Joan Frawley Desmond, is the Register’s senior editor. She is an award-winning journalist widely published in Catholic, ecumenical and secular media. A graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies of Marriage and Family, she lives with her family in California..
Like everyone else, I am still trying to make sense of the recent Synod on the Family and what it means for ordinary Catholics. But a comment from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the president of the German Bishops' Conference, really struck a nerve.
The German bishops have mostly backed Cardinal Walter Kasper's proposal to allow divorced-and-civilly-remarried Catholics to receive Communion in certain situations. But Cardinal Marx apparently sought to balance that priority with a pat on the head for Catholics who remain in their first marriages:
The Church’s message is “one man and one woman will want to be together forever, they say yes and they mean yes, and the Church says be faithful to your dream, it’s possible,” Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich and Freising, said last week, noting that he told young people that they were right to pursue this dream of marital bliss.
But the cardinal, who has voiced support for change, said that people also needed to know that when marriages fall apart, they won’t be abandoned.
The Church has to let people know that the dream is right, “but when you fail,” he said, “we stay together, you belong to us.”
Of course, the Church should do a better job of being there for Catholics whose marriages break down. But when did a Church leader start referring to faithful, permanent marriage as a "dream"?
Jesus doesn't describe the marriage vow of permanence as a dream in Matthew 19:3-9:
Some Pharisees came to him, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that the one who made them at the beginning “made them male and female”, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh”? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command us to give a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her?’ He said to them, ‘It was because you were so hard-hearted that Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but at the beginning it was not so. And I say to you, whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.’
Here Jesus presents the Father's plan for the human persons created in his image, "male and female." He doesn't sugarcoat the obstacles—"hardness of heart" has prevented his people from embracing this plan. But marriage "in the beginning" is no dream.
Indeed, the Lord articulates his Father's will for marriage to his disciples in plain language, so there can be no mistaking the substance of his teaching. In contrast, the New Testament offers other instances when "dreams" provide privileged or urgent information. Joseph, the adopted father of Jesus, is told in a dream that he should accept Mary as his wife, despite her pregnancy. Later, he is warned in a dream to protect the Holy Child by fleeing to Egypt.
In Holy Scripture, Jesus directly transmits his Father's will for marriage. He is the Son who has become man to redeem the world. His death on the Cross reveals how far he is willing to go to make all things new.
Why, then, does Cardinal Marx use the word, "dream," to describe one of the clearest, most fundamental and distinctive teachings of Jesus Christ? I am guessing that his choice of word reflects a misplaced empathy for those who feel enormous guilt regarding their divorce. And by presenting the indissolubility of marriage as a lovely, if unrealistic dream, he can help remove a great weight on their conscience.
But what does the Church say on this matter? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states that Jesus' suffering and death has made it possible for his people to live this teaching.
The unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realize. However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy - heavier than the Law of Moses.108 By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God. It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to "receive" the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ.109 This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life. CCC #1650
Some will say that I am making too much of Cardinal Marx's choice of words, but words matter. What would he say, I wonder, if I described his commitment to his priestly vows as a mere "dream"?
Catholics stay committed to their spouses in tough times, at least in part, because we believe that is the Father's will, because we know a breakup will harm those we love most, and because the grace of the sacraments make it possible for us to do so. This is no dream.