Isn't that special...Part II: The Whoreification

(I apologize in advance for how insanely long this is. GAH.)

Oh, you guys. YOU GUYS. So did I tell you about that time I was called a whore by a priest?

I wish I were kidding.

Ok, so in the last post, I mentioned how I was raised in the Catholic church, and not casually either. We were all in, so to speak. I attended Catholic schools, I taught CCD when I was in high school, I even worked at the parish rectory.* However, as I noted in the last post, this is not at all to say that I did not have questions and did not question certain aspects of church doctrine. I was sort of at peace with my status as a, though I hate this term, "cafeteria Catholic." It was the best I could do in terms of reconciling my faith, the way I had been raised, and my impressions of the larger world as I became an adult. I figured that God could appreciate the struggle, or at least the fact that I was sufficiently invested to be wrestling with the difference between faith and doctrine.

By the time I finally met Mark and we realized, fairly early on, that this was going to be a forever kind of relationship (I mean, I brought him home for the holidays after only 6 months of dating, which is practically speed of light for me), we were in our late 20s, and I had an intensely demanding job. We saw each other every night for dinner, but I was rarely home before 7:30 or 8, so by the time we ate and caught up, we were exhausted. After more than a year of dating, the packing a bag of clothes for the next day or dashing home super early to get ready for work begins to wear on you, plus living in the very expensive DC area, we were paying a combined $4200 monthly just in rent/mortgage, so the discussion of my moving into Mark's house came up. I hesitated, even though I have plenty of friends who lived with their future husbands, so it wasn't that I felt negatively about cohabitation myself. However, I had never really intended to live with someone before marriage, simply because I knew my parents' feelings on the matter and believed it would be disrespectful to them to blatantly flaunt their beliefs. Mark's parents had briefly lived together while they were engaged, so the matter did not hold the same...stigma is not the right word, but you get the idea...that it did in mine. Luckily my little sister had no such reticence and, in the meantime, moved in with her boyfriend (fiance? I can't remember what their status was at that point; they're married now), thereby finally being the one to break our parents in on a major issue. (We thank her for taking one for the team.)

This is not to say that I did not give the matter a lot of thought -- probably quite a bit more than is the norm these days. One of my best friends belongs to a non-denominational/evangelical Christian church, and she was instrumental in making sure I really deeply considered what I was doing. I read a lot, including newer studies that detailed the flaws in applying old cohabitation stats to people today (basically, back when all of the "cohabitation leads to divorce!" studies were conducted, living together was scandalous, so the people who chose to do so were generally the rule-breaking type and, again generally speaking, had inherently higher rates of divorce; this is no longer the case). Although living together would absolutely make financial sense and be crazy convenient, these reasons were absolutely not our sole basis for choosing to do so. I also knew that this wasn't some sort of trial for our relationship. In short, Mark and I had found the person we were going to marry, we did not believe cohabitation would negatively impact our future marriage, we spent all of our (limited) free time together anyway, and where our families would not be offended by our living together, it did not make sense to keep hemorrhaging money on separate houses for the sake of appearance. So, I moved in and all was well.

(Um, I guess I wasn't done with the background? Holy LORD. I do have a point though!)

I guess "at peace with the struggle" was where you could say I resided in terms of how religion fit into my life -- at least until about 19 months ago. What happened 19 months ago, you ask? (Aaaand here's where I finally reach my point that it has taken me 284353987532 paragraphs of background drivel to address, because I am an idiot with verbal diarrhea.) Well, that's where we come back around to the Diocese of Arlington, VA, where I have been living for nearly a decade. I knew it was a conservative area, seeing as I had wandered into a latin mass on occasion (which kind of freaked me out, to be honest), and the tones of the homilies were generally quite strict. However, my view of the diocese, and in some ways, of the church as a whole, changed completely on June 1, 2010, and this is why I had such a visceral reaction to Lauren's experience.

2010 was the year of wedding planning, and seeing as we were planning a wedding in a Catholic church (rule #1 of wedding planning: Don't Kill Grandma!), we had a couple of administrative issues that we needed to address through our local parish. Although Mark and I were planning a wedding in Boston, the church is archaic traditional on certain matters and, as a woman, I needed permission from my geographical home parish (which, inconveniently, was not the church I attended) in order to be married elsewhere. (Note: Mark, as a man, did not require this same permission. Go figure.) We were also hoping to complete a pre-cana program in the DC area rather than traveling to Boston for it. The Diocese of Arlington requires permission from one's home parish in order to register for a pre-cana course, so I set up a meeting. We had an appointment with the pastor early one evening after work, and not knowing what to expect, Mark and I met a few minutes early at the church and checked in with the receptionist. This is where things... Well, you'll see.

The priest (and I am being kind referring to him as "the priest"; he has a very different moniker in our house) blew into the foyer in a rush, and beckoned us back to his office without even a word of welcome -- just a brusque "follow me." We sat down in front of his desk and he asked us a couple of preliminary questions about why we were there since we were getting married in Boston; I got the distinct impression that he considered us to be someone else's problem. There was not even a hint of warmth, kindness, or even interest in this man. I explained about the geographical permission matter, and that we were required to have a preliminary meeting with our parish priest in order to register for pre-cana. He seemed to contemplate this, gave us a few minutes to fill out some paperwork, and then announced that he was going to speak with each of us separately. (Evidently pre-marriage counseling requires SVU-style interrogation tactics; who knew?) I went down the hall with instructions to read the pamphlet on natural family planning he had given me while Mark stayed behind. When Mark was done, we switched places.

Back in his office, the priest explained that he was going to ask me some questions, and that the answers were as important as those I would give in a court of law. (Points deducted for condescension!) He then, no joke, made me swear an oath on a bible. He went through a whole list of questions -- where were we born/baptized/confirmed, had I been married before, had Mark, could we find four people to complete affidavits confirming that we had never been married before (WHAT?), were we practicing Catholics, etc., etc. I really did feel like I was in a criminal interrogation, waiting for a bright spotlight to shine on me while a panel of priests converged behind a one-way mirror to judge my worthiness to marry. Warm and fuzzy? Not so much.**

When my interrogation was complete, he brought Mark back in, gave us our signed application for the pre-cana course, loaded us up with more reading material, and seemingly began to wrap things up. I was just about to reach for my purse when he said, darkly, "There is another issue here," and then proceeded to alternately yell and lecture about our cohabitation. This went on FOR AN HOUR, including the portion where he handed us copies of a six page Q&A on the evils of cohabitation and then READ THE ENTIRE THING ALOUD. Any questions or attempts at dialogue were met with an eye roll and disregarded. He spewed out of date statistics about people cohabiting, and when I questioned the studies (which I read! and of which his interpretation had been debunked!), I was met with another eye roll. When he asked what our parents thought and we said that they were ok with it, he told us we were leading everyone we knew into scandal by making them complicit in our lives of sin. (Our apologies, y'all.)

A few highlights from his tirade:
  • We were preparing for divorce, not marriage.
  • People who cohabit before marriage are 50% more likely to divorce than the 50% of people who already divorce.
  • We were leading everyone we know into scandal, because if they thought what we were doing was ok, then they too were sinful.
  • We were teaching children (our own? other people's? WHO KNOWS) by our example that fornication is acceptable. (In other words, "Won't somebody please think of the children?!")
  • When Mark mentioned that his parents had lived together prior to marrying 30+ years ago, the priest snarled, "Well, that's part of the problem!" (In other words, "Your parents are whores too!")
  • We were living like we were already married, therefore we were only planning a party, not a marriage.
  • Our marriage would be a sham because we were already living as though we were married.
  • And my personal favorite: Our inevitable divorce will probably be preceded by cheating, because we have demonstrated to each other that we are the kind of people who will sleep with people to whom we are not married. 

I was speechless. Dumbstruck. Flabbergasted. People we relate this story to always ask why we didn't get up and walk out, and my response is always that I was too shocked for that thought to occur to me. My experience of the church throughout my life and education was more of a parent/child relationship, and suddenly, I was thrown into the midst of something very, very different. Certainly I assumed that there would be a mention of our cohabitation; I mean, I was not going to lie to him, and the paperwork asked for our addresses. I was not expecting him to condone our actions, but um, I definitely was not expecting THIS either, to say the least. Also, I don't know that I have ever, in my entire life, experienced a lecture of this length (and my dad is known for his ability to beat a dead horse, resurrect it, and beat it again), so I kept thinking, "Surely he is going to wrap it up any minute. Surely. Any minute now. Any time. Oh, nope, he's gearing up again. There's more. And more."

What pisses me off (fills me with blinding rage?) most of all was that I asked Mark, who is pretty opposed to organized religion, to go into the meeting with an open mind for me, and he really did, which was a huge step for him. However, after that debacle, I am pretty sure the door to any future religious participation for him is slammed shut. Likely padlocked and welded too. (Whew, was just blinded by the rage again for a sec.) This priest, who knew nothing about us, made an instant judgment based upon a line in our paperwork and, in his judgment, potentially changed the trajectory of religion in my life, my husband's life, our (hypothetical) CHILDREN'S lives. It renders me speechless again, every time I think about it.

Needless to say, we resigned from the parish here and completed our marriage prep in Boston with the church where we were married and very kind priest who married us. Everyone there -- every. single. person. -- was so gentle with us, so welcoming, so focused on celebrating the family we were forming, which is how I believe things should be. The church should be a place of refuge, not an authoritarian from whom you cower in fear, powerless.

The powerlessness I felt in that meeting did not sit well with me, so I did the only thing I could. I wrote a letter to the priest and sent copies to the Bishop of Arlington as well as the Archbishop of DC.*** I sent the letters via FedEx so that I could track their delivery, and each of the letters was received and signed for within the next couple of days. However, 19 months later, I have heard NOTHING, not one word, from any of these people or their offices.

Not one word.

Text of the letter appears below:

Dear Fr. [Priest]:

I am writing to inform you that Mark and I will not be returning for further meetings; we will complete our marriage preparation in Boston. Furthermore, I would like to rescind our registrations with the parish.

I would also like to take this opportunity to address some of my thoughts following our meeting last night. Never having met you, I was not sure of what to expect going into our meeting. However, I was completely blindsided by the way in which you voiced your concerns regarding cohabitation. The vitriol with which you spoke was both insulting and entirely unnecessary. I recognize that your role is that of a spiritual advisor, and that our decision to cohabit is contrary to the Church's teaching. However, to demean, lecture, and belittle for an hour's time is pharisaic. As a man of God, I expect more from you. I expect the reason, the care, and the compassion that Jesus taught us by His own example. Instead, what I received was mere judgment.   

Although you may question my faith, I never have, and I am secure in my relationship with God. Yes, the decision I made – again, after much forethought – is contrary to the teaching of the Church, and it is something for which I will one day be accountable to God. I certainly do not expect the Church to condone my actions. What I do expect is to be treated like the intelligent adult I am. I came to you for insight, ready to consider questions regarding the Catholic doctrine that I do not often voice. I have been educated by the Sisters of St. Joseph, the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, and the Jesuits, and I received my law degree from [A Law School in DC]. The most important message I received in my many years of Catholic education is that we must be active participants in our faith, that questioning is inherent in participation, that we are to be thoughtful, and not just sheep following the herd. However, my attempts to participate with you were shot down; any movement away from the metaphorical herd was met with a roll of your eyes. You had an opportunity to engage with us, Father, and that opportunity was squandered.

It is this squandered opportunity that angers me most of all. I can take your hurtful words for myself. I can hear you say that I am “preparing myself not for marriage but for divorce,” that I am “demonstrating to my future husband that I am the kind of person who sleeps with someone to whom I am not married,” and that I am “leading everyone I know into scandal through my actions.” I can hear that because I know that you, personally, are not the Church; the people are the Church, and you are merely a conduit. However, my fiancĂ© was not raised with this same depth of faith. He was truly on the fence going into last night, and without a strong personal relationship with God. However, because I asked it of him, he went into the meeting with an open mind. Given the reception we received, I am fairly certain that the door to faith has closed for him. As I consider the repercussions of my actions, I would hope that you will do the same. Please think about that – through your own actions, you helped close the door to Christ for someone. 

I am writing with the hope that this letter will resonate with you, and that you will remember us the next time a young couple comes to meet with you. I pray that you will remember Christ's compassion before you speak, and that you will choose to engage with these young people rather than to judge and belittle them.


*I should note that this pre-dated the emergence of the sex abuse scandal, so it was acceptable for a 14 year old girl to be working in a church rectory. We were even tasked with putting away the laundry while the priests ate dinner and making the priests' beds on Sunday mornings when there was no housekeeper on duty. I realize how inappropriate this sounds now, but it really was a more innocent time, in addition to the fact that I had known these priests my whole life, my mother worked with them, my parents socialized with them, and they truly were good people who took seriously their role as counselors and spiritual guides. In addition to the obvious, the sex abuse scandal so angered me because it tarnished men like these who had selflessly dedicated their whole lives to the church and their parishioners.
**In contrast, we completed the same kind of interview in Boston, and there was no swearing an oath on a bible, no request for affidavits, and no glowering bad cop attitude. Imagine my surprise!
***Even though Arlington and DC are separate jurisdictions, in my irrational fury, I wanted the letter in front of as many eyes as possible. I had a connection to DC through the law school I attended, and an Archbishop is technically higher ranking than a Bishop, so off it went.


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