What’s YOUR Catholic Marriage IQ? Take the Quiz!



Do YOU know the truth about the Catholic difference in marriage?

One thing that became stunningly clear in light of the recent Synod on the Family is how little people really understand the Catholic vision of marriage — perhaps most especially Catholics! Test your Catholic marriage IQ with the following questions.

Q: What is the primary job of the Catholic husband and wife?

A: The primary job of a Catholic husband and wife is to help get each other to heaven. That’s a big part of what it means to say that marriage is both a sacrament and a vocation. When a husband and wife get married in the Catholic Church, they are affirming that they believe God has chosen them to play an essential role in each other’s sanctification — second only to the saving power of Jesus Christ. Incidentally, this is also a big reason the Church frowns on divorce. To actively pursue divorce is to say, “I refuse to play the role God chose me to play in helping this person get to heaven.” Of course, God can still get them there, but divorce deprives them of a major support. The only way to step out of this role validly is to find — through the process of an annulment— that God really didn’t choose you to play this role after all.

Q:  True or False. You and your spouse get to say what your marriage should look like.

A: False. That’s why Catholic couples are forbidden to write their own marriage vows. Of course, every marriage is different in some ways, but rather than defining the nature of marriage for themselves, as many secular couples do, Catholic couples implicitly agree to live marriage as the Church defines it. Why? First, because they believe that the Catholic Church has a lot to teach them about what it means to be fully loving people and second, because they want to be living witnesses of the freeing truth of the Catholic vision of love and sexuality. Every Catholic couple is supposed to be a living, breathing sign that the Catholic understanding of love and sex is the path to true freedom, joy and fulfillment so that they can call the whole world to Christ through their example.

Q: True or False. Marriage is the sacrament of sex.

A: True. Every sacrament depends on a physical sign that actually causes what it represents. Baptism uses water to signify the actual cleansing of the soul. The Eucharist transforms bread and wine into spiritual food. Sacramental marriage turns sex into a spiritual reality that, as Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “rises in ecstasy toward the divine.” Just like you can’t baptize without water, a couple cannot be validly married unless they are capable of having sexual intercourse. In a sacramental marriage, sex actually causes the spiritual union physical intimacy represents. Likewise, it allows couples to be co-creators of life, it serves as a physical reminder of the passionate love God has for the husband and wife, and it helps to sanctify the couple by challenging them to embrace the vulnerability they experience in each other’s arms and to grow in virtue as they work together to build the intimate partnership that enables them to work for each other’s good in and out of the bedroom. (To learn more check out Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible, Loving.)  Incidentally, when Catholic couples ask, “What gives the Church the right to tell us what to do in the bedroom?” The answer is that the couple did — when they stood at the altar and promised to live the Catholic vision of love. (Check the small print.)  CONTINUE READING

Pope Francis & Pope Emeritus Benedict Agree on Annulments

From a recent interview with Pope Francis.pope

The family is so beaten up, young people don´t get married. What´s the problem? When they finally come to get married, having already moved in together, we think it´s enough to offer them three talks to get them ready for marriage. But it´s not enough because the great majority are unaware of the meaning of a lifetime commitment. Benedict said it twice in his last year, that we should take this into account in order to grant nullity, each person´s faith at the time of getting married.

A few days ago, a couple who are living together came to tell me that they were getting married. I said: “Good. Are you ready for it?” And their answer was: “Yes, now we are looking for a church which suits my dress best”, the girl said. “Yes, right now we´re in the middle of all the preparations -the invitations, souvenirs and all the rest”, the boy echoed. “There´s also the issue of the party, we cannot make up our minds because we don´t want the reception to be hosted too far from the church. And then there´s the other issue, our best man and maid of honour are divorced, same as my parents, so we can´t have both of them together”. All these issues are about the ceremony! Indeed, getting married should be celebrated, because you need courage to get married and that should be commended. However, neither of them made any comment at all on what this meant to them, the fact that it was a lifetime commitment. What do I mean? That for a great many people getting married is just a social event. The religious element doesn’t surface in the least. So how can the church step in and help? 

I really couldn’t agree more.  The Church has been assuming that the family is preparing couples for marriage, but the family is too busy fighting for its life to adequately pass on the faith.  As I have mentioned before, I think this could be a tremendous help to couples and a definite step in the right direction.  Couples who are not adequately prepared for marriage cannot and should not be held accountable for keeping promises they couldn’t begin to understand.  The present system is as unjust as jailing a 5 yo for driving a car into a crowd of people.  The responsibility for that tragedy lies not with the child behind the wheel, but with the people who put him there in the first place.

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family–Processing the Explosion

The Catholic world exploded the other day with the release of the Relatio the summary document intended to highlight the progress of the Synod Fathers so far.  There is another week ahead of course, bishopsand then the Synod will adjourn until next October when the conversation will pick back up up again with the Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family.  But the first week was, depending upon whom you ask, either the absolute end of the world, or nothing much to write home about.

I’ll admit that my eyebrows have been raised by what I’ve read so far about the Synod, but I’m not quite ready to crawl into my bomb shelter.    As a friend pointed out the other day, it was only a little more than 40 years ago when the world was sure the Church was going to endorse artificial birth control.  Nobody expected Humanae Vitae.

A Clear Theology of Family

My own sense of the summary report is that it is disappointing, but not so much for what it says (although I do have issues with this as well, and Robert Royal speaks to those concerns here) as for what it doesn’t say.  Specifically, the summary provides no clear sense that the bishops are even trying to articulate a clear theology of family.  Such a thing exists.  Perhaps the bishops are taking it for granted that everyone knows about it. I think the reaction to the Relatio shows that this is most definitely not the case.

My impression, so far, is that the Synod Fathers are tinkering.  They’ve been trying to address ad hoc problems within the family without really adequately addressing the fundamental problems that necessitated this Synod in the first place.  When one looks at the world, one sees rather clearly that “the family”, whatever that is anymore, is deeply broken.  Before we can get around to talking about how the Church can better respond to the needs of this particular irregular family situation or that, we have to clarify what the family is supposed to look like in the first place.

In other words, in this first week, the Synod Fathers have been so busy redirecting the smoke that they’ve forgotten the need to put out the fire.

The Big Questions

It’s still early in the game, of course and, as I say,  I’m not that concerned about where the Synod Fathers are at right now.  I also think the almost universal freak out is probably a good reality check for the Church.  So, while I can’t exactly march in that parade, I appreciate the floats and the band.   That said, I sincerely hope that the Synod starts to get its bearings and the real work can continue over the next year or so.  As the process moves forward, we’re going to see more discussion of the following…

What is a family, really?

Why is that definition of the family objectively superior to all other visions?

What is the mission of the family?   That is, what is the ultimate goal of  family life and what is its proper role in the Church and in the world?

How are Catholic families, and the Catholic Church in general, called to witness to the fullness of family life in the Church and in the world?

And then, finally, after we’ve done all that, we can finally answer the question we started with: How can we minister more effectively to those individuals whose personal circumstances are far from the ideal for which the Church stands?

Until we answer those first questions, we’re simply not equipped to answer that last question.

First Things First

It would be nice to think that the Church could just go in, tweak some pastoral practices, and call it a day.  But that clearly is not going to happen, because it was an impossible mission from the start.  The response to the Relatio by bishops, laity, and the world’s media alike shows that the problems are much more fundamental–and inescapable–than anyone would like them to be.

As the process moves forward, let us pray that our bishops find the courage to minister to the fundamental problems with the family now that they’ve discovered that sticking a finger in the dike won’t work.


When Mercy Hurts: Cdl. Kasper and the Soft Clericalism of Low Expectations.

There has been a lot of talk lately about the need for the Church to be merciful in the application of its teachings. didnt

That’s hard to argue with.  In fact, I heartily agree that finding ways to be both positive and pastoral when articulating the teachings of the Church–especially as it relates to the difficult topics of sex, marriage and family life– is of paramount importance.  As someone who is responsible for conducting/supervising over 10,000 hours/year of pastoral counseling services for Catholic clients, who teaches graduate courses in pastoral theology,  and who has written almost 20 different books examining healthy ways to live out the Church’s teaching on sex, love and marriage, you might say I’ve made doing just that my life’s mission.

Which is why I’ve been watching the Synod discussion on divorce, remarriage and communion with real interest.  And further, why I have some real concerns about what some of the synod fathers consider to be merciful.

The More Merciful Option?

Let’s take one example that has gotten a lot of press; Cardinal Kasper;s proposal for dealing with the painful situation of couples who are not able to receive communion because they are divorced and remarried without the benefit of an annulment. Cardinal Kasper suggested, essentially, that the ban on communion for these individuals could  simply be lifted if the remarried Catholic would just confess the sin of contracting a second, illicit marriage.  This is a variation on the old “internal forum option” (internal forum refers to what happens in the confessional) which was floated and shot down in the 90’s.   I’ve already discussed the multiple problems with that idea (which was actually condemned by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict) here.  The short version is that you aren’t supposed to give absolution to someone who plans on leaving the confessional to go out and do more of the thing they confessed (i.e., continuing to have adulterous relations with the illicit second spouse).

Lay Catholics: Not Called to Be Heroes?

Many people who are in favor of this idea assert it is the more “merciful” option but I have serious issues with this view of mercy because I think it takes a rather dim view of the laity.  Several months ago, Cardinal Kasper gave an interview where he said that living the Church’s teaching as it stands calls for a heroic effort on the part of the laity, and while he respects those lay people who are trying to do what the Church teaches despite the difficulty, heroism is not for the average Christian.”

Years ago,  WaPo columnist Michael Gerson, coined the phrase, “soft bigotry of low expectations.”  An article in the Daily Kos explained the phrase well, noting that it referred to, “the preconception that disadvantaged folks won’t ever succeed, and the resulting development of policies predicated upon their inevitable failure .”


In reading Cardinal Kasper’s comments, I can’t help but wonder if what we’re seeing here isn’t the soft clericalism of low expectations.  My parents always taught me that Christianity called all of us, ordained and lay person alike, to be heroes, indeed, to be saints.  One of the major assertions of Vatican II was the “universal call to holiness” the idea that everyone was called to “be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect” not just the ordained class, but the laity as well.    In short, Vatican II asserted that Jesus’ call to heroic virtue applied to all Christians even–contrary to Cardinal Kasper’s assertions–the “average” ones.    Cardinal Kasper has suggested that those who disagree with his (what I’m sure are well-intentioned) proposals are clericalists who are interested in controlling the lives of others.

I would respectfully suggest that the Cardinal needs to look up the word, “clericalism”  because, in my dictionary, it refers to having a double standard for the ordained versus the laity and it appears to me that this is exactly what he is proposing.

Mercy isn’t mercy if it literally damns people with low expectations.  As St. John Paul the Great asserted, there is a difference between the law of gradualism (which is good) and the gradualism of the law (not so good).  The “law of gradualism” refers to the fact that we need to be merciful and provide support for people who are earnestly trying to live out the call to heroic virtue.  By contrast, “gradualism of the law” refers to simply letting people off the hook for responding to the call to heroic virtue and instead simply affirming them in their okayness because, after all, we can’t expect those average Christians to be heroes, not like the ordained class, anyway.

Where Can We Turn for Answers?

Pope St John Paul the Great, as the first Pope to reign entirely in the post Vatican II Church, dedicated his life to exploring what living out the universal call to holiness meant for the average lay Catholic. That’s why he wrote almost 2/3’s of everything the Church ever produced on marriage and family life.  I would respectfully suggest that rather than re-inventing the wheel, the synod fathers might do well to dive more deeply into his profound work and mine it for ideas on how to promote the Church’s vision of sex and love in more positive and pastoral ways.  Too long, progressives have dismissed Pope St John Paul the Great’s work as being unnecessarily obsessed with sex (when, in fact, a holy sexuality is at the heart of the spiritual life of the lay person) and conservatives have been confused by it (and similarly ignore it) because it isn’t legalistic enough.  It is time for our leaders to get past their political preferences and truly understand the significance of Pope St John Paul II’s work in this regard.

I fully agree that the Church needs to find more positive and pastoral ways to explain her teachings and to help the faithful live those teachings out. But whatever solutions the Synod eventually proposes, the one thing I am confident about is that the answer can’t possibly involve telling some Christians that they are  not expected to be as holy as the other, more special Christians with the Roman collars and pointy hats are called to be.

If you’d like to learn more about positive ways to explain the Church’s teachings on love, sex, marriage, and family life, I hope you will find some of the following resources helpful.

Holy Sex!  The Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind Blowing, Infallible Loving      ~ For Better…FOREVER!  The Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage.

Parenting with Grace:  The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.     ~  Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving and Thriving in the First Five Years of Marriage


Family Synod Update

Two stories grabbed me about the opening of the Synod.

The first is about a discussion that asks if there is a better way to explain Church teaching than by using such negative, loaded language as “intrinsically disordered”  “grave” “intrinsically evil” etc.bishops

The second is a story of how the Church might help families live and pass on the faith.

What do you hope the Synod will address?  What recommendations would YOU make if you were one of the advisor couples?

Extraordinary Synod on the Family Round-up

The Extraordinary Synod on the Family begins this weekend.  Here are some of the posts I’ve written over the last few months on the synod.  To see more great writing on the Synod by my fellow Patheos bishopsbloggers, go here!

The Synod: What is it?  Who Cares?

Pope Francis Calls Extraordinary Synod on the Family

Why Is the Family So Important Anyway?– The Catholic Channel Symposium on the Extraordinary Synod for the Family.

Sesame Street Tells Lies that Hurt Kids (OR, Why “Any Group of People / Living Together And Loving Each Other” ISN’T “Doing the Family Thing”)

Catholic Sexuality

Holy Sex! What Catholics Can Teach the World About Infallible Loving.

The Catholic Difference in Family Life

Yes, There IS a Catholic Way to Parent. Here’s Why.

Are Catholic Families Really Any Different? Should We Be? (Some Points from My Response to the 2014 Extraordinary Synod– Part I)

5 “Marks” of a Catholic Family—(My response to the Extraordinary Synod Survey Part II)

Mission Possible: Rediscovering Catholic Family Identity

Is the Catholic Family Different? 5 Marks of the Catholic Family–A Proposal.

The Annulment Reform Debate

Annulment Q & A: 6 Common Questions About Annulments.–UPDATED

Cardinal Kasper and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea (and A Better Solution–If I Do Say So Myself)

Reforming the Annulment Process–A Continuing Conversation. (Or Why “Alienation of Affection” is a stupid reason to require divorce before annulment).

Cardinal Kasper and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea (and A Better Solution–If I Do Say So Myself)

In preparation for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, many people of good will are floating a lot of different ideas about how the Church should approach various challenges like annulments. (To alexander-300x300read my own previous writings on the annulment issue, including my recommendations for improving the annulment process, go here, here, and here.)

Cardinal Kasper, former President for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, recently waded into the debate with his own suggestion about how to handle the annulment issue.

Before I share his proposal and offer a critique of what I understand the Cardinal to be suggesting, let me say that my post, despite my cheeky headline (with apologies to Judith Viorst), is, in no way, meant to suggest that the Cardinal or anyone else who supports his idea is anything less than a truly faithful son of the Church.  I believe he, and America magazine–which recently endorsed his proposal–truly do have the best interest of couples in mind. I also think that we all agree that the annulment process, as it is currently explained and practiced, is an unmitigated disaster and is in desperate need of significant reform.   Nevertheless, their good intentions don’t mean that Cardinal Kasper’s proposal isn’t a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad, idea.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Idea

Here is the Cardinal’s proposal, as described by America.

 If a Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried, without a decree of nullity, “repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness?”

The Problem

First, the question of forgiveness is misleading.  OF COURSE we should never deny a person forgiveness.  Mercy absolutely needs to be generously extended in every way we can.  But mercy can’t be properly administered if we aren’t clear about the problem we’re being merciful about.  Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion errs because it considers the challenge of normalizing the second marriage as the primary problem but it ignores the real problem, which is that the first marriage is still valid and any attempt at a subsequent marriage is adultery.  Jesus himself says so (Matt 19:9).  No matter how sorry I am, I can’t repent of adultery by going home and committing more adultery–even if my adultery is “orientated and stabilized.”

Cheap Grace

America makes the point of saying that Cardinal Kasper’s suggestion does not challenge the indissolubility of marriage, but that’s exactly what it does!  How can you affirm the indissolubility of marriage by using confession to sweep the first marriage under the rug just to make nice about the second marriage?  That’s not mercy.  That’s cheap grace and it’s offensive on too many levels to count.   Cardinal Kasper’s idea–well-intentioned as it may be–does little but pay lip service to the indissolubility of marriage.

Pastoral Malpractice

Further, I would respectfully suggest that Cardinal Kasper makes the common and tragic error  of divorcing pastoral theology from soteriology.  As pastoral theologian, Andrew Purves argues, you simply can’t have an authentic pastoral theology without a healthy soteriological sensibility.   In other words, in the rush to be merciful, it is too easy to throw the call to transformation, to metanoia, under the bus.  In doing so, you do exactly what Pope Benedict counseled against in Caritas et Veritate, reducing love and mercy to mere sentimentality by fudging essential truths.

A Counter-Proposal

Nevertheless, the current situation is a real problem that needs to be solved.  Here is my counter-proposal (which I explain in somewhat more depth in the links I posted above).

1.  Stop requiring civil divorce before hearing an annulment case.  This is an administrative policy, not a requirement of canon law and frankly,  it imposes an undue burden on couples out of a   bureaucratically chickensh*t desire to kowtow to lawyers who worry–absurdly, I might add–about exposing the Church to alienation of affection lawsuits.  All this practice does is put couples in a bind and  make the Church look petty, redundant, and mean by forcing the couple to drag things up that should have been dealt with on the front end of the process.  Require couples to seek annulments first –before divorce–except in cases of documented domestic violence.  This will enable couples to get the Church’s help and counsel early on instead of forcing couples to handle things for themselves and then asking the Church to function like some kind of ex post facto spiritual “fixer.”

2.  Insist, no, require, that all couples who get civilly divorced without the benefit of #1 above to submit to the annulment process as soon as possible to remain in good standing with the Church.  Don’t say, “It’s up to you if you want to.”  Require it and explain the requirement as an attempt on the part of the Church to provide pastoral support to those who are struggling with the aftermath of divorce.    Again, failing to do so forces people to handle the worst aspects of divorce without any formal support or counsel from the Church. Requiring people to go through annulment asap after a civil divorce gives the Church every chance to find ways to support the faithful who are struggling through this painful time.  Plus, doing this prevents people from waiting until they start to date to begin looking into the process ex post facto  and ending up with the problem I described in the last sentence of point #1 above.

3.  Allow annulments for those who were demonstrably poorly formed in the faith or the Catholic understanding of marriage.  It is unjust to hold people accountable for promises they made in ignorance.  The Church requires consent for a sacrament, but you can’t consent to something you are ignorant of.  Instead we should be putting the responsibility where it belongs–on the Church and its ministers–not the poor couples who have no idea what they’re agreeing to because no one told them in the first place.  If the Church fails to properly form couples, let the failure of those marriages be on the Church not the couple.

I genuinely believe these solutions would be a vast improvement over the current process.  I thing that they would address Cardinal Kasper’s concerns about placing mercy at the center of the process while simultaneously respecting–in an authentic way–the indissolubility of marriage.

Of course, this is just my modest counter-proposal.  What do you think?  Post your thoughts in the comments below!

Annulment Q & A: 6 Common Questions About Annulments.–UPDATED

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.

As a pastoral counselor, I often work with people who are either going through divorce or who have been recently divorced.  Often these individuals have very important questions about the annulment process: What is it?  Should they seek one? What difference does it make?  The following are some of the common questions I encounter about annulments.  I hope the simple answers I provide can offer you some food for thought.

1.  What is an annulment?

An annulment–or “declaration of nullity”– states that, on the very day of the wedding, something was missing that prevented an actual marriage from taking place.  For instance, perhaps the wedding was not conducted by the proper kind of minister (e.g., a priest or deacon–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop) or in the proper setting (i.e., a Catholic church–unless permission to do otherwise is granted by the bishop), or the couple was either incapable (because of a physical, mental, or emotional barriers) or unwilling for some reason to fulfill all the responsibilities required of him or her by a Catholic marriage (e.g., to stay married for life, to be open to life, to be faithful to one’s vows).  In order to enter into a valid marriage, a couple has to know what they are doing, be able to do it, and commit to doing it freely and without reservation.  If something got in the way of any of these dynamics on the day of the wedding, then there may be reason to question the validity of the marriage.

2.  Isn’t an annulment just a “Catholic divorce?”

No.  A divorce claims to dissolve a valid marriage.  This is impossible.  Man cannot divide what God has joined.  In contrast to a divorce, an annulment says that a marriage never occurred in the first place.  Despite what some people may think, this isn’t a small or legalistic difference.  Analogously speaking, it is the difference between saying, “We’re taking away your license to practice medicine.” (Divorce) and “We just realized you never went to medical school and you shouldn’t have been given a license to practice in the first place.”  (Annulment).

Divorce claims to undo what was validly done by God–which impossible for any human.  Annulment, on the other hand,  acknowledges that a very serious condition, present on the day of the wedding, prevented the marriage from occurring in the first place.

3.  After an annulment, are children considered illegitimate?

Absolutely not.  Illegitimacy is a term used in civil law–NOT church law.  It has to do with whether you can naturally inherit or not.  The Church has nothing to do with this.  All children are welcome and “legitimate”–so to speak– in the eyes of the Church. 

4.  Why does the Church make me get an annulment after I am divorced?*

Because  civil divorce is, basically, just a tax document.  It doesn’t actually change your marital status in the eyes of God and therefore, you are still married as far as God is concerned.  The state cannot speak for God , or claim to undo what God has done.  Unless something, on the day of the wedding (as explained above under questions 1&2 above), prevented God from creating  a valid marriage at your ceremony, then you are still married in the eyes of God even after a divorce.  That is also why dating or attempting to get married after a divorce without the benefit of an annulment is considered the sin of adultery.  Despite what the state may claim, you are still married in the eyes of God.

That’s why the annulment process investigates whether something was going on at the time of the wedding that would have prevented God from joining this man and this woman together in Holy Matrimony.  There are many reasons why this could have happened.  A tribunal looks at all the possibilities so that the couple can understand what may have gone  wrong and–assuming an annulment is granted–gives the man and woman a chance to correct those problems so that any future marriage (between them or with other potential spouses) would be valid in God’s eyes.

5.  If the Church doesn’t grant an annulment, does that mean I’m stuck with my spouse for life?

A valid marriage is for life.  If the Church does not find grounds for an annulment, you are still married in the eyes of God to your spouse regardless of the possible changes in your tax status or place of residence brought on by a civil divorce. 

Christians believe that marriage is holy because Jesus says it is a sign of the way God loves us (Ephesians 5:32).  The fact is, sometimes we don’t make it easy for God to love us.  We reject him.  We are unfaithful to him. We betray him and act out against him.  And yet he still loves us.   If the Church cannot find valid grounds for an annulment despite your civil divorce, then that means that God is calling you to be a visible sign of his constant love despite our best efforts to reject him.  Obviously this is not an easy call, but just as obviously, it is an important call that is close to God’s heart.  If this is God’s call in your life, not only will he give you the grace to fulfill it, he will greatly honor you for both your fidelity through trial and for the sacrifices you make in service to this very important call. 

6. Should I seek an annulment even if I’m not planning to get married again after my divorce?

Strictly speaking, whether or not to seek an annulment is entirely a decision you must make for yourself in prayer.  That said, I would encourage every divorced person to go through the annulment process.  Why?  Because it is never good to discern serious questions–like the nature of your vocation–on your own.  It is always best to enlist the Church’s help in discerning God’s answer to the big questions in your life.  Seeking an annulment doesn’t mean that you are giving up, or failing, or any of  the other negative things people think.  It means you are actively trying to hear and respond to God’s unique call in your life and you are inviting the Church to be your partner in figuring it all out.  That is as truly humble and grace-filled a response as you could possibly make to a terrible situation.   The truth is, as painful as this time in your life can be, God wants to use all of it for your good and his glory.  The more you allow him and the Church to be part of your decision, the sooner he will help you make peace with whatever his call is in your life.

Let God and his Church be a help to you in this time of pain and confusion.  He will give you the clarity and peace you seek.

If you are struggling to understand God’s plan for you after a divorce, check out a copy of The Life God Wants You to Have:  Discovering the Divine Plan When Human Plans Fail  or contact the Pastoral Solutions Institute to learn more about our Catholic tele-counseling practice.


*Divorce prior to annulment is not a requirement of canon law.  It is diocesan policy in the US and a few other countries as well.  Couples have a right to petition for an annulment without a divorce, but despite knowing many who have tried, I don’t personally know of anyone who succeeded at this.

For my thoughts on reforming the annulment process, see…

Reforming the Annulment Process–Brainstorming Solutions  and  Reforming the Annulment Process–A Continuing Conversation. (Or Why “Alienation of Affection” is a stupid reason to require divorce before annulment).

Holy Sex! What Catholics Can Teach the World About Infallible Loving.

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod.  

Most people believe that Catholics take a rather dim and ignorant view of sex.  I used to be one of them.  Growing up, it seemed to me that there were two prevailing schools of thought among Catholics.  The first I call the “Keep God Out of My Bedroom” School.   This is the more Mediterranean, must-leave-morning-Mass-early-so-I-can-have-breakfast-with-my-mistress, laissez-faire relationship between faith and fornication.

The second is the “Aunt McGillicuddy’s Antique Urn” school.  This group grudgingly admits that sex is beautiful (in a somewhat grotesque, gothic sort of way) but more importantly, sex is HOLY, and therefore must be handled DELICATELY, CAUTIOUSLY ,and ideally, INFREQUENTLY;  like Aunt McGillicuddy’s antique urn.  “Don’ ye be fussin’ with THAT now Missy!  We only touch it if we have to dust it, and then only once a month er soo!”
The Truth is Out There

But both of these misconceptions melted away as I learned what the Church actually teaches about sex.  The truth is, Catholics do not fear sex, we esteem it.  Sex is holy, but not in  the “Aunt McGillicuddy” keep-it-at-arms-length sense.  It is holy in the context of the Incarnation.  The Eastern Fathers spoke of the Incarnation as having “Divinized our Nature.”  Sex is holy because it is the most profound way of communicating that divinized Nature.  Sex is holy in that it has the power to unite two souls and co-create life. Sex is holy because it is one of the most apt metaphors for understanding what it is like to be in the presence of God.  Christian spiritual masters have often alluded to the orgasmic nature of intimate contact with God. The Imitation of Christ refers to God as a “Divine Lover,” and saints who have experienced theophanies didn’t call it “being in ecstasy” for nothing.

Finally, for the Catholic, sex is holy because when shared between a husband and wife, it plays a role in our sanctification. “How’s that?” you ask.  The Church teaches that when a married couple makes love, they are celebrating the Sacrament of Matrimony.  But sacraments are chiefly concerned with salvation.  What could sex possibly have to do with getting ready for Eternal Life?  Well, besides participating in the mysteries I have already described, when I die, I am going to stand before the Almighty and all His Glory–in all my glory (so to speak.)  Every blemish, wrinkle, crease and bump of my physical and spiritual being will be–for all eternity–exposed to His penetrating gaze, vulnerable to His pervasive touch.  Under such circumstances, for me to experience anything other than the sheer terror of Hell, I must be able to stand confidently in the presence of that gaze, like Adam and Eve while they still enjoyed their Original Innocence.  What better way to prepare myself for this awesome responsibility than to challenge whatever  vulnerability or shame I may feel when my wife gazes upon me in my nakedness and makes love with me?  It is this unique power of sexuality to challenge shame and expand vulnerability at the deepest level that, in addition to its power to unite two people and create new life, makes lovemaking a spiritual exercise, first and foremost.  Here are four ways you and your spouse can foster a truly fulfilling and sacred sexual relationship


1.  Approach Lovemaking Joyfully.

Catholics are encouraged to celebrate the sacraments frequently and joyfully.  Marriage is one sacrament I hope you will not give me too much trouble about celebrating in such a way.  Sex is not a duty, a chore, an extra, or even a “nice thing” to do when you have the energy.  If you are married, then lovemaking is the foundation of your vocation.  It is God’s first commandment to all of humanity.  (When God said, “Go forth and multiply,” He wasn’t giving math homework.)

Too many Christian husbands and wives think that they must be ashamed of their sexuality.  Shame, causes us to hold back just where we are called to be generous.  It prevents sex from being the “self-gift” the Pope John Paul II said that it ought to be.  Our sexual and bodily shame is a direct descendent of the shame Adam and Eve encountered after the Fall, standing before God in their nakedness.  If we are ashamed of being exposed and vulnerable before a mate, how will we ever tolerate standing exposed and vulnerable before our Divine Lover?  Challenge your fears of vulnerability, of “losing control,” and you will find amazing joy in the arms of both your earthly beloved and your Heavenly one.


2.  Maintain a Responsible Openness to Life.

For sexuality to be truly spiritual, we must learn to balance the virtues expressed by a responsible openness to life.  On the one hand, openness to life helps us develop trust, generosity, vulnerability, selflessness and identify with the Fatherhood of God, among other things.  On the other hand, practicing this openness responsibly (as the Church’s teaching encourages us to do), gives us an opportunity to develop a different set of virtues; chastity, self-discipline, honesty, temperance, etc.  Both sets of virtues are equally  important to our Christian identity, but they can be hard to balance. The best way to strike this balance in marriage is to practice Natural Family Planning (NFP) a deeply spiritual, profoundly rewarding, and imminently practical form of family planning.  If you don’t use it, I encourage you to at least learn more about it by contacting your Diocesan Family Life  Office. Experience for yourself the richness it will afford your spiritual and sexual life.


3.  Approach Each Other in Prayer.

Some people sniff at the notion of joining prayer and lovemaking as if it serves the same function as reciting baseball statistics.  But prayer is absolutely essential to a spiritual sexuality.  Mine goes something like this, “Lord, let me kiss her with your lips, love her with your gentle hands, consume her with your undying passion that I may show her how precious and beautiful she is to us.”  Develop your own “lover’s prayer” and see if the Lord doesn’t help you become a more generous, loving, and attentive partner.


4.  Guard Each Other’s Dignity.

The virtues I have mentioned, especially vulnerability, cannot flourish except in a marriage where the couple are fierce guardians of each other’s dignity.  Spiritual sexuality cannot exist in the face of cruel humor, blunt criticism, name-calling, neglect, abuse, or other affronts to one’s personal dignity.  The most definitive research on marriage tells us that for a couple to be happy there must be five times more affection, generosity, and kindness, than criticism, nagging, arguing, or  expressions of contempt.  Moreover, it has been my experience that this 5:1 ratio is only the beginning point of spiritual sexuality.  If a couple exhibits a solid, sacred sexuality, then it is more likely that their positivity to negativity ratio is 7:1, or even 10:1.

If you want to achieve a spiritual sexuality then the only answer is to love. Love more,  love better, love every day.  Not necessarily because your spouse deserves it, but because your Christian dignity demands it.


The secret is out. God gave sex to the Godly, and it’s time for us to take it back.  Part of living the Catholic vision of marriage, of evangelizing the culture with the Catholic vision of love–especially in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family–is being clear about what it means to approach sex from a healthy, authentically Catholic view.  But to do that, we need to practice it first.  We need Catholic couples to be the most loving, passionate, devoted, romantic couples on the block–because that is how God loves us, and we are to be a visible sign of his passion in the world.  

Well, what are you waiting for?

To learn more about how you can live an authentic Catholic vision of love and sex, check out Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.  and  Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Whole and Holy Kids

Is the Catholic Family Different? 5 Marks of the Catholic Family–A Proposal.

The Patheos Catholic Channel is hosting a Symposium on the Family in light of the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on the Family in October and the recent release of the working document for the Synod. 

In the upcoming Extraordinary Synod on The Family, the Church will consider the mission of the Catholic family.  One of the big questions we need to look at in wrestling with this larger issue is, “Should Catholic families be different in some way from other families (other than in the ways we pray and the rules we follow) and, if so, what does that look like?”

Most Catholics, I think would answer “yes, we should be different.”  But at the same time, most Catholics, I think, would be hard-pressed to say whether or not the particular secular or Protestant experts they were relying on for advice on how to build their marriage or raise their kids were actually articulating ideas that were consistent with a Catholic view of marriage and family life.   In my experience, most Catholics think that as long as they say Catholic prayers in their home and go to Church on Sunday, they can rely on whatever sources they choose to tell them how to treat each other.  But nothing could be further from the truth.

The Church cares deeply how we treat one another especially in our marriages and families.  The problem is that it can be difficult to translate theory into practice.  You shouldn’t have to have a degree in theology to know how to be a Catholic couple or family.  There needs to be some kind of articulation of the Catholic vision of marriage and family life that even the simplest, poorest-formed Catholic (or non-Catholic for that matter) can point to as the ideal Catholic couples and parents should be striving for.

In my response to the survey for the Extraordinary Synod on the Family, I suggest 5 Marks of a Catholic Family.  I don’t suggest that this is a complete list.  There may be some glaring omissions.  The point is to get a conversation going about what a practical guide to Catholic family life (as articulated by the relevant post-conciliar documents on family life) should look like.    Here are my modest suggestions.


The Five “Marks” of a Catholic Family

1.  Catholic Families Worship Together–The Eucharist is the source of our love and the sign of the intimacy to which we are called.  Therefore, as a family, we attend Sunday mass weekly (and Holy Days and at other times as we are able) and we actively participate in parish life–our spiritual home away from home.   We also recognize that as fallen persons, we struggle to be the loving community we are called to be.  Therefore, as a family, we regularly go to confession (recommended: monthly) to seek God’s healing and grace so we might better live his vision of love in our lives and homes.

2. Catholic Families Pray Together–As “domestic church” we recognize that we cannot love one another as God loves us unless we ask him, together, to teach us what this means.  Therefore, in addition to our individual prayer life, we gather together as husband and wife and also as a family for prayer each day.  In that time, we praise and thank God for his blessings, we ask him for the grace to love each other and the world better, we seek his will for our lives, and we pray for both our needs and the needs of the Family of God. We recognize in the words of Servant of God, Fr. Patrick Peyton, “the family that prays together, stays together.”

3. Catholic Families are Called to Intimacy–Tertullian once proclaimed, “The world says, ‘Look at those Christians, see how they love one another!’”  The Christian life is first and foremost a call to intimate communion. We recognize that families are “Schools of Love.”  Therefore, as a family, we constantly challenge ourselves to seek to discover new ways to be even more open with and loving to each other as husband and wife, parents and children.  We recognize that children are to be a visible sign of the loving union between husband and wife and we work to make this a reality in our homes both in the quality of our relationships and in our openness to life.  Further, we cultivate marriage and parenting practices that make each member of the family–husband and wife, parents and children– willingly open up to one another and seek to freely give themselves to create a deeper “community of love” and practice all the virtues that help us live life as a gift.

4.  Catholic Families Put Family First–We recognize that– because our family relationships are the primary vehicle God uses to perfect us and challenge us to become everything we were created to be–family life, itself,  is the most important activity.  To protect the intimacy we are called to cultivate as the domestic church, we recognize the importance of regular family rituals  and we are intentional about creating and protecting those activities such as family dinner, family prayer and worship, a game night and/or “family day”, and regular time for one-on-one communication and relationship-building.  We hold these activities as sacred rituals of the domestic church and value them over all other activities that would seek to compete with them.

 5.  The Catholic Family is a Witness and Sign–God wants to change the world through our families.  We allow ourselves to be part of his plan for changing the world in two ways.  First, by striving to exhibit– in every way possible in our daily interactions as husband and wife, parents and children– the love and intimacy that every human heart longs for. We must show the world that this love is a possible dream worth striving for.   Second, we will carry this love outside the home by serving the world-at-large in a manner that is responsible and respectful of the integrity of the family unit. We do this by committing ourselves and our families to the intentional practice of all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy within the home and outside of it.  To this end, the ways we, as a family, are trying to fulfill this responsibility will be a regular topic of conversation in our homes.


As I said above, I have no doubt that this may be an incomplete list.  Nevertheless, I believe it represents the kind of effort that must be undertaken by the Church to evangelize families.  People do not know how to be a family anymore much less what it means to be a “Catholic family.”   I think the faithful deserve concrete, practical recommendations  (drawn from the relevant documents)  that can serve as an effective launching point for delving more deeply into the Catholic vision of marriage and family life.

My hope is that this post can start the discussion of what this may look like.

To learn more about how you can live an authentic Catholic vision of marriage and family life, check out the following resources….


Parenting with Grace:  A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids

Beyond the Birds and the Bees:  Raising Whole and Holy Kids

Then Comes Baby:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 3 Years of Parenthood.


For Better…FOREVER!  A Catholic Guide to Lifelong Marriage

Holy Sex!  A Catholic Guide to Toe-Curling, Mind-Blowing, Infallible Loving.

Just Married:  The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First 5 Years of Marriage.