JOHN HANNON. Complexities of Catholic marriage.

Oct 12, 2018

As Brendan Byrne SJ, scripture scholar, comments on today’s Gospel( 7 October 2018): Any pastor would be aware that no Sunday Gospel read throughout the year… will require more careful handling than this one… To simply read out the rulings of Jesus in the Gospel without comment or nuance would be to turn Gospel into Law, and simply add to a burden of guilt that may already be oppressive” So, here goes, for my take!

HOMILY 2018 27TH SUNDAY OF ORDINARY TIME YEAR B (Mk 10.2-16 (Gen 2.18-20, Hb 2.9-11)

A priest was quoted to me as saying from the pulpit at Mass one Sunday in the not so distant past, words to this effect: “Any person who is divorced in this church should not be here, because you are a cause of scandal”! Does this reflect the attitude of Jesus in today’s Gospel? Absolutely not!! The scandal came straight from the silly man in the pulpit, with his wrong, ignorant and judgemental attitude!! The person who told me this, in approaching the Tribunal about the possibility of nullity said she had not been to Mass for a long time after this traumatic and unjust experience. And so, to those who here present, who have been through the difficult process of divorce or annulment, and, to those who have been divorced and remarried, annulled or not, you are most welcome to participate in our diverse community, and I commend you for being here, sticking with your faith and faith community, seeking spiritual strength and nourishment, as well as friendship and a sense of belonging. As Pope Francis has said, our model for Church is ‘a field hospital’ for sinners, all of us ‘walking wounded’in some way or other, whatever our situation. We are diverse People of God on the journey of life, at whatever stage we are at. This is no ‘Perfect Society’, as we well know, at all levels.

I say that divorce is a necessary good thing in terms of enabling freedom from a relationship, usually entered with the best of intentions, and with genuine love, in the first place. It is rare that anyone marries with a clear intention of it not lasting, although it is possible. I recall a hostile respondent opposing nullity, who blamed Germaine Greer and Lionel Murphy (long dead even then), for his wife divorcing him, the former giving her ideas about her own rights, and the latter introducing no-fault divorce into Australian law way back there in 1975. As this chap ranted and raved, pounding my desk, I could quite understand her reasons for ending it, and wondered why she had put up with such a person for as long as she had! Another chap opposed to annulment, memorably spoke of how his wife always had his primary affections and any other incidental dalliances on his travels with work were just, as he put it, ‘hors d’oeuvres’!! This hardly indicated a commitment to fidelity, among other considerations. Needless to say, both cases went through in the affirmative.

A few years ago, I felt compelled to reply, in the Sydney Morning Herald, to a letter written critical of Catholic priests, who, it was said, advised women in an abusive marriage to remain in it, no matter what. They printed my response, that this had never been my pastoral practice, rather the opposite, and that as a priest for 40 years now, and an ecclesiastical judge for over 30 years, I had been happily engaged with, helping set free, individuals, for whom the dream of a happy and permanent marriage had died. Over that time, I have judged, literally, thousands of nullity cases, enabling them to get on with life in the Church, and to have the opportunity for a loving marriage to a new partner, or at least be declared free of a commitment, which fell far short of what marriage should be, in terms of mutual and equal partnership.

As an old and wise priest friend of mine (Monsignor John F Kelly, of happy memory) once said: “What would celibate men in black dresses know about marriage and raising children anyway?” He also spoke of a hazard of celibacy being that, as priests, our eccentricities and idiosyncrasies can flower and flourish, without a partner to straighten us out, and knock off some of the rough edges, along the way, noting that as one of the benefits of marriage in partnership and growth in life and love together! He did have a point!

There is nothing sacred about an abusive or dysfunctional relationship, within or without marriage. Everyone has a right to find peace of mind and a sense of personal equilibrium in life. Where there is deep unhappiness, fear or oppression, some resolution and relief need to be found, and there is a fundamental right to do so.

Marriage is far more than just a personal or social contract in society. Certainly, it provides a secure and stable base for family life and formation and education of children, towards whom Jesus speaks and acts affirmingly and lovingly, following his words on the serious nature of marriage. At the same time, if it is a sacred commitment, defined as a covenant of life and love, in theological terms, then surely this must be reflected in the way a couple relate to and respect each other, with the intention and the capacity to grow together, strengthened to face life’s challenges as equal partners, with all of the ups and downs, the joys and sorrows that are part of every life.

Of course, there is no perfect marriage, but there needs to be the basic maturity to understand that love is not on ‘automatic pilot’, and that love as passionate attraction, in itself, is not sufficient for a lifetime commitment. Where it works, it is wonderful, but where it does not, it can be disastrous for both, and for the good of children as well. More harm can be done to them in an unhealthy home environment, where dysfunction prevails, than in an alternative peaceful and loving scene.

When we look at it, it is hard enough to get one’s own act together in life, (as I find in myself!) let alone hope one’s partner has also, and then there is the challenge of moving along in the same direction, facing the unforseeable future together.

Annulment has been mistakenly described as ‘ecclesiastical divorce’. This is not to deny the reality of a marriage in the first place, presuming good intentions and love, but the conclusion is that this commitment fell short, for whatever reason, of what constitutes a sacred bond. A person cannot be bound to an impossible situation, where there are elements of misery, unhappiness or a vacuum, in terms of the absence of mature love, affection and interpersonal growth. And it is not length of marriage or number of children which determines these aspects.

Once more, I return to Vatican II’s final document in 1965, “Gaudium et spes” (“Hope and Joy”, or “The Church in the Modern World”), where it is clearly stated that marriage is a partnership of love and life, for the mutual good of the parties, as one of the key elements of marriage, equally important to the other 3 dimensions of children, fidelity and permanence, the latter coming from Augustine, in the 4th century. In 1969, (just to finish off the turbulent 1960’s!), my final year of school, the year of the moon landing, and the Concorde and Jumbo jet taking off, a landmark decision for annulment was given by the Roman Rota, on psychological grounds, which opened the way for local Church Tribunals to move forward in granting annulments. That year, only one marriage was annulled in Victoria & Tasmania, probably on the traditional grounds of negative intentions. By 1992, there were over 300 here for the year. In general simple terms, grave immaturity of judgement is the commonest ground. And, don’t we know, nothing beats youthful immaturity and infatuation, in terms of heading towards inevitable disaster?

We have to live with the facts, that 33% or so of marriages entered in Australia, do end in divorce, not a good thing in itself, but for Catholics, there is the means of having an opportunity to remarry in the Church, following annulment. Marriage rarely ends lightly; there are always serious underlying problems, often not externally observed. Moreover, in some situations, where annulment is not possible, there is the ‘good conscience’ solution, also referred to as ‘Internal Forum’, also a means of moving forward in a new committed relationship, and fully participating in Catholic life.

It is all very well to be self-righteous and judgemental, but no-one knows what goes on behind closed doors, and it is up to each of us to do our best in trying to live up to the call of Christian discipleship in our own lives and relationships.

Today’s Gospel has further strong words from Jesus, following his call to discipleship, presenting an ideal as to what marriage should be, but there can be no question that it be binding for all situations, given human nature, weakness, psychological, personality and behavioural complications, and occasional negative intentions or deceit.

Let’s not forget the encounters Jesus had with so-called ‘sinful’ women, from the woman caught in adultery (and, by the way, where’s the man, who seems to most unfairly have got off the hook?), about to be stoned to death by the self-righteous and judgemental Pharisees, to the woman at the well, who had a run of husbands or partners along the way (more fool the 6 or 7 chaps who took her on!). With Jesus, there is always outreach, another chance, words of compassion, understanding, forgiveness and hope.

John Hannon is the Parish Priest at St. Therese’s Essendon, Victoria.

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