Once again the Rev. Know it all is in a caffeine-induced snit. Do not throw this article to the floor in disgust once you have begun reading it. Please read it all the way through.
Dear Rev. Know it all,
Last week, I was driving through some rural backwater and, turning on my radio, I heard what at first sounded like some half-baked preacher ranting about marriage. Then to my shock, I realized I was listening to a Catholic priest. He was an absolute fossil. He was reminding people that if they were “living in sin” they shouldn’t be going to communion. He was trying to explain the annulment process, which, as far as I’m concerned is just a bunch of Catholic mumbo jumbo. He seemed to be telling people to remain in loveless, abusive relationships because those were the rules. What does he know about it anyway? People have the right to be happy. It’s in the Declaration of Independence. When will the Catholic Church catch up to the times?
Ms. Annie Portnoy-Storm
First let us understand annulments. A divorce says that there was a marriage and now it is over. An annulment says that there was no marriage in the first place. Covenants end when one of the parties involved dies. Contracts end when the business at hand is over and or, one of the parties breaks the contract. Catholics believe that marriage is a covenant, not just a contract -- “Till death do us part.” The state believes that marriage is a contract. So what has this do with annulments?
Within the covenant there is an initial contract. We Catholics contract three obligations in the sacrament of marriage. We promise a marriage that is for life, is exclusive, and in which two parties concede to each other the right, perhaps not the ability, but the right to have children. It must be freely and knowingly entered and not coerced.
If perhaps a person AT THE TIME OF THE CONTRACT AND THE COVENANT is crazy, or worried about a shot gun or marrying to hide something about themselves or marrying because they have to please their rich uncle, there is not a free contract and the ensuing covenant does not happen.
This is real. I’ve met some randy old goats who are on their fifth wife. When they have to make an important decision they call their wife, by whom they mean their first and real wife, the mother of their children. No matter how hard they’ve tried, they cannot break the indissoluble bond of marriage. On the other hand, I’ve met people who have been married for 30 years and they are absolute strangers to each other. The spiritual bond has never been there.
Annulments are real and the annulment process is very healing for most of those I know who have gone through it. The Church doesn’t necessarily forbid divorce. There are certain extreme circumstances of real abuse in which someone is in real danger, physical or spiritual. However, in this case, the problem is not divorce but re-marriage.
This is not your real point. You, I suspect, think that people should be able to try different sexual relationships until they find one that makes them happy. You are of the opinion that the Church is dominated by a bunch of crabby old men who wear black, and are jealous of anyone else’s good fortune. Well, we the clergy, may in fact be crabby, but it’s not because we are jealous of people who have been through a string of unhappy relationships.
After a life time of dealing with miserable divorces and their sad consequences, I have come to believe that one should prefer a serious disease to a divorce. No, we are crabby because we are expected to fix, or least tolerate, and sometimes to celebrate, the messes that some people have made of their relationships. The party line, to which I heartily subscribe, is that if you are in a sexual relationship that is not a sacramental one, you may not receive Holy Communion.
Why is the Church so narrow minded on this topic? Simple. Jesus was narrow minded on this topic. Jesus said “Anyone who divorces his wife and, except for ‘porneia,’ and marries another commits adultery (Matt 19: 9 and following). The disciples were astounded and said if you can’t divorce, it’s better not to marry. Jesus replied, “This is a hard saying.”
Just a note on the word “porneia.” King James who himself had a very interesting relational life, published a bible that translated the word porneia as “marital unfaithfulness.” That makes it easy. Your spouse cheats on you, you’re off the hook. The word is mistranslated. The word “porneia” means marriage in a forbidden degree, literally “sexual uncleanness.” The Egyptians, for instance, were fond of marrying their sisters. It kept the money in the family and made holidays much easier. No in-laws to deal with. Jesus gave annulments for such bizarre arrangements, so annulments are biblical. Dumping your spouse because the old reprobate cheats on you is not biblical. The vow is “till death do you part,” not “till a good fight or a better offer do you part.”
Well then, the next question: Why was Jesus so narrow minded about the whole thing?” Again simple: God is love. Well isn’t that the point? We enlightened moderns hop from bed to bed looking for love? No, we are looking for entertainment. Remember, as I am always telling you, the Greeks were precise to the point of being tedious. The specific Greek word that the Holy Spirit uses in the Gospel text is “agape” which means sacrificial love. You can almost translate the bible quote, “God is Love” as “God is sacrifice.” So I ask you, are you dumping your wife, the mother of your children for an 18 year old exotic dancer in a spirit of sacrifice? Are you ditching your bald and boring couch potato husband for a good looking pool boy because you want to be conformed to Christ?
You may have noticed that I am not fond of garden weddings. Beyond the bugs, the mud and the sunburn, there are reasons against garden weddings. When people ask me why they have to be married in a church I always tell them because there is an altar in a church. An altar is where you make sacrifices, and believe me, marriage and family are sacrifices. The world will tell you that the purpose of life is happiness of which true love is a component. Jesus will tell you that Love, defined as sacrifice, is the purpose of life, and happiness is only its by-product. We believe that the first purpose of marriage is the sanctification of the partners and of their children, that means your job is to get yourself, your spouse and any children to heaven. If doing that makes you happy, fine, but happiness in this world is not the first goal. If it was, Jesus would not have let Himself be crucified.
Marriage is a VOCATION, a calling from God for the purpose of making people look like Christ, full of love and kindness, self-control and obedience and all the other fruits of the Holy Spirit. Do you really believe that God is calling you to a deep spiritual commitment to the new squeeze you met in the dim light of some sleazy tavern? As for happiness, I can’t remember anyone I’ve ever known who was really happier in the long run with wife numbers 2, 3 or 4, than they were with wife number 1. Jesus said he who loves his life in this world will lose it. He who hates his life in this world will gain it to everlasting life? Do you think He was kidding?
Well still, why can’t people who are desperately trying to sort out their lives receive Holy Communion? Don’t they need the consolation of the Sacrament even more? There you go again, thinking that the Body and Blood broken on Calvary are just nice things to make you feel better. We call it the sacrifice of the Mass. When I take communion, I am receiving what Christ sacrificed for me and I am saying that I will sacrifice myself for Him and His bride, the Church. Communion isn’t just where you “get Jesus.” It’s where you give yourself to Him. “O Lord, I give you everything about me, except of course, my sexuality which is none of your business, Amen.” Having given yourself totally and eternally to a few spouses you can’t give yourself to the Lord. There’s nothing left because you’ve squandered it all on your search for happiness. The narcissism of the age is not an acceptable offering on the altar of the Living God.
So what are people to do if they are in a non sacramental relationship? Should they just don a sackcloth and a scarlet letter, move to the desert and mumble “Unclean! Unclean!” to warn people they meet on the way? Not necessarily. If the relationship is one of concubinage (an archaic term meaning “shacking up”) stop it! If you are in a “committed relationship” (don’t you love that currently trendy term?) why not get married? Or aren’t you that committed to your committed relationship? If you are involved with someone who is not free to marry, end the relationship. There is usually some reason that the first spouse dropped him or her like a bad habit. If you are married civilly to someone but not sacramentally proceed with care, especially if children are involved. Go see your pastor and inquire about the possibility of an annulment. In my experience, many people who divorce were not ready to be married in the first place. We live in a culture whose idea of morality is Hollywood. Try to get “right with God,” as the saying goes.
St. Augustine says that, regarding the Christian journey, “To wish to go is to go.” If you are desperate enough to really repent, bow your head and say,”Lord, I want to follow you. Teach me ways and show me the right thing to do.” I’ve never known that prayer to go unanswered when prayed by the sincere heart, the heart ready to obey. By the way, you asked “When will the Catholic Church catch up to the times?” The times stink. Hooray for the Church.