I recently listened to the best homily I’ve ever heard on marriage. You might say it was “hard-hitting.” But if you’re familiar with Christ’s clear instruction on marriage, not to mention Saint Paul’s, it isn’t difficult to understand. Christ clearly said that divorce is not allowed, and that remarrying after divorce is adulterous (Matthew 19: 3-9).
For your hardness of hearts Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.
Those are Christ’s words.
No doubt, with divorce rates as high as they are today, this teaching is rejected by the vast majority, but it’s definitely not hard to understand. Saint Paul, in his Letter to the Ephesians, is just as clear (Ephesians 5: 22-33). And yet, his words are similarly glossed over by today’s “enlightened” society.
This particular homily I heard unpacked the Church’s timeless teaching, based on Christ’s words, on the indissolubility of marriage. The Church simply does not have the authority to alter what Christ Himself established. But ears of today no doubt find the Church’s teaching on marriage hard to bear, so all too often, it’s not talked about at all, which brings me to the larger point of this post: the dire need for those of us sitting in the pews to hear the hard truth about important topics.
When I come across articles talking about this or that parish, it’s rather common to read about how the mission of the parish is to ensure a “welcoming” environment for the parishioners and visitors. Being “welcoming” seems to be the summum bonum of parish life. Just as one would not want a guest at one’s house to feel unwelcome, so too must everyone in the pews feel welcome.
Let’s get it out right away that of course, no one should walk into a church and experience nasty looks from the parishioners and priest.
We get it.
But let’s also recognize that the current fixation on the “welcome factor” at many parishes has become an easy excuse to simply avoid preaching on sensitive topics on morality altogether, because doing so will certainly make someone (or a lot of people) feel uncomfortable and, by extension, unwelcome, and that simply must never be allowed to happen. So anything that might unsettle someone’s peace about the choices he is making should be avoided at all cost. If he feels uncomfortable, he feels unwelcome. And the parish has failed in its duty. So right off the bat, anything having to do with sexuality and family life (pornography, contraception, divorce, societal attacks on marriage and human life, etc.) is automatically off the table.
The problem here is one of relying on a faulty analogy: that of a guest to a home. When a guest is invited over, it’s considered bad form to say something that would make him feel uncomfortable or put him on the spot in a negative way. This is how many parish leaders view their relationship to the parishioners. “These are our guests and so we must ensure they are comfortable.”
But the far more appropriate analogy for parish life is one of a father to his family. In this case, fathers must tell their children, in a loving yet firm way, that this or that is harmful behavior. To fail to do so would represent a grave dereliction of his duty as the father of the household. In his duty to ensure the physical and spiritual health of his children, the father’s highest priority is certainly not to make sure his kids feel comfortable.
In a very real sense, parishes are a family, with the priest serving as the spiritual father to the parishioners. So, just as in the home, it follows that the priest has a grave duty as father to instruct and form his children in the moral life. And just as there can be difficult and uncomfortable moments in the home when the duties of the father require him to speak clearly and forcefully about the actions of his children, so too must the priest step up as a father to tell parishioners the hard truths about the moral life, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable or unwelcome.