Beyond Damage Control

The Vatican Information Service has a summary of changes in procedures for declarations of nullity. It seems that pastoral and spiritual care for marriages irretrievably broken is important. Divorced persons (at least those outside of the realm of celebrity) are at many margins in society. There is estrangement if not marginalization from their children, their extended families, their communities, their churches, and their economic lives, not to mention their emotional good health. Reaching out to people at the margins is the hallmark of the ministry of Pope Francis.

When disaster strikes in the world–flood, fire, tornado, or divorce–relief and support are vital. No argument here.

My continuing concern is really with two key points in the Church’s ministry to couples in love: those who are beginning their lifelong commitment, and those who have a relationship strained to the breaking point, but not yet broken.

I have only one chief objection to resources put at the political service against divorce or same-sex unions. It is when such activites are placed under the cover of the defense of marriage. This is a lie. And worse, it neglects two key points of starting a marriage and repairing a breaking one.

I think if a person or group wishes to engage in political movements there is freedom to do that. But please: don’t tell people you’re defending me or three-fourths of Catholic marriages that stick. The thing is, cohabiting couples same-sex, straight, or remarried do not pose any threat whatsoever to stable marriages. Or likely even very many troubled marriages. People don’t dive into emotional, legal, and economic turmoil because some far off celeb is on marriage number three, four, or five and its breaking up. Bad choices can be made without outside influence. Maybe Miley Cyrus of Kait Jenner or some famous person can afford to switch less or more on a whim. Real people don’t dwell there.

Far more honest for the politically active to just say they oppose marriage of two persons with the same sex. And end the statement there.

The real defense of marriage happens when engaged couples are well and seriously prepared for what is to come. Parish clergy are close spectators to this. But long-time married couples know from experience. People who have navigated marriage’s obstacles can provide a far more effective witness to the demands of this life than clergy–however many couples in turmoil or first love with whom they have chatted.

The positive testimony of couples who have survived loss of children, battles with cancer and other serious illnesses, loss of job, extended separations, infidelity, substance abuse, and other challenges may certainly be employed to good effect.

Unfortunately, most parish priests I’ve witnessed keep ministry to married couples close to their desk. Lone rangers–no lay people need assist. And who knows? Maybe they have a good track record when it comes to couples whose vows they’ve witnessed and women and men they’ve counseled in difficulties. But maybe others are unsuitable as counselors and spiritual directors. I wouldn’t think every married person can guide others–why would I think ordination confers some specially effective ability for celibate men?

Across the board, Catholics couples do better staying together than other persons religious and non-religious, at least in the US. But a one-in-four divorce rate is nothing to brag about. Perhaps we can do better.

Unfortunately, the conservative Catholic schtick is too often to maintain the rigorist view and insult others who suggest that more than law and selective citation of the Bible is needed. Churchfolk from Cardinal Burke to FrMichael just don’t have the vision, discernment, and creativity to get into the trenches and help real people–at least from what I see. In the words of Bob Dylan, they should get out of the way if they can’t lend a hand.

Preventive care is needed. Careful accompaniment is not provided by pious citation of words on a canonist’s page. Instead I see people who claim to oppose the culture on one hand, but seem steeped in its methods on the other. Too many of us Catholics seem focused overly much on headline bad news to even begin thinking about the ways in which Christian disciples nudge and persuade through simple and thorough apprenticeship.

I realize that writing as a straight-shooter doesn’t get me invited to too many defense-of-marriage parties. Most of my sisters and brothers lead quiet, humble, but fruitful lives in the sacrament of marriage. When the institutional church wants to get really serious on a larger scale, maybe they’ll call on more of us. When they want to get beyond damage control they seem to be stuck on.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in the Pacific Northwest, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Beyond Damage Control

  1. Todd , I thought you were a strict constructionist when it came to papal pronouncements . If the pope says it , it must be true . If the pope said the moon was made out of green cheese , would you not want to believe it ? We are not talking about something that has been infallibly declared . It is similar to birth control . The rules can change . Remember the Papal Birth Control Commission appointed by Popes John and Paul . The fact that Cardinal Ottaviani sabotaged its work is beside the point . The Commission ‘s conclusions were not declared heretical . Canon law can change as well if the pope chooses .

    • Todd says:

      Hmm. I would probably stand with Pope Francis in the suggestion that the institution and laity all leave little enough room for the Holy Spirit. As a theologically trained person, I start with Church pronouncements. But careful readers know I can be critical of them. Pope Francis’s insistence the diocesan judge be a cleric, for example. Head scratcher.

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