Never Stop Buying Flowers

It is no small matter to question the validity of a sacrament.

Flowers (photo: Aliceabc0 / Pixabay/CC0)

One recent afternoon, I bought some flowers for my wife Lisa at a supermarket near my home in Florida. The cashier, an elderly man of perhaps 80, scanned the flowers and asked, “Is there a special occasion?”

I answered, “Well, I’ve been married for about 30 years.”

He wistfully replied, “I used to do that, but she’s gone now.”

“I’m sorry,” I told him.

“I am too,” he softly replied.

After I paid the bill and picked up the floral arrangement, the old gentleman looked at the flowers in my arm and then looked me in the eye and advised me, “Don’t stop doing that.”

What made this conversation even more interesting was a conversation I’d had earlier that morning. A Catholic friend told me he had just read a brochure from the pamphlet rack in the back of his church. The brochure was about annulments. It briefly affirmed the indissolubility of Matrimony, but quickly went on to describe the various ways that a canonically-recognized marriage may have never existed in the first place. In fact, more than one-third of the brochure outlined the procedure for getting an annulment.

It is difficult to see how displaying annulment brochures in church is edifying for the faithful. When a brochure introduces perplexing theological concepts like “defects” and “canonical form” and lists of “impediments,” it may compel a married reader to think back on his own wedding day with some rather morbid curiosities. Was I married properly? Can I check all these boxes?  Am I sure — absolutely positive — that Matrimony took place all those years ago?

Especially if someone suffers from scrupulosity, questions like this can relentlessly gnaw at the mind and soul. As Dr. John Janaro points out in his book Never Give Up: My Life and God's Mercy, “the ‘invalid marriage’ obsession is an extremely common one among committed Christians with OCD.” Annulment brochures can feed that obsession. This might explain why — until relatively recently — canonical books concerning annulment were not primarily intended for an audience of lay persons.

(Just to allay some fears of readers here, it is relatively easy for a man and woman to validly marry. Of all the seven sacraments, Matrimony is certainly one of the easiest to confect. In extreme circumstances, canon law concedes that it is not even absolutely required that a priest be present for the sacrament to take place. To use a classic example, if stranded on a tropical island, a single baptized man and a single baptized woman may freely consent to marry each other even without a priest. They may also baptize their own children—the fruits of that marriage—in those same tropical waters. Turns out, God—the Author of Matrimony—loves marriage, and he has already provided for such circumstances.

Beyond that, the Code of Canon Law [1060] states, “Marriage possesses the favor of law; therefore, in a case of doubt, the validity of a marriage must be upheld until the contrary is proven.” That is, the validity of a marriage must be upheld by the wife, upheld by the husband, upheld by the parish priest, upheld by the pope.)

I’ll concede that pastors who place these brochures in church may have good intentions. But I respectfully question the wisdom of such an act. It is no small matter to question the validity of a vocational sacrament.

And to drive that point home, what if these brochures were replaced with pamphlets questioning the validity of some priestly ordinations? What if the brochures — in an albeit doctrinally accurate fashion — spelled out the procedure for nullifying not a marriage, but an ordination? It’s easy to see how that would scandalize the faithful in the pews. But how is questioning the validity of one sacrament different from questioning the validity of another?

Lay Catholics—especially those who have been poorly catechized, often through no fault of their own—are drowning in uncertainty and chaos. They are trying to stay afloat. They need life rafts. But to display annulment brochures in church is to throw them an anchor.

Dear priests, please teach us about the goodness and greatness of the sacrament of Matrimony. Help us nourish our own marriages.

Perhaps the way to begin this process is to replace annulment brochures with simple flyers that read, “Husbands, never stop buying flowers for your wives.”

It’s a little piece of advice I just learned from an old friend.

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