Wednesday, July 22, 2015

What should I know when discerning marriage?

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Though I must maintain a certain level of confidentiality as a canonist, I can still make broad observations when it comes to marriage and preparing for marriage. One area in which I find myself often surprised is the various reasons people decide to enter into marriage and with whom they decide to do it. Too often there is too little actual discernment and too much fantasy involved in the decision. If I may be so bold, I present here some advice about the discernment of marriage from a canonist.

The most common ground for annulment is a lack of discretionary judgment (LDJ). Simply put, LDJ means that something was so overwhelming and essential that it hindered the mind to make a proper judgment, which affects the discernment of marriage. In our RomCom culture, it is not hard to find this ground in most cases considering how little discernment there is for marriage.

Love is a virtue. It is not something one “falls into.” Like any virtue, love requires active participation of the person in his striving toward excellence. Love does not make marriage, only consent makes a marriage; in fact, tribunals won’t look explicitly at love to judicate the validity of marriage.
"Kim and Dan's engagement" by ChrisGampat is licensed under C.C. by 2.0
Marriage is a vocation (nb: this does not preclude love, but in fact makes space for love’s true depth). It takes at least nine years of discernment to be a priest. Yet, some people get married over the weekend. There is wisdom in discerning your vocation. Now marriage is not the same vocation as the religious life, but, as individuals, we should take any vocation seriously. Marriage is not a simple matter of choice, but involves God in the decision making process. Therefore, courtship is discernment because it has one goal, to marry or not marry. Neither is a good or bad answer because either answer helps in discerning one’s vocation.

Discernment is key to marriage. The couple must realistically evaluate their boyfriend or girlfriend with God’s help. In order for the relationship to work, there must be prayer. The couples should understand each other’s spiritual life and models. Faith is key to trust and love.

One thing RomCom culture neglects to portray is that the discerning person should look at the potential spouse’s family. When the tribunal reviews a case for a ground, we will often ask about families and upbringings. The family is very important. Often as the couple matures in the marriage, they will begin to imitate their parents because the parents were of course each spouse’s first model of marriage. Therefore, it is wise to see how their parents interact with each other and to notice the relationship between the parent and the future spouse.

If you are a woman, see how your potential husband talks about his father because his father is often his first model of masculinity for him. Many of his characteristics and principles will be formed from the pattern of his father. If his father provided a good formation to the son, the son will usually behave accordingly. This system will provide certain unbreakable principles that will include his wife and the treatment of her. Also, remember that the reverse can also be true: the sins of the father are the sins of the son.

Moments of anger or stress tend to reveal something about a man’s honor system. Every man has a level of aggression in him. As he grows, he learns to control and channel it. When he is angry or stressed, at times, he could become aggressive. How he responds to those triggers, might save the discerning woman’s life. If the aggression turns into violence, this is a red flag. Other red flags include lying, malice, or any other forms of deceit., these are also red flags. If there is any aggressive sexual advancements during these times, the woman should be concerned. These red flags should be discerned because they may be mild during the courtship; once the marriage matures and there are children, they will escalate. This is a tale I have read far too often.

If you are a man, see how your potential spouse understands beauty in broad sense. Her sense of beauty is instilled in her by both her parents. Her father provides an outward understanding, while her mother will provide an inward definition. Discern the source of that beauty. Is it from God, the woman herself, or from something material? Does her understanding of beauty include motherhood and wifehood? Try to discern the source of her beauty because it will save the husband from struggles further in the marriage. Did she marry you for you or in order to fulfill a fantasy? Or are you just a stepping stone to something better?

Other simple things I have noticed from reading cases: try to discern any abuses or trauma in the other person’s life and how it was handled.  Such things determine the person's character and behavior. Depending on his response to and handling of the abuse or trauma, it may determine his actions in other stressful situations, like his or her child being hurt. Understand this simple truth: if he or she hits you once, he or she feels a right to abuse and it will manifest at some point again in the marriage.

Try and determine how forgiveness and closure has played in healing from any abuse or trauma. The way they have forgiven the transgression, may reveal the manner they respond to events in the marriage. I have noticed three levels of forgiveness: God, the other person, and the self; the self being the hardest to forgive and to discern. Some have forgiven the other person and God for what happened and they say they are fine. But they may have not completely forgiven themselves for being a victim, so they hide it. While the courtship may be fine, marriage always brings up what is hidden. If it is unresolved abuse, remember your vows “in good times and bad.”

Don’t make excuses for the other person; rather seriously develop an insight into him or her. Look at the Church's teachings on marriage and discern if the other person can fulfil them. When the discernment is complete and your judgment has determined this person to a potential spouse, I would recommend going to prayer and see if God agrees.

This may all sound a bit harsh, and that comes from my experience: what I do can be harsh, but also enriching. I write so that couples can see the bad with the good. There is great hope for love in marriage, more so than in any stalled courtship, but marriage makes the spouses naked before each other. There is nothing hidden or will be hidden in time. Each spouse loves the other, including all the other person’s flaws. Some flaws can be seen in the present, but many may not be revealed until after the marriage, often after having children. The virtue of love, which is an action, can take all the ugliness with the beauty, and saying “I do” allows this to happen. The form of marriage aids the spouses in their pursuit of holiness.

Have a question you’d like answered about canonical law? You can email it directly to askacanonlawyer[at]

Thursday, July 2, 2015

What is to be done?

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With regard to SCOTUS; with regard to Vanity Fair; with regard to the co-opting of language, concepts, and symbols; with regard to the sloganeering; with regard to the vitriol; with regard to the violence; with regard to being labeled a bigot; with regard to the seemingly all-pervasive truth claims; with regard to the oppressive nature of such truth claims; with regard to the question of what is to be done: I recall that there is in fact truth, that truth is a person who actually exists, and that he will set me free (John 8:32).
"Road to Nowhere" by Pedro Alves is licensed under C.C. by 2.0
And then I remember what I try always to remind my students of: first, that we live in a broken culture, which has a broken vision of the human person. This vision tells us that we are androgynous; that we are monads; that we are not creatures; that we should not, if we don’t want to, really have to depend on anything or anyone; that love is merely a feeling; that nothing beyond what we want or feel today matters. But that in fact we are creatures; that we were created male and female (Gen 1:27); that our needfulness is not a curse but a gift; that love does in fact constitute our being; that that same love has also already been given and will redeem everything—every last broken thing—from the inside out.

Second, I tell my students that we are affected by the broken culture in which we live. Because we are not in fact isolated monads, the vision of the human person by which we are surrounded does matter. That, in a way, this anthropological and theological vision is incarnated in us. And thus, it is not the nature of the Church to isolate herself, or to run away from the world, no matter how much the world hates her. She exists, along with Christ, her head and bridegroom, to save the world. She safeguards the truth about the human person and all of creation within herself, and we, members of the body, must live these truths incarnately, renewing the culture from within, losing our blood, if necessary.

And then I know that it is only from this viewpoint that we can begin to think about and approach these issues. Because it is, after all, the viewpoint of Christ on the Cross.