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Joe PagettaJanuary 07, 2022
Two wedding rings laying on a table.(iStock)

When I walked into a Catholic church in downtown Nashville, Tenn., on Ash Wednesday in 2019, I was having a crisis of denomination. Results of a grand jury investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania had been released in the late summer of the year before, and the report was devastating. I stayed up all night reading it the day it was released. I was sick and disturbed and angry.

I was not alone. A Gallup survey conducted that same month revealed that 37 percent of American Catholics said the news of sexual abuse had them re-examining their religion, up from 22 percent seven years earlier.

Yet there I was at Ash Wednesday Mass. I planned to observe Lent whether or not I was a practicing Catholic. I could not recall a time I didn’t get ashes. The service was uplifting. The cantor’s voice was striking. During my reflection after Communion, I had a revelation. I could not leave the Catholic Church. It was my church, my birthright. And it needed me. Becoming an Episcopalian or an Anglican would be like declaring myself no longer Italian American, no longer an American. My heart was full of joy and determination for the season.

“You know you are not supposed to receive Communion if you are remarried,” the pastor said.

As I left the church and walked out into the daylight of Fifth Avenue, the pastor pulled me aside. “Did you ever get that annulment?” he asked. I replied that I had not, but was still thinking about it. “You know you are not supposed to receive Communion if you are remarried,” he said. He was chastising me for doing what I’d been doing for at least the year I’d been attending his church on weekdays, across from the museum where I worked. Why he chose that day and that moment during such a fraught time for the church, I’ll never know.

Two Churches

I was not completely dismissive of an annulment. I had approached that same priest at a different parish more than five years earlier about marrying my second wife, Keri, in the church. After limited inquiry, he informed me I needed an annulment. The grounds he suggested—of the 14 possible—was untenable to me, as I perceived it would be hurtful to my first wife. I understood his suggestion to be the only grounds applicable to my situation, so I dismissed it and was told that I would not be able to receive Communion at what was then his parish. I married Keri in a backyard ceremony officiated by a joyful woman who goes by the name of Golden Dolphin. We were surrounded by the love of family and friends. I changed parishes.

“There are two Catholic Churches,” wrote the late Catholic writer Brian Doyle in his essay, “A Prayer for You and Yours.” “One a noun and one a verb, one a corporation and the other a wild idea held in the hearts of millions of people who are utterly uninterested in authority and power and rules and regulations, and very interested in finding ways to walk through the bruises of life with grace and humility.”

Most of us experience and practice our Catholicism as an action and a way of living in this world. Seeking an annulment is a direct collision with the corporate church.

Most of us, I believe, experience and practice our Catholicism in the latter form, as an action and a way of living in this world. Our confrontation with the corporation is limited. A grand jury investigation, perhaps, reminds us that it is there. Seeking an annulment is a direct collision with it.

I did not have to approach that priest before I married Keri, and I had no internal conflict receiving Communion after. In my mind, I was right with God, at peace in my own soul over my divorce and second marriage. But being pulled aside reminded me that I was not right with my church, however wrong I thought it was. O.K., I thought, let’s see where this goes.

A Painful Process

I met with my own pastor in the fall of 2019 to explore next steps. He was full of grace, empathy and understanding. Together we settled on grounds for the annulment: “total willful exclusion of marriage,” even though I wasn’t entirely sure what that meant. Perhaps my first wife had entered the marriage without the full intention of staying in it.

The type of pastoral care provided by priests for the divorced and remarried runs the gamut. There was the priest who heard my tear-stained confession after my separation; who comforted me in my despair and instructed me to read Is 9:1-7 (“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”) as my penance. Then there was the priest at an Advent penance service, only months after I met with my pastor about the annulment, who refused to hear my sins, and thereby refused to absolve any of them, after I said that I was divorced and remarried and was seeking an annulment. He advised me to stop being intimate with my wife until the annulment was final.

Why would the church treat people this way, especially at a time that so many Catholics are conflicted about their faith? I was there, actively engaged, trying to make my way back to the church.

What was disheartening was the priest’s unwillingness to listen to what I was confessing. I had begun the process and was going through a discernment period. I was not confessing that I was divorced and remarried. I was confessing that I might be dragging my feet; spending too much time thinking and not completing my application. Procrastination was my confession.

This priest did not think my joke about how having twin 3-year-old daughters made Keri and me abstinent by default was funny. He made an analogy about a kid confessing that he had stolen candy without any desire to stop stealing candy. I told him I was an adult and we ought to be serious. He made another analogy about cancer that was even worse. (I won’t repeat it here.) I walked out of the confessional unabsolved.

Much like my attendance at Ash Wednesday, I was struck by the irony. Why would the church treat people this way, especially at a time that so many Catholics are conflicted about their faith? I was there, actively engaged, trying to make my way back to the church in the sacrament of reconciliation. I left feeling completely rejected.

It now strikes me how readily I shifted my narrative to better advance my annulment case and how willing I was to agree to that kind of scrutiny.

Still, I continued to try to see my annulment through, even though I was getting tired. I completed the questionnaire, using the grounds my pastor had recommended and was assigned lay sponsors at my parish. At our first meeting, I was told that any “step into faith” has its benefits, as hard as it may be. I liked the thought of that. It spoke to my life view and led me to a better discernment process. It shifted my thinking from all the ways that my first wife may have contributed to the dissolution of our marriage, to all the ways that I may have been responsible before it even began. The new grounds for annulment was called “psychic-natured incapacity to assume marital obligations,” which focused on psychological issues I may have had 20 years ago.

It now strikes me how readily I shifted my narrative to better advance my case and how willing I was to agree to that kind of scrutiny. To petition on that ground, it is recommended that you offer up “professional witnesses” like therapists and psychologists who can speak to your “psychic-natured incapacity.” You are then asked to sign away your client confidentiality agreements with these therapists so that they can speak to the diocesan tribunal about conditions and treatments. If someone of another faith were to describe that process to me, I would think they belonged to a cult more than a church. And yet I did it, willingly.

Another Way

I completed my questionnaire and other paperwork, tracked down copies of baptism and marriage certificates at the dioceses where the rites were held, signed release forms and delivered my packet to the diocesan tribunal. It was then I was informed of a factor that could have perhaps made all of this discernment and paperwork and need for witnesses unnecessary: I was my first wife’s second husband.

There was a possibility that my first wife, who was married in a Presbyterian church, was not free to marry me according to canon law. It is known as a “prior bond.” To explore this path, I would need to know the date of her first marriage and divorce and supply a divorce decree. That would mean asking her, after not communicating with her for almost a decade, to provide me with a record of something that happened more than 30 years ago. Additionally, if it turned out that her first husband was Catholic, I was told, he would have needed to get a special dispensation of canonical form from the local bishop to marry in a Presbyterian church. I was told via email that “we need you to follow up with [your first wife] and see what you can find out.”

After years of being denied Communion and absolution in confession, of trying to figure out what was wrong with my first wife and then what was wrong with me, I was being told there was a loophole.

An easy way out! I initially felt lucky, and even more so when my first wife kindly responded to my request and sent me her first marriage info and divorce decree. But it quickly turned into incredulousness when I was asked to find out more about my first wife’s first husband’s religious affiliations and possible dispensations. I soon wished I hadn’t learned of the “prior bond” option. After years of thinking it through, of being denied Communion and absolution in confession, of trying to figure out what was wrong with my first wife and then what was wrong with me, of giving up my client confidentiality and allowing my therapists to talk with someone at the diocesan tribunal I didn’t even know, I was being told there was a loophole.

Why didn’t the priest who married me and my first wife 20 years ago, now dead from cancer, ask her about her first marriage in the hour or so when we met before he agreed to marry us? Why didn’t the priest I first approached about an annulment, who would later pull me aside and tell me I couldn’t receive Communion, ask me about my first wife’s first marriage? Or my pastor later? Or my sponsors? The idea that I might not have had to go through any of this was bewildering.

“Priests don’t know,” I was told by my tribunal case instructor when I expressed dismay at the roller coaster I have been on for the last eight years. And yet, she confirmed, priests are often where Catholics interested in pursuing an annulment begin. She offered no empathy for the confusion this creates, and no apology for the many crooked paths and painful excursions I had been on. I told her I had put in the work and had no desire to pursue an annulment based on a prior bond. I’d rather go the formal petition route.

Blessing What Is Blessed

My desire to inquire about getting an annulment began with the innocent desire to marry Keri in a Catholic Church in the rites of the faith we were both born into. I came to peace with that not being an option quite quickly. My eventual pursuit of the annulment was the conflation of several factors, chief among them the indignity of being denied the Eucharist and a renewed desire to double down on my faith in the face of adversity. As St. Pio of Pietrelcina, better known as Padre Pio, wrote in Vol. 3 of his Letters, “Jesus is and will always be totally yours, and nobody will take him from you.”

I love the community of my local parish, a parish that has been welcoming to me, my mother, Keri and our children from the moment we moved into the neighborhood. I have served on the parish council and chaired fundraising committees. Keri and I will never forget the kindness of the parish’s “blessed beginnings” ministry when our children were born prematurely, and the overwhelming generosity of parishioners, many of whom we never met, who prayed for us and brought us food when our daughters came home from the neonatal intensive care unit.

It would be dishonest to say that the thought of a small second celebration, attended by our daughters and close friends and family, with our pastor officiating, is not appealing. I want my marriage to Keri to be blessed, even though I know it already is. That is my dilemma.

The truth is that there was nothing wrong with my first wife when we got married. And there was nothing wrong with me. I don’t need to offer up witnesses, and my privacy, to prove otherwise. My first marriage simply didn’t work, for any number of reasons why some marriages don’t work. If there was a total “willful exclusion” of anything in my first marriage, it was that other definition of work: the mutual effort required to overcome the inevitable challenges that life deals a relationship. Keri and I work, by doing the work. The result is a relationship that thrives and strives to become holier and more whole. Whether or not the Catholic Church—the “noun”—recognizes that, I still believe in the verb.

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