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.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.
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.
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.