Clearing Up Loose Ends

So I thought I was all done with annulments, but based on the emails I've been receiving from all of you, I apparently need to do one more to "clean up" a few remaining issues.

I've done a lot of writing in my life, and probably stirred up more than my fair share of controversy. And one thing I've learned is that I'm usually on the right track when I'm being criticized from both sides.

Apparently, I'm on the right track.

Wow. Some of you are mad at me for implying that divorced-but-un-annulled persons should avoid serious dating. The rest are annoyed at me for suggesting that any sort of opposite-sex friendship is possible among the divorced-but-un-annulled. And then there were those who assumed that I must be writing all of this to justify my own "friendship" with some divorced-but-un-annulled man.

Okay — taking these in reverse order. To set the record straight: I am not personally involved in any kind of close relationship –"dating" or otherwise — with any divorced-but-un-annulled man. And, with the exception of one very brief, very chaste and very platonic friendship several years ago, I never have been. So I didn't write what I wrote about friendship to defend or excuse my own behavior. I wrote it because I believe it to be true. Certain types of opposite-sex friendships that would be highly inappropriate for the married can be appropriate for the divorced-but-un-annulled.

Look, I have male friends. I have male friends who are married. These aren't "close" friendships in the way I'm close to my girlfriends or even to some of my single male friends. But I have been known, on extremely rare occasions, to walk into restaurants with these married male friends, sit down and order food — all while their wives weren't present. Why is that okay? Because their wives are my friends, too. Because their wives know we're there, and they're perfectly comfortable with it. Because they know we're discussing business or whatever we're discussing, and that we wouldn't say anything that couldn't be said if she was sitting there with us. And, most importantly, because these wives know that their husbands love them and not me, and that I constitute exactly zero threat to their marriages. In fact, I am highly protective of my friends' marriages. There is no line of marital intimacy — physical or emotional — that I would come within a mile of crossing. And I'd kick a man clear across the county if he came anywhere near crossing any of those lines around me.

Spending time with a married man whose wife didn't know and trust me would be wrong. Likewise, crossing those physical and emotional boundaries would be wrong. It would be a sin against that wife, against the intimacy that they share and that she has a right to expect.

What many of you seem to have forgotten is that the picture changes somewhat after a couple is civilly divorced. Even if a sacramental union remains (or, more accurately, is presumed to remain) the expectation of physical and emotional intimacy is gone. She is no longer sitting at home waiting for him. In fact — when the man is the kind of faithful Catholic that we CM women like to spend time with — she is often the one who severed that intimacy, and she may very well be off doing all kinds of unchaste and immoral things with unchaste and immoral men. She is likely not losing sleep over the fact that the man she abandoned is having coffee with some nice girl somewhere.

Note that I have consistently referred to "friendship." As far as I'm concerned, pre-annulment relationships should stay at the brother-sister level. Even if there is no spouse at home waiting, there is still no assurance that the Church will find the marriage invalid, and therefore it's a bad idea to move ahead as if that had already happened.

Many of you were concerned that such friendships would constitute an "occasion of sin." Well, yeah. Any friendship between people of the opposite sex can become an occasion of sin. This is where it becomes important to "know thyself." If you're feeling terribly weak and vulnerable, you probably shouldn't be spending time hanging out with someone with whom you're likely to fall into sin. That's true regardless of the marital status of the other person. And even if you're feeling confident, you need to keep physical boundaries way on this side of acceptable. Just don't get started down that road. Friendship, remember?

There was also come concern that such friendships could be the cause of scandal. That could be, if the two people involved were engaging in heavy PDA ("public displays of affection") or even gazing lovingly into each other's eyes while sharing a milkshake and holding hands across the table. But chatting over lattes at Starbucks isn't going to raise a whole lot of eyebrows in today's world. The guidelines are simple. Don't give anybody any reason to suspect that anything unchaste is going on.

My point is that chaste friendship between men and women is possible. The saints have demonstrated that to us throughout the ages. The friendship between St. Francis and St. Claire was good, pure, totally chaste and clearly infused by the Holy Spirit. If their friendship could be chaste, then ours can too.

Of course, among those of us yet to be canonized, chastity doesn't happen automatically. The boundaries need to be clear and wide. Our lives, and our relationships, need to be infused with prayer. If a relationship does become an "occasion of sin" we need to widen the boundaries even further. And if that doesn't work, we need to have the courage to walk away rather than placing ourselves and others in danger of serious sin.

The whole point of this series has been to encourage you to take the annulment process seriously. I know by your emails that many, many of you already do, and I admire you for it. I know that it isn't easy, and that it brings up a lot of memories and feelings and often sadness and grief. I also know that it can be very, very healing in the end. I am grateful that the Church gives you the opportunity to bring your case to the Tribunal for review, and grateful that so many of you take that opportunity.

I just don't want the sheer volume of annulments granted to give us the idea that a valid marriage is dissoluble, or that any married person who submits the appropriate paperwork can be relieved of their marital obligations. The Church's teaching on the permanence and indissolubility of sacramental marriage is very beautiful, and very important in today's world.

I suspect that no one knows that better than those of you who have entered into a marriage believing it to be valid, and have experienced the heartbreak of watching it disintegrate because of factors you didn't even know about.

May God's mercy and love be with all of you!

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  • Guest

    I've been married over 46 years to a man I probably could get an annulment from.  Why am I still married?  Because God has called us together for HIS purposes.

    In a culture so saturated in sex, I'm sure it's hard for almost anyone to credit the idea of chastity.  Look at all the hullabaloo over teaching abstinance to today's youngsters.  I think the real reason most people deny its validity is because, if the kids could do it, they would have no excuse for not doing it as well.

    Keep up the good work, Mary Beth. 

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