Benedict XVI’s address to US bishops of Regions VII-IX: marriage and sexuality

His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI gave an audience to American bishops (MN, ND, SD) making their ad limina visit.  His last address – on the eve of Pres. Obama’s attack on the religious liberty of the Catholic Church – was amazing and important (HERE).

As I suspected might happen, Pope Benedict talks about marriage and sexuality.  I figured he might, since this group of bishops includes Archbp. Nienstedt of St. Paul and Minneapolis with the other bishops of Minnesota, who are leading an effort for the passage of a defense of marriage amendment to the Minnesota constitution.

Audio HERE.

Dear Brother Bishops,

I greet all of you with fraternal affection on the occasion of your visit ad limina Apostolorum. As you know, this year I wish to reflect with you on certain aspects of the evangelization of American culture in the light of the intellectual and ethical challenges of the present moment.

In our previous meetings I acknowledged our concern about threats to freedom of conscience, religion and worship which need to be addressed urgently, so that all men and women of faith, and the institutions they inspire, [Such as hospitals and schools… and in another sense marriage.] can act in accordance with their deepest moral convictions. In this talk I would like to discuss another serious issue which you raised with me during my Pastoral Visit to America, namely, the contemporary crisis of marriage and the family, and, more generally, of the Christian vision of human sexuality. It is in fact increasingly evident that a weakened appreciation of the indissolubility of the marriage covenant, and the widespread rejection of a responsible, mature sexual ethic grounded in the practice of chastity, have led to grave societal problems bearing an immense human and economic cost.

Yet, as Blessed John Paul II observed, the future of humanity passes by way of the family (cf.Familiaris Consortio, 85). Indeed, “the good that the Church and society as a whole expect from marriage and from the family founded on marriage is so great as to call for full pastoral commitment to this particular area. Marriage and the family are institutions that must be promoted and defended from every possible misrepresentation of their true nature, since whatever is injurious to them is injurious to society itself” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 29).  [Get that?  “from every possible misrepresentation”]

In this regard, particular mention must be made of the powerful political and cultural currents seeking to alter the legal definition of marriage. [I wrote about one HERE today.] The Church’s conscientious effort to resist this pressure calls for a reasoned defense of marriage as a natural institution consisting of a specific communion of persons, essentially rooted in the complementarity of the sexes and oriented to procreation. Sexual differences cannot be dismissed as irrelevant to the definition of marriage. Defending the institution of marriage as a social reality is ultimately a question of justice, since it entails safeguarding the good of the entire human community and the rights of parents and children alike.  [When you undermine sexual differences you harm everyone.  Eroding sexual roles does an injustice to others.]

In our conversations, some of you have pointed with concern to the growing difficulties encountered in communicating the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family in its integrity, and to a decrease in the number of young people who approach the sacrament of matrimony. Certainly we must acknowledge deficiencies in the catechesis of recent decades, which failed at times to communicate the rich heritage of Catholic teaching on marriage as a natural institution elevated by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament, the vocation of Christian spouses in society and in the Church, and the practice of marital chastity. [That is a big admission.  We have failed.] This teaching, stated with increasing clarity by the post-conciliar magisterium and comprehensively presented in both the Catechism of the Catholic Church and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, needs to be restored to its proper place in preaching and catechetical instruction.

On the practical level, marriage preparation programs must be carefully reviewed to ensure that there is greater concentration on their catechetical component and their presentation of the social and ecclesial responsibilities entailed by Christian marriage. In this context we cannot overlook the serious pastoral problem presented by the widespread practice of cohabitation, [Cohabitation is way up and marriage is way down.] often by couples who seem unaware that it is gravely sinful, not to mention damaging to the stability of society. I encourage your efforts to develop clear pastoral and liturgical norms for the worthy celebration of matrimony which embody an unambiguous witness to the objective demands of Christian morality, while showing sensitivity and concern for young couples.

Here too I would express my appreciation of the pastoral programs which you are promoting in your Dioceses and, in particular, the clear and authoritative presentation of the Church’s teaching found in your 2009 Letter Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan. I also appreciate all that your parishes, schools and charitable agencies do daily to support families and to reach out to those in difficult marital situations, especially the divorced and separated, single parents, teenage mothers and women considering abortion, as well as children suffering the tragic effects of family breakdown.

In this great pastoral effort there is an urgent need for the entire Christian community to recover an appreciation of the virtue of chastity. The integrating and liberating function of this virtue (cf.Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2338-2343) should be emphasized by a formation of the heart, which presents the Christian understanding of sexuality as a source of genuine freedom, happiness and the fulfilment of our fundamental and innate human vocation to love. It is not merely a question of presenting arguments, but of appealing to an integrated, consistent and uplifting vision of human sexuality. The richness of this vision is more sound and appealing than the permissive ideologies exalted in some quarters; these in fact constitute a powerful and destructive form of counter-catechesis for the young.

Young people need to encounter the Church’s teaching in its integrity, challenging and countercultural as that teaching may be; more importantly, they need to see it embodied by faithful married couples who bear convincing witness to its truth. They also need to be supported as they struggle to make wise choices at a difficult and confusing time in their lives. Chastity, as the Catechism reminds us, involves an ongoing “apprenticeship in self-mastery which is a training in human freedom” (2339). In a society which increasingly tends to misunderstand and even ridicule this essential dimension of Christian teaching, young people need to be reassured that “if we let Christ into our lives, we lose nothing, absolutely nothing, of what makes life free, beautiful and great” (Homily, Inaugural Mass of the Pontificate, 24 April 2005).  [Interesting.  I quote this line from the Holy Father’s sermon all the time, since I considered it an important theme at the beginning of his pontificate.  Here it is again.]

Let me conclude by recalling that all our efforts in this area are ultimately concerned with the good of children, who have a fundamental right [to be born and] to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships. Children are the greatest treasure and the future of every society: truly caring for them means recognizing our responsibility to teach, defend and live the moral virtues which are the key to human fulfillment. [Pres. Obama wants fewer children to be born.] It is my hope that the Church in the United States, however chastened by the events of the past decade, will persevere in its historic mission of educating the young and thus contribute to the consolidation of that sound family life which is the surest guarantee of intergenerational solidarity and the health of society as a whole.

I now commend you and your brother Bishops, with the flock entrusted to your pastoral care, to the loving intercession of the Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. To all of you I willingly impart my Apostolic Blessing as a pledge of wisdom, strength and peace in the Lord.

BTW.. in the photo, above, the bishop in profile is H.E. John LeVoir, Bishop of New Ulm and the other bishop, from behind, is H.E. Paul Sirba of Duluth.  I have known both of these fine bishops for many years (since before they were priests) and they both have ties to my home parish.  They are fine men and I ask you to stop and say a prayer for them right now.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Maltese says:

    Slap-down to Great Leader, err, I mean President, Obama.,

  2. ghp95134 says:

    Cohabitation … remember when it used to be called “Living in Sin”?


  3. acardnal says:

    Hail Mary prayed as requested.

  4. Maltese says:

    A crooked finger pointed in the face is not going to correct anything.

    I became a Catholic through the “coercion” of the heart; a gentle nudging of the Holy Spirit, which I freely accepted.
    Faith is a free gift, accept it, and don’t take it for granted!

  5. frjim4321 says:

    Well, I don’t know what the policy of the bishops from that province is regarding providing pastoral ministry to cohabiting couples but if I refused to marry cohabiting couples I would have lots of free Saturday afternoons. [Can we take from this that you marry cohabiting couples without any provisions? Any period of separation? Etc?] Not that I wouldn’t mind having free Saturday afternoons – in fact I am quite partial to beautiful Saturday mornings and afternoons with no duties until 4:30 confessions. (I won’t go here, but could refusals to marry have anything to do with Saturday tee times?)

    There is sensitivity here around the matter of giving scandal so let me be obscure. In my experience, those who have been the least pastoral toward cohabiting couples have not themselves been exemplary in all respects.

    In my experience 2/3 of couples are cohabiting. A lot of this seems to be based on economics. One rent versus two rents. I agree it is not an ideal situation but it’s what we are dealing with. One way of looking at it is at least they are working toward marriage versus never marrying at all.

    Which applies indirectly to the issue of equal marriage rights. During the first decade of ministry I knew a lot of same-sex couples who attended church together and it was pretty obvious that they were in relationship. During the second decade it seems that they are gone. To me it seems like the church has lost her gay children and I don’t know if it was necessary. It’s sad because some of them have been rejected by their families of origin only to be later rejected by their church family.

    I can’t help but think that we could have done a better job with this.

  6. frjim4321 says:

    I guess not just a province . . . it’s a bunch of provinces, I guess.

  7. Johnsum says:


    From the the Pope comes a hard teaching. Who can listen? Would Catholics hear it from time to time in Sunday school, or RCI or from the pulpit they might actually learn and know how to respond faithfully. “Soft schism of low expectations?” to paraphrase President Bush’s comments about teachers who fail to teach black children because they really do not expect that they can learn.

    The Pope also said a long time ago that the Church in the future will be much smaller but more Catholic. However, it is possible that if the teaching day in and day out at the parish level would address natural and moral law more clearly and consistently fewer people would come to Mass.

    If one cares about the salvation of souls bishops, priest and others of faith must follow the advice of our Pope or else what do we believe?

  8. heway says:

    It is very early here in the West, so I hope that I don’t sound ‘fuzzy brained’.
    A journalist from WSJ was on the news a few minutes ago, explaining what he found at a Rick Santorum meeting in a small town in Ohio. I do not mean for this to be a political statement!
    The gentleman wanted to know what the cause was for Rick’s sudden rise in polls. Rick spoke about ‘freedom’ and how it was the most important thing in our lives. Economic freedom -health care freedom -freedom to make decisions for ourselves. As I read what the Pope said, I saw a meaningful reflection on Santorum’s address. The journalist said there were about 250 people in the room and all rose to their feet to shout agreement. I wish the US Bishops had not supported universal healthcare, it has complicated our issues. God have mercy on us all.
    The earlier comment on Vermont -once upon a time, the most conservative and christian state.

  9. chantgirl says:

    Father Jim, I have to question whether or not a lack of pastoral sensitivity has driven gay members of the Church away, as I have NEVER EVER heard a homily denouncing homosexual behavior in an ordinary parish. I have also never heard a homily denouncing cohabitation in an ordinary parish. I have heard lots about tolerance, though, and I have seen priests bend over backwards to not offend people. Is it possible that something else is driving them away? Is it possible that the gay culture is becoming more hostile to the Church? It saddens me whenever someone leaves the Church, because then they do not receive the sacramental support they need to carry their crosses and live their vocations, but is it possible that the gay community has decided it no longer needs or wants the Church? The Church asks everyone to live by the same standards, and I have seen most of my friends from high school (early 30s now) leave the Church because they see it as irrelevant or opressive. The Church is losing my age group wholesale, whether gay or straight, without ever having really preached to them. Is it possible that living in sexual sin has driven them away by distancing their hearts from God?

  10. chantgirl says:

    On the subject of cohabitation, my generation are the children of baby-boomers, and many of us have seen divorce decimate families. Many of my age group are seriously gun-shy about marriage because of the wake of destruction divorce has caused in our parents’ generation. Young people have lost trust in relationships lasting, and why should they sign up for the “pain” of marriage if cohabitation is widely accepted?

  11. irishgirl says:

    Wow, this is a ‘one-two punch’ from the Holy Father!
    Peter confirming the brethren-and giving them a good talkin’-to as well!
    When will we ever listen?

  12. PA mom says:

    Regarding cohabitation- in my youth I thought it should be allowed, did it thinking it was a step toward marriage, came to wish I was no longer doing it but would finally get married, and have come to see how it now places couples in direct opposition to each other and outside of the Church. No longer do the couples think that anyone should have anything negative to say about their choices, or even think anything negative about their situation (sure to happen with well formed people of conscience, hence, no Church).
    I have come to see what “unraveling of society” means, with people who should be godparents being unavailable due to “situations” and having no children to play with mine due to “waiting”. With people wanting to have us treat their “significant other” like family, but are unwilling to actually MAKE them family which would do more for that than anything I would do or say. With the parents (50s) of the adult children (in their mid 20s) having so little sense as to counsel them to wait a little longer so they have enough money for an elaborate wedding. ????? All of this within two families, both previously “Catholic”. How things could be different.
    The Church teaching on this is beautiful and definitely converted my heart. If only more couples have the chance to hear it, it will be powerful stuff.

  13. tcreek says:

    “We must acknowledge deficiencies in the catechesis of recent decades …” — Pope
    Pretty lame.
    “We must acknowledge a near total lack of catechesis in recent decades.” — Truth

    [And… you are, I am sure, volunteering to teach in the parish catechetical classes? CCD? Religious Ed?]

  14. tcreek says:

    I have been a deeply involved as a volunteer in high school and college age youth ministry for the last 20 years and it is disheartening in the extreme to hear youth admit that they know next to nothing about the faith and moral teaching of the Catholic faith. This after 12 years of Catholic education.

  15. Cathy says:

    In response to Father Jim’s question, perhaps the situation you are seeing is the impact of not truly being seen. Living in sin is miserable, the entire world provides a cheerleading section for the misery in which the sinner finds him/herself. I lived in misery, living with a man who was not my husband and hooking up with men for years. The times I would go to mass, not often, AND receive the Eucharist, I felt ill, very often. I was lost and unhappy but drank enough to get along and present myself to others as happy and stable. I guess my point is, not being seen, or being seen as “ok” when something very deep inside is terribly disturbed is not just, kind or merciful. Yes, you have an entire culture with an agenda to defend the “lifestyles” of cohabitation and homosexuality. Pray, let me ask, when one finds themselves miserable due to such a lifestyle, and they turn to their spiritual fathers in Christ, are they simply to be told that their lifestyle is too great an economic or social benefit for them to be freed from it? Is spiritual counsel to be held hostage by an agenda that speaks to the affirmation of such lifestyles with the declaration that assisting an individual who seeks freedom is suddenly an act of hate and unlawful in the eyes of the world? You see, I did not stop going to Church because my “lifestyle” was preached against. I simply thought the men in the pulpit were too holy to see us. I remember actually crying during a homily where God the Father was compared to Papa Smurf at Sunday mass, and a tiny prayer issued from my own heart, ” Oh, God, why don’t they see us!” Father Jim, if you cannot perceive the misery of God’s people through their experience of personal sexual sin, you will leave them in misery and they will disappear from the Church and later they will return, either having come to their senses and repenting, or as is very evident today, prepared to attack.

  16. bookworm says:

    There are several ways pastors can deal with the issue of couples cohabiting before marriage who request a Church wedding. One is simply to refuse to marry them unless they separate. Another is to marry them anyway, no questions asked. A third, and I believe more reasonable approach, would be (after making sure that Church teaching on premarital chastity and not giving scandal is explained to them) would be to offer them this choice: if you do not agree to separate, or (for couples who cannot live apart for serious reasons such as already having children in the household) confess your past sin and make a serious effort to live chastely before the wedding, your wedding will NOT include Mass or Communion. Cohabitation is a mortal sin but it is not an impediment that prevents a marriage from being valid (like divorce or close blood relationship). Taking Mass out of the equation will, at least, prevent any danger of sacreligious Communion by an unrepentant couple while still “regularizing” their situation to the extent possible.

  17. tcreek says:

    We are losing our youth to the secular culture in large part because of the bishops’ focus on social justice issues rather than on the teaching of Jesus Christ. The youth respond well to social justice and their Christian beliefs pretty much end there. Dogma and morals do not enter the picture.

    If anyone cares to read farther, here is a hodgepodge of a few excerpts on youth catechesis from extensive studies.

    Taken from a 10 Monograph Series on Adolescent Catechesis by The National Initiative on Adolescent Catechesis. The series was in collaboration with:
    – The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB)
    – The National Federation for Catholic Youth Ministry (NFCYM)
    – The National Conference for Catechetical Leadership (NCCL)
    – The National Catholic Educational Association (NCEA)

    The study states specifically that the Catholic Church lacks the institutional commitment at the parish and diocesan level in the religious formation of young people. “…to achieve the huge religious potential that appears to exist for Catholic teens would seem to require that the Church invest a great deal more attention, creativity, and institutional resources into its young members. Undeniably the future shape of the U.S. Catholic Church vitally depends on it.”

    … young people are “incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.” This was true even for teenagers who regularly attend church. Religion appears to be in the background of their lives. Our young people are inarticulate because we have not taught them how to talk about their religion or provided opportunities to practice talking about religion and faith.

    …“our distinct impression is that very many religious congregations and communities of faith in the United States are failing rather badly in religiously engaging and educating youth.”

    … The perceived lack of communication and mutual understanding between religious educators, youth ministers, and Catholic school faculty must cease.

    … In terms of methodology, church leaders, including bishops, clergy and lay, express concern that some methods may unintentionally undermine the Church’s teaching.

    … Furthermore, adolescent catechesis, in some situations is still viewed as a program concerned with providing knowledge of the faith rather than preparing adolescents for a relationship with Christ and the Church and helping young people become disciples.

    … Few resources exist that promote the integration of the teachings of the church and the experience of faith. Adolescents cannot fully understand their faith unless they are able to wrestle with it and make it their own; to do this they need to both ‘know Jesus’ and ‘know about Jesus.’

    … In discussions within the high school setting some teachers note that catechesis in high schools does not achieve its full potential when it is not connected to daily life and when it is approached solely as an academic subject. Concerns exist within the school setting regarding curriculum that is weak, not seen as the central discipline of the entire school curriculum or foundational to the institutional identity or mission of the school.

    The National Study on Youth and Religion has published three definitive studies on youth and religion:

    1. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. 368pp
    2. Souls in Transition: The Religious & Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults. 368pp
    3. Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood. 296pp

  18. chantgirl says:

    Thank you, Cathy. I too seriously struggled with sexual sin as a teeanager/young adult, as did many of my friends. A person living in sin or struggling with mortal sin really is in a state of bondage, and is never really happy underneath. It is cowardly, uncharitable, and not pastoral for priests (or any of us for that matter) to treat living in a state of mortal sin as just another lifestyle choice and give consent by silence.

  19. Margaret says:

    I’ve heard tell of a priest who strongly counsels his pre-marriage couples to move out until the wedding if they are cohabitating. Those who insist they “cannot” are then informed that while he will perform their marriage ceremony, it will be a bare bones affair with none of the usual frilly trappings we normally associate with American weddings. No big processional, no music, no wedding party, just the bride and groom and two witnesses. Generally the couple comes up with some kind of solution, even if it means the groom crashing in his brother’s spare room or some such thing for a few months.

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