In my last post I alluded to the difficult topic of divorce and remarriage in the story of The Woman at the Well. This week I want to share how I present the Sacrament of Matrimony in my classes — how to teach the truth about Christian marriage without undermining the respect students (rightly) have for their own parents and loved ones.
1. Step one is a heartfelt ditto to Amy Giglio and Dorian Speed: Make sure you know what the Church teaches. Don’t settle for sloppy shorthand such as “divorced people can’t receive communion” — that’s often not the case. Note that if you ordinarily refer to The Youcat, or The Catechism of the Catholic Church, look instead to the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, which provides an excellent overview of the sacrament (Chapter 21) and the 6th Commandment (chapter 30). For a detailed look at technical questions, consult a source such as Fr. James LeBlanc’s pdf document on all things marriage.
If you are not completely clear on Church teaching and practice, you aren’t alone. Stand in front of the mirror and practice saying, “That’s a difficult one, and I want to make sure I give you the right answer. Let me look it up and tell you next week.” Bring a pencil and paper for writing down tough questions that come up during class.
2. Just teach the basic information. You might say, “The ‘Sacrament of Matrimony’ just means ‘Christian marriage’. One man and one woman join together in marriage to form a family. They promise to be faithful to each other for life, and to be open to any children God might give them.”
3. If you feel brave, finish by saying, “Any questions?”
4. So you tried to skip on to Holy Orders real fast before they could open their little mouths? Ha. Nice try. Short of beating open a pinata, you aren’t getting out of the questions.
So you’ve just been asked: Why can’t two women get married, like my Aunt Sarah did? My mom’s been married three times, is that okay? Why do people get divorced? What if you marry a bank robber but you didn’t know he was a bank robber, and then you find all this money in your room one day, can you keep it? Can you marry a non-Catholic? What if you murder your spouse, can you get married again after that?* Can I get a drink of water? My dad was married in a hot-air balloon.
Some of these are hypothetical, others are personal, and yes this is a great time to go get a drink of water, because Marriage Q&A takes a while. As you work through the questions, these are the four principles I try to keep in mind:
1. Always give parents the benefit of the doubt. The first four marriages may have been legitimately annulled. The couple may have received a dispensation for their scuba-themed ceremony on the coral reef. You don’t know. Now is not the time to guess.
2. Discourage speculation, encourage discretion. Children often want to know, “Why did _______ get divorced?” Observe that divorce is always a sign that something has gone wrong, but that we can rarely know what exactly was the problem. One or both spouses may choose not to discuss the real reasons for the divorce because they don’t want to gossip, and do want to respect the privacy of the other spouse.
3. Do provide age-appropriate explanations of annulment, convalidation, and the like, if a student’s question can only be answered by delving into these details. If you aren’t confident of your answer, use the “Let me look it up” escape. Make sure your answers are 100% g-rated — your pastor or DRE may be able to help you with your wording.
4. Show respectful sympathy for people who struggle with Church teachings. We all do things we shouldn’t. Some people have a very hard time understanding or following the Church’s teachings on marriage. We should be patient and loving, and remember that Jesus cares about them very much, and there is no sin that cannot be forgiven.
*Yes, a student really asked that question one year. I had to e-mail my pastor to confirm the answer: No.