Bishop Stephan Ackermann, of Trier in Germany, has been making headlines for himself with comments about marriage, homosexuality and contraception which seem to be going against Catholic teaching on these subjects. While his statements are undoubtedly problematic, it is good to explain why. Is it content or, as too often happens, communication which are at the root of the controversy?
On marriage, Bishop Ackermann said that considering a second marriage after a divorce to be a lasting mortal sin “is no longer up to date”. In other words, saying that a second marriage is not possible is old-fashioned. The root problem here is that the bishop subjects Catholic teaching to the spirit of the times. Something which may be true at one time, need not be so at another. But the central truths of the faith, and the insolubility of the sacraments is one of these, are eternally true. They are not subject to the opinions and wishes of specific time periods, but rather transcend those. So a valid marriage remains so until the death of one of the two spouses. But validity is the central theme here. If, for one reason or another, it turns out that the marriage was never valid to begin with, there was no marriage. There are several reasons imaginable for a marriage to be invalid, such as one of the spouses being forced into it, for example. There are more. In such a case, where there has never been a marriage, the spouses are free to marry (not again, but for the first time). But in these cases there is also no divorce. Something which never existed can’t be ended. The marriage is simply nullified, declared void, non-existent.
However, when there is a valid marriage, and the two spouses decide to divorce, they are not free to marry again. Marriage is a sacrament, and therefore can’t be returned, just like Baptism or ordination, for example. A divorce may be granted by a court, but for the Church the marriage continues (marriage before the state and the Church are two wholly different things, anyway). Should one of the spouses marry again, they are guilty of adultery: after all, they are still married, but in a relationship with someone else.
Considering the above, Bishop Ackermann’s statement is hard to follow. A marriage after one that has been nullified has never been considered a sin, but in the second scenario, of a valid marriage ending in divorce and followed by a subsequent marriage, it is indeed objectively sinful. This is not subject to opinions. These are the facts we must pastorally work with.
About this topic, Bishop Ackermann commented in the distinction between natural and artificial contraception which, he says, is in itself “kind of artificial. I am afraid that no one understands it anymore”. While the bishop is correct in his assessment that few people, especially in the west, understand the difference between natural and artificial means of birth control, he is wrong when claiming that this somehow invalidates them.
Contraception or, more generally, birth control, is directly related to human sexuality. Sexuality is part of human nature and must be understood as such. If we deny part of that sexuality we deny part of our nature. Procreation is an inherent element of sexuality. We must then be open to the gift of children, as it is described in relation to the sacrament of marriage. Artificial birth control denies that openness and so the very nature of sexuality and ourselves.
However, we must also exercise prudence. When children arrive, we have an enormous responsibility for their wellbeing. If, for whatever reason, we can’t take that responsibility on, we must choose not to have children (yet). This has an effect on our sexual life, which also has an important role in strengthening the love between partners. But rather than blocking out one element of our sexuality, the right choice is to keep the whole of sexuality intact – its inherent capacity to both strengthen love and and give life.
The various forms of natural family planning does just that. It respects the sanctity of the human person in the fullness his sexual nature. And while this may be a difficult subject to grasp for many people, that is no reason to disregard it, as Bishop Ackermann seems to suggest. Rather it is challenge to all of us, clergy and lay faithful, to do or utmost to both communicate and understand this well. In the end, it is about understanding our very nature as human beings created by God.
“The Christian view of man is based on the differences between the sexes, but we can no longer simply say that homosexuality is unnatural.”
A problematic statement on several levels, as it simplifies what the Church teaches about the sexes, and makes an incorrect statement about what is natural and unnatural.
The fact that there are two sexes is not some accident. Man and woman, being different but equal, complement each other. That fact is at the basis of all teachings related to the human person in his social, religious, personal and physical dimensions.
This difference between the sexes is rooted in the creation. There is an order in creation, which we can discern both in the natural law and in the creation accounts we read with faith in the Bible. Some things exist at odds with this order, which is not a value judgement, but a very factual statement. Above I indicated two of the constituent elements of human sexuality: strengthening love and openness to life. Where one of these is missing, sexuality is not ‘complete’, so to speak. That is what we mean when calling something unnatural… but that’s not the correct word. Rather, we speak of “ordered and disordered”. Something adheres to the natural order as created by the Lord, or it does not.
Homosexual actions (as opposed to homosexuality in itself), regardless of our thoughts or opinions of it, misses one of the elements of ordered sexuality: the openness to life. Two persons of the same sex can not conceive a child. That fact means that we can call it disordered.
The above is no excuse to judge the human person, let alone hate or be violent towards him or her. We can, as in all cases, judge or condemn an action, but never a person. This is important to remember, as such claims virtually always enter the debate on homosexuality. I can only assume that that also happened in the thought of Bishop Ackermann. He may have thought that calling something objectively disordered is a judgement on the person, when it definitely is not.
From the bishop’s quotes, it is hard to maintain that it is solely a communications issue, as if he had meant to say something else than what we read. Some topics may be hard to communicate or understand, but that has no influence on the truth, of course. And it is this truth which all faithful, but bishops especially, have the duty to safeguard and share.