She had a question for me. Well, she had a bunch of questions, but among them was a very disturbing one. This wasn’t it:
“Will you come to my wedding?”
I raised my eyebrows. She is a divorced Catholic (her husband was essentially a bigamist), who never sought an annulment.
“Whom are you marrying and where?” I asked.
“Jack, of course, and at Saint Brendan’s.”
“Really? When did you get an annulment?”
“Father Blithe says I no longer need one.”
“Father Blithe said that did he?”
She looked me in the eyes and I could see the color fade from her face.
“Are you saying he’s wrong?”
“I haven’t actually said a thing yet. But, yeah, he’s wrong.”
“Oh. So you know better than a priest, huh?”
“So it would appear.”
“Listen, he is suborning you to commit mortal sin, and he’s putting himself on the precipice of excommunication. This must not be, and I will not attend if you go ahead with this.”
“You wouldn’t come to my wedding?”
“Not under the circumstances you’re describing. Look, the chances are it won’t happen anyway, especially after I call the archdiocesan chancery office.”
“You’d do that . . . to me?”
“I’d do it for you, not to you.”
“So I don’t get to decide for myself?”
“Of course you do, including your – so far – decision to participate in the invalid rite Blithe is suggesting. You have, in a sense, a civil right to commit mortal sin, although I’d have hoped you would choose not to do so. But the priest has absolutely no canonical authority to perform such a marriage, and doing so will probably cost him his job. If his intention is to be laicized (to give up being a priest), he should man up and do it properly, and not take you and Jack along for the ride.”
“But he said that’s all changed.”
“Sure it has – in his own mind. Unfortunately for him and for you, Holy Mother Church hasn’t changed her position.”
“So I can’t get married?”
“You can, but not in a Catholic ceremony. See a judge; see an Episcopalian. I’d come to those weddings. But if you two have decided to marry after dating for a few years, why on earth don’t you wait a little longer and begin the annulment process? Those rules may actually change soon.”
“But won’t I be excommunicated if I re-marry outside the Church?”
“Actually, no. But you sure as shootin’ will be if you go ahead with the wedding at Saint Brendan’s. But otherwise. . .no. You’ll no longer be able to receive Holy Communion, of course, and you’ll still be expected to attend Mass on all days of obligation.”
“Them’s the rules.”
“I have to come to the river, but I can’t drink.”
“In a manner of speaking, yes. But that’s the river of living water; of eternal life.”
“That is so unfair.”
“If I’ve never said this to you before, it is totally fair, in that the Church exists to lead us to holiness; to keep us on the path of righteousness and not the road to ruin, of sin, which is why we have the sacraments – each of which gives us a way out of the hold the devil has on us. Understand: an annulment would give you the freedom you’re seeking.”
“How many holy days of obligation are there?
“Let me see – four or five, I think.”
She seemed to relax a bit. Sort of twisted her lips in a gesture that said she thought maybe she could handle five.
“Plus,” I said, “every Sunday, of course.”
She frowned and shook her head.
“Sunday’s are holy days now?”
I sighed: “Now and always, although I gather some Catholics aren’t aware of it.”
She nodded, smiling sarcastically. Then she asked:
“What about the fact that Jack’s not Catholic.”
“Under the circumstances, that’s the least of your problems, especially if you got that annulment. As long as he would not be an impediment to your practice of the faith, you could go ahead. Back to the chancery, you’d apply for and probably receive what’s called a ‘dispensation for disparity of cult.’ What is Jack’s faith, anyway?”
“Seriously? He’s past fifty and hasn’t thought through all this.” To emphasize the point, I made a sweeping gesture to indicate heaven and earth.
“He grew up some sort of Protestant, but he says he’s seen too much to believe God exists.”
“But you like him!”
“Yes, well, I do, but anyway it’s your decision about whom to marry. It would be easy for me to say, ‘Hold on until you find a Catholic guy,’ but that really makes no difference without the annulment.”
Then she said she had a Last Question, which actually turned out not to be the last (she wanted to know how to proceed with an annulment and various other canonical questions, many of which I couldn’t answer, except to refer her to a canon lawyer (I certainly couldn’t suggest her parish priest), and this is the question I referred to at the beginning:
“Will I go to hell if I just go ahead and do what Father Blithe has suggested?”
“You put yourself gravely at risk. That’s all I can say.”
I might have handed her my rosary, told her to buy black dresses and attend Mass daily, and forget about marriage at her age. But why lose a friend and a Catholic?