The Bishop of Shrewsbury has reminded Catholics that sex belongs solely within marriage, as the bishops of England and Wales launches a consultation into how best the Church can accompany engaged couples, divorcees and gay Catholics.
Bishop Mark Davies issued a pastoral letter to be read in churches on 28 December, the Feast of the Holy Family, called “The beautiful virtue of chastity”.
In it he restated church teaching that marriage is an ”unbreakable union of man and woman”, and that sexual relations belong within marriage alone and must always be open to new life.
His letter came days after the bishops’ conference issued a reflection document for clergy and a leaflet for laity entitled “The Call, the Journey and the Mission” inviting laity to join in a period of discernment ahead of next October’s follow-up Synod on the Family in Rome.
Bishop Davies cautioned against misunderstanding the purpose of such an exercise. “To ‘discern’ means to make a right judgment. Pope Francis has made it clear, contrary to many stories circulating in the media, that the Church does not function like a parliament, nor can truth be determined by opinion polls,” he wrote.
The bishops’ leaflet juxtaposes relevant Scripture readings and papal teaching with questions regarding people’s experiences of marriage and family life.
The document for clergy, published on the bishops’ conference website alongside the leaflet, warned against the example of the fifth-century Donatists, who “believed that they represented a ‘Church of the pure,’ uncontaminated by dissent from those who betrayed their Christian faith during a period of persecution.”
The bishops’ letter to clergy called for patience in ministering to people whose lives did not fully reflect church teaching. It picked up on the notion of gradualism, which was frequently cited in discussions at last October’s synod. “Can charity allow us to live with difference, without diminishing what is essential to our Catholic faith? … In a rapidly developing world, particularly where moral autonomy is concerned, we need patience and tolerance before clarity and truth emerge in people’s lives.”
Similarly the Archbishop of Birmingham, in his pastoral letter for the Feast of the Holy Family, noted that Christ shows "understanding" for those who fall short of the ideal.
Archbishop Bernard Longley described the love of father and mother as “complementary” and “a precious gift that we should wish for every child”, while praising the hard work of many single parents.
He described marriage as the best setting for children to grow and develop and wrote: “As Catholics it is important that we try to communicate to others, with clarity and confidence, the truths that come to us through Jesus Christ and his Church. The teaching of Christ recognises the union of man and woman in marriage as part of God’s plan.”
But he added: “At the same time Christ shows compassion and understanding for those who struggle with family life or fall short of the ideal. The Church seeks to be a place and a community where we recognise that we all fall short of perfection and where we are called without exception to repentance and forgiveness.”
Although being brought up by both parents “is an invaluable blessing” he paid tribute to the “many single parents [who] courageously and generously look after their children and often struggle to give them a fine up-bringing. They are often helped in this by grandparents and members of the wider family.”
Above: The Holy Family as re-enacted by Iraqi Christians at Ainkawa camp near Irbil who have fled Islamic State terrorists. Photo: CNS