By Jessica Johnson
Once again Pope Francis has caught the attention of the media. On Sept. 14, the Holy Father presided over his first wedding ceremony as pontiff during a nuptial Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica. The 20 married couples came from a variety of backgrounds. Several of the couples had been living together before marriage. One couple was composed of a man who had previously received an annulment and a woman who had had a child out of wedlock.
When I first heard about this celebration, I thought it was wonderful. I was glad that Pope Francis had provided these people with the opportunity to join in sacramental marriage, so that they will no longer be living in sin. Having witnessed the small number of communicants at Italian churches and the prevalent attitudes of fear and resistance to the Church during my Rome semester, it also gives me great hope for the Church in Europe that these couples felt welcome at the Lord’s altar. As I am not God and have no ability to read hearts, I can only presume they did so in good conscience.
I am disappointed, though not surprised, that a common theme in the media seems to be that Pope Francis is “changing” Church teaching on sexuality. The media also seems to be hasty to imply that the Church will change its teachings on contraception, remarriage, premarital sex and the homosexual lifestyle.
My intention is not to give University of Dallas students a lecture on the objective immorality of cohabitation. While no school is perfect, I think that the culture on this campus in regard to respecting the dignity of sexuality is far better than that of many other universities, and I commend those who are making efforts to further increase this respect among students by developing an effective sexual assault policy.
I also don’t think I need to give anyone a lecture on Pope Francis’ continuity with tradition. His pastoral response to cohabiting couples is in keeping with the teaching of Christ Himself, who responded in John 8:11 to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” The many secular news articles lauding the pope’s actions failed to include the portion of the Holy Father’s homily in which he promised couples the mercy and strength of Christ to return to the right path.
The real question that these marriages pose to the UD undergraduate community is how we are going to respond to the widespread effects of the sexual revolution in our culture today. The temptation to retreat into our Catholic bubble is all too real. It is easy to study theology of the body and stay up-to-date on marital statistics. It is possible, though sometimes difficult, to live out the teachings of the Church in our own lives with the help of grace. But it takes extraordinary fortitude and spiritual help to dialogue with friends, family members and neighbors who are living in a way that contradicts God’s will.
I can’t tell you how to respond to the individual circumstances in which you find yourself. Often, witnessing to the joy of the Christian moral life is much stronger than words. But, when God requires you to enter into a dialogue about these crucial moral issues of our generation — and I guarantee that, at some point, He will — then I suggest the approach of Pope Francis, who began a 2013 interview by acknowledging himself as “a sinner whom the Lord has looked upon.” We must first acknowledge our own sinfulness and understand that chastity is a gift of God’s mercy. We can then step into the role of the Samaritan that Pope Francis so beautifully described during an interview for America magazine:
“The church’s ministers must be merciful, take responsibility for the people and accompany them like the good Samaritan . . . The ministers of the Gospel must be people who can warm the hearts of people, who walk through the dark night with them, who know how to dialogue and to descend themselves into their people’s night, into the darkness, but without getting lost.”