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Weddings, Papal And Otherwise

Would Lena Marie and Walter still be together if they had been married by the pope?

Thomas Theodor Heine. Bride-to-be Admiring Herself in Mirror (1898). Simplicissimus. Munich. [1]
Thomas Theodor Heine. Bride-to-be Admiring Herself in Mirror (1898). Simplicissimus. Munich.

Lena was the first of my old high school friends to marry. From wedding march to wedding cake, the nuptials were grand. Preliminaries, too, were imposing—the showers, the parties, the trousseau. Yes, a trousseau! A chest of linens with trim crocheted and tatted by Aunt Philomena, nightgowns hand-smocked and embroidered by Cousin Lucy back in La Spezia. Family silver. More.

The ceremony was moving, the homily inspirational; cast and setting were as dazzling as solemnity permitted. Bride and groom were Ave Maria-ed and Mendelssohned to kingdom come. (Though we would not have phrased it that way then.) At the reception, Uncle Anthony, a diocesan priest on Lena’s side, said elaborate grace and delivered a certificate of papal blessing—on parchment—to the new couple. With a prayerful flourish, Walter’s aunt followed with rosaries hallowed by the pope himself. Husband and wife left to honeymoon, their troth pledged in stone.

Anonymous. A Royal Marriage (c. 1850). Pictures of English History. Routledge & Sons, London. [2]
Anonymous. A Royal Marriage (c. 1850). Pictures of English History. Routledge & Sons, London.

Around the time of their first anniversary, the wedded pair invited friends over to their Fort Lee apartment. Dinner done, Lena suggested that Walter show guests the way back to the George Washington Bridge. And, while you are at it, please take out the garbage. A good-natured host, Walter obliged. While he was gone, Lena skipped out with the contractor who had installed a swimming pool on the roof of their condo complex. Their getaway had been cleverly plotted, laudably executed. The two decamped to his ancestral home in . . . Caracas or Costa Rica? I forget.

Walter never saw it coming. Last we heard, he eventually remarried. A quiet, civil ceremony in Borough Hall. He had had his fill of church weddings.

Solange Gautier. Bride Running from Toad Groom (early 20th C.). [3]
Solange Gautier. Bride Running from Toad Groom (early 20th C.).

I have not thought of Lena in years. Why do I remember her now? It is something to do with the three-ring wedding that ran for one performance at St. Peter’s last week. The press was euphoric. Here, finally, was a pope scraping cataracts off the blurry eyes of a sclerotic Church. In poetic terms: He hath abolished the old drought/ And rivers run where once was dry.

Yahoo News served the predictable headline: “Pope Breaks Taboo by Marrying Couples Living ‘In Sin.”” ABC News was giddy at witnessing a Catholic Spring sprung by a with-it, transformational pope:

In another signal that Pope Francis’ Catholic Church is not your mother’s Catholic Church, the transformative pontiff married 20 couples at the Vatican on Sunday, some of whom had lived together and one who had a child out of wedlock.

Yes, you read that right. Couples who had lived together, couples who had sex before marriage, even one with a grown child were married in the Vatican by the pope himself.

Yes, you read that right. Media Wunderkinder think something new and startling occurred at St. Peter’s. In reality, Francis did no more than is done every week in parishes around the world by nameless priests in charity toward their own parishioners. These twenty couples were each presumably shriven and eligible for marriage. No rules were broken; no protocols discarded or overruled as far as we know. What good priest would not take grateful joy in welcoming couples to marriage, most especially those who already have children?

Heinrich Aldegrever. The Wedding Musicians (16th C.) Staatliche Museen, Berlin. [4]
Heinrich Aldegrever. The Wedding Musicians (16th C.) Staatliche Museen, Berlin.

Perhaps that is why this matrimonial extravaganza leaves me cold. However much the Catholic press purrs over yet another instance of beautiful symbolic action, this one falsifies existing reality. It was staged for media consumption in full understanding of how the media was likely to receive and report on it. The show encourages recognition for the generosity of working parish priests to accrue to Francis himself. It is an image-enhancing spectacle that creates a mirage of the Church by which consumers of “news” deceive themselves about pastoral clemency and concern pre-Francis.

In light of the easily anticipated press response, last Sunday’s spectacle was tantamount to theft. It was a moral theft that appropriated standing credit for compassion from legions of unrenowned, conscientious priests; and it laid the spoils at papal feet. Worse, given the way the press was ordained to recount it, the orchestrated expo can only further weaken already feeble inhibitions against cohabitation or child-bearing without marital commitment. (No big deal. The pope gets it.)

Francis is keenly attuned to the way things play in the press. It was he, remember, who let others distribute the Eucharist at Mass to avoid all possibility of being photographed giving the sacrament to a public sinner. Marrying forty strangers chosen as if by a casting director for theatrical expedience—magnified by the pomp and panoply of St. Peter’s—extends the celebrity-life of the papacy on the illusory chance that showboating is a stay against cultural demoralization.

We are all dancing with the stars now. But ultimately, that dance ends like any other, in exhaustion.

Note: Just arrived in this morning’s email is the latest broadcast from Sandro Magister’s Chiesa. It details the clash between supporters of change and defenders of existing doctrine regarding the divorced and remarried. One proposed change is to permit recourse to the sacrament of reconciliation “even without absolution.”

My assumption, then, that all the couples married at St. Peter’s were “shriven” might not necessarily be warranted in each instance. In that case, media excitement would be more justified than it had seemed. What remains, though, is the circus atmosphere surrounding the use of these couples as symbolic pawns in a contest yet to be resolved. The publicity itself serves to weaken standing prohibition against cohabitation and extra-marital child-bearing. A rule so publicly at issue does not encourage observance. On the contrary, it assists the pressures toward nonobservance.