On the matter of doctrine, I believe that the Church cannot change, and in matters of discipline I hope that the bishops will not choose to make changes which would lend the appearance of doctrinal change, confusing a world already far too confused on the nature of marriage.
With all this tension in the air, it was a surprise to me to read a piece I agree with in the National Catholic Reporter on the issue of making the process of getting married within the Church less burdensome. This isn't dealing with the "hot button" issues like changing the annulment process, but rather the ways in which the bureaucracy of large parishes and the American bias towards massive wedding celebrations have come together to make it increasingly hard for couples to get married.
A May 25, 2012, NCR report looked at church-led efforts to address the growing challenge of getting young Catholic couples to a Catholic altar. In that story, San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop Robert McElroy, now bishop of San Diego, spoke of church requirements -- among them the six-month advance notice, marriage preparation costs and wedding location rules -- that "throw up a lot of barriers."These sorts of stories rang familiar from back when we were trying to get married, as well as dealing with baptisms at some parishes in which the process seemed more designed to check boxes on a form than to grant children the graces of baptism promptly.
Following their December 2013 engagement, Katie Hernandez and Philip Trejo did what most Catholic couples do: began searching for a date and parish for their wedding.
They first turned to Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lancaster, Calif. -- Katie's home parish, where her mother has worked since 2000 and where Philip worked for five years. Despite those connections, the response they received was the same one her sister had heard six years earlier: If you're not registered parishioners, you can't get married here.
Frustrated, the couple moved quickly to find a new church, turning to St. Mary Catholic Church, where Katie has taught physical education for two years. At the Palmdale, Calif., parish, they found a more welcoming environment, something Katie credited to her job and friendship with pastor Fr. Vaughn Winters.
Though they secured a church, the hurdles didn't disappear, with the process appearing at times more bureaucratic than sacramental. Both Katie and Philip had difficulty tracking down their sacramental records, with a priest at one point telling Katie she couldn't get married until proof was presented. A list of various fees that compounded as they went through the six-month marriage preparation had her wondering, "It's a sacrament, and we're paying for what?"
Later, she witnessed a priest move another wedding because the bride hadn't paid the proper deposit -- a rescheduling that benefited Katie, but left her thinking, "That's crazy. How do we do these things to people?"
Karmen and Eduardo Mayorga had been married around two years when they decided in 2013 to have their union blessed in the Catholic church. By then, the couple had an established life together: They shared a home and Karmen had become a mother to Eduardo's three children.
When they approached their parish priest at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish in El Paso, Texas, he informed them that Eduardo, who was baptized in the Catholic church but raised in the Jehovah's Witness faith, must first receive the sacraments of Communion and confirmation. While friends thought the blessing could come first, the El Paso diocese told Karmen that marriage preparation requirements differed from parish to parish.
Work conflicts led the Mayorgas to explore taking sacramental classes at other parishes. In the process, the response of some parish staff and priests was more administrative than congratulatory. It felt to Karmen more "like getting your driver's license" than prepping for a sacrament.
We lucked out in our own preparations to get married. The difficulty was that we were graduating college in Ohio and moving out to the Los Angeles area, where we wanted to get married as soon as possible. We weren't members of a parish and several parishes had rules that you had to have been a registered parishioner for six months before you could sign up to get married in the parish and begin yet another six month waiting period between when you asked to get married and when you could actually get married. Luckily, my parents' parish was willing to treat us as parishioners, so we got on the marriage schedule during our senior year of college and were married six weeks after graduating.
Other barriers can be financial. Sometimes the required marriage prep classes come with fees. The parish where we got married required that couples hire the parish approved wedding coordinator to organize things.
A number of these rules are put in place to deal with the problem that at times people who are not practicing Catholic want to use the church as the setting for a big church wedding. Others are designed to try to keep people from entering into marriages that are likely to fall apart later.
I'm sympathetic to these lines of thinking. Marriage is a sacrament, and we want people to be taking it seriously despite a culture in which far too often people do not. And yet, if we allow how parishes deal with weddings to seem like they are acting as gatekeeper to a huge, fancy ceremony -- doling it out only to those who show themselves deserving by jumping through certain administrative hoops -- I fear that we inadvertently reinforce the tendency already all too common in our culture to view marriage as a capstone achievement: First you live together, you get a good job, you buy a house, and get ready to have kids, and then you get married to show that you've "arrived" in life and are ready to settle down and be a successful family.
It's encouraging that people perceive marriage as something they want to "get right", but since we know that having sex outside of marriage is a mortal sin, we don't want to be encouraging people to live together until their household has sufficiently "arrived" to bless it with marriage.
In this area, I think there are two things we should think about:
First, a number of the hurdles, in regards to both time and money, are designed to manage the scheduling of the church for large "church weddings". However, the sacrament itself does not require an organist, white dress, phalanx of bridesmaids and groomsmen, and hundreds of guests. There is absolutely nothing to prevent a Catholic marriage from being celebrated quietly: priest, couple, witnesses, perhaps a few family and friends. In our culture of conspicuous consumption, there may not at first be much desire for such a quiet ceremony, but it should at least be clearly presented as an option, rather than making one Friday night wedding and two to three during the course of Saturday be some sort of a hard cap on the number of weddings which can be performed in a large parish.
Second, we need to take a serious look at some of the requirements which are put up in order to make sure people are serious about marriage, and ask ourselves if they are actually doing anything to help prevent people from entering into vows that they will not keep. All things considered, we went to a pretty decent set of marriage prep classes, and yet the only effect they had on our relationship was to prevent us from participating in the play the theater was putting on our last semester of college (the marriage prep classes overlapped with rehearsals.) Maybe other couples who hadn't had three years of dating to think through issues ("Have you talked about how you will manage finances?") received some benefit, but I kind of wonder. It often seems to me that this is more an exercise in do-something-ism: We should do something to help make sure that people understand the nature of Catholic marriage and that those likely to divorce don't get married. This is something. Therefore, we should do this.
But is it helping? Is telling couple to wait six months and attend a couple of desultory classes really going to do much to inspire fidelity to the Church's view of marriage or to help those with serious relationship problems to realize it in time?
A particular area in which it seems like there should be some streamlining, especially if people are not trying to schedule a big church ceremony, is when people are trying to get an existing union of some sort blessed: whether that's a marriage outside the Church, or a situation in which people who are nor married have been living together for some time and perhaps have children together.
Obviously, if there's a situation in which either the man or woman is possibly already married, there is a need to stop and look at whether that was a valid marriage and thus whether they can be married in the Church at all. However, if no such impediment exists, a delay means either asking a couple who have been living as if married for some time to stop doing so (which needless to say would involve various relationship challenges) or else winking at the fact that they are not married (which is morally a problem.)
In cases where the couple have simply been living in sin together, some hold that they should be encouraged to separate and live chastely for some period of time before being married. I used to have a lot of sympathy with this approach. However, more recently I've come to think that this is misguided. Marriage is not a reward for living chastely prior to marriage, it is a vow to live together as husband and wife, open to children, until death. If people have been living together in an un-blessed version of such a relationship, telling them to break up their household and live apart in order to be able to receive the sacrament so that they can then live together again seems a wrongheaded approach, and one which puts up unnecessary barriers before people who are making an attempt to right their lives in the eyes of the Lord. The solution, I think, is simply to insist that they make a proper confession, receive absolution for their sins, and then marry them quickly and quietly.
There's a similar tendency these days, if a couple has become pregnant out of wedlock, to insist on the couple waiting for a significant period before getting married, sometimes until a certain amount of time after the baby is born. I think one of the ideas here is to make sure that the couple does not feel unduly pressured by the pregnancy to get married, perhaps only later to decide that they're not actually willing to stick by the vows they entered into so quickly. Another perhaps goes back to the big-event-scheduling approach to marriage: why should you get priority and be able to bump someone else's slot in a crowded schedule just because you got pregnant? Clearly, it would be a problem to bump some other couple's wedding so that a pregnant couple could have a big church wedding sooner rather than later. However, setting aside the question of event planning, which is arguably not how we should be thinking about the sacrament anyway: If a couple is going to raise a family together, and is already expecting a child, I'm not clear that telling them to live apart through pregnancy, or asking them to live together "as brother and sister", or tacitly encouraging them to live together in sin is particularly good for them. What is being accomplished? Why not simply marry them and let them get started with living as the family which they have so precipitously formed?
It assuredly is a big problem that for many Catholics, living together outside of marriage seems like a reasonable thing to do. However, I don't think that we necessarily help that situation when we make it increasingly difficult to get married.