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The New York Times titled its article, “In Weddings, Pope Looks Past Tradition.” The Wall Street Journal announced that the pope’s presiding over twenty weddings at St. Peter’s on Sunday indicates his desire for a more “open and inclusive church.” CBS News called the mass ceremony “progressive.” 

The reason? Among the twenty wed were some who already had children and were living together outside the sacrament of marriage. Others were divorced and had received annulments. This a sign of change? What planet do these reporters live on? Anyone with experience in the trenches of twenty-first century Catholicism knows that priest are often trying to prepare people for marriage who aren’t living in accord with Catholic teaching on sex and marriage. There are couples who cohabit. There are couples who use birth control. There are couples who are civilly married but not sacramentally. There are couples with children. And on. And on. And on. Welcome to the human condition. There is nothing “progressive” about marrying such people. 

Although our society is sometimes in the thrall of moralism, the Church never has been, at least not completely. There have always been the Catholic equivalent of shotgun marriages. There have always been marriages for Catholics whose first marriages have been annulled. There have always been marriages when the priest had to hold his nose because either the bride or groom or both were far, far from living lives of Christian virtue. Indeed, in the Middle Ages the Church made a push to convince the peasant culture of Europe that sacramental marriage should be the norm. That required, of course, a great deal of marrying of people who had children already. 

What Pope Francis is signaling isn’t a change in Catholic teaching on sexual morality and marriage. On the contrary, I interpret the diverse array of couples as sending a message to our culture: Yes, you can get married. It’s not a sacrament for the few. If you have the desire to accept the Christian discipline of marriage, the Church is willing to provide the opportunity. This is not a “progressive” mentality. It’s the general view and practice. A couple sleeping together without the benefit of marriage is violating the Church’s teaching. If they desire marriage, a good priest will urge them to alter their lives and live apart until they are married. Some will. Some will say they do but don’t. Others smile and give their reasons why they won’t. The priest must make his pastoral judgments, though in my experience those judgments are almost always merciful and—most importantly—colored by the priest’s strong desire to see the couple married. 

By my reading, Pope Francis wants a reality-based Church. That was the thrust of his metaphor of a field hospital, which the symbolism of the twenty weddings in St. Peter’s captured quite nicely. What could be more basic first aid than marriage, given our disordered culture that provides no support for stable relationships and families? Yet that same reality-based Church must have its eyes wide-open to that same cultural reality. It’s deeply hostile to the Church and the only terms on which it will be willing to accept the Church are those of Unconditional Surrender.

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