TO THE EDITOR:
It is fitting that Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is brought back into the fore just as our Church is strenuously debating the Sacrament of Marriage, because the themes are remarkably parallel. The story set in 17th century Japan presents a difficult moral dilemma. With the price of fidelity to Christ at that time being slow torture and death, a local priest is faced with a horrific choice: apostatize to save his parishioners, or hold fast to his faith and watch them die.
The method of apostasy ordered by the Japanese authorities is to place one’s foot on an image of Christ. In his anguish, the priest hears a voice he believes to be Jesus saying: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world.” If this is indeed Christ, he is commanding the priest to commit the grave sin of apostasy in order to save his parishioners — the same Christ who said: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it. What profit is there for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?” (Mk 8:35-36).
It is with sadness that I now turn to the couple recently introduced to us by Father Michael Najim (“A Pastoral Reflection on the Divorced and Remarried”). Accordingly, we find that the husband has been previously bound in a union that the Church has deemed to be valid. That means that his present situation is irregular at best, adulterous at worst. Father Najim, as a friend of the couple, makes the case that they love God and don’t accept the Church’s judgement. He states: “Their love for one another is deep, real, and, I would argue, holy. But they are fundamentally cut off from the sacramental life of the Church unless they decide to forgo marital intimacy, a decision that, according to their conscience, is opposed to the good of their married life.”
Here we call to mind the words of Christ: “What God has joined together, no human being must separate … Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her” (Mk 10:9, 11). The plea in this situation to allow the couple to live as man and wife, according to Father Najim, is based on their deepening faith, their perceived good, and that of their daughter. We are asked for the sake of these ends to sidestep both the words of Christ and the judgement of the Church — a frightful precedent.
At each nuptial Mass, the Church witnesses the bride and groom’s firm commitment to an “intimate community of life and love” (Gaudium et Spes, 48), and reminds them that their union is not of their own making, but is an echo of another commitment: ”Their mutual love becomes an image of the absolute and unfailing love with which God loves man” (CCC, 1604). Their consent, given after proper deliberation, made in proper freedom, and made before the community to express their intention of lifelong fidelity is what sets us apart in creation, for “authentic married love is caught up into divine love” (GS, 48). Both bonds—and they are essentially the same bond of love—are indissoluble.
According to Father Najim, we are to presume that the original marriage is “irretrievable” because of Joe’s subsequent conversion—a conversion that took place after his first marriage broke down. While this change of heart may indeed increase his alienation from his first wife, the Church’s investigation still deemed that the previous union was valid. To ignore that ruling, and allow “irretrievable” to trump “indissoluble” is a remarkable—and deeply troubling — suggestion.
While commending the family for remaining close to the Church, it must be noted that their love of God is compromised by their refusal to accept the judgement previously rendered concerning the prior union, calling to mind a famous adage related to theological dissent: “Mater, si; magister, non!” Ultimately, the Church is both mother and teacher, guardian of the fullness of faith and truth. We cannot choose between them. The couple, we learn, is also immersed in Scripture, but shrink from applying it to themselves when it creates a particular hardship (don’t we all!)—and yet what sets Catholics apart is their obligation to accept the Church’s interpretation of Holy Scripture.
The greatest concern, though, concerns the ripple effect that accrues if the Church blurs her teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. In this regard, when the next generation approaches the altar of God to make their vows, how will they find the strength to cling to their bonds in challenging times, having been shown that their sacramental marriages might devolve into mere “irretrievable” unions? Far more is at stake than any difficult pastoral situation at hand.
This is where, sadly, Father Najim and Endo’s priest find common ground, for both are tempted to tweak the ancient deposit of faith for a finite good. And even a tiny deviation can lead us to call apostasy fidelity, and adultery charity, neglecting Our Lord’s warning: “Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it.” The same Lord who came to be despised and humiliated asks us to follow him to the Cross—indeed, he also warned: “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed” (Mt 26:24). Being trampled may be a part of the Christian path, but there is a world of difference between those who trample and what is underfoot.
The Church has offered a way forward for such couples: to live in continence. To turn to any Catholic priest and say this is impossible illustrates supreme irony. Priestly celibacy is a life-giving sacrifice offered for the good of the lay faithful, and the laity in turn can embrace it as a real gift when necessary—so that their own children’s love of Christ and his Church will be centered on the truth. This is a hard saying, but where beyond the Church can we turn? “You have the words of eternal life” (Jn: 6:68).
Mrs. Kineke is a member of Our Lady of Mercy parish in East Greenwich, and can be found online at feminine-genius.com