Sanctity of marriage

Question: I am a Catholic priest and have begun work at a parish where many who are civilly married receive Communion every day, and some are even extraordinary ministers of holy Communion. They seem to have no doubts about their status. Pastorally, I wonder how best to handle this situation without causing a large outcry. I also heard the confession of a dying person recently in an invalid marriage and wondered if I should have.

Name, location withheld,

Answer: It sounds as if this congregation has been poorly catechized and even misled by previous clergy. Even in congregations that have not been misled, many Catholics have a poor grasp of Church marriage law.

One thing I have found helpful is to place a brief post in the bulletin explaining the need for Catholics to be married in the Church, not at a justice of the peace or some other non-Catholic setting. I try to explain this and invite people who think they may need further information or a validation to contact me. Some situations can be resolved simply by the renewal of vows. Other situations are more complex and require an annulment or counseling.

But there is a need to instruct the whole congregation on these matters, and priests have an obligation to teach on what is required for a valid marriage. Usually, this will cause controversy, because many have been misled to think that the Church is unjust and unmerciful for its stance, but it is the teaching that we seek to uphold (e.g., Mt 19:1-12, Mt 5:31-32, and others) along with the teaching of St. Paul that we are not to receive the Eucharist in a state of unrepented sin lest we bring condemnation on ourselves (1 Cor 11:27). Still, many bring a hostile attitude to the subject. But we have to teach and win people over to the truth of the Gospel even if it means suffering for us.

In the danger-of-death situation you describe, especially when a person is actively dying, a priest is generally able to absolve if the person manifests repentance. This is because they are not likely to return to the sexual activity of an invalid marriage given the circumstances of death being at hand.

Mary and Joseph divorce?

Question: If they were only betrothed, why did Joseph contemplate divorce when he discovered Mary was with child?

Robert Bonsignore, Brooklyn, New York

Answer: You seem to be equating betrothal with the modern concept of engagement. They are not the same. Jewish custom at the time considered a couple to be married once the general agreement for the marriage had been obtained. The couple did not live together or consummate the marriage, however, for about a year while the families worked out the details (dowry, etc.). If for some reason the arrangements fell through, a divorce was required since they were considered to be married even in the year before the final ceremonies and consummation.

While all this may sound complex or fussy, it was really to protect the woman. Virginity was prized in Jewish culture for a bride, and without this, she was considered less marriageable. Thus, she would not surrender her virginity until all the final details were made and the couple was found compatible.

Joseph was striving to follow the Law as he understood it at the time. But God instructed Joseph to proceed differently.

Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to Pastoral Answers, Our Sunday Visitor, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, IN 46750 or to msgrpope@osv.com. Letters must be signed, but anonymity may be requested.