Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

31 January 2013

Form und Drang: The Appearance of Catholic Marriage

In his recent address to the Roman Rota (a fuller version found here), Pope Benedict XVI makes a strong connection between the contemporary crisis in faith and the increasing invalidity of marital bonds.  He covers the prevalent problems in marital attempts: one or both parties' lack of will, understanding, or ability to enter into what the Church wills and understands as "sacramental marriage."    The Holy Father speaks with characteristic eloquence about the crisis of faith--the rejection of the "divine proposal" undergirding all human proposals.  Alongside understanding, voluntariness, and capacity, there is one more crucial component in a sacramental Catholic marriage: canonical form.

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Baptized Catholics must marry according to the proper "form," or format, for marriage: in the presence of a duly-authorized Catholic priest or deacon and two witnesses.

Obtaining witnesses usually isn't a problem, because couples want people to witness their wedding.  The standard "best man" and "maid/matron of honor" must be a man and a woman who are of sufficient age and mental competence to have a basic understanding of what Jack and Jill are doing in this action.

The problem usually occurs when the couple fails to secure the presence of a Catholic priest or deacon as witness to their vows.  This especially happens with baptized Catholics who do not attend Mass, and who therefore might not consider a specifically Catholic wedding necessary or desirable.  At least six months prior to their wedding date, a Catholic spouse-to-be must approach his or her parish priest (either personally or through the parish administrative assistant) to secure the availability of the church.   In the course of their preparation, couples must follow particular diocesan requirements: attendance at premarital classes, retreats, workshops, etc., and meetings with the priest or deacon who is preparing them for marriage.

If the couple didn't know or care about these requirements, and then marries outside the Church, their marriage is "invalid," and the Catholic party/ies cannot participate in the Sacraments until the marriage is "convalidated," or rectified.  The first step is to approach a priest or deacon.  Under his direction, the Catholic party/ies must make a thorough Confession, and then rectify the invalid marriage by "re-enacting" their wedding vows before a priest or deacon with (at least) two witnesses.  The original "best man" and "maid/matron of honor" need not be the witnesses, but certainly could be.

One typical example of a violation of canonical form takes place with outdoor weddings.  As far as I know, no diocese permits outdoor weddings.  Gardens, parks, and beaches are beautiful places.  They exhibit God's creation and manifest His presence.  But the sacred public action of marriage is limited to the sanctuary of a Catholic Church building.  In this and every unconventional scenario, it is best to consult the Chancery of the particular Diocese.  (Read one canonist's take on the matter.)

If people simply want to do what they want to do--have their "dream wedding" regardless of what the Church has to say about it--perhaps, for our benefit and theirs, it's best to let them go.  If they should eventually desire to return to the practice of their faith and reception of the Sacraments, we can help with convalidating their vows as soon as possible.  Couples must consider their motives, lest they intend to resort to subsequent convalidation just so they can get their way the first time.  Moreover, with the increasing likelihood of divorce, a wedding not conducted according to canonical form is easier to declare null.  We don't welcome divorce, but we don't ignore its unfortunate prevalence either.

Catholics who desire a second marriage in the Church when their first one was not conducted according to canonical form, cannot for that reason ignore that first "attempted" marriage.  It must be declared null by a version of the ecclesiastical annulment process that is less complicated than a "regular" declaration of nullity.  Either process--full-fledged ("formal") or half-fledged ("documentary")--helps the couple to deal squarely with the realities that precipitated the breakup of the first marriage, lest they repeat the physical, emotional, moral, and spiritual errors of the previous situation.  When a third marriage is sought, or for other reasons, the Church may stall a new celebration until the couple undergoes counseling.

Unless they have received an ecclesiastical "dispensation" (a relaxation of the law for this particular case, for just reasons, obtained through the agency of the priest/deacon preparing the couple for marriage), canonical form is the norm.

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Not to sound pessimistic...I shudder at the thought that many people, enmeshed in the "current crisis of faith" that the Pope describes--
  • hellbent on autonomy,
  • prostrating themselves before none, 
  • averse to adversity, 
  • willing above all their personal fulfillment as they currently envision it-- 
are incapable of valid sacramental marriage.  "As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be."  "The poor you will always have with you."

"Now they have wine...and soon, they will have whine."

As a priest I cannot judge certain invalidity in any couple's situation, although I may express suspicions, tactfully yet honestly.  In fact, I would be remiss to withhold grave reservations, just as much as a seminary formator would be for a severely narcissistic seminarian's advancement to Holy Orders.  Remember, Matrimony and Holy Orders each support the flourishing of the Church, and each therefore deserves the other's attentive regard.  If I could assist a couple to break off their engagement because one or both parties have discerned good reasons not to be married to each other, that would be a service to them, to the Church, and to society.  At the same time, I would also be remiss to discount or forget the grace of God: though it builds upon people's nature, it is always available to people who become willing to change even their worst character defects.

The Pope affirms at length and in depth the possibility of valid marriage, though formation for such must begin in the home, be nourished in the school, be practiced in the university, barracks, workplace, and wherever people are formed...quam primum (ASAP)!

If it seems, patient reader, like this blog's Reverend Author is on a "marriage kick," it's only because the Church and the world are, too.  People are still giving it a go.  Good for them, and good for the Church!  Marriage continues to be held in considerable esteem, despite the many assaults against it.  Even the assaults are a backward hommage to the institution.

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