Priests Should Mind Their Own Business

Priests Should Mind Their Own Business June 10, 2021

A couple of months ago, I examined the case of a lay moral theologian who presumed to offer advice to an elderly Catholic married couple about their sex life. I’ve noted there and elsewhere that, toward the end of my tenure at Catholic Answers, the apostolate moved away from the one-to-one apologetics I specialized in, preferring to focus strictly on theology and philosophy. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that Catholic Answers chose to open up its platform to “Dear Abby apologetics” from a priest. It’s okay if you’re ordained, I guess.

In a recent article for Catholic Answers’ online magazine, Fr. Thomas Morrow, best known for his book, Christian Courtship in an Oversexed World (since retitled Christian Dating in a Godless World), told the story of a couple he was preparing for marriage. (Disclaimer: I’ve edited the punctuation slightly for clarity.)

I needed to contact the bride-to-be. When I called her number, I got the phone company’s recording: “This number has been changed to the following number—” It was the fiancé’s number!

Well, my goodness, there’s a shocker, Father. Did you breathe into a paper bag and reflect for awhile to discern any possible innocent reasons there could be to explain why this couple might share the same phone number before leaping to the worst conclusion (cf. CCC 2478)? Especially since you noted that “this woman was in our St. Catherine Society for single women, striving for a deeper relationship with the Lord. [The couple] had been doing everything right”?

I called them. The fiancé answered, and I asked, “What have you done? This is terrible!” He told me they weren’t having sex. “It’s still a huge problem,” I said. “You need to come in to see me as soon as possible.”

So, not only a hard no on avoiding rash judgment, but Fr. Morrow recounts that when the groom-to-be asked anxiously if the couple’s wedding plans would now be derailed, the priest responded ominously, “That depends on you and what you do.”

Perhaps as a consequence of being a laywoman with no real authority, I learned over the years to be careful about jumping to conclusions based on initial impressions. When I was a staff apologist at Catholic Answers, the protocol for phone calls was to ask clients to leave a voice mail with their question and contact information. One reason for this protocol was to give the apologists time to research the answers and to consider our approach before engaging the clients about their concern. Over time, I came to realize that there were significant benefits to this approach, even beyond not having to be a human encyclopedia to engage in apologetics work. Here are a couple of the lessons I learned:

Every person has a story. Even when the question was as simple as “Did the Virgin Mary have more children after Jesus was born?” there was always a story behind why the question was asked. The radio apologists occasionally complained about callers who had trouble getting to the point of their call and asking their question (understandably, given the limitations of on-air time); the in-house apologists had time to listen to stories of the parents of adult children who left the Church for a Fundamentalist Protestant community, of parish catechists who needed help responding to students, of cradle Catholics who had never learned the whys behind the dogmas.

Listening to those stories taught me not to judge a person by the surface details he provided. If I picked up a voice mail message with a question about the Church’s teaching on cohabitation, I knew that there could be any number of reasons why the question was being asked. I didn’t assume before talking to the person that there was legitimate reason to fear that Something Terrible was going on.

Life is messy. We heard from clients who wanted to know if they could cohabit with romantic partner so long as they didn’t have sexual relations. When we listened to the story, we often found out that it wasn’t nearly as easy as Fr. Morrow suggested for people to find alternative living arrangements. In one case, a grandmother wanted to offer shelter to a pregnant granddaughter and her boyfriend, who were in danger of homelessness. The boyfriend’s parents didn’t have room for the couple; the grandmother did. After listening to the story, I reassured the grandmother that helping a couple in danger of homelessness was appropriate—but that perhaps her granddaughter and the expected baby could stay with her while the boyfriend stayed with his parents.

Fr. Morrow evidently had no interest in finding out why the couple he was working with had moved in together. For all he knew, there could have been a job loss, a rent hike, or even a crime in the bride-to-be’s neighborhood that left her feeling unsafe. Rather than seeking information and offering assistance, if needed, Fr. Morrow called the couple into his office as if they were misbehaving schoolchildren instead of adults preparing for marriage.

Fr. Morrow devoted quite a bit of his column space to the issue of scandal, quoting at length from the account of a couple who now regrets having cohabited before marriage, despite the fact that they didn’t engage in sexual relations. “We brought shame on our Church,” they now say.

Speaking of bringing shame on the Church, let’s consider that scandal isn’t the sole province of laypeople giving the appearance of sexual sin outside of marriage. Scandal, according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, is “an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil” (2284). The Catechism notes that the gravity for scandal is compounded “by reason of the authority of those who cause it” and “when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others” (2285).

Priests have responsibility by virtue of their office to offer spiritual guidance and to participate in the moral formation of those souls entrusted to their care. When a couple approaches a priest for marriage preparation, the priest has the right and obligation to guide and teach that couple. But when he does so without regard for their personal dignity and individual circumstances, when he uses his authority to threaten their ability to marry in the Church, he’s not just overstepping his personal authority but giving scandal. The scandal is evident in the fact that the couple will now believe that this is sound pastoral practice and that they deserve to be treated without regard to their rights as human persons to make free moral choices based on their own prudential judgment.

Since the couple Fr. Morrow quoted, who now regret their choices, speculate freely on what might be the consequences for family and friends of their having given scandal by their premarital choices, let’s speculate on what denying marriage to a couple living together before marriage might mean for a couple beyond the immediate cancellation of a church wedding. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that this couple chooses to forgo a civil union (which many couples in this same situation won’t do) and decides to acquiesce to priestly demands that they separate for a while before being allowed to marry.

Marriage confers legal rights on a couple. Suppose tragedy strikes a couple denied marriage and one of them is hospitalized. A spouse has the right to visit the patient and to make medical decisions on the patient’s behalf. Unless the couple has created living wills and granted each other medical power of attorney (and how likely is that for young couples in their twenties, or even older couples in their thirties?), a fiancé may have no legal rights and, potentially, could be barred from the hospital if the next of kin to the patient so determines.

If, God forbid, the patient dies, a spouse has the right to make funeral and burial arrangements. He or she also has a legal right to custody of minor children and to inheritance of the deceased person’s estate. A fiancé can be legally cut off from participation in the funeral and burial of a loved one. In some cases, depending on local laws, the custody of children and the estate could be up for grabs.

How likely is such a scenario? Who knows? Certainly not a priest who piously shames a couple into separating before marriage, confident the two just have to be patient and wait a few months or so for a nuptial Mass.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Gandalf cautions Frodo, “Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” Gandalf was speaking in response to Frodo’s disappointment that Gandalf didn’t kill someone when he could have done so. But the body isn’t the only victim death can claim. Sometimes, love dies, permanently separating a couple who might have been able to make a life together if only they had been given appropriate pastoral support. Can a priest “see all ends”? Does he, as an unmarried person, have the right to deal out death to human love?

If not, perhaps a priest ought to limit himself to supporting a couple who wants to marry, without forcing them to jump through hoops, and to doing all he can to help them regularize their relationship by sacramental marriage. In other words, perhaps a priest ought to mind the business God gave him, refrain from judging others to the extent of setting himself up as an arbiter over their lives, and limit himself to celebrating the sacraments. In so doing, he should trust that he will be bringing couples closer to God.

(Image: Marriage at Cana, Pixabay.)

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