Tuesday, January 9, 2024


I have always written about my relationship with the Church as a marriage. When I "walked down the aisle" at the age of eighteen to be wed to the Bride of Christ, I knew even then that it was for life, for better or for worse. Receiving the Eucharist for the first time in that sleepy Byzantine church in the country was a sweet virgin consummation of that union. When I have betrayed the Lord and defiled the spirit of God within me, he always took me back as a Gomer to his breast in the Sacrament of Penance and forgiven my sins. I have told countless people about my love for the Bride, how She helped me to live my best life and made me want to be a better person. And not just a better person, but a saint.

I've been in this marriage for over twenty five years now and I have to tell you, it's not always an easy one. I never thought I'd get to a point in my relationship with the Church where I feel like a battered spouse who has been lied to, beaten, gaslighted and infected with an STD while still remaining faithful. My shame when I go to market, where I hear secondhand of yet another instance of disgrace, has become something I have sadly become numb to and now expect. 

This can't go on much longer. Lord, how long? (Ps 13:1). I have been faithful. I have maintained my joy even in my shame. I have told everyone about you and where your Truth may be found. I have not thought of leaving or trading up. But I'm getting worn down. And yet leaving is not an option. Til death do us part.

One of my favorite parts of being a father is seeing the innocence of my kids maintained. Sure, they have their own sins and shortcomings, but like Christ to Nathaniel, I can look at them and say, "behold, a child in which there is no guile" (Jn 1:47). How I long to say the same about my bride, my Church. And yet I cannot. Day after day, morning after morning, I am faced with a new revealing and uncovering--of guile, of deceit, of duplicity, or perversity, of things done in the dark when I have been out in the fields laboring and extoling the virtue of my spiritual spouse. Remaining faithful has become not an impetus of desire, but a sheer act of the will through gritted teeth. I remain faithful not because I am beaming with pride with regards to my first love, but because I am willing love and fidelity when it does not come naturally. I have even wondered at times if I am fitting that definition of insanity, to do things over and over again expecting a different result--that my spouse will change.

But I know I cannot change the Church; I can only change myself. I feel like that abandoned husband who takes his kids to Mass every Sunday while his wife spits vitriol at me on the way out the door. Sitting in the pew, week after week, expecting to hear from the pulpit of Rome a different message, an encouragement, a modicum of authentic repentance for her sins, that I am not alone or a fool for remaining faithful. But I do not. What I do, to stay faithful to my vows, is seek out other abandoned spouses trying to make sense of their marriage to the Church and grinding it out. I even try to be a cheerleader at times for my brethren, telling them to tie themselves to the mast of their faith, stay faithful, offer their bodies up in prayer and pious deference and sacrifice, tithe their hard earned pay to the family checking account even while their spouse squanders it all in dissolution and sordid payoffs. What else can I do but be that smiling spouse--knowing what is happening but trying to hold it all together for the sake of the family, telling the kids their Mother will be home soon while knowing full well where She is. "I may be faithful, but don't take me for a fool." 

When I was dropping my son off to basketball practice around 5:30 last night, all was dark. This is typical for the long, cold month of January of course, but it always takes a degree of endurance to gear up for the months ahead where it is more of the same, day after day. It becomes harder to get up day after day and keep your spirits up, so maybe this post is as much a reflection of the season as it is of my spirit. 

Last week I was chatting with a young man who had decided to give up on his marriage and had separated from his wife, the mother of his three children. It was sidewalk-counseling for marriage, and as anyone who has done pro-life counseling knows, it is a real, heartbreaking grind, and the definition of "work." 

He had his reasons, some valid and some questionable. But what it came down to was a typical settling response: "I don't love her anymore. And I want out." He saw himself as better off without her than with her. The thought of enduring what seemed like insurmountable obstacles for years was nothing but darkness, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Never mind the effect such a divorce would have on his children, or the financial consequences, or the betraying of vows. He did not want to be a part of this team anymore, and there seemed to be nothing I could tell him otherwise to get him to reconsider.

Because what does that reconsideration mean? It means a lot of work, a lot of faith in someone who has betrayed your trust, and a lot of trust that that flame of "first love" was still there somewhere, flickering and struggling not to be extinguished. When you have not only lost faith in your spouse, but faith in the institution and sacramental power of marriage, there's not much keeping that thread from snapping and cutting your lifeboat free from the ship. 

To answer the question, "Why should I stay married?" is not too different from "Why should I remain in the Church?" Was I crazy, misinformed, blinded when I first made those vows? If I would have known what was in store, would I still have made them? And so you start to think, by way of wily temptation, that you have been tricked, the terms of the contract withheld from you. "You deceived me, LORD, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me. Whenever I speak, I cry out proclaiming violence and destruction. So the word of the LORD has brought me insult and reproach all day long" (Jer 20:7-8). Your faith has done an inter-departmental transfer to preserve the company: I no longer have faith in you, but I have put my faith in those vows if nothing else. Even though you have been unfaithful and appear to no longer stand for what you once stood for, I will remain faithful. I will honor those vows.

The Catholic can not divorce Christ from his Bride, the Church--such a faith is nonsensical. And yet it demands an incredible amount of trust and fortitude that they are mystically intertwined and to divorce one is to divorce the other. For Christ is the innocent, the first love, the pure intention, the immovable rock at the heart of the Church. And though we are wed as Catholics to the Church, we are also the cells that comprise Her Body--which is consummated to Christ. We have Her sins held up to our face day after day, have our noses rubbed in it by the world and by her vicars alike, all while enduring her abuse. We look at the floor and burn with shame at the dishonor brought into this marriage, struggling to hold our heads up. The worst part is not the sins and failing, or the lack of remorse--the worst part is that She seems to not even believe in her first love anymore.

And yet the power of this mystical sacramentality, this grace of pure faith, allows us to see through her stained veil, through the soot of her many sins defacing the purity of her mantle, to Christ who remains hidden in her folds. For Christ and his Church, like man and wife, are indeed "one flesh" that can endure no separation. Each day, we recommit our faith to Christ pure and undefiled, hidden and besmirched under such sordid sheets, to consummate ourselves to his sacred heart. Even when the Bride no longer reflects the glory of the Bridegroom, we trust that he will make all things new if we remain faithful and endure to the end. As in a marriage, because we do not have a legitimate out, but only rationalizations for unfaithfulness, we are forced to find a way through even when we are brought to the brink of not having any options. "If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, since he cannot deny himself" (2 Tim 2:13). 

Christ has called us "friends," friends he has laid his life down for. But we are not friends with the Church, for friendship is always conditional. Our lives as Catholics and our relationship to the Church is one of spousal union, marriage, even when she has disfigured herself.  The Church will hurt you. But to cut ourselves free from this union is to set ourselves adrift, like a man who leaves his wife and enjoys a short-lived reprieve from suffering and shame in perceived bachelorhood. But the apostate, the man who abandons his spouse, will always be a haunted man. And so we stay. And suffer. And endure the shame of infidelity. Praying for the grace to be faithful...til death do us part. 

1 comment:

  1. Kind of forces you to figure out what those vows meant in the first place. Even though it’s painful (or probably because it is), it helps purify your intentions. I’m definitely there with you!