Blessing the Union

Today’s Huffington Post reports that Pope Benedict has laid down some standards for priests counseling engaged couples…

VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI told priests Saturday to do a better job counseling would-be spouses to ensure their marriages last and said no one has an absolute right to a wedding.

Benedict made the comments in his annual speech to the Roman Rota, the Vatican tribunal that decides marriage annulments. An annulment is the process by which the church effectively declares that a marriage never took place.

Benedict acknowledged that the problems that would allow for a marriage to be annulled cannot always be identified beforehand. But he said better pre-marriage counseling, which the Catholic Church requires of the faithful, could help avoid a “vicious circle” of invalid marriages.

This is the Church doing its job. The Catholic Church, or any religious group, can and should make it clear which life events it will celebrate, and who it will accept into its membership.

Also, the Pope is telling priests to offer the best pre-marital counseling, with a goal of preventing marriages that are likely to bring grief and breakup. This is religion helping people to live better lives.

Most people who seek pre-marital counseling from a priest didn’t just wander in the door. They want a Catholic wedding. They could just go to a Justice of the Peace, and make it legal, but they want the blessing of the priest, and for that they have to follow the rules of the Church.

We don’t demand that non-Catholics follow the rules of the Church. The Church has a moral stand that divorced people can’t re-marry, but we don’t expect the State to conform to that. Saints be praised.

I’m no longer a Catholic, so it’s as an outsider that I say that the custom of ‘annulment’ seems less respectful of marriage than legal divorce. To me, claiming that vows made in good faith and a marriage attempted never existed is to deny that we are fallible, and sometimes make promises we can’t keep. It also denies that most marriages that break up had some good times, and some ex-spouses are loving and unselfish as parents.

It’s got to be painful when after the trauma of divorce an ex-spouse receives a Church summons for annulment. It’s a protection for them that the State recognizes a legal marriage contract apart from any actions by the Church. The Diocese of Providence requires that couples obtain a legal divorce before they will consider an annulment petition, in line with standard Church practice. The legal marriage cannot be legally disolved by the Church, and the religious vows cannot be undone by the State.

My good friend, after a painful divorce, asked her Rabbi for a Jewish ceremony for healing and to put to rest the vows that could not be kept.

The State recognizes and validates a union. Religion meets spiritual needs. Both have their place.

If we accepted that the Catholic Church should influence divorce law, because a majority of Rhode Islanders are Catholic, we might please the majority– who might see this as defending marriage. But it would be a mess for the rest of us.

The Pope is absolutely right to focus on good premarital counseling as a way to protect marriage in his Church, and the Church should bless only those unions it considers valid.

They should let the State be the State, legal protection for all citizens regardless of religion. They should let same-sex couples, divorced, inter-religious, non-Catholic– go to City Hall. Or to a church that will welcome and affirm their union.

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