Friday, June 17, 2011

When Nonsense Replaces the Resurrection

A 78-year-old widower I know, married to his first wife for 55 years, tomorrow will wed a never-married, lifelong Catholic in her sixties. They planned to marry in the Catholic Church. Instead, they are hoofing it across the street to his church, which is Lutheran.

What prompted this change of plans? The priest’s insistence this older couple attend PreCana classes, classes designed for folks in their 20s and offering information ranging from Natural Family Planning to how to manage a household budget.

This makes me sad. It makes me angry. It’s an example of a Christian – in this case a member of the clergy - placing a greater priority on rules than on the Resurrection. This at a time when the Church is making great noise politically about the need to protect traditional marriage.

I don’t fault the Church as an institution for this couple's rejection. I know at least a handful of wonderful priests who would have found a way to make sure the couple understood the awesome commitment they are making in this sacrament, without forcing them to fulfill a requirement designed for an entirely different demographic.

This situation reminds me of what we’ve been reading in School of Community  - about how far we Christians often are from Christ. Pope Benedict XVI posed some important questions during his Chrism Mass. “Do we open up the pathway to God for others or do we rather conceal it? Have not we–the people of God–become to a large extent a people of unbelief and distance from God?”

I am not arguing that marriage preparation is a waste of time. Depending on the program, it can offer great value.  My husband and I found an extensive survey we each took as part of our marriage preparation very helpful in figuring out areas of potential marital conflict and talking about them ahead of time. We were encouraged to talk about our attitudes toward money management and child-rearing and other important issues.

But to work, marriage preparation must respond to the couples’ spiritual and practical needs. I remember feeling terrified my fiancé and I would be in Big Trouble during PreCana when the organizers found out we were visiting one another over weekends; at the time we were engaged we lived two hours away. Instead, we found we were the only couple among 20 who were not cohabitating. Other couples had spent more than one overseas vacation together. The Church needs to face instead of ignore reality. The PreCana could have been an opportunity talk about what kinds of premarital relations are sinful and what kinds are not, as well as some of the Church’s spiritual underpinnings, such as the Theology of the Body.  But no one said a word and an opportunity for conversion was lost.

My husband and I experienced an even more misguided marriage preparation a few years into our marriage, when we were asked to participate in a PreCana team at our parish. We were shocked to discover that virtually every engaged couple in the session had lived together longer than my husband and I had been married. Many owned property together at a time when we still were renting. 

The parishioners organizing the sessions seemed blind to the reality in front of them. For example, I recall an older woman counseling the couples on how hard it would be to share living space with someone else and to not argue over toothpaste or whether the husband liked a particular meal the wife was making.  Worse still, one organizer was ignorant of Catholic teaching. She spent time talking to the engaged couples about how she and her husband were opposed to adoption and how she had prayed her Rosary over their frozen embryos. (We left that parish as a result.)

These kinds of programs make a laughing-stock of our church, its leaders and its followers. We have got to do better if we want to attract and retain people and help them to understand the relevance of the Resurrection is to their lives every day.

Back to Saturday's nuptials. I feel such sadness (as St. Thomas put it “a longing for an absent good” ) that a chaste elderly couple of my acquaintance  has been turned away at the doors of her church. We need to open the doors wide and be unafraid to welcome and teach those who come calling. The sacrament of marriage is a beautiful opportunity to reflect on one’s own spiritual path and to learn what the Church teaches and what Christ wants from our lives.

Tomorrow we toss aside a lifelong Catholic and her new beloved spouse. I am so sad the Church couldn't find room for them. I know Christ will be present when they make their vows and for the rest of their days. I wish them every blessing.


  1. That IS nonsense. Absolute rubbish. The letter of the law over the spirit of the law. And what service has that pastor done the Body of Christ? How has he put Jesus first? How has he been an example of God's love?

    Makes me angry, Allison. It really does.

    And don't even get me started on the anti-adoption woman praying over her frozen embryos. So, so sad....

  2. A. It wouldn't have killed them to go to the pre-Cana. This sounds more like a pretext than a reason. One more example of the "I/we am/are so special that the rules for mere mortals don't apply to me/us" attitude of the Entitled.

    B. Before (or after) leaving the parish, did you inform the pastor what a disaster his pre-Cana program was?

  3. Thanks for stopping by. Yes, we did talk to the pastor about his PreCana program. Suffice to say we made or decision to leave after we talked with him about our concerns.

  4. Allison, thank you for this very thoughtful post. I feel a little upset that it was presented with a particular slant at the Deacon's Bench. I say that as someone who knows Greg personally and considers him a friend; we all see through a different lens at various times, so be it.

    @Naturgesetz I see you commenting frequently and recently stopped by your blog. With all due respect to you, I think you are reading far too much into the decision of a couple that you do not even know. If I am to understand Allison's post, I would say that she is addressing something that is essential to good Catholic teaching - the letter of the law and then the spirit of the law. I live in a diocese where I know that the Tribunal and the majority of priests take that mix very seriously.

    Allison, what an experience with that Pre-Cana program at the other parish. Very sad.

    Thank you for this Allison; prayers for that couple. Prayers for that priest!

  5. Allison, very good.

    @ Fran — You make a fair point. I'm not privy to the conversations the couple had with the priest, and in general I have no use for bureaucrats whose only mission in life seems to be to go strictly by the rules. So I have no right to judge the couple as persons. All I can do is comment on the facts as presented.

    There definitely needs to be some practicality in the pastoral application of diocesan requirements. But accommodation can be a two-way street.

    And I certainly agree that marriage preparation is extremely important, and therefore it is extremely important for it to be done well. For example, it may be our last best chance to present the rationale for the Church's teaching on contraception.

  6. Without knowing the particulars, just on the face of it, I have to wonder about this couple simply leaving the Church & 'going across the street" to the Lutherans because of this provocation.
    1. YES, I agree with the "epichiae" (Letter vs. Spirit) argument.
    2. YES, I agree that the whole marriage prep thing would be different for a couple in this situation & it's our obligation to not obscure the path into the Church for others.
    3. NO it makes no sense that, if they truly believed in Church teaching all these years, they'd turn their backs on Jesus Truly Present in the Blessed Sacrament because of this legalistic provocation. Just doesn't add up.

  7. ThereseRita: Understand this is an interfaith couple. He is Lutheran; She is Catholic. In an ideal world, nothing would keep any of us from the True Presence. But faith can be fragile and I guess my thinking is we all need to do our best not to obscure one another's paths.

  8. As we celebrate the Life we want so fully in Christ - we must remember that there is an Enemy that does _not_ want us to enjoy that... and he is lurking around every corner.

    What better way to infiltrate than to be right in the house of God?
    We were once a part of that incorrect teaching, in large part (it is still our responsibility) because we were not taught how to defend and explain the teaching in a compelling way.

    When we heard the Theology of the Body message, we 'the scales fell off, and our eye's were opened'. My wife and I have tried very hard to reverse our sinful leading of other couples - but it amazing how hard it is to bring about this very important discussion when even the Bishops acknowledge we need this formation. Yet we have had a difficult time trying to share this message with those 'in charge'.
    In church time....

  9. This is why we should marry Catholics.

  10. @Ulick: Neither my Catholic father nor my Catholic mother-in-law married Catholics. I am certainly blessed they married and raised children with whom they did!

  11. Like children who did not get what they wanted, they took their toys and left. If they had been thinking of others, they would have attended pre-Cana, not for what they could receive from it but for what they, with all their experience of marriage, could bring to the other couples there. Perhaps they would have made lasting friends who would have been of help to them in ways they could not imagine. The Church is a community of believers unified by the sacraments into a bond of supportive, real, lived-out love towards each other and the larger world. This couple needs to realize what they have done, repent, and return to the Church, even it means going to the pre-Cana program and having another marriage ceremony, this one sacramental.

  12. Here it is, Trinity Sunday... a day when we might especially appreciate the unity that springs forth out of diversity. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case.

    What has happened to the rich, goodness of our Catholic Christian faith here? Are we so quick to condemn one another? If there is a sign of evil, that is it. Am I misreading or misinterpreting something in these comments or are they small minded and mean-spirited?

    God have mercy on us, as we continue to dis-member rather than re-member the Body of Christ... When you do this, REMEMBER me. How do we try to restore rather than destroy this sacred Corpus? The Church is not a building, a structure, an authority... Church is ekklesia, the assembly, the people. It is us.

    Perhaps that priest, however well intended started the dismembering with this decidedly un-pastoral act. There might have been other ways, but ideology, rules, doctrine all applied without love... you know what St. Paul says about that... without love it is nothing.

    And love - that is why love is so essential - to marriage and to community, becaause love is not a feeling or a saccharine emotion, no love is an action, a decision, a commitment.

    Even if for whatever reason the couple might not be able to marry in the Church, there are other ways it could be handled.

    I hope that I misread these comments, I pray that I am wrong, mea culpa, but I am afraid that I do not misread. My heart breaks for us to be so cruel and so judgmental to one another.

  13. Hi Allison,
    I didn't realize it was a mixed marriage, like we used to call it in the old days :-)
    I can see both sides really. I agree that we need to actively work to eliminate barriers to the Church. I guess our example here could be St Paul & the whole circumcision thing!
    On the other hand, I have a sibling & a couple of cousins (who are all grandparents now, BTW) who have blithely left the Church for 2nd or 3rd marriages or simply to move in with their lovers because they 'weren't ready yet' for a commitment. I've just told them, "Ok, then what it boils down to is that you're choosing your lover over the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament." Makes me very popular at family dinners, ya know :-)

  14. TR: It is heartbreaking to see this happen - folks leaving the church. I think all families probably have this going on.

    I guess the question I ultimately am posing am: what can we Christians do about this? How best to respond> Christ's presence is attractive; if not this faith would not still be around.

    In my opinion, the pastors have awesome responsibilities to guide our souls and sometimes they make missteps. We all do. But how can we best respond to Catholics and non-Catholics with questions and concern about our faith?

    Finger wagging ain't going to work. People should not be coerced into belief or fidelity. What does work? We don't want to water down the faith and we do want to build up the body of Christ, yes?

  15. I have a few questions.

    1. In order to accommodate the Catholic woman's desire to be married in the Church did it occur to them to go seek out the advice of a different priest at another parish? They ended up going to a different church anyway, why not try a different Catholic church before simply giving up?

    2. Did they attempt to seek a dispensation from the Bishop for a Catholic to be married in a non-Catholic ceremony but have the marriage recognized by the Catholic Church? That IS possible you know but most people never think to ask.

    3. Did they attempt to contact the Bishop's office to request that Pre-Cana be waived in their case? That, too, is possible and then the pastor would have been instructed to do so.

    Since one of them is Lutheran it sounds an awful lot like they just took the easy way out when they got an unsatisfactory answer from one priest. I believe the priest in this situation is mistaken. However, the fact that they're getting married outside the Church is not the Church's fault. It's their choice.

  16. I think you raise excellent points. Not until a couple of years ago would I have had the courage to seek the routes you suggest.

    I was not brought up to question the guidance of my pastor. And I am a lot younger than these folks are. I would never have considered taking an issue to a bishop, or to seek out another priest. My hunch is many Catholics are like me too.

    Prayers to the couple and the pastor.

  17. How firm is the Catholic's faith? It is possible for them to be married in a Lutheran church with permission, and with the witness of a Catholic priest. Perhaps it would have taken longer. OR they could have gone to another parish where the pastor was more "pastoral" and not worried about the letter of the law? What's the rush? I know they are getting older, but...unless one is at death's door or has been given just a few months to live, a while longer to wait should be no big deal.
    As for cohabiting couples before marriage, that seems to be the "norm" now. Some dioceses will not allow a cohabiting couple to marry in the Church unless they separate for 6 months or more before the wedding. Often they opt for a civil wedding instead. And whatever happened to Confession, and the priest counseling the couple on the dangers they are courting with serious sin? Of course, who speaks of sin any more, much less mortal sin? I have to say when I was much younger, most priests just gave absolution and did not counsel in Confession when a serious sin was mentioned. Guess times have not changed that much since Vatican II.

  18. How about being asked to go through baptism classes multiple times as punishment for having a private baptism ceremony?

  19. @The Ranter: I am unclear as to your meaning. Are you being sarcastic, talking about something that happened to you, or making a suggestion? Please elaborate on your point...Thanks!

  20. As a lawyer I expect that the law will be obeyed. However is this pre-cana business a law of the church or is it another of these 'good ideas' which seem to take on a life and rigidity of its own . Seems to me that both parties were christians and given their ages it would be doubtful if such a course would have any real value for them . In any case seems like the priest behaved like a half wit and maybe he is in need of some pastoral 'retraining'! I hope the couple have a long and happy life together despite the poor start caused by this guy.

  21. I agree with Fr. Sylvester. And every time I have had a question, I have asked a priest. I also like confidoingesu's points that it probably wouldn't have hurt them to attend Pre-Cana, and it could've added to the conversation for the younger folks.

    Fran, you wrote: "The Church is not a building, a structure, an authority... Church is ekklesia, the assembly, the people. It is us."

    I'd be careful here. It's not just a building or a structure, certainly, but it also does have a specific structure and certain kinds of buildings are far more conducive to Catholic worship than not. Furthermore, while the Church is the assembly and the people, it is the assembly and the people taken together with the authority. The Church that Christ founded is an authority, hence one of the reasons why we have a Magisterium. The Catholic faith doesn't float freely absent of that authority.

  22. Wendy - many pre-Cana programs (and particularly Engaged Encounter) do not encourage nor provide for much interactions between couples. As lovely as it may be to think that these people would have been a delightful example sharing their wisdom, not likely to happen.

  23. Hi I came over from SouleMama and wanted to let you know I enjoyed it very much. I'm not catholic but I am a christian and I greatly respect the catholic church. When you talk about the people in your PreCana class cohabitating I am always amazed at how often this is the case. As christians we have become so much like the world that we have a really hard time impacting it. Thanks for the reminder.

    1. Oh thank you so much for visiting and for commenting. I am glad you found meaning in this piece.
      And a Happy Holy Easter to you and yours!