St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher gave their lives to uphold the indissolubility of marriage, but few Catholics dare to speak so boldly today.
We recently observed the Memorial of the Passion of St. John the Baptist. While we can always look to the glory of his martyrdom, which is intrinsic and rooted in God's unchanging judgment and will, I sensed a kind of irony in our praise of St. John that reflects poorly on the state of the Church today.
Fundamentally, I wonder if we are worthy of great saints like St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, considering the casual and almost lax position we have today on the very matter for which they died—the indissolubility of marriage. With some trepidation, I can imagine them rising to judge us, the Churchmen and leaders of this age. We compare so poorly to them and the example they set as martyrs for the truth.
Consider the challenge set forth in the very prayer we recite in the collect (opening prayer) for the Passion of St. John the Baptist Aug. 29. It says:
"O God, who willed that St. John the Baptist should go ahead of your Son both in his birth and in his death, grant that, as he died a martyr for truth and justice, we, too, may fight hard for the confession of what you teach."
Yet where is the Church today on the truth for which St. John the Baptist died? The prayer says that he died as a martyr for truth—but for what truth? It was for the truth of marriage as an unbreakable bond. St. John said to Herod Antipas, "It is not lawful for you to have your brother's wife" (Mark 6:18). Herodias had divorced Phillip to "marry" Herod Antipas. St. John courageously confronted Herod on this and was jailed for his "crime."
Let us be clear then, St. John the Baptist died as a martyr for the truth, taught us by Jesus (Matthew 5:32 and 19:9; Mark 10:12; Luke 16:18), that the practice of divorce and remarriage is sinfully wrong and a form of ongoing adultery. St. John Fisher and St. Thomas More also died for this truth, refusing to endorse Henry VIII's "marriage" to Anne Boleyn and subsequent rebellion against Christ's true Church.
Though the collect quoted above prays that "we, too, may fight hard for the confession of what [the Lord] teaches," it is a sad reality that in the Church we have grown quite comfortable with the divorce and remarriage culture of our time.
We live in a time of explosive annulment numbers. There were fewer than 400 annulments granted per year in the U.S. before the 1970s. Those numbers climbed to nearly 60,000 per year in the mid-1980s and are nearly 30,000 per year now (lower due to fewer practicing Catholics and a dramatic drop in the number of marriages).
I have written elsewhere that I do not reject the teaching related to annulment per se. Clearly, there can be demonstrable grounds that certain marriages were not "what God has joined together"—this possibility is biblical and rooted in Jesus' teaching. But the number of annulments is astonishingly high and gives the impression that we fundamentally accept a divorce culture and just "process" most cases on vague grounds like lack of due discretion (immaturity). Does anyone doubt that today Henry VIII could have been granted a decree of nullity by a diocesan tribunal?
And if the whole annulment controversy isn't your thing, how about a second approach? Why not just skip the whole debate by invoking the weaponized ambiguity that characterizes so much of our Church culture today? Why get so wound up with legalism about divorce and remarriage? Why not just meet people where they are?
But what does this approach say about the fact that some very important saints died for the Lord's teaching on marriage? Does it not dishonor them and even call into question their pastoral sensibility? It's as if we're saying, "If only St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher had been more enlightened about divorce and remarriage, their deaths would have been avoided, and a very nice rapprochement could have been arranged for the offending kings in question. Indeed, the whole schism could have been avoided and lots of English martyrs spared as well. Can't we just look past what the Lord said?"
No, we cannot blithely wave people through as if Jesus never said that to divorce and remarry was to be in ongoing adultery. This teaching is not some obscure medieval theological view—this teaching is right out of the mouth of Jesus at the Sea of Galilee and the River Jordan. He stood athwart the legal positivism of his day, which accepted divorce as something the Mosaic Law allowed, and insisted on a hard teaching. Jesus confronted people with the deeper truth that whatever Moses allowed, "it was not this way at the beginning, and henceforth, what God has joined together, let no one divide" (Matthew 19:5).
To be sure, there are many pastoral problems today related to marriage with which we must deal. But many of these are of our own making for failing to proclaim and insist upon what God teaches regarding marriage and other aspects of the moral life. So it is almost impossible to imagine Jesus gathering the clergy of this day and regarding marriage saying to us, "Well done good and faithful servants! You upheld my teaching well and handed it on intact."
Rather, we have settled down with divorce and remarriage, and witnesses like St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher stand in testimony against us. They were clear, but we are vague. They stood up, but we hide behind policies and procedures. They spoke up when the Lord's teaching was denied, but few speak boldly today. They died to uphold the indissolubility of marriage, while we process annulments as a matter of routine—and even worse, sidestep even that process and send the divorced and remarried straight to the Communion line. Pulpits too are silent on matters of divorce and remarriage.
No, we have not handled the crisis of marriage and family well. I cannot shake off the vision of St. John the Baptist, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher rising at the Judgment with this generation and condemning us for being so accommodating to a divorce-and-remarriage culture that they died to witness against. We are not worthy to carry their sandals.
St. John the Baptist, pray for us! We have practically lost what you died to uphold. Intercede for us to have the courage you had, especially in the Lord's teaching on marriage. May we help those in difficult marriages and strengthen those in good marriages. And above all, may we never forget that God's grace to do what is right is never lacking for those courageous enough to embrace it. Amen.
Msgr. Charles Pope. "Saints Have Died to Defend Christ's Teaching on Marriage—Why Don't We?" National Catholic Register (September 20, 2023).
© 2023 EWTN News, Inc. Reprinted with permission from the National Catholic Register.
Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.Copyright © 2023 EWTN News, Inc.