UPDATED: Edward Peters weighs in here.
Pope Francis’ marrying aboard the papal plane a couple of flight attendants who had been married civilly in Chile in 2010 reminded me of what was perhaps among the biggest obstacles to a decision to become Catholic by many Anglican and Continuing Anglican clergy, as well as many parishioners: the marriage discipline of the Catholic Church and its stance on denial of the sacraments of Confession and Holy Communion to those who were divorced and “remarried” without a Decree of Nullity.
Those of us who decided to enter the Catholic Church either had no marriage irregularities, or resolved to get them straightened out at the local diocesan marriage tribunal beforehand. Some people I know personally found this too high a price to pay.
In other words, we were required to “go by the book,” and just as entry into the Catholic Church required, among other things, proof we were already baptized, and that our spouse was also baptized and that our marriage was valid.
For all of us who entered the Catholic Church, a sacramental confession was required prior to our reception, and this for all mortal sins of our whole life, even though many of us were already going to confession at our parish.
Though I had been married 25 years, it was “irregular” and had to be validated. Preparing for that was similar to applying to citizenship in a new country. A lot of official documents were required, and, because I was not able to find a Baptismal certificate, affadavits from witnesses were necessary. (The Orthodox church the priest came from had had a fire, so they had no records of it).
As far as I know, it is not permissible for a Catholic to marry civilly without a sacramental wedding in a Catholic Church as well. Some countries, like France, require a civil marriage ceremony in addition to a church wedding. In other countries, the Church also registers the marriage with the state. Interestingly, from what I understand, if a Catholic were to marry civilly, divorce, then want to marry someone else in the Church, in a sacramental marriage, the first marriage would have already been considered invalid through “defect of form.” Canon lawyers, that’s right, no?
While many are applauding the Pope’s spontaneous move as a gesture in support of sacramental marriage, what could possibly go wrong with this? What if neither are found to be baptized? Or one or both were married before in the Church to someone else?
Back when I had to go through the process of getting all my paperwork in order. I complained to my spiritual director about feeling like a bookcase of legalism was falling over on me. He explained, “The Church has to protect Her sacraments,” and that perspective helped me a great deal.
Pope Francis has spoken of how he doesn’t want the Church to act like customs officials at the border, blocking a pastoral need.
In a 2013 CNA story, Pope Francis is quoted:
Pope Francis also used a more modern example by describing an encounter of a young couple with a parish secretary.
“‘Good morning, the two of us – boyfriend and girlfriend – we want to get married,’” the couple says.
“And instead of saying, ‘That’s great!’ They say, ‘Oh, well, have a seat. If you want the Mass, it costs a lot … .’ This, instead of receiving a good welcome – ‘It is a good thing to get married!’ – But instead they get this response: ‘Do you have the certificate of baptism, all right … .’ And they find a closed door,” the Pope said.
So, the marriage on the papal plane should not come as a surprise.
I am not for legalism or hurdles, but that ‘bookcase of legalism’ I experienced proved to be filled with profound blessings and spiritual growth that I might have missed had everything been easy. It represented an obstacle that required me to make that assent to what the Church teaches —an assent that all people who desire to enter into the Catholic Church should make.
Otherwise, I could have stayed a happy evangelical.