Chapter 15 of the Acts of the Apostles tells of the Council of Jerusalem. The Apostles met to decide the status of Gentile converts to the faith. Did the newly baptized Christians need to be circumcised and obey all the strictures of the Mosaic Law? Moved by the Holy Spirit, the Church decided that very little was actually required of new believers. An encyclical letter was written, and messengers were selected to deliver the decision to the various local churches.
The new Christians were asked to abstain from four things. The first three were meat sacrificed to idols, blood, and meats of strangled animals. The only other thing that new Christians were told to stay away from was unlawful marriage. At least that’s how the New American Bible translation (the translation authorized for use at Catholic masses in the United States) reads. The New International Version translates it as “sexual immorality.”
I’m no philologist, and I’m not about to go delving into the ancient Greek original text, but I do know that some phrases might not translate cleanly into English, and the phrases “unlawful marriage” and “sexual immorality” are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, they are quite complementary.
What struck me upon hearing this passage at mass this past Sunday was the timelessness of it. We find ourselves in a situation today in which secular society (abetted by some secularized Christian sects) is vigorously proposing the redefinition of marriage. I can say with confidence that it is not just so-called same-sex marriage that the Church considers invalid. A valid marriage requires that a man and woman give their free consent to enter into a faithful, exclusive, fruitful, and permanent covenant. I shudder to think of the number of people, even self-identifying Catholics, who attempt to enter into marriage with a fundamental misunderstanding of what marriage is.
We like to think that we’ve evolved over the last two millennia. In many ways, the institutions of Western Civilization have, though gradually and not without much effort. Human nature, however, is no less in need of salvation now than it was then. That salvation is mediated through the Church (of which Christ is the head), and we are no less in need of it today than were the first century Gentile believers in Antiock, Syria, and Cilicia.