Ask almost any of my pastors what we really need in defense of marriage these days in the Church and they would almost certainly settle on a number of matters which have little to nothing to do with last week’s Supreme Court decision. Marriage, as a sacred moment in the Church when a man and a woman vow their love and fidelity to one another, has been in a big-time slide for a number of years. Last year in our ten year report to the Holy See, we noted that the number of marriages has dropped in the eleven years from 2000 to 2011 by 54%. Read the wedding notices almost any given Sunday and you will see at least two announcements where it it noted that either the bride or the groom was a graduate of such and such Catholic High School and the wedding was performed on the beach or at Disney. Marriage as a sacrament, like Reconciliation as a Sacrament, is in danger of becoming extinct and it has nothing to do with governmental laws and everything to do with culture, Church laws and regulations, and the “times.”
Now I could wring my hands and say, “it’s not our fault” but it is our fault, at least partially. The times have changed but we have not. Let me take each of those three categories from the last sentence in the first paragraph and ruminate for a while about them.
First, our secular culture has slowly but certainly rendered obsolete almost any notion of permanence in many aspects of our lives. People buy things they can not afford knowing that if they are wily enough, they can, will and will likely get away with not paying for them. The bankruptcy mentality has gained strength in many minds suggesting that merely signing a promissory note is no longer a promise but perhaps at best a hope. Transfer that to marriage and in one way or another it turns out that, “well, we will try it but if it does not work, there is always the opportunity for divorce and then after a while, remarriage.” The notion of permanent commitments has in many cases gone the way of the dodo bird – it’s nearly extinct. Young couples live together for long times before even thinking of tying the knot. Therefore, our increasingly secular culture says, “who needs marriage anyway?” Ah, but if one or the other of the couples are Catholic, they have heard that in the Catholic Church, there is little to no tomorrow in many instances for a second marriage attempt, so why attempt it? With so many social problems having their root in the dissolution of marriages and the irrresponsibilities of one or more of the parties to their offspring, I think the Church’s position on indissolubility is a good one, with some fine tuning which I will address later. So culture is heading one way with marriage and the Church is steadfastly holding firm to a very traditional definition of marriage. What’s new with that?
That then brings me to Church laws, rules and regulations. A decade ago at least when the Presbyteral Council of the diocese was discussing marriages and its diminution, a wise pastor conjectured that the Saturday Vigil Mass was an enemy of Catholic sacramental marriage. By that he meant those parishes which scheduled a Saturday Vigil Mass for four o’clock probably only left one time slot each week-end for someone to schedule a marriage, thus making it harder to find a place on the date one hoped for. There is also the matter of cost. Most of my parishes charge for weddings – some charge a lot. Some reduce the amount if one of those being married is a registered parishioner (read that as a regular contributor in the Sunday offertory) and one or two parishes waive any fee if the family of the bride or groom tithes. I have sympathy for the request of parishes because of the outrageous sums of money people spend on weddings these days and why should the Church not share since in faith it is the single most important moment of the event, eclipsing the reception, the limo, the rehearsal dinner, the flowers, etc. etc. etc. True, but what if a couple is truly trying to minimize expenses and make that moment consistent financially with the way they have lived or live their lives financially? Do they get cut a break? Can what we ask ever be a disincentive? No one objects to a fee for the organist or soloist because they are options.
Now about annulments! If one’s Catholic faith and its practice is important enough, does the difficulty of proving something really never met the requirements of marriage at the time of the marriage act as a disincentive? Then, the Catholic Church requires couples getting married in the Church to attend pre-marital programs. What? Why? In the end, my rhetorical question is simply this: do we make it harder for a couple to choose to be married in the Church sacramentally? To this last I would simply add that, while I do not witness a lot of marriages in my life as priest and bishop, I have never had a couple tell me that this requirement was a waste of time.
Now finally, we are down to “the times, they are a-changin.” I wish the whole Church in the U.S. would give more attention to saving what is left of sacramental marriage. Father Peter Daly, a priest whom I admire who is a very successful pastor in the Washington archdiocese and an attorney prior to seminary and ordination wrote a very succinct and, I thought, quite accurate article published recently in the National Catholic Reporter suggesting that we may have already as Church lost this sacrament to the times. I encourage you to read it by clicking here. It may well happen that marriage will have a civil reality and a sacramental possibility. Remember that not that long ago in some countries a baptismal certificate was sufficient for citizenship but now almost the whole world requires a “birth certificate” for proof of birth and nationality. It could happen that many future young Catholics will just get a marriage license and be married civilly or by someone else, somewhere else other than in a Church. But, if they wish the grace of the sacrament they would then come to the Church for the sacrament. That already happens in some countries. My question in this admittedly long reflection is, will we as Church be ready to welcome them?