Skip to content

How null is this marriage? Let me count the ways.

A few days ago, Archbishop Paul Coakley of Oklahoma City learned that one of his priests, Fr. Dan Letourneau, had entered civil marriage with a woman late last year. The secular press, most of whom know little about faith or religion beyond what they’ve read in the newspapers, refer to Fr. Letourneau as “married” and as having “a wife”. Catholics must read things more precisely. Letourneau’s “marriage” is null in at least two ways—and, since only one way is needed to make a marriage completely null, then, this one is null.

First, and most importantly, Letourneau’s ordination (to diaconate, by the way) rendered him incapable of marrying (c.  1087)—unless expressly dispensed for marriage by the Holy See (c. 1078 § 1, 1° and c. 1079) which, of course, never happened. There is no need to inquire further: Letourneau’s civil status is married but, in the eyes of the Church, he is not married at all. He seems to be, in fact, in a criminous state (c. 1394 § 1) for having attempted even a civil marriage.

Second, Letourneau’s “marriage” is null for its having been attempted in violation of “canonical form” (c. 1008). I take the occasion to remind readers of my preference to see canonical form removed from the books but, unless and until that day comes, the canon law is crystal clear and it results in Letourneau’s already-null “marriage” being even … nuller. If that’s a word.

Finally, I know nothing of Letourneau’s civil wife, but more grounds for nullity might yet be found there. If, say, she had been previously married and divorced, that would make her attempt at marriage null for ligamen (previous bond, c. 1085) or, if she were not baptized, that would render an attempted marriage null for undispensed disparity of cult (c. 1086).

But, as I said above, only one ground of nullity need be present to render a “marriage” completely null, and here, we have at least two grounds. Letourneau and wife are civilly married, of course; that lets them enjoy the benefits of civil marriage, e.g., filing a joint tax return. What good that might be at the Pearly Gates is not clear to me.

If pastoral progress is to be made, we have to pay closer attention to terms

Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, recently called upon participants in an international conference on laity and families to consider how practicing Catholic spouses can witness to those who “are not living the ‘fullness of Christian marriage’”. That notion, namely, that of not living the fullness of Christian marriage—warrants careful reflection lest confusion about Church teaching on marriage arise and pastorally dubious programs be built on that confusion.

First, many Christians do not “live the fullness of Christian marriage” because they are not married: most priests, all religious, widows and widowers, children, etc. Second, many married persons do not “live the fullness of Christian marriage” because they are not Christian: Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and so on. The cardinal doubtless had no intention of including these groups in his remarks, but the phrasing he used admits them and, in that sense at least, he is speaking imprecisely.

Those groups aside, however, there are many married Catholics who do not “live the fullness of Christian marriage” because, say, they practice contraception or they consistently fail to model the Faith properly to each other and to their children. If the cardinal has these persons in mind as needing the special witness of couples in Christian marriage who try to live in accord with the teachings of Christ and his Church—and some of the prelate’s remarks suggest that he did have them in mind—then one can only say “Amen!” and pray that some concrete suggestions for offering good witness to them come from the conference.

But, I fear, the wider context of the cardinal’s remarks suggests that the primary referent for his phrase ‘those not living the fullness of Christian marriage’ was not as above, but rather, that he meant Catholics who are divorced-and-civilly-remarried—if so, then a very serious error has slipped in.

Setting aside a few hypothetically possible scenarios, the vast majority of Catholics who are divorced-and-civilly-remarried are not ‘failing to live the fullness of Christian marriage’, as they are not married at all. Such persons are, of course, in obvious need of pastoral outreach, but to describe them as being in “Christian marriage” at all is to speak as if a tertium quid existed between single Christians and married Christians, as if, in other words, “sort-of married” Christians were doctrinally possible. But, they aren’t.

Too many married Christians fail to ‘live the fullness of Christian marriage’, but to approach those who are not married and who do not have the sacraments as if they were in essentially the same pastoral condition as those who are married and who do have the sacraments, is to try to build, of all things, a pastoral plan on a seriously mistaken foundation.

He is called ‘Defender’ of the Bond for a reason

In his remarks on the 10th anniversary of Dignitas connubii, the 2005 Roman instruction for processing petitions regarding declaration for matrimonial nullity (annulments), Pope Francis comments on, among other things, the role of the Defender of the Bond, asserting that the “presence [of the DOB] and the faithful fulfillment of his task does not condition the judge, but rather allows and promotes the impartiality of his judgment by setting before him the arguments for and against annulment”.

Arguments for and against annulment?

Canon 1432 of the Johanno-Pauline Code states “A defender of the bond is to be appointed in a diocese for cases concerning the nullity of sacred ordination or the nullity or dissolution of a marriage; the defender of the bond is bound by office to propose and explain everything which reasonably can be brought forth against nullity or dissolution.” There is no warrant here–or anywhere else in the 1983 Code–for DOBs to make arguments for nullity.

Dignitas connubii  56 § 3 itself states “In every grade of trial, the defender is bound by the obligation to propose any kind of proofs, responses and exceptions that, without prejudice to the truth of the matter, contribute to the protection of the bond (cf. can. 1432)” and § 5 thereof drives home that “The defender can never act in favor of the nullity of marriage; if in a special case he has nothing that can be reasonably proposed or argued in favor of the bond, the defender can remit himself to the justice of the court.” Again, plainly, there is no canonical authorization for DOBs to make arguments for nullity, and indeed, there is an express prohibition against such conduct.

On occasion there are, as noted in Dignitas, matrimonial cases in which no significant arguments in favor of the marriage can be asserted. This unusual possibility was recognized at least as far back as Pope Pius XII who, in his classic allocution to the Roma Rota in 1944 (CLD VI: 612-622), acknowledged that, out of respect for the truth of a given case, a DOB need not concoct ‘defenses’ of the bond that strain credulity. In such cases, said Pius (a degreed canonist and protégée of the great Gasparri), the DOB is not to argue in favor of nullity, but rather, once satisfied that procedural requirements have been met, he may observe that he has no arguments in favor of the bond to offer. Even so, as the CLSA Tribunal Handbook notes at p. 27, “This should be a rare occurrence.”

Francis is not a specialist in canon law, of course, and, as far as I know, has no significant experience in tribunal work, so, I imagine, someone is helping him draft speeches for canonical audiences. But, whatever their provenance, papal remarks that assume Defender of the Bond duties are equally divided between defending and impugning marriage will tend, I fear, to cause confusion among tribunal personnel who are trying to abide by the law and can blur the Church’s witness to the permanence of marriage.

Update: The Italian original of the sentence reads: “La sua presenza e il compimento fedele del suo compito non condiziona il giudice, bensì consente e favorisce l’imparzialità del suo giudizio, essendogli posti dinanzi gli argomenti a favore e contrari alla dichiarazione di nullità del matrimonio.” We now have a discussion about how to translate this phrase going on Facebook, “Canon Law”.

My Q & A on ‘continence’, ‘celibacy’, and ‘chastity’

A Catholic Q & A columnist recently offered an explanation of terms “continence”, “celibacy”, and “chastity”. My explanation would have differed in several respects. Shall we?

Hi, and thanks for your question about “continence”, “celibacy”, and “chastity”. I understand why you are confused. These terms are widely misunderstood and misused not just in the secular media but even among Catholics.  Let me suggest how they are best used in Catholic contexts.

Celibacy is the chosen, deliberately made, resolve not to enter marriage. Celibacy is not simply ‘being single’ (else, every child is a ‘celibate’), but rather, it means having chosen to live single either for a while (e.g., till I finish grad school, or till my ailing mother dies) or for life (e.g., I have been ordained or I took permanent religious vows). Celibacy can be chosen for good reasons (e.g., I wish to follow the Lord more freely, or I wish to serve as a nurse in poor countries) or for bad reasons (e.g., I despise people and refuse to share my life with anyone), but, standing alone, celibacy means only that a choice not to enter marriage has been made and is being observed. Such a person, and only such a person, is properly called ‘celibate’.

That being understood, single persons, whether single because of circumstances (e.g., I have not yet met Miss Right, or my husband died last year) or because they are celibate, are restricted in the sexual activity they can engage in. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but those restrictions include what we will call “continence”. But when discussing celibacy, keep in mind that it is a chosen way of life, a way of life that has certain consequences, yes, but fundamentally, a way of life.

Continence is the choice not to engage in sexual relations. Again, the element of choice is important because simply not having sex does not necessarily mean that one is ‘continent’. A castaway on a desert island might have no food to eat but we would not say he is ‘dieting’, why? because ‘dieting’ implies that one makes a choice about not eating. Now, a single person (again, whether single by circumstances or because one is celibate) is required to exercise, among other things, continence. But married persons, too, might observe continence. Mary and Joseph are the classic examples: they were not, repeat not, celibate; they were, repeat were, continent.

Sometimes you will run across the phrase “periodic continence” or even notions like ‘selective continence’. I avoid these terms, because, continence, carefully considered, is usually tied to a state of life (chiefly, being single, but other possibilities exist) and hence  continence is of long (often permanent) duration; per se continence is not a response to circumstances in life. Example? a married couple might decide to give up conjugal relations during Lent, but the better description of their choice, because it is temporary, is “abstinence”; likewise a couple who avoids relations at certain times of the month as part of natural family planning—such couples are abstaining, not, properly speaking, observing continence. And to describe sexual fidelity to one’s spouse as ‘selective continence’ is just creepy.

Chastity is the exercise of that virtue whereby one’s sexual powers are used properly and in accord with one’s state in life. A non-married person (again, whether single or actually celibate) is chaste by observing, among other things, continence; but a married person is chaste by engaging in conjugal relations! In both cases it’s the same virtue at work—chastity, the proper use of one’s sexual powers—but the actions are obviously quite different. Similarly, if a married person does with a third-party exactly what is done with a spouse, that would be unchastity, even though the actions appear the same.

In short: the Church teaches that everyone is called to observe chastity at all times; she holds that all single persons are called to observe continence; and she recognizes that some single persons laudably choose celibacy as a way of life.

Okay? Best, edp.

Junky journalism on celibacy — Umpteenth example.

Reuters just published a junky article on celibacy. It’s been awhile since I waded through one of these fact-free zones that masquerade as religious journalism, but some enforced leisure allows for a few minutes of diversion.  Article excerpts in black, my comments in red.

* * *

Every Sunday morning, dozens of Roman Catholics gather … in the central Philippines to listen to Father Jess Siva share his personal experiences as a priest, and as a parent [As a parent? Not impossible. Let’s see…] … But while his small flock admire him, Church leaders in the Philippines consider him persona non grata for failing to adhere to one of the most important tenets of the priesthood – abstaining from sex. [Okay, even a stopped clock is right twice a day, so yes, as a matter of fact, priests are required to abstain perpetually from sex, but there is no way this cleric or the journalist writing the article know that or are aware of the debate surrounding that specific point. They will repeatedly confuse continence (abstaining from sex) and celibacy (refraining from marriage) for the rest of the article.]

“This is a very serious problem within the Church,” [No, it’s not a serious problem in the Church, it’s a serious, self-inflicted, problem for Siva (who doubtless knew the rules going into things but chose to flout them), for the mother of his kids, and of course for their kids; Siva might do better not to project his problems on the whole Church] Siva, who is the father of two boys from a relationship with a member of his congregation’s choir, told Reuters.

“I hope Pope Francis will recognize us.” [The Church, and the pope, do recognize Siva as a priest, but as one’s who conduct is so gravely contrary to canon law and moral teaching that he is not permitted to minister.]

In the Philippines, which accounts for about half of Asia’s Roman Catholics, Siva is not alone. A handful of priests have been asked to leave the priesthood for fathering children. [Actually, I doubt that; children are, here, evidence that a priest has violated canon law and moral teaching by having sex with a woman who is not his wife, and on that ground he might have been removed from ministry, but her getting pregnant is not what’s wrong with the picture.]

On Jan. 11 Siva baptized the five-month-old son, and fourth child, of fellow Catholic priest Hector Canto. [Okay, anyone can baptize validly, including “a cleric who attempts marriage, even if only civilly” contrary to Canon 1394, or one “who lives in concubinage” contrary to Canon 1395.] Siva officiated at Canto’s marriage in 1997. [That, or he thinks he did. If Canto was not laicized and if the impediment of Orders (c. 1087) was not dispensed, then whatever ceremony they participated in, it was invalid.]

… The archdiocese of Jaro, which includes the town of Lambunao, frowns upon his actions, saying the priestly activities of Siva, Canto and another priest, Elmer Cajilig, are “illicit”. [That’s putting it mildly. Most of these priests’ activities are “illicit”—which is serious stuff in canon law and moral theology—and some of it is likely “invalid”—which is even more serious. But I doubt these distinctions mean much to the priests involved.]

“They are on their own,” Jaro Archbishop Angel Lagdameo told Reuters. “They have violated our rules on celibacy. [Right, and on a few other things] We do not recognize them.” [Well, assuming their Orders are valid, they are doubtless ‘recognized’ as priests per se, but that’s pretty much it.]

But Filipino Catholic bishops have done nothing to stop the ministry of the three priests who have openly violated the Church discipline. [Exactly what else is there for bishops to do? The Church has no police force, it has no jails to put canonical criminals in. So what else, beyond making clear the canonical status of these men, does one think the Church can, let alone, should do?]

A reasonable suggestion, reasonably made

Antonio Cdl. Canizares Llovera of Valencia, Spain, has suggested raising the number of cardinals eligible to vote for the pope from 120 to 140. It is a reasonable suggestion and, if adopted, would be preferable to simply disregarding, as more than one pope has done in recent memory, ecclesiastical law on the subject (Universi Dominici gregis, Intro & n. 33). Always better, I think, to consider a rule, adopt it if it seems good, stick with it (even if it’s inconvenient), and be willing to re-consider it if circumstances change—as they inevitably will over time.

Now, while we’re considering modifications in regard to conclaves (c. 349), might we give some renewed thought to Bl. Pope Paul VI’s idea, twice floated in March of 1973, about allowing the Synod of Bishops (and Eastern Patriarchs) to play some role in papal elections? I’d be happy to make the argument for this inclusion (and against it, for that matter*), but for now, I simply want to remind folks that the idea is out there, and warrants, I think, a closer look.

For an English version of Paul’s ideas see The Pope Speaks 18 (1973-1974) 58-59 and 67-69. + + +

* Permit me to say, though, just briefly, about the negative argument attributed to Cdl. Siri (that expanding electors beyond cardinals is a bad idea because cardinals do not have to meet anyone’s expectations, while bishops do), well, I can’t imagine the great prelate meant it the way it seems to have come out.

Is the Oscar Romero case asking the right question?

I have no doubt that Abp. Oscar Romero was a hero of the Catholic faith and the Salvadoran people. I have no doubt that he was murdered by soldiers in retaliation against what he bravely stood for, namely, Christian charity toward all. And I have no reasonable doubt that he is or is destined (hedging only because God works outside of time, so I am not sure what “now” and “later” exactly mean here) to enjoy eternal life with God.

Bearing that in mind, I thought that Pope Benedict XVI shared these basic views but was cautious about calling Romeo a “martyr” because the archbishop’s political enemies were clearly behind his murder—a view I thought at the time missed the central point. So what if the archbishop’s political enemies wanted him dead? Murder can still be martyrdom if, among other things, it is done in odium Fidei, regardless of whether other motives contributed to the deed. A pontifical commission seems to have reached this conclusion, too. I think they are, in that respect, correct.

But there is another question about the alleged martyrdom of Romero that I don’t see being squarely faced: traditionally, a martyr makes a choice to accept death instead of renouncing the faith. That is not quite the same thing as one’s being murdered because someone else hates the Faith. The martyr knows that death is not an abstract possibility but that it is facing him right here, right now, and that he can escape that death by renouncing the Faith right here, right now. My question about Romero’s murder, then, is whether his being ambushed at Mass satisfies that criterion of martyrdom. Yes, the man of God was gunned down because he proclaimed Christ in the midst of chaos—that, and other things of course, make him a saint. But does simply being murdered because someone hates our Catholic Faith make one a martyr?

I don’t know. 

Now, maybe the traditional understanding of martyrdom is not as cut and dried as I have come to understand it; if so, scholars can clarify that misunderstanding for us. Or, maybe the traditional understanding of martyrdom is not adequate for today’s complex world; if so, the Church can modify her understanding of martyrdom. But, maybe, the traditional understanding of martyrdom is clear, and is correct, and should be retained. Which would make Romero a magnificent saint, but not strictly a martyr.

I doubt the answer to this question makes much difference to Romero, but it would, I suggest, help us to think more clearly about Faith and life and death in this Valley of Tears. Especially as the question is bound to rise again.

Postscript: Yes, I am reasonably familiar with the Maximilian Kolbe and the Edith Stein cases. Without offering an opinion on them, may I say, they rest on significantly different facts than does the Romero case and they raise some different questions. Here I am looking only at the Romero case and those substantially like it.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 1,162 other followers