In early 2015, our Archdiocese like many others was offered a 47-question open-ended survey in order to gather information about what people throughout the world understand about the Church’s teaching, her pastoral practice, current conditions, and the reality of marriage and family life. The survey was probably a poor translation, and the questions were ill-structured, so I ended up writing about 15,500 words in the one week window for completing it. I have chosen to share a few of these, here, as well, for your comments. I will quote the question, and what follows is my answer. I have edited the answers slightly for brevity, politeness, and clarity.
23. What can be done so that persons in the various forms of union between a man and a woman — in which human values can be present — might experience a sense of respect, trust and encouragement to grow in the Church’s good will and be helped to arrive at the fulness of Christian marriage? (cf. n. 25)
“Various forms of union between a man and a woman” are confusingly lumped together in the referenced paragraph, in a manner which makes “forms of union” tendentiously multivalent: in some cases, no “forms” in the colloquial sense of rites or observances are in evidence, and the “formal principle” of the coupling involves nothing which is essentially unifying. While there may be some aspiration beyond mere porneia in such couplings, there is nothing properly called a “union.” In other cases, what we sometimes call “common law marriage,” the unifying essence of natural marriage is ostensibly and perhaps actually achieved while the “forms” remain defective. Indeed, although the Church does not normally countenance this for very good reasons, someone might have a real natural marriage as well as celebrating the Sacrament of Matrimony while the civil “forms” of marriage remain defective (moreover, in much of the world today, we would have to call “civil marriage” itself severely defective with regard to the “forms” of marriage, given the atomizing effects of individualistic property laws, divorce laws, and many other innovations against the proper civil effects of natural marriage).
In still other cases, people have observed some “form” and announce themselves as having a “union,” when in fact the nature of the “union” remains at best uncertain because the form observed was radically inappropriate to the uses of natural marriage. A local priest recently attempted marriage, and despite having a civil certificate issued, we may be sure that in fact no marriage occurred—no natural marriage, no Sacrament of Matrimony, and therefore nothing properly called “marriage” regardless of civil legal fictions. Similarly, there are those who are not capable of marriage in other ways who attempt or simulate marriage for a variety of reasons—from political propaganda to genuine longing for family life, for example—and who have no natural marriage and are incapable of celebrating the Sacrament of Matrimony, who are not able to minister those graces to the Church and who have therefore not received from God the means and strength do do so, regardless of what “forms” they may have used, including civil legal fictions which cannot be regarded as having any just effects (though, just as civil “forms” of marriage are often defective with regard to the civil effects of natural marriage, they are also often defective in assigning legal effects to things not capable of being called marriage). In some cases, this is the state of those who are plainly married, having had an acknowledged ratum et consummatum bond and an inappropriate civil divorce.
In other cases, however, there is genuine and ongoing confusion about the nature of what seems to be a “union,” often ratified by some civil “form,” often called “marriage” without clarity about the meaning of the term. Those who are living “at common law” but represent themselves as married, rear children, and then encounter the civil and ecclesial dimensions of marriage, for example, may either discover that they have a natural marriage which requires certain “forms” that have been defective and which guarantee their capacity to serve as ministers of the Sacrament of Matrimony among the People of God, or discover that they ought to be married in order to make a true “union” out of their coupling, and by so doing to begin to heal damage they have done to each other, their children, and their neighbors. In both cases, most of the “forms” will look the same, but the underlying recognition—and the Confession and healing Penance, or the washing away of sins in Baptism—will be crucial to the spiritual wellbeing of all concerned (which can never be the couple alone; it is impossible for marriage to affect only two people). What is important, though, is that by being taught the difference between natural marriage and even the most harmonious illicit coupling, the couple are enabled to recognize their marriage, whether already subsisting or inchoate in “time of ignorance,” for what it really is and must be. They are then able to choose marriage; the essential conversion that is at the heart of the Sacrament of Matrimony, the conversion of concupiscence to chastity within a truly charitable bond, will take place. No amount of trying to “help” the man, the woman, or the children will be truly fruitful unless it addresses them in their integrity, that is, as what either is our ought to be a family formed by marriage.
And what has been true in these cases is still true when we come to the most difficult cases, in which confusion is most likely—and often most chargeable to sloppy teaching within the Church. The case of baptized people who attempt marriage in civil “forms” without consenting to the Sacrament of Matrimony as offered by the Church is a particularly difficult one, because it is hard to explain with precision whether rebellion and ignorance produce the same result with regard to actual “union”—and what happens when they rectify the error. Are those baptized who simply refuse canonical form simply unmarried, regardless of their assertion and any civil recognition? Or are they naturally married, but in disobedience and therefore still separated from communion? Would it be different if their failure to observe canonical form were the result of invincible ignorance or wicked pastoral counsel? In either of these cases, is convalidation simply supplying form to an underlying natural marriage, thus assuring all concerned that the sacramental character has indeed been conveyed to that marriage? Or does what would otherwise not in fact be a natural marriage become a marriage once the baptized have received convalidation of their marriage in the Church? Doubts about this, enlarged by the increasingly defective “forms” of civil recognition of marriage, made severe by wicked priestly advice and “gaming” of the ambiguities, and perpetuated by sloppy or wrongheaded instruction from many who should be teachers among us, not only reduce the incentive for all Christians couples to minister the Sacrament of Matrimony properly within the Church but also make it hard to avoid charges of artificiality. We need the Church to clarify and renew this discipline, possibly even altering some regulations concerning canonical form, so that the reality—natural marriage as definitively characterized in the Sacrament of Matrimony—may not be confused with legal fictions which subvert proper civil recognition of marriage, on the one hand, and vague, unmotivated, or misguided pedagogy of marriage within the Church, on the other.
Finally, there is only one additional layer to the problem in the matter of those who have received a civil divorce and claim to be married to another person, and have observed some civil “forms” that assert these. Unlike other cases in which a claim of marriage is made, and which may be backed by some civil “form” that claims to recognize a marriage, in the case of divorce there is not only a man and a woman, plus any children, plus a neighborhood to be considered—there is also another man or woman, possibly other children, and possibly complications in more than one neighborhood. No decision about marriage affects only one individual, or only one man and one woman; but decisions about attempted marriages after divorce are always by definition decisions about other marriages (or putative marriages). It is therefore only slightly more difficult, but orders of magnitude more important, to speak clearly about the presence or absence of real natural marriages, as definitively characterized in the Sacrament of Matrimony, among those who claim to have dissolved or contracted marriages in such circumstances.
Nothing will benefit those who need “respect, trust, and encouragement” more than being treated as those with the dignity and competence to hear truth about reality clearly and honestly spoken, to be approached as those who might be trusted with the ministry of the Sacrament of Matrimony—the very mystery of Christ’s love for His Church!—and welcomed to the neighborhood of families who model the sharing and service that grows from that sacrament. In the case of those who cannot be reconciled to a true spouse, and cannot be separated from one who is not a spouse, it is vital that their state be clarified as altogether different from marriage. The help of neighborhood could alleviate the demands that might make a separation impossible; it would certainly help to provide models of family to children who must learn that civil divorce alone cannot end natural marriage (though it may mark the admitted nullity of an attempted marriage), and that the couple caring for them are not husband and wife. Families living hospitably and sharing each other’s daily life would also lessen much moral hazard and scandal in the situation, as it will be harder to hide in ambiguity and easier for all to tell that the couple are not living as though they were husband and wife. In that situation, lapses should be less frequent—and easier to repent without seeming to recurrently call into question the entire situation (though the situation should be subject to occasional reassessment). Finally, as these advantages of mutual care, proper models and clear distinction concerning marriage, and reduced moral hazard and scandal are realized, it will also be the case that there will eventually remain no reason for the couple to continue to share a household.
Working toward this goal in a heavily overlapping neighborhood of hospitable, generous, faithful families—who intentionally include singles, celibates, and others in their ministry to the Body of Christ—should reliably produce better results than attempting to proclaim the truth about marriage while excusing every kind of breach as “only human” and then attempting to make compromises between discipline and the myriad of claims people will make about cases. When we refuse to make the effort to direct families toward mutual support and encourage them to make and to model clear distinctions about marriage because we are afraid to tell couples in complicated pseudo-marriage or putative marriage situations that our eventual goal is to remove any obstacles to their true marriage or definite separation, we fail them. We either lie to them or, what is no better from a pastoral perspective, we tell them that we do not respect them enough to tell them the truth; that we do not trust them enough to ask difficult things of them; and that we despair of their ever being brought into full conformity with Christ. To do so is pastoral malpractice, and should lead us to tears of repentance.