Rejoice, O ye ends of the earth!
Behold the barren mother conceives her
Who without human seed will bear the Creator of all!
Today a royal robe of purple and fine linen
Is woven from the loins of David.
The mystical flower of Jessie blossoms
From which comes Christ God, the Savior of our souls!
(From the Matins of the Byzantine Liturgy – December 9th)
The feast of the Conception of the Theotokos (Mother of God)- celebrated in the West as the Immaculate Conception- is the day that the Church celebrates the begetting of a child in the normal, sexual way. In the icon of the feast Sts Joachim and Anne are seen embracing, and often the marriage bed is in the background. This is the anti-gnostic feast par excellence, the day the sanctity of sexual love is celebrated.
It is an important feast for these times, when marriage itself is under attack from all sides. And while one can catalogue the various external threats – the rise in unmarried couples and out of wedlock births, the legitimization of homosexuality, hook-up culture, etc- I am more concerned by the threat from within the Church itself. And while we may roll our eyes when thrice married serial adulterer Newt Gingrich speaks on the defense of marriage, I also roll my eyes when American Catholic bishops do the same.
For they are responsible for weakening marriage far more than the lesbian couple you see shopping at Giant Eagle. Mr Gingrich, of course, is now a Catholic, and his most recent (I assume) adultery has been blessed by the Church when it allowed him to marry his partner in sin.
It could be argued that Mr Gingrich’s first two marriages were outside the Church, and that the first was not valid for whatever reason. True enough perhaps, but violating his vows was still a human act of betrayal. Rewarding him by allowing him to marry his honey is scandalous.
And I know other cases that parallel Mr Gingrich’s where both spouses were committed Catholics.
I had a good friend whose marriage I attended, and I even read the Epistle during the ceremony. He and his wife met at the ecumenical youth center where they were both involved. Shortly afterward, the husband began a master’s program in religious studies. He went on to several years serving as a Director of Religious Education in a series of parishes. For over ten years they lived in a charismatic covenant community.
I cite all this to show that they were serious, praying Catholics. But some twenty years into the marriage, with a house full of children, the man took up with another woman, eventually leaving his family for her. He then divorced his wife, got an annulment, and married the other woman in the Catholic Church. I am told the bride wore white.
The conclusion is obvious: anyone can get an annulment in the United States. Of course I did not read the report of the tribunal. Perhaps there really was some deep dark secret that rendered the marriage invalid. But I doubt it. The problem is that in this country “psychological” factors are the most cited reason for granting annulments. The impression is given that one must be very well integrated to enter a valid marriage, that you need to be a saint, and one skilled in the bedroom.
But canon law says that a young man of 16 or a woman of 14 can validly contract marriage. So how complicated can it be? Please note that I am not arguing against the concept of nullity. I knew a man who slept with one of his fiancee’s bridesmaids the night before the wedding. Obviously any vow he made the next morning was fraudulent. When that marriage was declared null that was clearly true. But that is a far cry from most annulments that are granted.
That the bishops allow this situation to endure is scandalous; every marriage is weakened by this knowledge of easy annulment.
But that is not all; not only are marriages endangered by the bishops’ negligence, human souls are endangered as well. My former friend may sleep easily at night with the knowledge that the Church has blessed his arrangement, but at death he will not stand before the marriage tribunal- a human construct that does not share the Church’s gift of infallibility- but before Christ Himself.
Lord have mercy.
Icon by Fr Luke Dingman