Friday, June 20, 2003

While So Many Catholics Are Arguing (again) About Harry Potter...

Some of us actually have real problems to deal with:

Like how to deal with lapsed, semi-Catholic, cohabitating couples, who either to please the parents or out of some vestigial traces of unformed faith, nonetheless want to get married in the Church.

Like many (if not most) priests, I am in the thick of wedding season. Lots of weddings, and lots of couples coming to me wanting to get married in the next year or so. For every couple who come to me wanting to really celebrate the Sacrament of Marriage, and want to make their wedding an expression of their faith, I'd say there are five who fit the above description. I am grateful for those "good" couples when they come along: without them to provide encouragement (and relief), things could get really discouraging.

While I was in the seminary, I would sometimes get together with priests and the subject of weddings would come up. I was initially shocked and a little scandalized at how priests would complain about weddings: they looked forward to impending weddings the way most people look forward to a root canal or a colonoscopy. Now that I am a priest I understand. And Catholic priests aren't the only ones who complain: Once I was visiting some friends on vacation, and at a cook-out I met an Anglican priestess who was my friends' colleague at the college at which they taught. Of course, we talked "shop" and discovered, that while we could agree on practically nothing theologically (though we were on safe ground with the Trinity and the Divinity of Christ), we were of almost one mind at our dismay and discouragement over weddings. She vituperated at some length on how the brides treated the wedding as a big show, how the grooms were almost disinterested, and how no one semed to appreciate the sacred covenant which the wedding is supposed to represent.

Now, aside from the horror stories of brides who want to re-shape the liturgy to fit their own "fashion show" fantasy of their wedding (it's supposed to be MY day, isn't it, one bride whined), and requests for bizarre, let alone merely inappropriate music, I have one specific issue I am trying to grapple with:

I'd say that approximately 50% of the couples that come to me wanting to get married are constructively cohabitating. That is, even if they in some sense maintain separate residences, they more-or-less live together a substantial part of the time. One dead giveaway is when I call the phone number given for one of the parties and I get an answering machine which says "Hi, Bill and Suzy aren't home right now..." Now, all of the couples I have dealt with thus far have been surprisingly candid about it: they genuinely don't see that there is a problem with cohabitation, much less pre-marital sex.

So how do I deal with them? How do I minister to them, re-evangelize them? Many of them, like most of our generation, have been woefully under-catechized. I recognized right away that I really have to start from scratch with many of these couples: they don't know their faith, they aren't practicing it. So, while I know that they really should separate and be chaste during their engagement, I know that's not the point at which to begin: I try to get them back to Mass, back to confession and the sacraments, to rekindle their faith. Only then do I bring up the issue of cohabitation and the need to separate. I give them material to read by good Catholic authors. I talk to them about the meaning of sex in the marriage covenant and I require them to attend an NFP introductory class. But it's an uphill battle: I can't make up, in 8-10 meetings over as many months, for little or no formation in their youth.

But there always comes the moment of truth: after I've talked to them about the sacramentality and covenant of marriage, and the sanctity of sex; after I've given them the articles and explained to them why cohabitation is bad preparation for marriage, etc, etc. After all of that, they have to decide. And so far, the decision has always been, "well, Father, we understand what you're saying, but we've decided we really can't/won't separate."

At that point, I feel as though I am at a loss. I know of some priests who simply refuse to perform the wedding if the couple won't separate. But they always make the issue of cohabitation the first thing addressed "out of the gate" and I think this is a mistake, for the reasons I explained above. This approach also seems to go beyond what the Church itself says, because Canon Law is quite clear and firm about Catholics having a right to marry in the Church. And I can't imagine it being fair to a couple to work with them for 4-6 months and then announce that since they won't separate I won't do the wedding.

So what to do? I'd be interested in hearing suggestions both from married Catholics and from any priests out there who have more experience in these things than I do. One concern I have is that I don't want to contribute to people entering invalid marriages. Given, as Canonist Extraordinaire Pete Vere pointed out last week, that the majority of people who seek annulments were in fact sexually active with their ex-spouses prior to marriage, I think this is a legitimate concern. I can say that, in my own experience in dealing with people seeking annulments, this is universally the case: literally every person I have talked to about seeking an annulment turned out to have been sexually involved with his/her former spouse prior to marriage. I find it hard to imagine that's a coincidence.

So, any pearls of wisdom out there?