A chaste marriage, four children and the Catholic Church

I was 26 years old and I was getting married when I learned about the arrangement between my parents.

Mom came to live with me and my new wife, and we got stuck inside during an ice storm. Over the endless weekend, my mother, probably in a moment of candor fueled by the alcohol, spilled the beans.

I had never heard of a Josephite marriage, a union inspired by the relationship between Joseph and the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. And to this day, I am amazed that my parents have taken a similar journey with the blessing of the Roman Catholic Church. Although their arrangement does not conform to the strict definition of a Josephite relationship – as they married without the intention of a celibate union – such pacts remain an option for Catholics seeking a spiritual plan. superior.

My dad was 32 and my mom was 19 when they met. He was a physician and was completing his training at the Queens General Hospital, now known as the Queens Hospital Center. She was a clinical nursing student there. He was an agnostic, although his parents were Presbyterians. She was Catholic. They ran away, were married off by a Lutheran minister, and had four children. Dad had a serious heart attack at 46. This contact with death prompted him to convert to Catholicism.

After recovering from his heart attack, my father took religious training with our assistant pastor, Dublin-born Reverend Patrick O’Brien, a round boy with rosy cheeks who could have come from the central cast. I remember that every Wednesday evening my mother served a roast leg of lamb with mint jelly for the benefit of our orderly visitor. It was far from the typical weeknight fare in our Texan home.

Soon after, my three siblings and I noticed that our parents’ double bed had been replaced with twin beds. My younger sister inquired about this. The sharp tone of our mother’s response prevented further discussion: “Your father needs rest! “

My three siblings and I accepted this without a doubt.

What we didn’t know was that my father had married before he met my mother. Her first marriage lasted about two years, and because the church refused to recognize the divorce and the end of that union, my parents were unable to receive the sacrament of marriage.

During my father’s immersion in Catholicism, it was pointed out that without the sacrament of marriage performed by a priest, my parents were technically living in sin. Mortal sin. All Catholic schoolchildren knew the consequences: mortal sin without absolution meant eternal damnation! And what about the legitimacy of children?

My father made several attempts to have his first marriage annulled. The church has declined. The grounds for Catholic annulment were much stricter before the reforms introduced in the United States in 1968. To my knowledge, my father’s first marriage did not meet the requirements of the church at that time.

But he offered a different solution. Mom and Dad, with the permission of the bishop, and after taking a solemn vow, could leave the marital bed and replace it with a chaste cohabitation.

According to an official document which still bears the seals and signatures in relief of various church officials and Catholic entities, they could “continue to cohabit like a brother and a sister”. I have the letter, dated March 5, 1962, from a diocesan matrimonial tribunal, a “curia matrimonialis”, in which both my parents swear to adhere to this arrangement – or risk losing access to the sacraments and to the blessing of the church. Mom was 34 years old; Dad was 47.

Dad and I, along with my younger sister, were then confirmed by the bishop that same evening at the True Cross Church Shrine in Dickinson, Texas.

Secrecy was paramount. “No one is to know about the brother-sister relationship except lawyer Father O’Brien, the pastor, the court and the parties’ confessors,” the court letter reads. He mentioned avoiding “notoriety” and “scandal”. Of course, even in the 1960s, you would think that not having sex with your partner would fall on the lower end of the scandal spectrum.

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All of this may seem like an artefact from the past, but a 2010 article in the Catholic Exchange publication explained that in addition to conventional marriage, there is still “the type of marriage that Joseph and Mary had and is sometimes referred to as a Josephite marriage.” “Married singles, according to the article, give up sex” because they hope to live a life that shows the way to what will happen in the next life, to something better and higher. “

Robert Sullivan, a regular writer for the Catholic Exchange and a lawyer from Nebraska, told me that Josephite-type arrangements can be used to get around “some sort of barrier to marriage” as well as “to deepen a woman’s faith. anybody “.

I couldn’t help but wonder if the Catholic Church continues to structure these arrangements for couples who request such a union.

“It’s extremely rare for people to ask for a Josephite marriage today,” said Christopher West, president of Theology of the Body Institute, which promotes a healthy understanding of sex in the teachings of the Catholic Church. “I know a couple who, a few years ago, saw that they were called to a Josephite marriage. Their motivation was carefully assessed by their local diocese.

Mr. West added, “The normal path to holiness in marriage is to sanctify the marriage bed, not to sacrifice the marriage bed.

The dominant view of theologians is that Mary and Joseph’s special physical relationship – Josephite’s original marriage – lasted their entire lives.

As for my parents, nine years after my father’s heart attack and their decision to marry celibate, his first wife has passed away. One ordinary Tuesday evening in 1970, mom and dad were married in secret in our parish church. Two close-lipped family friends served as witnesses. My mother said, “If I remember correctly, we went out for a drink afterwards. “

The twin beds in my parents’ room have been replaced with a large one. Again my younger sister asked about the rearrangement.

My mother’s blunt response: “Your father is doing a lot better!”

Yes, I guess he felt better, found mom and, finally, their union recognized for what it was.

I told this story when I delivered the eulogy at my mother’s funeral mass at True Cross Shrine in May 2019. I’m sure it was news to most of her many friends. in the church that day. The current pastor was unaware of his complicated marital history, and I was a little worried about how he would react.

But after I sat down, he took the chair. “I cannot explain or excuse the things the church asked of people over 50 years ago,” the priest said. “But it’s clear how important it was to Betty and Bill that their marriage be blessed by the church. Without judging what they went through, we can admire and appreciate their determination and sacrifice to enter into the sanctity of marriage.

There is still a lot of things I don’t understand about a singles union, but what harm has it done? Our brood of four siblings could have been increased by a few more souls. But my parents didn’t seem to feel wronged, so who am I to question that. During her long years as a widow, Mom remembers: “It was what we had to do to be together. It wasn’t that bad.


Geoffrey Leavenworth is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He is the author of four books, including the novel “Isle of Misfortune” and the architectural volume “Historic Galveston”.

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