Talk about the walking wounded. Along with the unfortunate frequency of divorces in this country, and the frequency of broken marriages among Catholics, every priest knows well the number of people who have petitioned diocesan tribunals for declarations of nullity.
Every priest empathizes with Catholics who “made a mistake” the first time around, have met someone whom they love and with whom they wish to live as spouses, in the Church.
Important to remember, maybe more often than we realize, is that there is another person in the equation, namely the spouse in the first, subsequently ruled invalid, first marriage. Of course, every case is different. Many emotions and feelings, at times not good, enter the picture. Still, on occasion the previous spouse well may feel wronged and offended, by the Church at that — the walking wounded!
These people have claim to pastoral interest. I have known spouses who felt that they were true to their marriage vows and earnestly tried to make the marriage work, only to discover that the partner had not met all that canonically was required, or worse, has “met someone else.”
When Church tribunals in effect allow this spouse to remarry, to borrow a phrase from the popular vocabulary, it is a bitter pill to swallow. In some cases, the first spouses suffered the humiliation and heartbreak of being left for another. They may have endured the guilt and self-recrimination of feeling that they were inadequate as a spouse. They well may have stayed in the marriage because they felt that, in this, they were obeying the rules of the Church. Then, by its declaration of nullity, the Church, seemingly, pulled the rug out from under them. Their endurance was for naught.
Furthermore, the former spouse, freed from the marriage by the declaration of nullity, is going about a new life. Whereas the other former partner still is alone, perhaps feeling that the tribunal’s judgment was in error, and that the bond of the first marriage still holds. Thus, at least in conscience, there is for this other former spouse no option for remarriage, if even a relationship with another person could develop. The sting of loneliness is sharper, feelings of betrayal compounded.
Priests, and Church officials, are caught in a bad situation here. Statistically, divorce is rampant. It occurs so very frequently among Catholics. Perhaps the good news is that many divorced Catholics who wish to marry again petition for a declaration of nullity to continue living in the Church. We cannot be too hard on Catholics who divorce, even though the matter deserves more attention than it seems to get.
In this culture, the divorce mentality reigns supreme. It is ridiculous for priests, or anyone else, not to admit the effects of this mindset on our people. Everyone around them enters marriage with the qualification that, if “things do not work out,” divorce is available, and civil divorce opens the way to remarriage.
A good example of this is how Americans, and American Catholics, form opinions of politicians, precisely about which politician has the character needed to be president.
Once, continuity and fidelity in marriage were key elements in deciding questions about character and worthiness for high public office.
For example, as a young man, married and with several children, Franklin D. Roosevelt, a New York socialite who was an up-and-coming Manhattan lawyer and budding politician, began an affair with his wife’s secretary. When his wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, learned about the affair, she offered not to challenge a divorce should her husband want one in order to marry the secretary.
Ultimately, they stayed together, principally because of the children. (Sound familiar?) But, another powerful motive in Franklin Roosevelt’s mind was that were he divorced, he could kiss political success goodbye. His political advisers were unanimous. Divorce would be an albatross.
Then, in 1952, the Democrats broke the mold by choosing Illinois Governor Adlai E. Stevenson for their presidential candidate. His wife had divorced him. He had never remarried. It is unlikely that he could have defeated the war hero, Dwight D. Eisenhower, under any circumstances. Still, many Americans voted against him because of his divorce.
This taboo ended when popularly unelected Gerald R. Ford accidentally became President, succeeding the duly elected but disgraced Richard M. Nixon. Ford had been married only once, but his wife had been divorced, and not under the most laudable circumstances. Catholic tongues, and others, wagged — to an extent. Catholic annoyance much more centered on Betty Ford’s pro-abortion view and the President’s unwillingness to either contradict her or to oppose abortion on demand.
Since then, rare has been the national election in which at least one major candidate has been divorced, to wit Ronald Reagan, Robert Dole, John Kerry and John McCain. Often, the stories behind the divorces have been rather disedifying, actually sleazy at times, adultery often having reared its ugly head. The nonchalance in popular opinion about this angle is another sign of what has happened over the years.
It is not that we should punish people for making mistakes in haste and without enough forethought, pressing their noses into the grindstone, but rather that divorce now is culturally acceptable in America.
So very many Catholic marriages fail. Let’s face it. Something is wrong and very wrong indeed.
What do priests do? What do bishops do? They do what we all are doing. Marriage is for life, yet people have the right to marry, and no previous bond can stand in the way if there never was a true sacramental bond. So, the Catholic Church reviews the situation through its canonical courts and makes a judgment. If the conclusion is that no bond truly existed, a declaration of nullity follows, and the persons are free to marry.
We as pastors need to find some way, first, genuinely to prepare our people for marriage and, vitally, to empower them to resist the tugs of the culture’s divorce mentality. We need to dissect, and confront head-on, the ways the culture looks at marriage. We need somehow to bring people to consider what marriage is, and whether they are well advised to marry in given instances.
When I wrote the article last month about all the time the Church now devotes, through seminary programs, to preparing candidates for the priesthood, I could not help but wonder how better we could prepare people for marriage. Different realities apply, but we hardly invest the time in preparing people for marriage that we do in forming seminarians.
Back to the first point, in our pastoral vision we must not forget the walking wounded. They are there, deserving our attention, our compassion and our ministry. It is great if the Church can bless the marriage of a Catholic who has been divorced, enabling that Catholic more comfortably and peacefully to live with the Lord.
We cannot withhold what is a person’s right, if we make the best judgment, through legitimate canonical procedures, that nothing prevents exercising this right.
But, more than perhaps we realize, somebody well may have been left in a state of pain and bewilderment, and this person, too, is our pastoral concern and responsibility. Tribunals are valid and helpful parts of pastoral ministry.
However, very urgently, pastors need to find some way to empower Catholics considering marriage to resist the tugs of the culture’s divorce mentality. We priests need to dissect, and confront head-on, the ways the culture looks at marriage.
We need somehow to bring people to consider what marriage is, and if they are well advised to marry in given instances.
But, most critically, as the cover photograph for this edition of The Priest implies, priests must stress, again and again, that marriage between Catholics, or for an individual Catholic, is a religious undertaking.
For Catholics, marriage is not an end in itself, but in reality it is a means to come more closely to God and for one spouse to assist the other in coming to God. Only in this understanding is marriage truly a vocation.
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On another, continually distressing matter, reports of child sex abuse by priests are recurring, in our own country and from abroad. Just about the time that I am ready to say that efforts by the Church to face this outrage are succeeding, something new comes forward.
On Page 10 of this edition of The Priest, Msgr. Edward J. Arsenault, president of St. Luke Institute in Silver Spring, Md., has written a piece that I find very sensible and encouraging.
In May, The Priest published an article about seminarians in general, St. Mary’s Seminary at Roland Park in Baltimore in particular. This article noted that “human formation” is key in modern seminary programs — at Roland Park, but also throughout the American seminary system.
I find this emphasis especially reassuring. It strongly suggests that cases of child sex abuse by Catholic clergy will be few, and hopefully very rare, in the future as candidates for the priesthood will have faced their psychosexual issues through seminary programs, not just in classrooms but in genuine, and well guided, personal introspection.
What about priests already serving, many of whom had no opportunity to prepare formally for the priesthood under the dimensions of the “four pillars” of Blessed Pope John Paul II’s Pastores Dabo Vobis?
Msgr. Arsenault provides comment here. He links priestly health and fulfillment to the New Evangelization, and he reminds priests that, in fraternity and in pastoral responsibility, they must care for each other.
This article is the first of three.
Elsewhere in the magazine, to return in general to the points raised earlier in this column, The Priest offers articles on couples and the Christian requirement to be chaste in relationships and on honeymoons. An article by Msgr. Michael Heintz on Page 14 looks at the generally misunderstood issue of Catholics and intercommunion.
Finally, seldom is the day when homosexuality somehow is not in the news. Once mentioned only in whispers, today it is openly discussed. On Page 45, in the first of two articles, Conventual Franciscan Father Jeffrey Keefe, a psychologist, gives a background for priests as they are called upon to minister to, and to comment on, homosexuality. TP