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The Second Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

Milwaukee, Wisconsin, October 12, 13, 14, 1926

New York: The Catholic Congress Committee, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

Wednesday Afternoon, October 13th

The Catholic Religion and
Family Life

[76] Catholic Sanctions in the Home
Of the Denver, Colorado, Bar

I ASSUME at the outset that with proper religious standards any family can meet its moral and spiritual problems, and dispose of them in such a way as to maintain family integrity and keep alive an atmosphere conducive to the moral and spiritual growth of its component members.

I do not say that such a result can be achieved only by what we call "Catholic standards," but I do say that that standard not only can achieve such a result, but, further, that in the turmoil of these times such a standard has, by and large, more successfully upheld family integrity and dignity than has any other in the so-called Christian world.

I approach the subject, not to demonstrate the advantage of Catholic principles, for their benefits are well understood and I assume them. It is rather, my purpose to attempt an analysis, superficial though it may be, of the ills that afflict the American family, by a consideration of some of the symptoms.

Today, in America, the family as a unit is beset with more serious problems than ever before in our history. These problems are economic, social and religious. The importance of one phase of the situation is easy to grasp. Most of America's finer attributes and her best manhood and womanhood have been based upon the integrity of the family as a first principle.

[77] Family consciousness is one of the surest methods for human development. Men do not grow without roots, and roots grow neither in the dust nor the mud of the highway. Today, unfortunately, America in losing sight of the family ideal is throwing away a very important part of her background.

There are three standards of family life, as there are of individual life, where there are any standards at all. These are the Christian, the ethical, and the utilitarian.

Whatever our standards of life may be, on the whole, they are not Christian. We are always saying that we are a Christian nation, and reiterating it, but we are not. The average clergyman seems to think that if he can put into certain more or less indefinite phrases the greatest common denominator of the impressionistic, emotional sentiment, generally referred to as the desire for "higher things," he is expressing Christianity. As this urge in some form or other undoubtedly exists, it is dubbed religion and defined as Christianity. Words were never more powerful than in this age and never more loosely used.

The standards of the average American family are utilitarian in principle and ethical up to a certain point, but, I repeat, not Christian. The so-called average person, and the many far above the mythical average, are moved purely by the external thing, which is the worldly thing. The whole condition can be summed up by the statement that the worldly ideal is the ideal of conduct, of appearances. It is exemplified by that product of civilization called the "perfect gentlemen." As opposed to this we have the religious ideal exemplified in the "perfect Christian." To the last, religion is essential; to the former, a matter of indifference; to him virtue is decency, vice is whatever is ugly and disgusting, and sin consists in being found out.

[78] Conscience is to the worldly the dictates of his own mind, the application of his own standard of right and wrong, the fruit of his own private judgment. That judgment is based on nothing absolute and unalterable, but is the outcome of his own impulses, reason, emotions, as the case may be, with the consequence that his own standards differ from those of the next man, and themselves vary from time to time and from case to case. He is, as Cardinal Newman said, the victim of an intense self-contemplation. Morality is, of course, a variable thing; truth is the only constant.

Thus, conscience is a kind of an ethico-moral sense merged into self-respect. Fear is frowned upon, must be banished and not recognized. In spite of this, fear is the spectre at the feast, though it be decried as gloom, superstition, what not. Vice is evil because it is odious. Embellishment of the exterior is almost the beginning and end of this philosophical morality. Throughout runs the so-called right to private judgment.

Of course, it should not be necessary to emphasize the moral obligations of individual judgment. The worth of any judgment is in direct proportion to the pains taken to arrive at it. Generally, it is a matter of impression, emotion or prejudice. The judgment based on proper investigation, even though it be wrong, commands respect.

The issue of all this is that the standard of measurement of all things is material, and the judgment of the world is final.

It is said that America is the most idealistic of nations. In some respects, this is true. The world is an old place, however. It has seen prosperity and been sick as a result before. Unquestionably, the average American has a certain spiritual ambition. He longs to be a better man than he ever will be, because he will not make the necessary effort. He likes to think how good he could be if he really tried.

[79] An ideal, in this sense, is a type of excellence we imagine to be desirable and possible, and which we aspire to realize in our lives. There is likewise a bogus idealism—the wish to attain but an unwillingness to go through the labor necessary. Spiritually this is our condition. Men go through things for money's sake that they never would for God's sake. "The children of this world are wiser in their generation than the children of light."

There can be no such thing as character without an ideal, but there can be an ideal without character. There is nothing in the average education to change this practical worldly ideal. As a result of these and other things, we have the present condition of family life in America. We cannot contemplate it without thinking of the prevalence of divorce, which is itself not a cause, but a symptom of a condition.

It is not my purpose to stun you with statistics, but briefly to discuss the Church's attitude toward divorce. On this question, as on some others, the Catholic-minded within our communion are in danger of forgetting they are Anglican, and the Protestant-minded that they are part of the Catholic and Apostolic Church, and not simply an association for the general promotion of comfort and good nature. As the pressure heightens, the former tend to get hysterical and assume the role of martyrs, while the latter become yet more amateurish and hint darkly of Rome. The simple-minded are terrified by the use of such words as "theology," and other expressions which appear terrible because they are not understood. To one I would say, be Catholic, but do not forget you are Anglican; to the other, be Episcopalian, but remember you are Catholic.

First, it seems to me to be necessary to try and define the jurisdiction of the Church over marriage. As a mere lawyer, it has always been my habit to be clear on the [79/80] jurisdiction of the Court that is passing on my client's rights, it is admitted that the jurisdiction of the Church is based on marriage as a Sacrament. If two heathen, knowing nothing of the Church or its doctrines, are married by a Justice of the Peace, I can see no reason why they should not be divorced. From the sacramental point of view, many people are heathen, regard marriage as a civil contract, and, as such, dissoluble like any other civil contract.

Let us suppose the Justice of the Peace being otherwise occupied, they go to a priest and are married. Here we encounter a major difficulty. It lies in the fact that the priest is the joint agent of Church and State. As an agent of the State he has no more authority than the Justice of the Peace, but exactly the same. He is being used as a substitute. We then come to the question of the disposition of the parties. If the priest is made use of only as a State agent by heathen, ignorant of the Sacramental aspect of the marriage, I can see no more reason against their divorce in this case than in the former. The priest has acted in his civil capacity as an agency of the State; the dispositions of the parties are exactly the same. I am, of course, assuming that they are unbaptized.

One solution would be to require by law a civil marriage in all cases by a civil authority, as in France. Thereafter, those who desire it and whose dispositions are right may avail themselves of a second marriage by a priest. Over this latter the jurisdiction of the Church is clear. Over the remainder it is doubtful, or does not exist. For them, observance in good faith of the current social morality is all that can be required.

The next proposition we meet is whether marriage performed by a priest is always indissoluble, regardless of the dispositions of the parties, or are those dispositions the test in the case I have mentioned, which is the usual case.

[81] I do not purport to be a canon lawyer, or a theologian. I can, however, give you an illustration of the operation of the principle. When people are divorced and remarry and are then baptized and come into the Church, are they to be bidden to separate, or are their dispositions at the time of divorce and remarriage, if justified by current social morality, the criterion? The most able theologians among our own priests says there is strong authority for the view that if the parties acted in good faith, and in accordance with the current social morality at the time of divorce and remarriage, their status cannot be disturbed. As a layman, I would say it is the only workable plan. Consigning people to perdition is the only alternative, and that certainly will not forward the Kingdom of God in this world. Sin is not ex post facto.

In this connection, though it is not exactly in point, it is interesting to note the repeated arguments made for easier divorce. Without religious conviction, without belief in marriage as a Sacrament, unbaptized as they are, why not? The outstanding feature of all such arguments is the utter absence of all humility. They proceed as though it were possible to create the perfect marriage, as if any relation existing between persons of temperaments that amount to anything could be carried on without a discordant note. Pleas for divorce are simply in such cases a series of variations on the alleged right to "happiness" and "to live one's own life." After all, I am inclined to think happiness is limited to occasional periods of peace.

From the foregoing one clear deduction can be made, viz., that the Church has undisputed jurisdiction over those who consciously receive the Sacrament of marriage as such. Over them she can speak with certain authority. In various other cases she may attack divorce from other points of view. Perhaps as one voice in a chorus of [81/82] various social agencies, but not from any point of view from which she can utter compelling judgment. Her voice in such cases is persuasive, but not authoritative.

The popular view, as well as the view of some of the clergy and others who should know better, is much confused. Allied to it is the attitude of the Church toward contraceptives. The Church is opposed to artificial contraceptives. The general view of the Church's position seems to be that when people marry it means the end of reason, restraint, temperance, will power, and the dawn of a reign of unrestricted and unregulated animalism. The view is apparently encouraged that the Church thinks that such a union simply means the production of children to the biological maximum. There is constant misrepresentation and misunderstanding even among church people, and we should get clear on it. There is no churchly ban on the exercise of self-restraint and temperance, and other character-making qualities with which man is endowed. All through this runs the disheartening fact that the State and not the Church sets the moral standard.

It is only through the sacramental view of marriage that family integrity can be surely preserved. All marriages are not ideal, even the Church recognizes separation. What it opposes is the obliteration of the Sacrament as a means of grace.

One of the greatest obstacles to proper religious training is the standardization of the modern family, a standardization which proceeds under the delusion that man need only live to progress. This myth of progress is, to my mind, one of the most deadening influences to spiritual growth in present-day life. It completely destroys individual responsibility in the way of effort. Granted that progress has been and is being made, it is purely material progress. It is repeatedly alleged that America pants for spiritual development, the realization of which turns [82/83] out to be a hybrid called "humanism," which I gather is the theoretical assumption by man collectively of the burdens of the individual in material things. Its birth is celebrated by a Unitarian minister in the following words:

"We are living in the last stages of a great religion. We are sitting by the death-bed of Christianity. The noisy controversies you hear are the death rattle of the ancient faith. Christianity is passing away and something will take its place. That something will be the unification of belief based on modern scientific education. . . We hear the cry of an infant religion, Humanism." [The Commonweal, October 28, 1925.]

I should, perhaps, be perturbed if Christianity had not perished in similar fashion a number of times previously. Chesterton enumerates five deaths of the Faith in his book, "The Everlasting Man."

That this inevitable continuance of progress is false must be clear to all who believe in an Absolute Truth. What it means in the mind of people generally would be interesting. Probably nothing, except a hazy belief that better automobiles and plumbing will continue indefinitely. Certain words of Professor Phillimore are interesting in this connection:

"We have lived through a decennium in which there has been felt, and there may still be felt, with a cold shudder, the plain point-blank possibility, undreamed of for centuries, of the crippling, the senescence, the extinction of civilization. . . " [Quoted in The Commonweal, June 2, 1926.]

To the family versed in the Faith, realizing that man collectively does not lift himself by his boot-straps, that collectively he generates no super-power on which he can [83/84] rely to pull himself along, the fallacy of such so-called progress is not new.

These are some of the handicaps under which thousands of American families labor. These handicaps bring about a loss of any reliable standard of right and wrong, and a growing diminution of spiritual capacity. The idea that the individual must exert will power for his own spiritual growth, that such growth is a reaction from effort, that he must face his own life and be individually responsible therefor, that he is the one to blame for his mistakes, that he is literally the captain of his own soul, is exceedingly distasteful to most people. He finds, consequently, an appeal in any idea which shifts and distributes responsibility among many. In the long run, however, Catholic-minded people realize that in addition to direct worship of a personal God, uncomplicated by scientific perversions, they have two things without which life loses its savor. These are an absolute standard of right and wrong, and a hope based on experience, a hope that fills the spiritual reservoirs and carries one over the dead spaces in life. The individual is, of course, insignificant, but in the Father's sight each one is of importance.

"Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee
Save Me, save only Me?

All which thy child's mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:
Rise, clasp My hand, and come!"

To know that, and to realize—though most of us grasp it in a fumbling, vague sort of way—that this life is but a preparation, makes it at least easy to decide everyday [84/85] spiritual and moral problems in most cases correctly, even though it is hard to live up to the decision. In other words, we see and understand the problems, though we often lack will power to abide by the conclusion.

With such a foundation, however, the family will generally go right, and the questions which perplex them will find right solution in the vast majority of cases, if experience teaches us anything.

In the meantime, we can but watch, work, and pray, and refuse to compromise our principles

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