Sunday, May 05, 2013

Refrain from fornication

Today’s first reading from the Catholic lectionary is the early Christian community’s response to the presence of non-Jews in their community.

The big question was whether they should be circumcised.

The response was a compromise that opened the community to the presence of the Gentiles in the early church (Acts 15: 28-29):

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. (New Revised Standard Version)

‘It is the decision of the holy Spirit and of us not to place on you any burden beyond these necessities, namely, to abstain from meat sacrificed to idols, from blood, from meats of strangled animals, and from unlawful marriage. (New American Bible Revised Edition)

Yesterday I was took part in a meeting of one of the zones of the Dulce Nombre parish.

Padre German had gone to a village for Mass and a wedding. Professor Arnaldo, the parish coordinator, explained that there would be a new policy for infant baptisms. It would not be as limited as it was in the past. The parents would have to participate in five sessions and, possibly, a retreat. (I knew this since he had asked me to put together the materials for the pre-baptismal sessions.)

This surprised a few people and some asked whether this meant that single mothers or people “living in fornication” could have their children baptized.

I reacted strongly, objecting to the use of the word “fornication,” which for me has a strong sense of “living in sin,” “shacking up,” and promiscuous sexual behavior.

A dictionary definition of fornication is “sexual intercourse between people not married to each other.”

The Greek word, translated in several ways including “sexual immorality,” is derived from the word for prostitute.

I suggested that using this phrase was judgmental and that we should use a less “loaded” expression like “not married in the church.” I suggested that if we call all non-married couples “fornicators” that will not help us invite them into the Christian community and into marriage.

This doesn’t mean I am against marriage and would not encourage couples to get married. But I think we have to minister pastorally, with compassion and understanding.

I don’t know why there are many couples who, having several children, still haven’t gotten married by the church.

Is it the cost of a civil marriage, which is a precondition to church marriage?

Is it the sense that a church marriage should be accompanied by a costly celebration?

Some people have said that some don’t marry because they don’t want the commitment. That is probably true in some cases, but I wonder if that fits two interesting cases I know of.

Twice I accompanied the former pastor, Padre Efraín, to visit elderly couples who had not been married in the church. One woman was close to death. He asked them if they wanted to be married. In one case, the old guy – probably with a mind clouded by illness and old age – took some time to answer yes. The couples went to confession and were married by the church in their homes, with at least one grandchild present.

Were these couples fornicators? Did they not want the commitment of the sacrament of matrimony until they neared death?

I doubt it.

I suggest that we need to find ways to welcome unmarried couples into the community and  to encourage them to strengthen their relationships with the sacrament of matrimony.

But calling “fornicators” all couples living together but not married? I think that is too much and lacks pastoral sense

This comment of Father John Kavanaugh, S.J., in The Word Engaged,  p. 67, on today’s reading from Acts is pointed:
One of the most seductive temptations of the believer is to identify the will of God with the will of the believer, and not the other way around.


Tom Kent said...

In Bolivia we struggled with this same issue frequently, it sounds eerily similar to what you were describing. I think that the idea that "we have to minister pastorally, with compassion and understanding" (I'd add with love) is an important one that the sisters that we worked with needed to have presented to them.

As far as why there are so many people in long-term relationships, but still unmarried, we found two major issues.

- If you get married it needs to be with a large (expensive) party, and this symbolizes a lot of commitment. For this group, it seems the church just needs to do a better job at reaching out and teaching what marriage means.

- Many of the women we (more Laura than me) worked with explained that they didn't really like the men that they were with, but they needed someone to support their children (often from a different father). For this group, I would not even begin to judge (not that I'd judge the others) these women as their situation in life is incredibly difficult, with absolutely no easy answers. All I can point to is that the church's fire-and-brimstone talk about fornicators didn't seem to work when these women were teens and had their first children...maybe we need to try another tact to help keep people off of this path?

Unknown said...

I don't know enough to know whether using the word fornication in Honduras would be pastoral or not. I do, however, wish the word was used more in America. I think there's a serious issue with a society where a word denoting a sin becomes more offensive than the sin itself.

Charles said...

God is the one who joins a couple. The sacrament of marriage is an acknowledgement of Jesus as the lasting bond that holds them together. The one who holds that the sacrament is higher than the Creator has engaged in idolatry.

If a couple's relationship is wrongful, then they-- not those who pretend to judge them-- will suffer the penalty. So what good does judging them do? Does it bring them toward a life of righteousness, or does it alienate them from it? If the latter, then how does such behavior conform to Christ?

It is one thing to say, "If your marriage is based in love, then celebrate it before the community and acknowledge your joy in one another as a gift from God. And if it is not based in love, then acknowledge that, too, so that your children know that they have something better to look forward to." It is another to say, "I know your hearts and God's."

This situation is simpler than it may seem if one just remembers the two highest commandments... and that we are not God.