It does not take a rocket scientist to know that marriage and family life are facing challenges today unlike those that have been seen in previous generations. In this series on marriage that I have been presenting, it is time to take a look at these pastoral challenges to marriage in our time.

I wish to remind us all again that I have been conducting this series of columns in my capacity and shepherd and teacher of the faith. My goal has been to do nothing more and nothing less than present the authentic teaching of the Catholic Church on marriage and family life. These have been my words, but they are words which seek to convey the teachings of Christ as faithfully handed on to us through his Church. It was important to lay a solid foundation of the Church’s teaching in the last six columns before tackling the more difficult and at times controversial issues.

In these final columns in this series we will look at the issues of so called same-sex “marriage,” divorce and remarriage, and artificial contraception. These are serious pastoral challenges for the Church today as she seeks to care for and minister to people who find themselves in difficult situations, while at the same time remaining faithful to the teachings of our Lord and his Bride, the Church. These issues have already been discussed at the Extraordinary Synod on the family last autumn, and they will surely come up again at the Ordinary Synod on the family later this year.

But before launching into a detailed discussion of these pastoral challenges, it is important, I think, to reflect on two underlying realities. The first has to do with the role of the Church to teach authentically and authoritatively on these issues in the first place. Secondly, we should avoid the temptation to reduce the pastoral challenges facing marriages and families to these three so-called “hot button” issues.

Why does the Church have anything to say about these serious and personal issues affecting the lives of many of her sons and daughters? From whence does the Church’s authority to teach on these matters come? The answer lies in Jesus Christ himself who has handed on his authority to his Church to teach in his name.

There are several instances in the Gospels where Jesus speaks of this authority which he entrusted to the Apostles. In St. John’s Gospel: “I have yet many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (Jn. 16:12-14) Also, in handing on his authority to St. Peter (and his successors, the popes), Jesus declares: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Mt. 16:18-19) This point was strongly taken up at the Second Vatican Council, as the Council clearly taught that this authority which Christ gave to the Church through the Apostles is handed on to their successors, the bishops in communion with the Holy Father, the successor to St. Peter.

“For bishops are preachers of the faith, who lead new disciples to Christ, and they are authentic teachers, that is, teachers endowed with the authority of Christ, who preach to the people committed to them the faith they must believe and put into practice, and by the light of the Holy Spirit illustrate that faith. They bring forth from the treasury of Revelation new things and old, making it bear fruit and vigilantly warding off any errors that threaten their flock. Bishops, teaching in communion with the Roman Pontiff, are to be respected by all as witnesses to divine and Catholic truth. In matters of faith and morals, the bishops speak in the name of Christ and the faithful are to accept their teaching and adhere to it with a religious assent……Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held.” (Lumen Gentium, 25)

The teachings of the Church regarding marriage and family life are most certainly matters of faith (what we believe about marriage as revealed by God) and also about the morally good way of living out the married live (moral teaching). On these matters the Church speaks with the authority of Christ as he promised by the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit.

One of the fundamental mistakes we hear people make today is when they say something like, “Well, I know that is what the Church teaches, but Jesus…”, and you can fill in the blank. When we separate Jesus Christ from the Church, it is a fatal flaw. Christ and his Church are one.

Finally, and briefly, we must not reduce the challenges facing marriages and families today to these three difficult issues. There are so many other things we need to be concerned about as we seek to help and support marriage and family life. We cannot ignore the difficult questions, but we also can’t reduce everything to them either.

There are many families and married people seeking to live the authentic vision of marriage given us by the Creator. They need support and encouragement. We need to do a better job in preparing people for marriage, in helping them understand the Church’s teaching, and in supporting them in the first years of marriage and especially in times of struggle and even crisis later in married life.