Let’s face it. Marriage is a mess. It’s a shipwreck.
Fifty or 60 years ago, most Americans had a shared, basic understanding of marriage. Whether a person was Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, or Jewish, they agreed that marriage was between one man and one woman for life. Marriage had a sacred dimension. That’s why it was celebrated in church or synagogue. Divorce was a scandal. Remarriage after divorce was worse. Living together before marriage was shocking and sex before marriage? Good girls didn’t do that, and good boys didn’t expect them to. Artificial contraception was frowned on, abortion was an unthinkable crime, and anybody in their right mind didn’t have themselves sterilized on purpose.
For a host of complicated reasons all that has changed. The ship of marriage is wrecked on the rocks of the modern world. Medical technology has provided us with the means to separate the sexual act from procreation, and with that technology of choice, we have embraced a chain of other choices: abortion, cohabitation, no-fault divorce, multiple remarriages, promiscuity, legalized prostitution, pornography, same-sex marriage, artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy, and polyamory. Traditional marriage has become a free for all, and it’s in free fall.
Other technologies and choices that we take for granted have also contributed to the erosion of traditional marriage. Global mobility has eroded the strong ties of the extended family. As family members move away, they lose the support and sanctions of the tribe. Suburban affluence has replaced the interdependent extended family with the independent nuclear family. Birth control and feminism have encouraged new sexual roles for women that have impacted traditional sexual roles for men while widespread religious and cultural relativism have weakened the moral boundaries and taboos supported by traditional authority structures.
Consequently, we are confused about marriage. We’re unsure about the roles of men and women and uncertain about the meaning and value of traditional marriage. Catholics, like all Christians, are caught up in the maelstrom of this cultural confusion, and it all comes home to roost in ordinary Catholic parishes and the office of the parish priest.
One of the biggest challenges I have found as a relatively new Catholic priest is what I call the marriage mess. On the one hand, I have to support the full, sacramental understanding of Catholic marriage. On the other hand, I have to embrace and welcome my flock — many of whom are caught up in one way or another in the marriage mess. I do not condemn them for being in the mess. We’re all in the mess together. I feel compassion because I see the brokenness, deep wounds, and pain they and their families are suffering as a result of our shared cultural confusion and our broken families.
My job is to meet them where they are and walk with them to where they should be. This often involves some basic catechesis about the Catholic understanding of marriage. I’m astounded at the poor teaching so many Catholics have received about this sacrament. Not only do they not understand the rules about marriage for Catholics, but they also don’t understand the deeper meaning and purpose of the sacrament. They’re mixed up about marriage, and it’s not their fault.
Along with the catechesis, I have to tiptoe through the minefield of guilt, anger, and frustration they feel. They are often guilty about the mess they’re in. They feel angry at the Church and assume I am there to condemn them. They feel frustrated that the Church seems so strict and unbending. When the guilt is worst, I remind them of the words of Mother Julian of Norwich, that the Lord looks on us “with pity not with blame.” I do the best I can to help them see that the rules of the Church are there to assist them in being a truly joyful disciple of Jesus Christ — even if that is sometimes difficult and disappointing.
That’s why I’m grateful for a speedier and more efficient process to help my parishioners discern whether their marriage was valid or not. As soon as I heard of the pope’s decision to streamline the process, I thought of some of my own church members. I can’t tell you their stories exactly, so I’ve conflated stories and changed details, but the heart of their experiences ring true.
I’m thinking of Carl and Susan. They were both Catholics and both divorced and re-married. Between them, they had six children. They’d been away from the Church for some time and now wanted the kids baptized and enrolled in Catholic school. In our first interview, they were defensive and angry with the Church, and figured that I was going to turn them away.
Carl had received a decree of nullity. Susan had not. They said they wanted to come to Communion. I explained the Church’s discipline on the matter and invited them to accept this by joining our parish, coming to Mass, and making a spiritual communion. They were negative and said their children would be hurt by this rejection. I replied that on the contrary, if they were hypocrites and came to receive Communion, their kids would eventually learn the Church’s rules, see their parents’ hypocrisy, and check out. On the other hand, if they explained the Church’s rules, and their kids saw them stick by it — even at some pain to themselves — their kids would be full of respect for them and probably keep the faith.
Susan’s first marriage had been outside the Church, so I explained that due to lack of proper form, her annulment would most certainly be granted. In the meantime, they were welcome in the parish, and we would work together to apply for Susan’s decree of nullity and get their situation straightened out. The idea that the annulment process will now be faster is a great help as I seek to welcome them and their family.
Dennis was a cradle Catholic and never married. Nancy — a Baptist — was divorced with three kids. Nancy wanted to join RCIA and become a Catholic and marry Dennis. It took some time for me to explain the Catholic rules on marriage to a nominal Baptist, but Nancy was eager to learn.
Because she already accepted the gospel precepts about marriage, Nancy soon came to understand the Catholic application of those precepts. As we went through the procedures, I could see that she had a good case for a decree of nullity, but it took nearly a year for Nancy’s decree to come through. In the meantime, Nancy and Dennis went ahead and married outside the Church. Once the decree came through, they returned, had their marriage con-validated, and Nancy joined the Church. Had the process been more efficient and swifter, I could have welcomed them into our church family more effectively.
I realize some priests simply wave their hand and say to families in the midst of the marriage mess, “Oh, we don’t bother with all that annulment nonsense. Just come to Mass. Jesus loves you, and so do we.” While that approach seems nice and merciful, I believe it fails to treat both the sacrament of marriage and the couple with the dignity and seriousness they deserve. Are such priests similarly welcoming to those who are married a second, third, or fourth time? Do they treat every couple — no matter what their bedroom arrangements — with a similarly cavalier attitude? Is that the best solution?
The Catholic discipline on marriage is there for the soul’s salvation. It’s there to provide a structure and framework for individuals to climb out of the contemporary marriage mess and make sense of their lives and their loves. If traditional marriage is a shipwreck, the Catholic rules help people make a raft out of the wreckage. I’ve found that when it is applied with sensitivity, intelligence, and wit, people are appreciative. When the rules are applied with pastoral care, it helps people make sense of their mistakes and move on to something better.
Thanks, Pope Francis! A more streamlined legal procedure for annulments is going to make my job easier, and help me welcome people more readily to walk with Jesus Christ and his Church on the long journey home.