I Do, For Now


Pope Francis Coleman blogRecently, our spontaneously-tongued pontiff, Pope Francis, made comments to journalists regarding his impression of the current state of marriage in the Church (readers of Italian can find his comments here, under Terza Domanda).

“It’s [i.e., marriage is] provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they [the hypothetical couple] say, ‘Yes, for the rest of my life!’ but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”

Many individuals have rightly taken issue with the Holy Father’s words here. Responses have come from canon lawyers, clerics, and lay scholars alike. I shall not wade through all of these critiques, nor attempt to clarify what the Pope “might have been trying to say” about the current state of marriage in the Church. Rather, Francis’ comments reminded me of a conversation I had with my wife regarding this same subject. At the time, she was actively involved in parish ministry and witnessed first-hand the poor catechesis and cultural deformity from which many couples seeking sacramental marriage suffered. On one occasion she voiced her concern to me in words very similar to those of Pope Francis; essentially stating that these couples had no idea what marriage means.

We ought to be very careful, however, when we play the cultural “blame game” for all of society’s ills. As a professor – and perhaps firstly as a human being – what concerns me most is the abrogating of moral responsibility. Moral responsibility comes from freedom, and freedom comes from our ability know and will. Pleading ignorance is a way of saying that I was not free to make a choice because my ability to know was substantially compromised. In many situations, of course, this happens when the truth is actively withheld from a particular party making a decision. But the culture in which we live cannot change what our bodies are, or what they do, or the nature of a promise. While Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is a part of divine revelation, the fact that marriage establishes a binding relationship – a relationship signified and consummated by a marital act – is not. To claim that “the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null” due to ignorance, therefore, undermines the human capacity to apprehend any natural moral truth or reality. Our culture, I would argue, does not prohibit us from understanding the concepts of marriage or permanence or indissolubility but, rather, facilitates in an ever more increasing fashion our desire not to live in accordance with these realities. As with original sin, it weakens our wills more than our intellects.

As a married man, I understand the temptation to say that knowledge about marriage must be gained first-hand. There is wisdom in that belief, but one cannot push that sentiment too far. Saying “I do” at the altar cannot be considered “free from ignorance” only if accompanied by the depth and breadth of knowledge about marriage that one would only possess after 10 or 20 or 30  years of married living. That is a reductio ad absurdam. So yes, Holy Father, the husband and father in me – with a half-smile – agrees: they don’t know what they’re saying. But as a freely thinking and willing human being I must disagree: they know what they’re saying, but only their cooperation with God’s grace will enable them to live what they have promised.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Today I Met Someone

working-at-starbucksAs a college theology instructor (mostly online) I don’t have an office. The local coffee shop is my desk, with the music coming from the sound system and hum of conversation around me the ambient noise keeping me from nodding off. On this particular day I worked sluggishly at “my desk,” trying to write my monthly column. The idea was good, but the words were an alphabet soup of nothing all that significant – or coherent. Frustrated at my lack of creativity, I grabbed my tea and browsed the shops to clear my head. In my bag was my husband’s cross on its broken chain. If I couldn’t write, I might at least find a nice anniversary present.

The single sales associate in the store was busy with a customer, but asked what I needed. I told her I’d like to replace the broken chain, and she assured me they carried something that might interest me. She excused herself and went into the back room. Another associate emerged, politely questioning me and examining the chain. She showed me some pieces, and we talked about how expensive gold had become, and how we wished we’d gotten some when it was cheaper. Our chat was pleasant, and she was helpful, but a big purchase like this requires some thought. The woman was polite and not at all pushy. She said that if I returned and she wasn’t there it was because her husband had recently been hit by a car and was in the hospital. “Oh no!” I said. “What happened?” The woman offered her age (61) and said her husband was older but in relatively good shape. He’d been crossing the street downtown at about nine in the evening. The crosswalk was well-lit and the street is known for its activity, especially on summer evenings. The man was struck and lay unconscious and covered in blood. Sometime after a woman stopped to help. She hadn’t witnessed the accident, but noticed that his shoe had landed on the other side of the street, indicating that a car had likely hit him. As she knelt beside him, in one hand her cell phone, and his hand in the other, she watched two cars drive around them and continue on their way. Listening to this part of the story I couldn’t help but recall the parable of the Good Samaritan. Here it was, being told in real life on Main Street, USA.

Eventually the police arrived, along with my jewelry store friend. A twenty-something young woman struck the man and was watching the scene from some distance away, occasionally glancing up as she furiously texted. She’d been delivering a pizza. When the officer approached she simply said, “I hit him.” The man regained consciousness, and after a lengthy hospital stay he’ll have a difficult recovery ahead. I was dismayed by many aspects of this story: the cold response of the driver, the callous disregard with which other cars swerved around the broken, bleeding man, and the indifference of all but one woman who stopped to help. We spoke about her husband’s injuries, his memory loss, and her anxiety over how she’d care for him in their modest home.

We chatted a few minutes more and then I thanked her and told her I’d think a bit more about the chain. She extended her hand and said, “My name is Lauren. What’s yours?” I took her hand, told her my name, and she said, “It’s nice to meet you, Ann. I really don’t talk this much, but I guess I felt comfortable with you.” “I’m glad,” I said. “I don’t know if I’ll end up buying the chain from you, but I’m grateful you shared your story with me. Write down your husband’s name and I’ll pray for him. And you, too.” Lauren’s eyes welled up, and with that I knew I’d better get out of there, or I’d end up bawling myself. She thanked me and we said goodbye.

The column I’d anguished over for hours was okay, but not great. When I left the jewelry store I knew that didn’t matter. I knew that this was the story I needed to tell. For a few moments I encountered another person, and she encountered me. Our world seems to have gone mad. Terrorism and violence in city streets aren’t scenes from a summer blockbuster; they’re shattering lives every day. I can’t stop terrorism, or gang violence, or any number of tragedies happening every day. But I can be with someone when she needs to tell her story. I can stop in the middle of my own busy evening, as one woman did to help the man in the street. I can be Christ to someone by following His lead: by not fearing the encounter with another human being, by meeting that person where they are, and by taking the time to be truly present with them. I can stop worrying about silly things (like whether or not I’ll be praised for a column), and make space for another in my thoughts, my heart, my prayers, and my time. I can do all of these things. And so can you.

Today I met someone named Lauren, whose husband Joel was struck by a car. I promised to pray for them; perhaps you can as well.

Today, I met someone. Maybe you did, too.

Ann Koshute teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online. This article appears in the current issue of Eastern Catholic Life, the official publication of the Byzantine Catholic Eparchy of Passaic.