Aidan’s mother is Presbyterian but has consistently attended Saturday evening Mass with her husband, Pat, in the thirty-two years of their marriage. In fact she directed the children’s choir in their parish while Aidan and his sister, Aile were in their middle-and high-school years. Aidan and Aile each were altar servers in their seventh and eighth grade years and graduated, after Confirmation, into being lectors. Aidan went to the local Jesuit prep-school; Aile to the “Madames” of the Sacred Heart Day School. During his college years at the University of Delaware, however, Aidan drifted away from regular Mass attendance. He also met Katie, like him from the D.C. suburbs, and they began dating.
Katie was also from a devout Catholic home. She is an only child. Her parents belong to the Cathedral parish of Saint Matthew in Washington where her mother is an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. Katie graduated from Georgetown Visitation before going to the University of Delaware. When she began dating Aidan she got him back to Sunday Mass. They dated in Sophomore and Junior year, but Aidan broke it off over the summer between Junior and Senior year. He was concerned that Katie was overly dependent on her mother, Frances. Frances would drive two hours every Tuesday to have lunch with Katie at the University and insisted that Katie come home every weekend.
During their senior year Aidan and Katie slowly rebuilt their relationship and when Aidan decided to go to Law School in Boston, Katie followed to do her Masters in Math at Boston College. Katie became very involved at the Paulist Center in Boston where she and Aidan regularly attended Mass every Sunday. Katie was also on the RCIA team and Aidan became involved in fundraising for the center. In Aidan’s final year of Law School they became engaged to be married. They moved in together after they were engaged. Frances flew up to Boston every-other-weekend. Pat and Joan (Aidan’s mother) were concerned about Frances’ “apron-strings” but Aidan assured them that he could handle it. They were also concerned that Aidan seemed unable to make up his own mind with determination and worried that the reconciliation between them in their senior year was little more than Aidan’s tendency to “be a nice guy.” But in the end they felt they had to respect Aidan’s choices.
Aidan graduated and passed the Bar for Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia. Pat and Joan hoped “the kids” would move back to Fairfax but Katie had found a job teaching Math and Physics in a Boston High School and didn’t want to move back. Aidan, on the other hand, was having trouble finding a position with a Law Firm in Boston though through family connections there were a number of positions available in the D.C. area.
They were married that July after graduation in the Cathedral of Saint Matthew in Washington. Aidan’s uncle, a religious order priest teaching at Catholic U, said the Mass and presided over the marriage. A reception for 150 followed at the Washington Country Club. The two families split the cost of the reception based on the proportion of guests each had invited. By September Aidan and Katie were back in Boston with Katie teaching and Aidan continuing to do interviews for a position in a law firm. Meanwhile, Aidan took a position in a foreign currency exchange upstart company. All seemed to be well though when they came back to the DC area at Christmas Aidan spent most nights at his parents in Fairfax, Katie with her family in Chevy-Chase. They both spent Christmas Eve with Katie’s family and Christmas Day with Aidan’s.
It was only in April that Aidan told his parents that Katie had left him in January and moved in with Maggie, the girls’ gym teacher in her Boston High School. Maggie is gay and the exact nature of her relationship with Katie was never clearly defined. Aidan felt, however, that Maggie had undermined their marriage from when she and Katie had first met and had told Katie that she (Katie) could move in with her if she ever left Aidan. Katie stayed with Maggie for six months before moving out and getting an apartment of her own. She told Aidan she wanted a divorce.
Aidan had been seeing a counselor since the breakup and he repeatedly asked Katie to see a marriage counselor with him but she refused. He went to Katie’s parents to enlist their help—they too told their daughter to get counseling, but Katie refused. The marriage was over and there was no room, according to Katie, to negotiate. Pat and Joan were concerned that Aidan may have done something wrong. Was their any violence? Was he dealing with any issues? Substance abuse? Pornography addiction? Aile put out what feelers she could among various friends and acquaintances she shared with Katie but could find no reason for Katie leaving Aidan other than “he wasn’t on the career track that would take them where she thought they should go.” Aidan’s friends all assured his family that he never was abusive in any way and Katie has never alleged that he was.
Pat and Joan told Aidan that since the marriage had lasted such a short time, wedding gifts should be returned and this led to an interesting revelation. Aidan agreed; Katie refused. But it turned out that Aidan had kept the gifts from his family and friends and Katie had kept hers. They never established joint finances but each had their own bank accounts. It turned out that Katie’s parents always had separate finances as well and Katie had refused the idea of joint accounts. The divorce became final eighteen months after the breakup.
This is a true story. Some particulars—names and places—have been changed but it is a story from within my own family. I tell it because I believe Pope Francis is dead on when he says that the idea of permanent commitment escapes the understanding of many—if not most—people today. Key to this is that I have not exaggerated the Catholicity of either family or the Catholic backgrounds of Katie and Aidan or Katie’s commitment to the Church through her College and Boston years, but note that it was Aidan who fought to keep the marriage. If these happen when the wood is green, what will happen to the dry?
Pope Francis’ comments on the instability of modern marriage—and its impact on the validity of the sacrament—stirred up a hornet’s nest among the krazies on the blogosphere, but it is totally consistent with what most of my priest-friends have been saying for years. Some priests in my acquaintance even say that the Church “should get out of the marrying business.” I think that would be a sad mistake but there is no doubt that we have a culture problem that is probably beyond the Church’s ability to fix. I am not sure what the answer is but denial is not part of the solution. Perhaps the Pope needs to speak out in more detail on this issue so that it is not as easy to retreat into denial. It certainly explains why he is trying to chart a different course for the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried as the implicit nullity of so many contemporary marriages severely complicates the issue.