Stop the presses! Breaking news! You won’t believe what the “progressive and forward-thinking” Pope Francis has done this time!
If you happened to catch any of the media mayhem after the pope presided over 20 weddings at St. Peter’s Basilica on Sept. 14, you would think the leader of the worldwide Catholic Church had broken with 2,000 years of Church teaching and did a complete about-face when it comes to what is required of those wishing to get married in the Catholic Church.
So what was all the fuss about? Well not much, quite frankly.
The numerous reports — as well as opinion pieces from The New York Times, Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters News Service and others — all strongly inferred that the Church was breaking with centuries-old tradition because among the couples who were married at St. Peter’s were some who were living together and others who had children out of wedlock.
I don’t know what was more frustrating, the fact that the media believe that these marriages signal some sort of huge change on the part of the Church or that some Catholics believe the pope is dismissing the Church teachings on chastity and trying to tell the world that living together before marriage is really no big deal. Neither summary is correct.
The Church is always about mercy. While the Church teaches it is gravely sinful to cohabitate, it also teaches that couples cannot be denied marriage because they are living together. Probably the best explanation of this is found on the website foryourmarriage.org, which is an initiative of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Under the section pertaining to Church teaching on cohabitation, the website explains that the issue of living together before marriage is not to be taken lightly or disregarded.
The section goes on to stress that it is important for the couple to take a close look at the impact living together before marriage can have on their relationship and to address some of those questions before walking down the aisle. Research shows that couples who live together before marriage have a much higher divorce rate — one more reason why this choice has to be taken seriously. And this is where the mercy issue takes center stage.
“If you are a cohabiting couple who has chosen to marry, the Catholic Church welcomes your decision to marry. Because cohabitation can have an effect on the marriage, couples are encouraged to explore certain questions with the pastoral minister who is preparing them for marriage. These include:
— Why did you choose to live together?
— What did you learn from the experience of living together?
— Why did you decide to marry?
— Why do you wish to marry in the Catholic Church?
— What does marriage as a sacrament mean to you?”
It’s true that we have a long way to go as a Church in terms of marriage prep. That is why the bishops’ conference and other Catholic organizations are working hard to offer better programs and tools at the parish level.
It is also true that the Church hasn’t changed any teaching when it comes to those eligible for the sacrament. This is good news for Catholics — a reminder how the Church is always trying to bring us into a deeper relationship with Christ by turning away from damaging lifestyles.
But it’s bad news for many members of the media who once again failed to do their homework before writing the headlines.
Teresa Tomeo is the host of “Catholic Connection,” produced by Ave Maria Radio and heard daily on EWTN Global Catholic Radio and Sirius Channel 130.