Most of the couples who turn up in my office asking to be married in the Catholic Church are already living together. A large number of Catholics who come to Mass are in second or third marriages. Some of them have received nullity decrees, many have not. Soon same sex couples will come to Catholic churches and schools expecting full membership. Some who attend Mass are living openly with another man or woman with no intention of seeking marriage. Others are promiscuous yet exercise full membership in the Church.

To put it bluntly, our marriage and family discipline in the church is all over the place. The situation is complicated in that our marriage disciplines, while derived from natural law and the Sacred Scriptures, have also been understood within the social context (for most people) of a supportive small local community which was comprised of a few extended families. That kind of community has its own bedroom police. For the most part everybody knew what everybody else was up to. If Johnny started having sex with Ginny, Ginny’s dad and brothers would go around to pay Johnny and his folks a visit. If a girl was “loose” her reputation would be spoiled and she wouldn’t get a good husband. Taboos were in place which helped form adolescents in a Christian morality. The Church was the centerpiece of such local communities and Christian teaching from the Church, supported by the extended family and without the ease of artificial contraception, kept sexuality within acceptable boundaries.

Sure people misbehaved. All the old sins that break marriage were available, but there was condemnation, exclusion and punishment by society for sexual wrongdoing.

I’m not suggesting we go back to those days because we can’t. However, I can express my frustration as a Catholic priest in trying to grapple with the laws of the Church on marriage and the reality of modern day society. In the area of sexual behavior so many are so far from the Catholic ideal, and so far from even understanding the Catholic ideal that I feel like I am paddling upstream all the time. I am therefore hopeful that the bishops’ synod on the family may help us find some way through the morass–maybe they’ll establish C.L.A.S.P–Catholic Liason and Sex Police….squads of former nuns in jackboots who respond at a moment’s notice and invade divorced people’s homes to make sure they’re living as brother and sister…

Seriously, it gets worse: the Catholic priests themselves are not united in what to do. First there is Father Hardline–who upholds Catholic law to the letter. If a person is divorced and remarried they have to live together as brother and sister until the decree of nullity comes through. “You bet we have bedroom police haven’t you heard of C.L.A.S.P??”  Same sex couples? There’s the door. Couples co-habiting and asking for a church wedding? “Come and see me once you’ve been living separately for six months. Inner forum? What the heck is that?? 

Then, on the other end of the spectrum is Father Luvme. “The Church needs to be welcoming! We accept everyone! Waiting for your annulment before you are received into the church? Nah, we’ll do that this week. We welcome all! Living together before marriage? That’s okay. Praise the Lord that you now want to affirm your love before him! Divorced and remarried? Mistakes happen. We can live with your pain and walk with you! Divorced and re-married again? No problem. You are clearly the victim…” You get the idea.

What Father Hardline and Father Luvme don’t see is the pain, anger, confusion and frustration they are causing. Father Hardline drives people away from the church with his harsh legalism and probably doesn’t give two hoots. He likes Benedict XVI’s idea that the church will be smaller and more pure, and if he can help bring that about all the better.

The real sneak is Father Luvme. In his utter conviction that he is probably one of the world’s nicest people he surrounds himself with his adoring fan club of people he’s been kind to, and why has he been so lax with them? Was it really to be nice to them or because he needs the love baby?

What he doesn’t see are all the other people who are scandalized, confused and angry with his behavior. He doesn’t see (or perhaps doesn’t care) about the feelings of the couple who have waited for two years before being received into the church because they respected the marriage discipline of the church–in fact the marriage discipline of the church is one of the things that made them want to be Catholic. Fr Luvme  doesn’t even know people like that exist–much less that he has slapped them in the face.

What he doesn’t see is that for every person who thinks he’s Mr Wonderful for cutting them some slack and bending the rules for them there are five other people who think he’s a hypocrite, a false teacher and his own little pope who thinks he can make up the rules as he goes along. He doesn’t see the people who think his lax attitude is causing scandal by teaching their children that the marriage discipline of the church doesn’t matter and more than that–the authority of the church doesn’t matter. In being nice to a few people Fr Luvme is damaging many more in ways he can’t see.

I don’t pretend to have the solution. I’m a fairly young priest and a convert to the Catholic faith. However, it seems to me that there can be a middle way. It is possible to explain the marriage discipline of the church to people and “walk with them in their pain” through the nullity process. A fellow priest told me about his conversation with a woman who was divorced and re-married and wanted him to be Father Luvme and admit him to communion:

He said, “I’m sorry for your situation, and to tell you the truth, I wish I could just wave a magic wand and make it different. I also wish that I was given the authority to decide whether you should come to communion or not, but I don’t have that authority. All I can do is offer you the teaching of the Catholic Church. I know the teaching is hard to live up to. I realize it will be a challenge to you and your husband, but let’s aim for the best! If you explain to your children why you are not going to communion and that you are living with the discipline of the church, let me tell you that they will respect you enormously and they will probably keep the faith. If you do not, then eventually they will learn that you are a hypocrite and they will not respect you or the Catholic faith. So why don’t we work together to bring the best out of this messy situation?”

He explained that he it was possible to be both pastoral and to uphold the disciplines of the church. Let’s face it, we might be able to tinker with pastoral approaches and make suggestions on how to improve the Marriage Tribunal process, but there’s not much wiggle room. The Church’s teaching on marriage and family life are rooted in the order of creation, the Sacred Scriptures, and the teaching of the Lord himself.

It’s not something the church has the authority to change.