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EDITOR'S NOTE: The following talk was given by his Excellency, Athanasius Schneider, Auxiliary Bishop of Astana, Kazakhstan, at the Lepanto Foundation on December 5 and translated by Matthew Cullinan Hoffman of LifeSiteNews.

The Non-Negotiable Greatness of Christian Marriage

ROME, Italy, December 9, 2016 (LifeSiteNews) — When Our Lord Jesus Christ preached the eternal truth two thousand years ago, the culture, that is the reigning spirit of that time, was radically opposed to him. Specifically it was religious syncretism, the gnosticism of the intellectual elites and the moral permissiveness of the masses, especially with respect to the institution of matrimony. “He was in the world, but the world knew him not” (John 1:10).

The majority of the people of Israel, and in particular the high priests, the scribes, and the Pharisees, had rejected the Magisterium of the divine revelation of Christ and even the proclamation of the absolute indissolubility of marriage. “He came unto his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1: 11). The entire mission of the Son of God on earth consisted in revealing the truth: “For this came I into the world; that I should give testimony to the truth” (John 18: 37).

Our Lord Jesus Christ died on the Cross to save mankind from sin, offering himself in a perfect and pleasing sacrifice of praise and of expiation to God the Father. The redemptive death of Christ also contains the testimony that he gave in all of His words. Christ was ready to die for the truth of any one of His words: “You seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth which I heard from God . . . Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But, because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” (John 8: 40, 43-46). The willingness of Jesus to die for the truth included all of the truth he had announced, certainly including the truth of the absolute indissolubility of marriage.

A pastoral accompaniment and discernment that does not communicate to the adulterous person, the so-called divorced and remarried, the divinely-established obligation to live in continence as a sine qua non condition for admission to the sacraments, exposes itself in reality as an arrogant clericalism, as there does not exist any clericalism so pharisaical as that which arrogates to itself rights reserved to God.

Jesus Christ is the restorer of the indissolubility and of the original sanctity of marriage not only by means of His divine word, but in a more radical way by means of His redemptive death, with which He has elevated the created and natural dignity of matrimony to the dignity of a sacrament. “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her . . . For no man ever hates his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, as Christ does the church, because we are members of his body. ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.’ This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the church!” (Eph. 5: 25, 29-32). For this reason the following words of the preaching of the Church are applied also to matrimony: “O God, Who in creating man didst exalt his nature very wonderfully and yet more wonderfully didst establish it anew” (Tridentine Mass, Offertory Rite).

The Apostles and their successors, in first place the Roman Pontiffs, successors of Peter, have devoutly guarded and faithfully transmitted the non-negotiable doctrine of the Incarnate Word regarding the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage also with regard to pastoral practice. This doctrine of Christ is expressed in the following affirmation of the Apostle: “Marriage honourable in all, and the bed undefiled. For fornicators and adulterers God will judge” (Heb. 13: 4) and “To the married I give charge, not I but the Lord, that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does, let her remain single . . .) — and that the husband should not divorce his wife” (1 Cor. 7: 10-11). This inspired word of the Holy Spirit was always proclaimed in the Church for two thousand years, serving as a binding directive and as an indispensable norm for the sacramental discipline and the practical lives of the faithful.

The commandment to not remarry following a separation from a legitimate spouse is not fundamentally a positive or canonical norm of the Church, but is the word of God, as the Saint Paul the apostle taught: “Not I but the Lord commandeth” (1 Cor. 7: 10). The Church has proclaimed uninterruptedly this word, prohibiting the validly-married faithful from attempting marriage with a new partner. In consequence, the Church, in accordance with reason, divine and human, does not have the authority to approve, even implicitly, a more uxorio (conjugal) union outside of a valid marriage, admitting such adulterous people to Holy Communion.

An ecclesiastical authority that issues norms or pastoral guidance that provides for such admission, arrogates to itself a right that God has not given it. A pastoral accompaniment and discernment that does not communicate to the adulterous person, the so-called divorced and remarried, the divinely-established obligation to live in continence as a sine qua non condition for admission to the sacraments, exposes itself in reality as an arrogant clericalism, as there does not exist any clericalism so pharisaical as that which arrogates to itself rights reserved to God.

One of the most ancient and unequivocal testimonies of the immutable practice of the Roman Church of rejecting adulterous unions by way of the sacramental discipline–unions of members of the faithful who are still linked to a legitimate spouse in a matrimonial bond—is the author of a penitential catechesis known by the pseudonymous title of the Shepherd of Hermas. The catechesis was written, in all probability, by a Roman priest at the beginning of the second century, as indicated by the literary form of an “apocalypse” or account of a vision.

The second dialogue between Hermas and the angel of penance who appears to him in the form of a shepherd, demonstrates with admirable clarity the immutable doctrine and practice of the Catholic Church in this area: “What, O lord, will the husband do if his wife persists in this lust of adultery?” “Separate from her and the husband remains on his own. If after having left his wife he marries another woman, he also commits adultery.” “If, O lord, the wife, after she has been abandoned, repents and wishes to return to her husband, will she not be restored?” “Yes, he says, and if the husband does not receive her he sins and becomes guilty of a great fault. He should, instead, receive the one who has sinned and has repented. . . . Because of the possibility of such repentance, the husband should not remarry. This directive applies both to the wife and to the husband. Not only is there adultery if one corrupts one’s own flesh, but also the one who acts similarly to the pagans is an adulterer. . . .  For that reason it was ordained that one remain alone, for both the woman and the man. One can repent . . . but he who has sinned must not sin again” (Shepherd of Hermas, Fourth Commandment, 1).

We know that the first great clerical sin was the sin of the high priest Aaron, when he acceded to the impertinent request of sinners and permitted them to venerate the idol of the golden calf (Cf. Ex. 32: 4), substituting in this particular case for the First Commandment of the Decalogue of God, that is, substituting the sinful will of man for the will and the word of God. Aaron justified his act of exacerbated clericalism by recourse to mercy and his understanding of the needs of man. The Sacred Scripture says exactly this: “Moses saw that the people had broken loose (for Aaron had let them break loose, to their shame among their enemies)” (Ex. 32: 25).

This first clerical sin is repeating itself today in the life of the Church. Aaron had given permission to sin against the First Commandment of the Decalogue of God and to be able, at the same time, to be serene and content in doing so, and the people indeed were dancing. This was a case of joyful idolatry: “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play” (Ex. 32: 6). Instead of the First Commandment , as it was in the time of Aaron, many clerics, even at the highest levels, substitute in our day, for the Sixth Commandment, the new idol of sexual relations between people who are not validly married, which is, in a certain sense, the Golden Calf venerated by the clerics of our day.

 The admission of such people to the sacrament without asking them to live in continence as a sine qua non condition, means fundamentally a permission to not observe, in such a case, the Sixth Commandment.  Such clerics, like new “Aarons,” appease such people, saying that they can be serene and joyful, that is, that they can continue in the joy of adultery because of a new “via caritatis” (way of charity) and because of the “maternal” sense of the Church, and that they can even receive the nourishment of the Eucharist. With such pastoral guidance the new “Aaronic” clerics make of the Catholic people the mockery of their enemies, that is, of the unbelieving and immoral world, which will be able really to say, for example:

“In the Catholic Church one can have a new partner besides one’s own spouse, and the union with her is permitted in practice.”

“In the Catholic Church there is allowed, as a consequence, a kind of polygamy.”

“In the Catholic Church the observance of the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue, so hated by part of our modern ecological and enlightened society, can have legitimate exceptions.”

“The principle of the moral progress of modern man, according to which the legitimacy of sexual acts outside of marriage must be accepted, is finally recognized to be accepted in an implicit way in the Catholic Church, which had always been retrograde, rigid, and opposed to the joy of love and of the moral progress of modern man.”

This is how the enemies of Christ and of the divine truth are beginning to speak, those who are the true enemies of the Church. By the work of the new Aaronic clericalism the admission of those who unrepentantly practice adultery makes the children of the Catholic Church the mockery of their adversaries.

The fact that the saint who first gave his life as a testimony of Christ was Saint John the Baptist, the Precursor of the Lord, always remains a great lesson and a serious warning to pastors and to the faithful of the Church. John the Baptist’s testimony of Christ consisted in defending without a shadow of doubt or ambiguity the indissolubility of marriage, and in condemning adultery. The history of the Catholic Church is glorious in the luminous examples set by those who have followed the example of Saint John the Baptist or have, like him, given the testimony of their blood, suffering persecutions and personal disadvantages. These examples must guide especially the pastors of the Church of our day, because they do not cede to the classic clerical temptation to seek to please man more than the holy and exacting will of God, a will that is simultaneously loving and very wise. 

Through the numerous ranks of so many imitators of St. John the Baptist as martyrs and confessors of the indissolubility of marriage, we may remember only some of the most significant. The first great testimony was that of Pope St. Nicholas I, dubbed the “Great.” It was an encounter in the ninth century between Pope Nicholas I and Lothair II, the king of Lorraine. Lothair, initially united, but not espoused, to an aristocrat by the name of Waldrada, then having been united in matrimony with the noble Theutberga for political reasons and having then separated from her and having married his previous companion, wanted the Pope at all costs to recognize the validity of his second marriage. But although Lothair enjoyed the support of the bishops of his region and the support of the emperor Ludwig, who arrived to invade Rome with his army, Nicholas I did not cede to his demands and did not at all recognize his second marriage as legitimate.

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Lothair II, the king of Lorraine, after having rejected and shut up his consort Theutberga in a monastery, was living with a certain Waldrada, and having resorted to calumny, threats, and torture, asked local bishops for a divorce so he could marry  her. The bishops of Lorraine, in the Synod of Aachen of 862, ceding to the machinations of the king, accepted the confession of infidelity of Theutberga, without taking into account that it had been extorted by violence. Lothair II then married Waldrada, who became the queen. There followed an appeal of the deposed queen to the Pope, who intervened against the consenting bishops, provoking disobedience, excommunication, and retaliation on the part of two of them, who turned to the Emperor Ludwig II, brother of Lothair.

The Emperor Ludwig decided to act with force and at the beginning of 864 he came to Rome with arms, invading the Leonine City with his soldiers, even breaking up religious processions. Pope Nicholas was forced to leave the Lateran and to take refuge in St. Peter’s Basilica, and the Pope declared that he was ready to die rather than permit a living arrangement more uxorio outside of a valid marriage. In the end the emperor ceded to the heroic constancy of the pope and accepted his decrees, even constraining the two archbishops in rebellion, Gunther of Cologne and Theutgard of Trier, to accept the decision of the pope.

Cardinal Walter Brandmüller gives the following assesment of this emblematic event in the history of the Church: “In the case we have examined, this means that that, regarding the dogma of the unity, of the sacramentality, and of the indissolubility of a marriage between two baptized people, there is no way back if not – inevitable and therefore to be rejected – of considering it to be an error which must be corrected. The way of acting of Nicholas I in the dispute regarding the new marriage of Lothair II, as conscious of principle as it was inflexible and fearless, constitutes an important milestone on the road to affirming the doctrine regarding marriage in the Germanic cultural context. The fact that this Pope, like various of his successors on similar occasions, proved himself to be the advocate of the dignity of the person and of the liberty of the weak – in general they were women – has made Nicholas I worthy of the respect of historiographers, of the crown of sanctity, and of the title of ‘Great.’”

Another shining example of confessors and martyrs regarding the indissolubility of marriage is offered by three historical figures involved in the affair of the divorce of Henry VIII, King of England. They are Cardinal St. John Fisher, St. Thomas More, and Cardinal Reginald Pole.

When it became known for the first time that Henry VIII was looking for a way to divorce his legitimate wife Catherine of Aragon, the bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, publicly opposed such efforts. St. John Fisher is the author of seven publications in which he condemns the imminent divorce of Henry VIII. The Primate of England, Cardinal Wolsey, and all of the bishops of the country, with the exception of the bishop of Rochester, John Fisher, supported the attempt of the king to dissolve his first and valid marriage. Perhaps they did it for pastoral motives and for advancing the possibility of a pastoral accompaniment and discernment.

Instead, Bishop John Fisher had enough courage to make a very clear declaration in the House of Lords affirming that the marriage was legitimate, that a divorce would be illegal and that the king did not have the right to take this route. In the same session of Parliament the famous Act of Succession was approved, which required all of the citizens to take the oath of succession, recognizing the children of Henry and Anne Boleyn as the legitimate heirs of the throne, under penalty of being guilty of high treason. Cardinal Fisher refused the oath, was imprisoned in 1534 in the Tower of London and in the following year was decapitated.

Cardinal Fisher had declared that no power, human or divine, could dissolve the marriage of the king and queen, because marriage was indissoluble and that he was ready to give his life gladly for that truth. Cardinal Fisher noted that in such circumstances that John the Baptist had not seen any other way to die more gloriously than to die for the cause of marriage, notwithstanding the fact that marriage was not so sacred at that time as it would become when Christ spilled His Blood to sanctify matrimony.

In at least two accounts of his trial, St. Thomas More observed that the true cause of the hostility of Henry VIII against him was the fact that Thomas More did not believe that Anne Boleyn was the wife of Henry VIII. One of the causes of the imprisonment of Thomas More was his refusal to affirm by oath the validity of the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. At that time, in contrast to ours, no Catholics believed that an adulterous relationship could be, in particular circumstances or for pastoral motives, treated as if it were a true marriage.

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Reginald Pole, future cardinal, was a distant cousin of King Henry VIII, and in his youth had received from him a generous scholarship. Henry VIII offered him the archbishopric of York if he would support him in the cause of his divorce. So Pole would have had to be an accomplice in the disrespect that Henry VIII had for marriage. During a conversation with the king in the royal palace, Reginald Pole told him that he could not approve his plans, for the salvation of the soul of the king and because of his own conscience. No one, up to that moment, had dared to oppose the king to his face. When Reginald Pole pronounced these words, the king became enraged to the point of pulling out his knife. Pole thought in that moment that the king was going to stab him. But the candid simplicity with which Pole had spoken as if he had pronounced a message from God, and his courage in the presence of a tyrant, saved his life.

Some clerics at that time suggested to Cardinal Fisher, Cardinal Pole, and Thomas More, that they should be more “realistic” regarding the matter of the irregular and adulterous union of Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn and less “black and white” and that  perhaps it would be possible to carry out a brief canonical process to certify the nullity of the first marriage. In this way it would be possible to avoid schism and to prevent Henry VIII from committing further grave and monstrous sins. However, there is a great problem with such reasoning: the entire testimony of the revealed word of the divine and uninterrupted tradition of the Church say that the reality of the indissolubility of a true marriage cannot be repudiated, nor can an adultery consolidated by time be tolerated, whatever the circumstances may be.

A last example of the testimony of the so-called “black” cardinals is the affair of the divorce of Napoleon I, a noble and glorious example of members of the College of Cardinals for all time. In 1810, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, then the Secretary of State, refused to attend the celebration of the marriage between Napoleon and Mary Louise of Austria, given that the pope had not been able to express himself regarding the invalidity of the first union between the Emperor and Joséphine of Beauharnais. Furious, Napoleon ordered that the goods of Consalvi of the other twelve cardinals be confiscated and that they be deprived of their rank. These cardinals would then have had to dress like normal priests and were therefore nicknamed “black cardinals.” Cardinal Consalvi recounted the affair of the thirteen “black” cardinals in his memoirs:

“On the same day we were obligated to cease to use the insignia of cardinals and to dress in black, from which came the denominations of “Black” and of “Red,” by which the two parts of the College were distinguished. . . . It was a miracle that, in his initial fury the Emperor ordered three of the thirteen cardinals to be shot, that is Opizzoni, me, and a third, whose identity is not known (perhaps it was Cardinal di Pietro), and then when it was limited to me alone, it wasn’t carried out.

Then Cardinal Consalvi recounts in more detail:  “After much deliberation between us thirteen, it was concluded that, regarding the invitation of the Emperor, that we had respect for marriage, that we would not attend, that is, neither the ecclesiastical [wedding] for the reason given above, nor in the civil [wedding] because we did not believe that it was appropriate for a cardinal to authorize, with his presence, the new legislation, which separates such an act from so-called nuptial benediction, [and that] despite the supposition that the act had been disconnected from its previous association,  we did not believe it to have been disconnected legitimately. We decided therefore to not attend. When the civil marriage was done in Saint-Cloud we thirteen did not attend. The day arrived in which the ecclesiastical marriage was to be done. The seats were prepared for all of the cardinals, the hope not being lost up to the last moment that all would attend at least the event that most interested the Court. But the thirteen cardinals did not attend. The other fourteen cardinals attended. . . . When the Emperor entered into the chapel, his first glance was towards the place where the cardinals were and, upon seeing only fourteen, his face had such an expression of anger, that all of the attendees clearly took notice of it.”

“Thus arrived the day of the showdown. After bringing all of the thirteen cardinals to the Ministry of Worship, we were led into that chamber where we also met the Minister of Police, Fouché. Upon our entrance, Minister Fouché, who was at the hearth and whom I approached to greet, told me in a low voice: “I foretold it to you, Lord Cardinal, that the consequences would be terrible: what pierces me is to see you among the victims.” The Minister of Cult began to speak and accused the cardinal and his twelve colleagues of being involved in a conspiracy. Regarding that crime, prohibited and punished with the greatest severity under existing law, he found himself in the unpleasant necessity of showing the orders of His Majesty to our gaze, which were reduced to these three things, to wit: first, that our goods, not only ecclesiastical, but also patrimonial, would be removed from us from that movement on and confiscated; second, we were forbidden to use the insignia of cardinals or of any uniform appropriate to our dignity any longer, because His Majesty no longer considered us to be cardinals; third, that His Majesty reserved to himself from now on the right to decide regarding our persons, some of which made us understand that we might be placed on trial. . . . On the same day therefore we found ourselves obligated to not make use of the insignia of cardinals and to dress in black, from which then arose the name of the Blacks and the Reds, by which the two parts of the College were distinguished.”

May the Holy Spirit raise up, among all of the members of the Church, from the most simple and humble of the faithful to the Supreme Pastor, always more numerous and courageous defenders of the truth of the indissolubility of marriage and of the corresponding immutable practice of the Church, even if, on account of such a defense, they would risk considerable personal advantages. The Church must more than ever exert itself in the announcement of matrimonial doctrine and pastoral care so that in the lives of spouses and especially of the so-called divorced and remarried there might be observed that which the Holy Spirit said in Sacred Scripture: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled” (Heb. 13: 4). Only a pastoral approach to marriage that continues to take seriously those words of God, reveals itself to be truly merciful, because it leads the soul of the sinner on the secure path to eternal life. And that is what matters.