By Patrick B. Craine

October 15, 2009 ( – At their upcoming general assembly in Baltimore from November 16-19, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) will debate and vote on a new pastoral letter on marriage.  A draft of the letter, entitled 'Love and Life in the Divine Plan,' has been leaked, and is already being praised by Catholic and pro-family leaders as a strong presentation of the Church's teaching on marriage and a forceful rebuke of cultural attacks on authentic marriage and family life.

The letter, meant to be an important component of the USCCB's National Pastoral Initiative for Marriage, is addressed “first and foremost to the Catholic faithful in the United States,” but is also meant to reach all men and women “in the hope of inspiring them to embrace this teaching.”

The draft, however, has also drawn harsh criticism from the leftist National Catholic Reporter (NCR), which wrote that “this turkey of a text,” which is “strangely, and fatally, at odds with the texts of the Second Vatican Council,” should be “scrap[ped]” in its entirety.  According to NCR, this pastoral letter is “not … pastoral,” with it “read[ing] as if it was written by someone who has never once engaged in a marriage preparation program, let alone actually ever been married.”  The first section “spends too much time talking about the threats to modern marriage,” they say, “such as high divorce rates, cohabitation, same-sex unions and, of course, contraception (an 'intrinsic evil').”

But the draft pastoral letter explains the emphasis placed on these four main challenges against marriage (contraception, same-sex unions, divorce, and cohabitation), when it quotes the late Pope John Paul II in the introduction. The late pope insisted that today “the family is the object of numerous forces that seek to destroy it or in some way to deform it,” and, as such, for the good of society and the Church, “the church perceives in a more urgent and compelling way her mission of proclaiming to all people the plan of God for marriage and the family” (Familiaris Consortio 3).

The bishops develop their critique based especially on the teaching of John Paul II and that of Pope Paul VI in his encyclical Humanae Vitae (HV).  They affirm the complementarity of man and woman, saying that the two are “uniquely suited to be partners or helpmates for each other,” and reiterate the teaching on the two ends or meanings of marriage – that marriage, and the marital act, is meant to always be both “procreative” and “unitive.”

“Just as there are two inseparable meanings of marriage as a whole, the same is true of the act most symbolic and expressive of the marriage as a whole, namely, the act of sexual intercourse,” they explain. ”Church teaching speaks of an 'inseparable connection, established by God, which man on his own initiative may not break, between the unitive significance and the procreative significance which are both inherent to the marriage act'(HV 12).”

Asserting that contraception is “an intrinsically evil action,” they refute the claim, as Pope Paul did, that each individual marital act need not be open to children if the marriage as a whole is open.  “Marriage is only as open to procreation as each act of intercourse is,” they state, “because the whole marriage is present and signified in each marital act.”

Through contraception, “the union of male and female is reduced to a means of gratifying whatever one desires, and so conjugal love is diminished.  The procreative capacity of male and female is dehumanized, reduced to a kind of internal biological technology that one masters and controls just like any other technology.”

“The procreative capacity of man and woman should not be treated as just another means of technology, like in vitro fertilization (IVF) or cloning,” they continue, emphasizing that through such practices “human life itself is degraded,” and “children begin to seem less and less as gifts received in a personal communion of mutual self-giving, and increasingly as a lifestyle choice, a commodity to which all consumers are entitled.”

The draft encourages the use of natural family planning (NFP) in the regulation of birth, whether to avoid or attain pregnancy, though they omit an explicit reference to Pope Paul's insistence that “serious reasons” (HV 10) are needed to justify delaying pregnancy.

The letter then condemns the recent attempts to redefine marriage to allow for homosexual 'marriage', and speaks out, in union with the Vatican, against any legal recognition of same-sex unions.

Marriage, the letter states, “is the permanent bond between one man and one woman whose two-in-one-flesh communion of persons is an indispensable good at the heart of every family and every society.”  “Same-sex unions,” on the other hand, “are incapable of realizing this specific communion of persons.  Therefore, redefining marriage to include such relationships empties the term of its meaning, for it excludes the essential complementarity between man and woman, treating sexual difference as if it were irrelevant to what marriage is.”

Further, “it is not unjust to oppose legal recognition of same-sex unions,” they say, “because marriage and same-sex unions are essentially different realities. … The legal recognition of same-sex unions poses a multifaceted threat to the very fabric of society, striking at the source from which society and culture come and which they are meant to serve.”

The letter also insists that “by its very nature, marriage is meant to be a lifelong union.”  Quoting the Catechism of the Catholic Church, they write that “divorce, therefore, 'claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death.'”

They recognize, at the same time, that in certain cases legal divorce may be the only possible solution, such as in an abusive home, and they encourage people in such circumstances to “make frequent use of the sacraments.” In such a situation however, the marriage would not be dissolved in the eyes of the Church, rather only from the viewpoint of the law.

Cohabitation, finally, is “intrinsically evil,” they say, and, rather than being an effective 'trial period', “always diminishes the capacity for love.”

They respond to the claim that a couple's “desire for each other justifies” living together before marriage, insisting that such a “belief reflects a misunderstanding of the natural purpose of human sexuality, which can only be realized in the permanent commitment of marriage.”

“Sexual intercourse is meant to express the total and unrestricted gift of self that takes place in married love,” the letter explains.  “To have sexual intercourse outside the covenant of marriage is gravely immoral because it communicates physically the gift of oneself to another when, at the same time, one is not willing or able to make a total and permanent commitment.”

The draft ends by “urg[ing] a renewed commitment by the entire Catholic community to helping those called to the vocation of married life to live it faithfully, fruitfully, and joyfully.” The bishops, further, make a “pledge to be a marriage-building Church, drawing strength from God's grace while creatively using the gifts and resources entrusted to us.”

The USCCB has adopted marriage as one of their five national priorities in the upcoming years.  “This letter will be the launch for several new projects that will offer resources for local pastoral ministries,” said Dr. Richard McCord, the Executive Director of the USCCB Secretariat of Laity, Marriage, Family Life and Youth. “We also plan to continue developing what has already been successful, especially a public service media campaign on the good effects of marriage as well as our popular website,, that provides an abundance of practical materials for engaged and married couples.”