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Cover story

‘De facto’ couples struggle with church’s norms

By NCR Staff

Tough many Catholics who deviate from traditional marriage norms gravitate toward more liberal churches, many others, unwilling to abandon the familiar comforts of a childhood faith, gradually find ways to accommodate and belong.

Take Marta and Magaly Alquijay-Perez, two women who met in high school and were friends before they were lovers. Nearly two decades ago, after they’d become a couple, they decided they wanted to adopt a child. Los Angeles County officials raised no objection.

They represent what the Vatican , in a recent document, termed ‘de facto’ unions (see previous story).

The couple’s daughter, Samantha, is now 4, and they hope to adopt a second child. Marta, a psychologist, and Magalay, an artist who catalogs images at a movie studio, are both Catholic. Samantha attends a Catholic preschool.

Two decades ago, the two women moved away from the church, said Marta, but later they began a search that was accelerated by Samantha’s adoption. They tried to fit into the parish where they had grown up but found that it focused on “traditional, heterosexual families.”

Eventually they found St. Dominic’s, a small Dominican church in Eagle Rock, one of seven parishes in the Los Angeles archdiocese with an outreach to gays and lesbians. “We saw in the bulletin an announcement for the Gay and Lesbian Outreach Group, which blew us away,” Marta said.

Samantha was baptized at St. Dominic’s, Magalay confirmed there. Initially, with Samantha’s baptism, said Marta, there was some difficulty “with the fact that Samantha has two moms,” but the pastor “cleared that up.”

“There are struggles along the way,” she said, “but also support.”

One of the problems, Marta said, is that the church doesn’t recognize gay and lesbian unions. “Do I feel genuine in participating if they say part of me isn’t right?” she asks herself aloud.

Her answer is that much of her moral fiber -- her sense of justice, her belief in equality for all -- derives from church teaching.

There is, she said, a vision of church -- based on its teachings and Jesus’ life and love -- that is larger than anything the institution “is able to embrace, or even completely comprehend.”

John Falzone, a gay Catholic from Simi Valley, Calif., believes the church is slowly, gradually, coming around. Falzone and partner David Spotts met in April of 1990 and became a couple the following June.

Falzone, a hairdresser, was raised Catholic. His partner, David Spotts, a stay-at-home parent, was raised Mormon. Neither religion at the institutional level opens its arms to Falzone and Spotts and their three adopted children, Emily Rae, age 7, and 3-year-old twins, Carly Rae and Mackenzie, as a family unit.

Teaching the basics

As a young man, Falzone would attend church from time-to-time, but later distanced himself, in part because of the church’s attitude toward the fact he was gay. The Catholic church regards homosexuals as “objectively disordered” and condemns sexual activity between gays. What Falzone and Spotts hope is that, by drawing on their religious backgrounds “we are teaching the children the basics of a Christian life,” Falzone said.

“I felt some rejection” from the church, he said, “but now they seem to be coming around a little. They’re not condoning my lifestyle but they’re not shutting me out.”

Falzone said their parents -- both sets -- are very supportive, but it bothers Falzone’s mother, Geri Falzone, that the Catholic church rejects unions like her son’s. Not only are John and David excluded from the church; their children are effectively excluded as well, she said.

If gays and lesbians in the United States are creating families, couples in Europe are often reticent to reproduce. For heterosexuals Tomasso De Benedetti, 31, and Bibi David, 25, of Rome, for instance, desire for children is tempered by economic concerns.

Such couples illustrate a startling paradox of the Italian family scene: a nation whose Catholic heritage and cult of the bambini are at odds with the current “demographic winter.” In Italy, 91 percent of women say they use birth control, and the birth rate, 1.19 children per woman, is one of the lowest in human history.

An unmarried couple, both De Benedetti and David declare the intention of being married someday, though not necessarily to each other. Both qualify their desire to have children, saying they want them if “economic stability” permits.

Ironically, in Italy, children are treated as little less than gods, feted and spoiled at every turn. Gigantic stores are devoted entirely to children’s bedroom furnishings. Friends talk about encounters with one another’s children with the sort of wide eyes and breathless tones reserved in other cultures for rock stars or royalty.

Perhaps, given the hectic pace of modern life, the only way to maintain such an exalted status for children is to have relatively few.

De Benedetti, a teacher of Italian literature, believes economic uncertainty is at the root of the trend.

“In some ways the crisis of feeling insecure about one’s work is affecting even the most evolved societies,” he said.

Not looking for commitment

David, a freelance journalist, attributes the low birth rate to children living longer under the parental roof. “There is a tendency here for young people to live at home longer, not creating new families of their own,” she said. “They change partners often and are not looking for serious and fixed commitments.”

De Benedetti says he thinks egoism also plays a role.

“In Italy in recent years an attitude of hedonism has triumphed, a cult of pleasure, of fun. Many couples say that we want to enjoy our lives, we want to remain carefree, and children are too much of a problem,” he said.

De Benedetti said that the somewhat higher rate of birth in Northern Europe may have something to do with its more extensive system of social supports for families, but he predicts this difference will not survive the push to globalization.

As for the impact of church teaching, De Benedetti said, “Most young people are very distant from religion, they’ve experienced living in their own way,” he said.

But he said he sees a new turn ahead under the impact of John Paul II. “I think that, given the force of this pope, especially his capacity as a communicator, there is a greater tendency to follow the ideas of the church,” he said.

David disagrees. “I think the church does not have much influence over Catholics, and that’s not likely to change,” she said.

Sarah Van Roo Barber Patterson of Portland, Ore., a twice-divorced Catholic, intended to follow church teaching when she married Oliver Barber several decades ago, but the marriage lasted just 10 years. Patterson now says she overextended herself, entering law school when the couple’s two children were toddlers.

The Barbers’ decision to divorce was not made lightly, said Patterson. It followed much counseling, she said. Patterson did not consult her uncle, a Jesuit serving in Rome at the time, but 10 years later when she and the priest talked about her divorce, he assured her that she had made a valid decision of conscience.

Patterson, less certain at the time, exiled herself from a parish in Kentucky where she’d been active during her marriage. After a few years she returned and was “warmly embraced,” she said.

Her sons, Scott and Brandan Barber, lived one week with their mother, the next with their dad. Both attended Catholic high schools and Jesuit universities. Both have “a highly developed sense of spirituality and morality, but it’s not religious,” their mother said. Even so, son Scott married in the church and served in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps and as a public defender in Portland.

Ten years after her divorce from Barber, Sarah married Pat Patterson. An Episcopal minister officiated, and a priest friend attended. Patterson did not seek an annulment of her first marriage. “To me an annulment is dishonest; it’s an artifice; an annulment would make my children seem illegitimate,” she said.

Back to the church

The effort to blend the Barber sons with the three Patterson children from her second husband’s previous marriage proved “difficult and very stressful,” and the marriage ended after five years. In her years of unease with Catholicism, she explored other religious paths, including Buddhism, but found them unfulfilling. “I always seem to go back to the Catholic church. I missed Catholic ritual,” she said.

After a year of serving in the Jesuit Volunteer Corps’ “elder corps” program in Portland, Patterson has traded in a thriving law practice and Pacific Heights condominium for a life whose core values derive from the Jesuit program: spirituality, community, simple living and social justice. She has become active in an inner-city Portland parish and works as a volunteer with people who have AIDS. She divides her time between Portland and Truckee, Calif. She’s developing her photography skills and exhibiting her work.

Patterson looks enviously on the stability of some of the 35-year-long marriages of friends, but she’s quick to add: “It’s better to raise kids in peace.

“People should feel part of the church even if they’re not able to have a happy marriage or one that survives,” she said. She finds that some parishioners remain apart from separated and divorced members of their parishes. “They don’t want to hang out with the divorced.”

Patterson thinks the church’s teaching on divorce and sexuality will eventually change -- and the change will come, in part, she said, by people like her hanging in.

Franciscan Fr. Donan McGovern is among pastoral priests who encourage such people to stay. Some 16 years ago, he started a support group in midtown Manhattan for separated and divorced Catholics. Since then, he’s established similar groups in Wilmington, Del., and Boston.

“Here people learn that they’re not to be ashamed, they’re not ‘ex-Catholics’ and, most important, their own tragedies and setbacks can be turned into faith assets,” he said.

McGovern would not claim to be the pioneer in outreach to the brokenhearted. He credits the Paulist Fathers for a similar ministry begun 30 years ago. But what McGovern likes to stress is that such support groups are peer ministries formulated on the spirituality of the brokenness of their members.

Experience speaking

“This is the church speaking,” McGovern said. “We clergy, the bishops, even the pope were never there. We haven’t experienced what these people are going through. They remind us that the church is imperfect.”

McGovern said he was prompted to found the support group because of massive “misinformation” about church teaching. Often separated and divorced Catholics do a kind of “self-exiling” from the church, believing that a failed marriage renders them no longer Catholic, he said. “A lot believe they’re excommunicated because they got a divorce. They hear it at the office, from friends.

“I tell them that they’re not out of the church unless they want to be,” he said.

McGovern has seen support groups provide emotional as well as spiritual help for persons fighting a losing battle with their marriage. “Here laypeople preach to other laypeople by sharing their own hurts and losses. Here they find understanding and forgiveness,” he said.

Some also find healing in doing it the church’s way: annulling a broken marriage. When his first marriage ended after six years, Pat Healy of San Diego, began the process of obtaining an annulment through the local diocesan marriage tribunal.

“I didn’t want to wait until I had met someone,” he said, “and I found it to be a healing and cleansing process. It took the bad taste out of the civil divorce process.” It also led to his new career.

Healy and his first wife, Connie, had two sons during their six-year marriage, Patrick, now 8, and Michael, now 15. The couple both worked in television news. Healy, now a licensed marriage and family therapist, attributes the breakup of their marriage to his own immaturity at the time.

At the request of his pastor, Healy organized a support group for divorced and separated Catholics in the parish. He met his second wife, Marla, at church. A divorced Catholic herself, she began the annulment process after meeting Pat. The couple has been married seven years and now have two young daughters.

Healy said he would encourage divorced Catholics to participate in the annulment process. “If you enter into it as a healing process and are open-minded, it can bring closure to a painful period in your life,” he said. “For me, it was important to remain in good standing with the church in spite of the breakup of my marriage.”

Ministry to cohabiting couples

In Joliet, Ill., just outside Chicago, psychologist James Healy -- no relation to Pat -- works with another group that deviates from the church’s norm of sex within marriage only and one marriage for life. James Healy, who directs the Center for Family Ministry in the Joliet diocese, spends a lot of his energy on unmarried couples who live together.

In the United States, cohabiting couples number more than 4 million, according to recent studies, and many of them are Catholic. About 2 million of those couples are over age 35, and 41 percent have a child under age 18 living with them.

Many of those working in the field of Catholic marriage within diocesan offices use the 1986-94 Creighton study of cohabitation -- statistics “you can bank on,” Healy said.

He noted that an increasing number of seniors are part of the overall cohabitation pool. Seniors choose to live together without marrying for financial reasons, but also because of issues raised by their adult children, he said.

Whether seniors or younger couples, Catholics do not differ much from the rest of the population when it comes to cohabitation. Healy, a frequent lecturer on cohabitation, has written three pamphlets and made a 75-minute audiotape to guide pastors and parish leaders working with cohabiting couples seeking to wed in the Catholic church.

Healy has memorized words from John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio, an apostolic exhortation, stressing that it’s unwise to generalize about any of these unions. He is fond of quoting John Paul II’s advice that pastors become acquainted with cohabiting couples and deal with them on a case-by-case basis. He also points to a recent background paper sent to the bishops by the Family Life Committee of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. It indicates that in dioceses across the nation, church leaders who work on marriage guidelines “want to talk about cohabitation, to get it on the table and help create a smooth path toward the regularization of these situations,” he said.

The trend toward cohabitation continues, Healy said, despite statistics revealing that couples who live together before marriage are 50 percent more likely to divorce than those who don’t, he said, and despite such counter trends as “True Love Waits,” a movement toward postponing sex until marriage that is making some headway among the young.

Reporting for this article was done by John L. Allen Jr. and Arthur Jones of the NCR staff and correspondents Rosemary Johnston and Patricia Lefevere.

National Catholic Reporter, January 5, 2001