Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Somebody Marry These Kids

Calah of Barefoot and Pregnant wrote a good post a little while back about the situations she and her husband found themselves in as she was trying to come into the Church and they were trying to get married under circumstances that were (as is often the way of events that push one into making massive changes in ones beliefs and moral life) a little messy:
If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know by now that our first daughter was conceived out of wedlock when I was a drug addict. Obviously, neither the Ogre nor I were living virtuous lives at the time, but the reality of a child on the way forced us to try and straighten ourselves out.

We began seeing a wonderful Cistercian priest who helped us work through that difficult time. One of the biggest issues facing us was the question of what to do when the baby was born. The Catholic Church doesn't allow couples who conceive a child out of wedlock to marry in the Church until the child in question is a year old. It's a wonderful rule, one that not only discourages shotgun weddings but also encourages the couple in question to spend that year discerning whether or not it is God's will that they should marry each other or marry at all. It also shows the Catholic Church's concern that people learn to live an open, fully integrated human life; no covering up the results of sin with quickie nuptials. No, the couple must learn to bear the consequences of their sin (the consequence historically being public shame, NOT the baby itself) and rectify their lives publicly.

But it left us with a dilemma. If we followed traditional moral advice (which we received unsolicited from several people), we should live apart during that year. Obviously the responsibility for caring for the baby would fall to me, the mother, and the baby would live with me. But this would leave all three of us in dire straits at best. I was emotionally and mentally unstable at the outset of the pregnancy, issues which only marginally improved during the pregnancy. The Ogre was trying to finish his undergraduate degree while working nearly full time at a steakhouse to support us. He would have very little time to see me and the baby if we lived somewhere else, and wouldn't be able to contribute substantially to her parenting for an entire year. I was in no state to live alone with a baby, but strained relationships with both of our parents left me with no viable alternative. Furthermore, there was no way the Ogre could afford to pay rent or utilities for two separate apartments.

The other option was that we live together but maintain a chaste relationship. "Live together like brother and sister" was the phrase we heard repeated over and over. This is a task that is widely acknowledged to require heroic virtue from even the most virtuous, yet the likelihood that two people who hadn't attempted to live virtuous lives basically ever would be able to accomplish it was somehow not of interest to solicitous advice-givers.

It was of interest to our priest, however. He was interested in a great many things everyone else overlooked. He spent hours with the Ogre and I, together and separately, figuring out our strengths, our weaknesses, our fears, our limits, our feelings for each other and our hopes for the future. I suspect he recognized that we had both lived in a state of chronic, habitual mortal sin for years and quickly decided that a quick "get out of mortal sin fast" card was not what we needed; at least, not then. I believe his ultimate goal for us was not short-term but long-term. He was trying to figure out how to bring both of us into a state of grace, how to practically, emotionally and spiritually help us learn to love God, each other and our child, and how to begin building a foundation that might one day support a solid family.
The whole post is worth reading. It gave me an incredible respect for the difficulties that priests face in providing moral direction to real people in difficult situations.

However, it also reminded me of a bit of an issue I have with the current practice in the church here in the US in regards to marriage, which I wrote about some years back in relation to a couple we know who got married under somewhat similar circumstances.

In part to try to stem the tide of divorce among Catholic couples, and to avoid marriages which might later claim to have grounds for annulment, many dioceses have come up with increasingly stringent guidelines for marriage. Most diocese enforce a six month waiting period for any couple between when they request to get married and when the marriage takes place. Some parishes and diocese specifically require that the couple be registered and actively participating at the parish they want to marry at for up to a year before even being able to request to be married there. There are very sensible reasons for this. The church doesn't want people who aren't actually practicing Catholics showing up and using the parish as a set for a church wedding, and given that so many people seem to go into marriage without thinking it out very carefully, you can see why it's thought a good idea for couples to have at least six months to think things over. However, I'm not sure that it's universally a good idea to make couples wait at least six months after getting engaged to get married, and for young couples who are often in a state of flux because of college/jobs/grad school, a rigidly enforced you-must-be-registered-in-the-parish-for-a-year-prior policy be a serious obstacle to getting married.

Similarly, one can very much see why the church is reluctant to officiate over "shotgun weddings", especially given the scandalously high rate of annulments in the US and the fact that being pregnant at the time of the wedding is often cited years later as a reason why the couple did not freely consent (and thus can be annulled.) Also, people who are pregnant out of wedlock have already made at least one or two bad decisions, and so in general it seems reasonable to want people to stop and really think about whether this is indeed the right person to marry.

However, taking these kind of general rules and making them absolute strikes me as really problematic. It strikes me that diocesan rules put the priest who was helping Calah and the Ogre in a very difficult position. Clearly, he came to the decision that it was best for the three of them to function as a family, yet he couldn't marry them, so he was put in the position of having to advise them on how to live as a family until they could marry in the Church. But what is marriage for other than to provide Christians with the grace of a sacrament in order to allow them to live out their vocations as a family? While I think it's admirable that the Church in the US is trying to get serious about marriage, it seems to me that such inflexible rules are actually a moderately serious problem.

Obviously, it's a whole other situation where there's some real obstacle to marriage -- such as one member of the couple being married already. (All sorts of heartache is caused by people dating and even getting engaged while one or both are, in the eyes of the Church, married to someone else.) But while I applaud the Church's efforts to reign in Catholic marriage breakdown by making sure that couples have thought seriously about it before getting married, I'm concerned that some of these rigid administrative rules on length of engagement and waiting a period of time after any child conceived out-of-wedlock is born actually make things harder on some couples when simply marrying them would be better for all.


JMB said...

One of my sisters was not allowed to get married at our family's parish (my father was a deacon there) because her fiance wasn't Catholic, yet he was going through RCIA at the time, but then they would have had to wait another year to get married, and she was already in her early 30s and didn't want to postpone the marriage any further. So they ended up finding a church in NYC which would accommodate them. It all seemed really ridicules at the time.

Bob the Ape said...

I agree entirely. The worst thing about bureaucracy - any kind, governmental, corporate, or diocesan - is not that it is slow, inefficient, or muddled, but that it does not treat people as people. Its subjects are little pawns to be moved about in accordance with the rules. And because it will not take each person's circumstances into account, it is, in a word, unjust.

Foxfier said...

I know I've complained about it, although I'm not sure if it was here-- I tried like crazy to get married in the Church. Tried to talk to the priest on the ship (my "parish" when I met TrueBlue) and was told, basically, that he couldn't get married while stationed in Japan.
Didn't have a parish priest growing up-- we're a satellite parish, the one they give to the guys who are new to the country until their English is good enough to send to help in Seattle or something. No idea where the only priest that bothered to have a relationship with anybody is now, he was moved out without being told where he was going to end up being stationed in the long run. (Hey, it's still better than the tribal guys they keep putting in my mom's home town-- the freaking priest keeps trying to shake down any Catholics for free stuff, usually by ordering expensive things and walking out.)
Physically went in to my sister's church, the only place that there was a chance TrueBlue's family to make it to, was given a phone number. Called the number and left messages. Physically went in again, told them I'd called and left messages and was the machine working, was told to just use the number. Still no call-back.

Didn't get married in the Church. Didn't have TrueBlue's family there. Didn't even have a dress or suit. The day that was supposed to be a crowing glory to childhood and a the gateway to our unified adult life was... yeah, I'm digressing.

What a GREAT solution! That is a great alternative to high rates of annulment-- driving those who have been moving a lot to getting civil marriages, because no-one can be bothered to call them back to try to set anything up.

Long, complaining, bitter way of saying: Bob the Ape is right.

nicole said...

We got pregnant while engaged. We immediately went to the priest assigned to the Catholic student center. He comforted us, heard our confessions, and did all the things you hope a priest will do in those circumstances. I had already ordered my dress, we had chosen a date, and so on. We also talked to the parish priest that night. He counseled us to get married at a JP soon, so that our child would not be born into wedlock. He also assured us we would be married in the Church in due time. Happily he did not make us wait a year after the birth of our daughter. We got married in the Church exactly one year after our civil marriage. Both our campus minister and parish priest at the time were of the Marianist Order working in the Diocese. Maybe that gave them more freedom. All I know is that they offered us great comfort when we were reeling (we were in denial about our "activities" obviously). I try to share this with people when they have terrible experiences with the clergy and bureaucracy of the Church, to help them see not all priests respond the same way.

When we were first planning our wedding (before pregnancy) I did run into quite a few church employees at various parishes that refused to accept the campus Catholic center as our current parish. As college students not in our hometowns we were not technically members of a parish. I was so disappointed to be treated like a young girl who just wanted a pretty church to get married in, rather than the practicing Catholic that I was. But again, it was the people, not the Church itself.

Peter and Nancy said...

As with other institutions, people's experiences seem to depend so much on individual priests rather than merely the rules. I do see one good reason for waiting, though -- abusive men (and women, I'm sure) often are in a rush to marry, while their girlfriend is still taken in by their charm. I'm watching a dear friend divorce now because she was married in the abuser's home state in a hurry. (He had moved out of state, but was allowed to marry back home about a year after moving away -- and he wasn't willing to do any pre-marriage counseling, preparation. Another red flag.) Sometimes rules are designed with protection in mind.

love2learnmom said...

Thanks for this thoughtful post. John and I have been involved in the marriage prep ministry in our parish (with the FOCCUS program) and it's really opened our eyes to the complexities various couples come to the church with. It's great to have a pastor who is both faithful and understanding.