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March 27, 2008
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Paula Huston.com
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Signatures of Grace by Paul Huston and Thomas Grady
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The Sacrament of Matrimony

It was a great surprise to me to discover that the Church does bar the gates at times, requiring the annulment of my first marriage. My decision to proceed was not so much brave as it was desperate´┐Ż

Paula Huston


Many people don't realize that it is difficult to become a Catholic. I certainly never anticipated that my bid to enter the Church would become a vastly tangled affair that eventually required the annulment of my first marriage and a second wedding ceremony with Mike, who had already put in a good number of years as my legal spouse. In some vague, hazy way I assumed that Vatican II had ended "all that"´┐Żthat the Church no longer much concerned itself with people's "private lives," those areas of our existence, specifically the bedroom, that we late twentieth-century individualists firmly believe to be "off limits," nobody's moral business but our own.

I´┐Żd never before run up against the kind of authority that places the integrity of institution over individual "rights."
My ignorance in this line was rather typical, I believe. People outside the context of lifetime Catholicism take note of the big events: the Pope visiting Mexico, the disgruntlement that sometimes flares within the ranks over the not-yet- and maybe never-lifted requirement of priestly celibacy. Outsiders are willing to concede that Catholicism is a mysterious religion, full of odd, incomprehensible ritual, but they tend to interpret this mystery as simple confusion, sorted out and pared down later by the Protestant reformers. Others are less restrained in their criticisms. These folk may find religion itself rather harmless, more of a yawn than anything else, yet something about Catholic worship raises their ire; something about it morally offends and disgusts them. For such people, the rituals may call up the complex, at times downright nasty history of the Church-in-the-world, or its refusal to accommodate certain basic facts about how things are these days. They may symbolize an antiquated patriarchy (priests, bishops, cardinals, Pope´┐Żall those men). However, such folk´┐Żand I used to be one of them´┐Żrarely conjecture about whether or not they could join if they wanted to. The Church is so enormous, after all; how can you explain a billion members without an open-door policy?

And so it was a great surprise to me to discover that the Church does indeed bar the gates at times, that joining the Catholic Church is not necessarily a matter of personal choice. "Surprise," actually, doesn't quite describe that discovery. The day I was told that I would have to drop out of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) program and seek an annulment before the church could consider allowing me to participate in the sacraments as a full-fledged Catholic, I felt shock, pure and simple, in the sense of "the shock of the icy water took her breath away." Like many Americans of my generation, I'd never before run up against the kind of authority that places the integrity of institution over individual "rights." Along with shock, of course, came the simple human anger of being rejected . . .

As someone who had been AWOL from church for many years, a serious reassessment on my side was now in order.
As someone who had been AWOL from church for many years´┐Żnot only AWOL but utterly faithless´┐Ża serious reassessment on my side was now in order. The important thing, I thought, was God. I'd finally found him again; I didn't want to cloud that trembling, delicate new clarity on things. Did I really need corporate religion? Could I stick with this admittedly rocky new spiritual path without the inspiration of liturgical worship, sacrament, the warmth of a congregation shuffling in their pews around me? I knew that other had done it, at least for a while´┐Żreligious geniuses like Paul, Francis, Teresa of Avila, George Fox. Yet their times of solitude all seemed to lead back to the same place: roles of leadership in the new, more vibrant version of the Church that grew up around them. Many of us, it seems, need the visceral unity of group worship, the shared symbols of "organized religion," the spiritual grit of religious discipline, the (at times) daunting authority of institution. I was afraid that if I tried to go it alone, I'd be tempted to take the path of least resistance, to create for myself a relationship with God that, more than anything, pleased and reassured me. Worse, that allowed me to remain aloof and critical.

My decision to proceed was not so much brave as it was desperate. I'd found something that spoke directly to the crying need within me and did so in ways that I could not command, surprising ways that kept me off balance, less apt to think I was running the show on my own. True, I could have gone to another church, an "easier church," as they put it in RCIA, "around the corner." But an easier church might not do the job, might not be able to tame this thing in me that needed taming.

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March 9, 2004

PAULA HUSTON, a National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, has published fiction and essays for more than twenty years.

This article is excerpted from ´┐ŻSignatures of Grace: Catholic Writers on the Sacraments´┐Ż by Paula Huston and Thomas Grady (Plume 2001). Reprinted with permission of Plume. All rights reserved.

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READER COMMENTS
04.05.04   Jonathan Kinsman says:
Lindadic,You may be right. Canon Law is byzantine.However, let me put in a plug for Paula Huston's collection of essays on the Sacraments.She wrote the essay on Matrimony. It is quite moving and understandable when you put her snippet her in the greater context of the essay. The book is Signatures of Grace.Her admission as to her affair with her (future) husband and the difficulties after her second marriage are difficult to read without feeling like you're overhearing a private conversation. She is an excellent writer and (good to hear) her practice of her faith and her relationship with her husband has improved.She would make a great columnist for Godspy.Jonathan

04.02.04   Siena says:
NFP. NFP. NFP.If people would just use Natural Family Planning, divorce could many times be avoided. Don't divorce until you first try NFP. www.ccli.org. Contraception is contracepting our love.

03.12.04   lindadic says:
I wonder about this! I was divorced and remarried at the time I was received into the Church (1995), and before I joined the RCIA program I explained this to the priest I spoke to. He checked on things for me and said there would be no problem. Maybe that's because I wasn't a baptized Christian yet? As things worked out, after I was baptized, my ex-husband, who was a secular Jew, wanted to marry a Catholic woman. He sought an annulment of our marriage on the basis of my conversion, using the Pauline privilege. I was told by someone that the petition would have to go all the way to Rome. The annulment was granted.My ex-husband subsequently divorced his Catholic wife and married yet another woman, also Catholic, but lapsed. Good thing, too, I suppose, since I don't think he would have gotten a 2nd annulment.... On the other hand, the first Catholic wife was nearing the age of 50 but she really wanted to have a baby (this was her first marriage). My ex refused to try, or even to adopt. (His children with me were already grown.) I believe the refusal to have children is grounds for annulment. So maybe wife 2 got an annulment of their marriage.Is there something ridiculous about this? I am not sure at all.

03.09.04   Godspy says:
It was a great surprise to me to discover that the Church does bar the gates at times, requiring the annulment of my first marriage. My decision to proceed was not so much brave as it was desperate´┐Ż

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