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Question 4 – Extraordinary Synod on the Family

4. Pastoral Care in Certain Difficult Marital Situations

a) Is cohabitation ad experimentum a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage?

Not only is it a reality, the practice is reaching beyond “ad experimentum” in becoming a state of life all its own. Sure, there are couples who “shack up” to see if they are meant to live together, but many cohabitate for years without getting married or even intending to get married. Society, itself, is unsure how to deal with the phenomena. For instance, laws for common law marriages are falling by the wayside. It created situations where couples were regarded as legally married while they, themselves, thought they were not. I suspect that some of these couples suffer from ambivalence about marriage or a fear of the lasting commitment. Of course, the epidemic of divorce may also be a catalyst. I have heard couples say that they want to be sure and that they do not become another negative statistic. Ironically, those who cohabitate before marriage do not seem to fare as well as those couples who are virginal and/or chaste; why is this? I would submit that cohabitation grants none of the spiritual safeguards for marriage and thus is not analogous. There are no graces from the sacrament; indeed, the couple are most probably living in a state of mortal sin. Such cohabitation presumes that the couple are engaged in sexual activity or fornication. Indeed, some couples live together because it makes sexual congress easier. Others live together because they take refuge in each other within an increasingly cold and disconnected world. Men and women are lonely and afraid. Even though they are not married, they cling to each other for support and companionship. Unfortunately, mortal sin is no adequate preparation for a grace-filled marriage. Couples say they love each other… but not enough to wait and not enough to preserve the holiness of the beloved. This selfishness and mind-set is a terminal kernel.

I should add that when these couples come to the priest and ask for marriage, they are frequently treated the same as chaste couples trying to do right by God, the Church and themselves.  A girl can be pregnant but she wants to wear white.  But if she is living with her boyfriend and having sex, it becomes a broken sign.  We can recommend separation but sometimes the length of the relationships and the logistics (including finances) of cohabitation would make this difficult.  I have them stay apart the night before the wedding and require them to go to Confession.  I would recommend that we marry such couples but do so in a way that minimizes the scandal.  They could offer their vows in a chapel of the rectory or in a small service with less than a dozen friends.  We could let couples know that cohabitation would cost them the marriage ceremony of their dreams.  These are precisely the people who need to ponder more the inner realities of marriage and less the external trappings.

b) Do unions which are not recognized either religiously or civilly exist? Are reliable statistics available?

Is this question for real? Of course, they exist. Indeed, this year for the first time in the United States there are more couples cohabitating than married.

“About a quarter of women move in with a romantic partner before the age of 20, and more women than ever live with a partner before they get married, according to a new report by the National Center for Health Statistics. Nearly half of women (48 percent) between the ages of 15 and 44 lived with a partner before getting married between the years of 2006 and 2010, an 11 percent jump since 2002 and a 41 percent jump since 1995. Less than a quarter of so-called “first unions”—meaning a first marriage or first cohabitation—were marriages during that span. In 2002, 30 percent of “first unions” were marriages. According to the report, 1-in-5 women became pregnant during their first year of premarital cohabitation, 40 percent of first marital cohabitations transitioned to marriage within three years, and 27 percent dissolved within five years. People are also prolonging marriage for longer after moving in together, according to the report. In 1995, the average length of a cohabitation that transitioned into marriage was 14 months—between 2006 and 2010, it was 21 months.”

c) Are separated couples and those divorced and remarried a pastoral reality in your particular Church? Can you approximate a percentage? How do you deal with this situation in appropriate pastoral programs?

Again, of course this is a reality here in the U.S. and the Archdiocese of Washington. It was hoped that the six-month waiting period before marriage, and the accompanying preparation, might help. But the divorce issue still plagues us. The problem’s answer is shared Catholic faith and values. If couples worship and pray together, a Gallup poll shows that all but 2% stay together. And even that 2% might be an aberration from false responses. Couples that do not pray face a 50% plus divorce rate. This truth speaks for itself. If a couple practices sacrificial love and places their marriage into God’s hands, then his grace will sustain them. If they ignore his help, they are more liable to fail. As for percentages in the parish, I cannot say. Many no longer even tell the priest. This includes those who have remarried outside the Church. This complicates matters and makes for embarrassing situations among volunteers for parish service or for membership in fraternal organizations like the Knights of St. John and the Knights of Columbus. Like most priests, I have no specific parish program to deal with this issue. The priest will offer counselling if they come forward and assist in an annulment and/or subsequent convalidation. The issue is delicate and sometimes frightfully complicated. I had a situation of a couple that wanted to get married in the Church. They were both Catholic but the man was previously married outside the Church in a civil court. The Church would not recognize that bond but it lasted some years and they had children. The man procured a Declaration of Nullity Because of Lack of Canonical Form. There was nothing really stopping the second (true) marriage. However, as the priest I felt corrupted by the situation. He had abandoned his prior spouse and the girl he wanted to marry was “the other woman” who bragged about stealing him from his civilly married spouse. Married or not, it was a sickening situation!

I know that there are programs in the Archdiocese to assist troubled marriages, like Retrouvaille. There is also Marriage Encounter.

d) In all the above cases, how do the baptized live in this irregular situation? Are they aware of it? Are they simply indifferent? Do they feel marginalized or suffer from the impossibility of receiving the sacraments?

Some drop out regarding religious practice. Others act as if it is no big deal. Those who take Church teaching seriously feel guilt but there is resentment that they cannot receive absolution and the Eucharist. They frequently want to be treated as regularized when they are not. Some priests have told them that it is up to their conscience as to receive Holy Communion or not. They might even shop around for priests tolerant on this point. Of course, guidelines in the Archdiocese of Washington are currently rather permissive and priests are generally not allowed to withhold the sacrament. (Although many of us regularly substitute a quick blessing gesture, something in itself which is not proper to the communion line but which helps to avoid a negative confrontation.) I have encountered a few over the years who were unaware of Catholic marriage law, but only a few. There has also been the wrinkle of renegade rent-a-priests who posture as clergy in good standing and witness marriages without faculties. I have encountered two cases of this in the last two years.

e) What questions do divorced and remarried people pose to the Church concerning the Sacraments of the Eucharist and of Reconciliation? Among those persons who find themselves in these situations, how many ask for these sacraments?

They all pretty much ask for the sacraments or are upset when they discover that they should refrain. That is why they see the priest. The majority drop out and probably do not care. They will not make the effort to talk to a priest. Unfortunately, everyone who goes to Mass these days takes the sacrament. Ushers have to be careful not to intimidate such people to come up so as to avoid shame.

f) Could a simplification of canonical practice in recognizing a declaration of nullity of the marriage bond provide a positive contribution to solving the problems of the persons involved? If yes, what form would it take?

There has already been criticism of the many annulments granted in the United States. I suspect simplification would make the problem worse. Annulments must always be in conformity to the truth. There are some situations that cannot be fixed.

g) Does a ministry exist to attend to these cases? Describe this pastoral ministry? Do such programs exist on the national and diocesan levels? How is God’s mercy proclaimed to separated couples and those divorced and remarried and how does the Church put into practice her support for them in their journey of faith?

I think we need to do more to emphasize the value of the person who is not married or who through no fault of his or her own must now live as a single person after a failed marriage. Couples are not made up of two halfs that are made whole. We are complete unto ourselves. Not all stories in this world end happily. It is then we seek solidarity and consolation in Christ’s saving Cross.

Although not always conveniently located, there are also groups for Divorced and Separated Catholics. However, I am not certain that these always constitute the proper pastoral response. I have known divorced people becoming romantically inclined with people who share their hurts and disappointments. Instead of encouraging separated Catholics to mend fences, it makes the breaks permanent. Couples start dating when in the eyes of the Church they still belong to their lawful spouse. The Church, after all, does not recognize divorce and the person or persons who precipitate the break commit sin. This last point is either glossed over or denied, even by some assisting clergy. Are we encouraging fornication, cohabitation and adultery with our support groups for separated and divorced Catholics? Why is it that we do not encourage them to be chaste and content on their own?  Do we really want a breeding ground for romance for this group?

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