A cynic or perhaps better said, a realist, could quite plausibly add that the capacity of the Church to validly celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage has been significantly compromised since the disintegration of the family unit in the Western World; especially in the light of so many marital breakdowns.
Papal encyclicals, such as Gaudium et Spes (1965) (cf. par. 52.) and Familiaris Consortio (1981) (cf. par. 81), have all stressed the importance of the family unit to educate the next generation in the Faith; but how does the Church reconcile a contemporary generation of prospective brides and grooms who come to wed, deriving from both divorced and most likely non-Church attending families? Is the Church’s agreement to wed such couples merely a sacred and religious, as well as an exquisite cultural prelude to an eventual declaration of nullity? Does the Church not have a responsibility to turn away couples who they believe are not ready to make a mature and fully informed promise of marriage, witnessed and Sanctified by the Church? On the basis of pure statistics, with regard the prevalence of failed marriages – the Church, it would seem, needs to surely exercise this responsibility far more frequently than it currently does. However, if the Church does begin to turn couples away – on what set of criteria will it justify the refusal to wed a man or a woman, outside the criteria of the presumed age of maturity? How can a priest or the Church provide evidence as to emotional and spiritual immaturity? What priest could look an ardent lover in the eye and tell the prospective groom that he does not feel the woman he has chosen for a bride would be a wise choice for a long-term commitment? One priest I do know, with significant pastoral experience, when reading the draft of this article, kindly offered the following comment: “I certainly tell ardent lovers that ardent love (eros) is not a sufficient basis for marriage. Probably not even a necessary basis. And certainly as a University chaplain, when hearing news about the latest boyfriend/girlfriend I tended to ask whether he/she was a Catholic, what his/her attitude was to the faith, etc – as these will be vitally important considerations in any marriage…”.
- A State of Disunion (Part I)
- Dr. Kania: The Blind Side (cf. Matthew 18: 1 – 6)
- Prayer – Part One. Relationship
On the 22nd of January, 2011, Pope Benedict XVI informed priests that they must be more stringent in marriage preparation counselling: “Benedict acknowledged that the problems that would allow for a marriage to be annulled cannot always be identified beforehand. But he said better pre-marriage counselling, which the Catholic Church requires of the faithful, could help avoid a “vicious circle” of invalid marriages. He said the right to a church wedding requires that the bride and groom intend to celebrate and live the marriage truthfully and authentically. “No one can make a claim to the right to a nuptial ceremony,” he said … [Pope] Benedict said priests had an important pastoral job to discern whether would-be spouses are prepared and able to enter into a valid marriage. “The church and society at large place too much importance on the good of marriage and the family founded on it to not make a profound commitment to it pastorally,” [Pope] Benedict said. The Vatican’s concern about marriage annulments is largely directed at the United States, which in 2006 had more annulment cases launched than the rest of the world combined.” (Huffington Post, 22nd of January, 2011).
The Church may in Its wisdom, set rules and standards according to the celebration of the marriage ceremony – but it cannot stand in the way of a couple who satisfy the requirements – to the best of the Church’s knowledge – of having no impediment to a valid marriage being celebrated.
There is much said by Pope Benedict XVI – but also much unsaid, left in a shadow, that is equally important. The right of a heterosexual couple to marry pre-exists the Church; it is based on natural law, taken from the very act of Creation. (cf. Genesis 2: 18 – 24). Does the abrogation of a natural law stand outside the authority of the Church? The Church may in Its wisdom, set rules and standards according to the celebration of the marriage ceremony – but it cannot stand in the way of a couple who satisfy the requirements – to the best of the Church’s knowledge – of having no impediment to a valid marriage being celebrated.
As a default, the Church doesn’t wish to stand in the way of a couple seeking Sacramental union. It is obvious from Pope Benedict’s earlier remarks, which I quoted, that the Church seeks a means by which to make marriages more fruitful. Pope Benedict continues: “Among the means for ascertaining whether the project of the engaged couple is truly conjugal the prematrimonial examination stands out. This examination has a mainly juridical purpose: to ascertain that nothing impedes the valid and licit celebration of the wedding. However juridical does not mean formal, as though it were a bureaucratic step, like filling up a form based on set questions. Instead it is a unique pastoral opportunity — one to be made the most of with the full seriousness and attention that it requires — in which, through a dialogue full of respect and cordiality, the pastor seeks to help the person to face seriously the truth about himself or herself and about his or her own human and Christian vocation for marriage.” (Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Judicial Year of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, Saturday, 22 January 2011).
Marriage brings joys, but also its sufferings, sorrows, strains and tensions – and all these aspects of marriage must be embraced in a life-long union.
In essence the Pope’s remarks are directed to both members of the future marriage so as to come to understand what lies at their very core. The centre of any prospective relationship, derives from the individual having an understanding of who they are. It is impossible to declare love for someone else, if the individual does not in fact love themself. The force of attraction, may be cathartic, but if one has question marks as to what they in fact believe, or what they stand for – how in reality can they commit to another, living, feeling and thinking human being. If the greatest decision we have to make in life, is the person we build a family with, then preparation for such a decision, should be made with a seriousness deserving of the eventual decision and outcome. Marriage brings joys, but also its sufferings, sorrows, strains and tensions – and all these aspects of marriage must be embraced in a life-long union. Such a concept of marriage is distinct from the ‘provisionalism’ that the culture of divorce carries with it. Marriage is for the ‘committed’ and requires the forming of heart, mind and soul, in order to last. We are reminded here of the passage from the Holy Gospel According to St. Matthew, where those hearing Christ’s teaching on marriage, and his forbidding of divorce, reply: “‘If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry.” But he said to them, “Not everyone can accept this teaching, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let anyone accept this who can.” (Matthew 19: 10 – 12, NRSV). The elements of marriage that we are discussing here, are distinct from the examples that we see in pulp fiction television and literature. The dialogue that Pope Benedict asks for the couple, is a dialogue between each other, but first, an inner dialogue, as to what the prospective bride and groom individually seek from this Sacramental union. That is why the Pope moved on in this same Address to elaborate: “In this sense the dialogue, always conducted separately with each of the engaged pair without lessening the possibility of further conversations with the couple — requires an atmosphere of full sincerity in which stress should be put on the fact that the contracting parties themselves are those first concerned and first obliged in conscience to celebrate a valid marriage.” (Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Judicial Year of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, Saturday, 22 January 2011)
The Church, which holds a central place in the assistance of successful marital unions is becoming acutely aware of the jeopardy that these unions now face at the commencement of the Third Christian Millenium.
I have already discussed the impact that broken marital unions have on the children as well as those espoused. The Declaration of Nullity is small recompense for a child, or children, passed from one home to the next, not being able to understand why they cannot see their mother and father with the frequency they have become accustomed hitherto in their lives. The Church, which holds a central place in the assistance of successful marital unions is becoming acutely aware of the jeopardy that these unions now face at the commencement of the Third Christian Millenium. Pope Benedict explains:: “In this way, with the various means available for a careful preparation and verification, an effective pastoral action can be developed which seeks to prevent the nullity of marriage. It is necessary to make every effort to interrupt, as far as possible, the vicious circle that often exists between a predictable admission to marriage, without an adequate preparation and a serious examination of the prerequisites for its celebration, and a legal declaration sometimes equally facile but of a contrary nature, in which the marriage itself is considered null solely on the basis of the observation of its failure. (Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Judicial Year of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, Saturday, 22 January 2011).
Returning to the Catch 22 example, Yossarian’s fear of death, is real, but so was his initial determination to sign up for military service. Most likely he well may have not understood what war is really like, as he lacked the experience of killing, and seeing the horror of the blood spilled; but the fact that he is thus now immersed does not make him insane, nor make his act of enlistment an act of insanity. Rather it means that when he chose to enlist his eyes may not have been completely opened. There may well be a valid argument that prior to signing up for military service, a civilian needs to walk through a war-torn area, or view a series of documentaries, but personal experience is distinct from vicarious experience.
In essence the Church requires its pastors to understand the strains, joys and sufferings of modern married life, as well as the pressures that the unmarried feel in a society that runs so counter to the Gospels.
Back to the case of marriage, and how a Catch 22 scenario seems to apply. Pope Benedict remarks: “It is true that not all the causes of an eventual declaration of nullity can be identified or expressed in the preparation for marriage; yet likewise it would not be right to hinder admission to marriage on the basis of unfounded presumptions, such as that of considering that, in this day and age, people would generally be incapable of marriage or would only appear to have a desire for it. In this perspective it seems important that there should be an even more incisive awareness concerning the responsibility in this matter of those entrusted with the care of souls. Canon Law in general, and especially matrimonial and procedural law, certainly require a special preparation but the knowledge of the basic aspects and of the immediately practical aspects of canon law, relative to its functions, constitute a formative requirement of primary importance for all pastoral workers, particularly those who are active in the pastoral care of families.” (Address of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Judicial Year of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota, Saturday, 22 January 2011).
In essence the Church requires its pastors to understand the strains, joys and sufferings of modern married life, as well as the pressures that the unmarried feel in a society that runs so counter to the Gospels. A great concern is the chasm of Church-teaching and lived reality in the lives of so many young baptised Catholics. Such a small number of baptised Catholics of marital age, do attend Mass regularly – with a multitude of reasons as to why they do not. This smorgåsbord of reasoning will not mesh with a prospective partner with the same neatness that foundational principles of Catholic Faith used to do, found and formed within the Catholic home of the past. Today a young woman seeking a prospective spouse in her life, and prospective father of her children, cannot in anyway be certain beyond the baptismal Certificate that her Groom presents, what the Groom attests to, and affirms of Catholic belief. Catholicism for many young Australians may involve the celebration of Christmas and Easter with the family, an attendance at a Catholic School, and the not too frequent reception of Holy Communion at a sibling’s First Holy Communion, or attendance at a grandparent’s funeral. The finding of a long-lost Baptismal Certificate for the purpose of a Sacramental marriage, may in itself be a spiritual reawakening for the individual. One point that can be made is that the reasons for a young person today, not attending Mass, will probably give the pastor, and prospective spouse, greater insight into their Faith commitment, then their reasons for attending Mass on the not so frequent occasion.
Catholicism for many young Australians may involve the celebration of Christmas and Easter with the family, an attendance at a Catholic School, and the not too frequent reception of Holy Communion at a sibling’s First Holy Communion, or attendance at a grandparent’s funeral.
Moreover, and it must be stressed, infallibility does not apply to the Church with regard perfect knowledge of the couple that stand before Her to be married; such knowledge is open to fallibility. Therefore declarations of nullity will continue to occur; for it is beyond the realm of empirical measurement for the level of emotional and spiritual maturity to be assessed; although subjectively the celebrant is still entitled to his opinion, and according to conscience, he should be able to share this with the couple, however irreceptive the bridal party will most likely be to listen. Pope Benedict has said as much in the previously mentioned Address.
In a ‘perfect world’ for the Church – couples who come to wed in the Church, would all come from families who are active in the life of the Church – and from those families who are stable, loving and harmonious. Research would indicate that people who are products of stable, loving and harmonious unions, are more successful in making marital commitments. Likewise the Church is all too aware that if they become too heavy handed – they run the risk of permanently disaffecting people who will simply find another Christian Church in which to have their wedding celebrated; or perhaps seek to wed in no church at all – a civil union. Marriage preparation courses if they become too lengthy, too rigorous, too invasive, or even perhaps ‘too expensive’, in the eyes of the prospective spouses, could also see potential brides and grooms migrate to other denominations or simply take the ‘easier’ route of entering long term de-facto unions, and bring up their children to consider the Church as being an instrument of legalism but devoid of love. In this latter case all the Church may have achieved is having withheld the Sacrament from those who may most need it. By rejecting a couple’s request to marry, or advising against it, the Church may in fact be leading the couple to sin. Herein lies the Church’s own Catch 22.
Both Church and State in Australia have come to realize marriage preparation is critical, in attempting to give prospective spouses ‘pre-requisite maturity’. The only way this preparation can be deemed so, is if the consequences of failed unions are continued to be stressed; although whether one should do so at the wedding liturgy itself is very much open to debate.
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, February 2019
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