When my wife, Elizabeth, and I were married a quarter century or so ago, she was a practicing Christian in a mainline Protestant denomination, and her pastor married us. (N.B.: Neither of our true names, nor anyone else’s, appears in this piece.) I was decidedly non-practicing, a self-described agnostic whose Catholic upbringing was, I thought, behind me for keeps. But when Elizabeth said to me more than a decade later that she was thinking about becoming a Catholic and wanted to know if I would return to the faith with her, I answered immediately, “Yes, I would.” My prompt response—no struggle, no fuss—surprised her, and I suppose it surprised me, too. Something was definitely at work in both of us—the Holy Spirit, perhaps—and her question and my answer were timed perfectly for one another.
Off we went to our local parish priest. We made sure to tell him that Elizabeth had been married twice before. Each marriage had ended badly, crashing on the rocks of the husband’s infidelity; both ex-husbands still lived, but no children had issued from either marriage. Fr. Colin listened to our story in a warm, welcoming way. For me he prescribed the sacrament of confession; I jokingly suggested that I book one of his free afternoons. For Elizabeth, it was off to RCIA, which, though already underway that autumn, would prepare her to be received with other new Catholics at the Easter vigil in the spring.
That was it. Nothing was said by Fr. Colin about annulment of those prior unions or any obstacle to reception of the sacraments by either of us. We joyfully plunged into the life of our small-town parish. Fr. Colin was a young “JP2” priest, devoted to the faith, orthodox in outlook, clear and bright on church teaching in his homilies. One reason I am not employing his name—or either of ours—is that we still have a great fondness for this priest. We still scratch our heads today, however, over his failure to alert us to church teaching on divorce, remarriage, and the sacraments, when so much else in his pastoral character was fine and admirable.
Mind you, as fairly educated people, we knew that Catholics who were married, then divorced, then remarried, faced real doctrinal difficulties. But I, the “cradle Catholic” in our marriage, had never been previously married, while Elizabeth had been raised in an Evangelical (indeed, quite anti-Catholic) denomination before moving to the more mainline church in which we were married. Neither of her prior marriages had been in the Catholic Church. We surmised that “the rules” in these matters must only apply to sacramental marriages in the Church, entered into by Catholics. Here my own ignorance was the more culpable, since I had been raised in the Church before leaving as a young adult. But I’d been poorly catechized, and . . . and hadn’t Fr. Colin just waved us through to the sacraments? Surely he’d know what was the right thing to do.
Moving years later to new jobs and a new hometown five hundred miles away, in a region more densely populated with Catholics, Elizabeth and I “shopped around” until we finally settled on a new parish. Our pastor, Fr. John, reminded us a lot of Fr. Colin, with the same youthful fervor for the faith, the same joy in celebrating the Mass, and the same love for the souls under his care. But just as we were joining in the life of the parish, Pope Francis convened the two Vatican synods on marriage and the family, in 2014 and 2015. Suddenly, the whole Catholic Church was talking about its teachings and doctrines on marriage and the sacraments.
It dawned on us, as we tried to keep up with what was being discussed, that the synod fathers were in fact talking about our situation—Elizabeth’s and mine. Okay, so we were slow on the uptake. Perhaps we still didn’t quite want to know whether Fr. Colin, our beloved former pastor, got something so important so very wrong.
Conversations with good friends in the Catholic laity, amateurs with some knowledge of doctrine and canon law, nudged us toward clarity. But the arguments at the two synods were pivotal. We came to understand that as far as the Church is concerned, marriage is a natural institution as well as a sacramental (and civil) one. Any marriage, therefore, into which two persons enter freely, with rightly informed intentions consistent with marriage’s purposes, is presumed to be indissoluble. (As we would learn much later, the Church can set aside this presumption in some rare cases of non-Christian couples when one spouse converts, but Elizabeth and both her previous husbands had all been baptized Christians already.)
Could the Church possibly say that because “the rules” about the indissolubility of marriage are Catholic rules, they therefore don’t apply to non-Catholics, even to baptized Christian non-Catholics, even when those persons become Catholics and put themselves under the jurisdiction of the Church’s teachings? If the Catholic Church operated by some version of an ex post facto principle, maybe the answer would be yes. Newcomers might say, “How can the Church expect us to have conformed our conduct to rules we disregarded before we took them on board as rules for ourselves?” If it had been I, the “collapsed” Catholic, with previous marriages to wrangle over, all right then; I may have ditched the rules for years on end but could still be called to account under them. But Elizabeth? How could she, a non-Catholic when married before, be held to the rules retroactively? And if she could not be, then our marriage was valid in the eyes of the Church, and so was our reception of the sacraments. Or so might the argument go.
At Synods 2014 and (especially) 2015, however, we gathered that the prelates were having the nearest thing prelates ever have to a knock-down, drag-out fight over whether the divorced and remarried should be admitted to the sacraments, even when they had been practicing Catholics all their lives and married in the Church to boot. From every report we saw or heard, it seemed an argument had broken out over one of the easiest questions there is about the status of marriage in the Catholic Church. For of course such “Catholic all the way down” marriages are indissoluble in the Church’s teaching.
The shock of learning that there were actual bishops and archbishops—some of them cardinals, no less—willing to water down that teaching, or effectively to abandon it altogether if an antinomian understanding of “conscience” were heeded, led us to pay closer attention to what was being said in the synods. Standing in the breach, on the other side of the debate, were synod fathers who dug more deeply into the Church’s theology of marriage in order to communicate why that teaching must remain intact and unwavering, and why subjective claims of “conscience” must not topple it.
From them we began to learn that it was ridiculous, from a theological standpoint, to expect some ex post facto escape hatch to open up for us. Marriage is the same reality for everyone, in all times and circumstances. Finding out the truth about that reality long after your conduct was over put you at odds with it. Your obligation to it remains. You are not relieved of responsibility to it on a “you didn’t know then what you know now” basis.
It was late fall 2015. The second synod was over. The exclamation point was stamped on our conviction to do something about our situation when we attended a talk at our parish by a monsignor who acts as a judge of the canon law tribunal in our diocese, considering annulment cases. He was, one might say, a case-hardened man, a priest with little outward sign of a pastoral personality—more of a no-nonsense lawyer in a Roman collar. We later found out that he was not at all lacking in the compassion that his task calls for, but his job that evening was informational. His subject was “irregular” marital situations; naturally we were hungry for clarity now, and we got it, right between the eyes. When his presentation was over, we looked at each other and said, “Let’s make an appointment to see Fr. John.”
That young pastor, trained in canon law, heard us out and gave it to us straight. Whatever Fr. Colin might have failed to tell us years earlier, we must stop presenting ourselves for the Eucharist at the Mass. If she thought she could make the case, Elizabeth must initiate a petition for a declaration of nullity of each of her prior marriages. We must resolve to live “as brother and sister” (no sexual relations) for the duration of that process, however long it took. (Tough cookie, this Fr. John. Many pastors would permit reception of the Eucharist for those living as brother and sister, or shrug at sexual relations so long as a couple did not receive. This double requirement was discipline, all right.)
As petitioner to the tribunal, Elizabeth bore a real burden of work and worry for months. The process of seeking an annulment requires unburdening oneself in many ways. Past intimate relationships must be recounted in print with perfect candor. My brave and beautiful Elizabeth spent many hours staring at a computer screen and into her past. She had to acquire documents and witnesses, and to find and put the tribunal in touch with both ex-husbands as respondents. Her faithful determination to undertake all this was truly inspiring to me. Meanwhile, for more than a year, we went to Mass every Sunday, and every holy day of obligation, sitting where we knew we could get in line to approach the celebrant priest (not a deacon or extraordinary minister) with our arms folded to receive a blessing.
Three months or so after our meeting with Fr. John, while Elizabeth was still in the midst of preparing her petitions, Pope Francis published Amoris Laetitia. It quickly came to light that some readers of that papal exhortation were taking it as a sign that the Church was moving away from the very teaching that had been reaffirmed at Synod 2015, and to which we had resolved with Fr. John to conform ourselves. I half-jokingly said to Elizabeth one day, “Do you suppose the pope is telling us ‘never mind’ about all this?” Her grim chuckle said it all. She was forging ahead, no matter what renewal of the synod arguments the Holy Father might be prompting.
It was late autumn 2016 before Elizabeth received official word from the tribunal: Both her petitions had been granted. Once the interval had passed during which an appeal from either respondent might be heard (neither filed any such appeal, both probably still mystified by all this Catholic canon law stuff), we met with Fr. John again about being released from the discipline he’d prescribed a year earlier and resuming our reception of the sacraments.
To our surprise, he said that the fitting conclusion to what we had been through would be for us to be married again, this time sacramentally in the Catholic Church—and he would like to marry us (after a good confession from each of us, of course). And if we could stick to our discipline for a few more weeks until then, he would like us to read Familiaris Consortio, the 1981 papal exhortation of St. John Paul II, our “pre-Cana,” as it were.
And so we did. We read Familiaris and discussed it with each other and with Fr. John. In early February, we gathered our nearest and dearest and were joined in a truly holy matrimony, this time in a wedding Mass celebrated by our wonderful young pastor, to whom we will always be grateful. As I have said to Elizabeth more than once, I am overjoyed to be, now, her true and only husband, joined with her forever in the sight of God.
We are grateful as well to the Holy Father. Whatever his intentions, whatever history will say about his papacy, whatever the future standing of Amoris Laetitia in the library of papal statements—it was Pope Francis who started the conversation. It was he who flipped the switch that lit up, in blazing neon for us, the unalterable teaching of Mother Church. That started us on our way to getting right with that teaching.
For the Holy Father, then, and for priests like Fr. Colin and Fr. John (the one who brought us into the faith and the other who reordered our relation to it), and for marriage, for the truth about marriage, and for couples struggling to live in the light of that truth, we offer up our grateful prayers. We have been truly blessed to come fully, unreservedly, into the Church.
James Zacchaeus is the pseudonym of a writer in the Northeast.