A parent recently approached me about a daughter who was engaged to a guy who had been married before and is intimidated by the church’s annulment process. The couple was informed by their local priest that they could not marry in the church because the groom’s prior bond of marriage renders him ineligible for the sacrament. The parent wanted to know if there is any way I could officiate. The quick answer is that I cannot. That is the response that most young couples in similar situations receive from church officials. Though it is the correct answer, most of us would agree that it is not a very pastoral response, nor the answer that a good shepherd gives.
Marriage for Catholics is either a civil union or the sacrament of holy matrimony. Though both are marriage, the former is defined by the society in which they live, the latter by the church. The former is a legal contract, or 50-50 agreement, between two parties; the latter is a covenant in which they seek to imitate God by giving of themselves 100% for the sake of the other. The former can be entered into by whomever the civil law permits: two individuals of legal age irrespective of prior sacramental bond or sexual orientation. The latter has numerous restrictions, mostly based on our church’s interpretation of Sacred Scripture. Included in the restrictions are that sacramental marriage must be between one man and one woman who are free from prior bond. Other impediments that could prevent sacramental marriage include deception, mental illness, addiction to drugs or alcohol, incapacity for monogamy, history of physical abuse, unwillingness to pass along life and faith to children, etc. To enter the former, the couple needs only to appear at the civil jurisdiction (county courthouse, no more than thirty days and no less than three days before the ceremony in Missouri) and pay the prescribed fee; the ceremony can take place in any chosen venue. To enter the latter, the couple follows ecclesial guidelines along a suggested nine-month-or-so process that includes compatibility assessments and reflections upon stages of marital life and love; and vows must be stated in a designated sacred place. Most couples appreciate the preparation process. Though long for some, holy matrimony is no less sacred than holy orders which normally has a five-year preparation process.
Returning to the initial query of the parent, I, as a priest, am limited in my jurisdiction of whose marriage I can officiate, where, and how—so I would not be able to witness the daughter’s ceremony until the groom is eligible to receive the sacrament. But pastorally, I can assist the couple as they seek to remain connected to the church and bless them along their journey. Priests bless cars, animals, people seeking reassurance of the Lord’s company, and far stranger things. It is no wonder that many clergy, especially in Europe, are challenging hierarchical rules-makers about blessing civil unions. If a gay or divorced couple, or any other couple in an “irregular” situation, asks their church for help, much as those viewed as sinners in Jesus’ day asked for His help, we ought to think about helping. As Jesus accompanied people, so can we. He rarely turned people away or labeled them ineligible for sacramental grace. Then He challenged them to receive the grace, follow the path of holiness, and stay close to God.
The Lord is a better judge of what is sacred than are we. I suspect therefore, we will find more blessings of irregular unions in the future. Though they will not be granted the sacramental status of the church, they may very well be viewed as sacred by God.