There’s no such thing. But of course, this was put into place so that divorce could be quick and easy. Consequently, the idea of a lifelong marriage was immediately undermined. With divorce being easy, quick and cheap it was very difficult to stay married . When things got rough, divorce became the quick, easy and cheap solution.
    5. Artificial Contraception – This one is HUGE. The invention of quick, easy, cheap and efficient artificial contraception (and by extension abortion) separated the sexual act from procreation. Once sexuality was separated from having babies, what was the point of marriage? Marriage had been for the mutual support and union of a man and woman and the procreation and establishment of a secure home for the nurture of children. If children were not part of the sex act, then immediately marriage became something else as well. It became an institution  for the couple’s self fulfillment and self indulgence. If the reason for marriage then was to make the and woman happy, then of course when they stopped being happy and marriage became a chore it seemed obvious that they should divorce and find someone else who might make them happy.
    6. Pornography If sex is only about self fulfillment, then it is essentially masturbatory. Pornography turns the sexual instinct in on itself and the person involved suffers from an inverted sexuality. They think only of themselves and their ability to establish a mature, caring and loving relationship with another person becomes crippled, stunted and eventually paralyzed.
    7.  Promiscuity The more sexual partners a person has the less that person is able to establish a permanent, mature and caring relationship. Promiscuity spreads the person too thinly. Every time a relationship breaks down it is like a mini divorce. Part of that person is broken, part of their ability to love is impaired. Part of their capacity for a good marriage is wounded. Part of their ability to trust and give of themselves in total loving relationship is destroyed.
    8.  Cohabitation living together before marriage actually makes for a shaky marriage–not a good marriage. Here’s why: the woman gives herself to the man as if they are married, but they are not. She has therefore got herself into a relationship with a man who she admits will sleep with a woman to whom he is not married. Deep within the relationship, therefore is a seed of distrust and with holding oneself from the other person. They have colluded together to publicly live a lie and to live immorally and they know that even if they deny it. That lie becomes the foundation for their relationship and any relationship based on a lie is unstable from the start.
    9.  Suburban Nuclear Family We think of the “happy family” as being Father, Mother and a few children living in their own house in the suburbs. This is un natural. The real family is a large extended family or “tribe”. The extended family supports marriage. When there are problems in the marriage an aunt, uncle, brother, sister, parent or grandparent is there to help the wife or husband through the crisis. An extended family provides peer pressure, negative sanctions for bad behavior and positive sanctions for good behavior. In a multitude of ways the extended family builds marriage and supports marriage. The American suburban nuclear family unit is a fragile concept. When combined with mobility and the other factors the pressures on that “perfect family” unit are immense.
    10.  Destruction of the Christian Meaning of Family Many Christians including many Catholics (because of the pressures above) have forgotten –or never knew what a marriage and family were for in the first place. We swallowed the lie that marriage was about finding self fulfillment rather than finding a way of self sacrifice. We forgot that marriage was a sacrament and a sacrament is always a sacrifice of some kind. We forgot that marriage was one of the ladders to heaven and we started to think that it was merely a pathway to personal happiness here and now. Because we forgot the eternal meaning of marriage it was an easy thing to dispose of. If marriage was only a means to personal happiness, and that avenue to happiness failed us, then why not discard it and look for some other way to try to be happy?These factors and many more have contributed to the Marriage Mess and are some of the complicated reasons why there are so many divorces and so many remarriages. Is the answer to simply throw  open the doors and say it doesn’t matter–that anyone can come to communion no matter what?

      Of course not, and this is not what anyone is saying who cares about marriage. These factors simply indicate why a pastoral approach is sorely needed.

      But when I say “pastoral approach” this is not code for  a wave of the hand and “Well, we all make mistakes. I can’t be bothered with all that legalistic annulment nonsense. All are welcome. Jesus loves you. Of course you can receive communion. Its all about mercy after all…”

      A true pastoral approach assists people who are wounded by the Marriage Mess and helps them find repentance and mercy. It helps them fit the mess they are in with the high standards the Catholic faith demands.

      The true pastoral solution involves rolling up ones sleeves and entering the mess with them, offering counseling, care, discernment, listening and welcome. It also involves the church’s charism to assess whether a marriage was truly valid, and expects as part of the process the appropriate discipline regarding communion for those who are working through an annulment process.

      That process is often difficult and time consuming, but because we take marriage seriously and we take our flock seriously we will help them through the mess to find the repentance and mercy that will eventually bring their healing and restoration to full communion.

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