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Response to pastoral letter called positive.

NEW YORK -- An Austin, Texas, bishop says he has gotten an "overwhelmingly positive" response to his recent pastoral letter urging a more open approach to people requesting the sacraments, especially marriage.

The bishop, Father John McCarthy, said in a telephone interview last week that be has received reactions from across Texas, Louisiana and Oklahoma as well as Canada and other parts of the country. Family-life and marriage-preparation directors in the New York and Newark, N.J., archdioceses also agreed that "pastoral sensitivity" toward those requesting Catholic marriage was important in their sees.

McCarthy said he wrote the letter because he was alarmed at the frequency with which people are refused the sacraments because they failed to measure up to parish policies or diocesan guidelines. A guideline is a guideline and not a law, McCarthy said.

About a decade ago the Texas bishops issued marriage guidelines, which have since, in McCarthy's words, been interpreted "too rigorously" by some clergy and parish staff. He said that many couples have felt unwelcome or were even turned away by whoever answers the rectory door or telephone and reads them the rules, quotes canon law, tells them they do not live within the parish boundaries or tells them to go to another parish rather than trying to help them.

McCarthy said thousands of Catholics across the country, especially Hispanics, have been "devastated" and "disillusioned" by such treatment and have found it a grave obstacle to the continued practice of their faith.

In his letter he calls it "pastorally reprehensible" for a priest or deacon to employ guidelines so rigidly that they become "an excuse to deny Christian marriage to a couple who is reasonably seeking the assistance of the church." While it is important to know the law, "it is equally important to interpret the law in the spirit of Vatican II," he wrote.

He also pointed to some CCD coordinators who reserve the power to say who will and will not be confirmed, making reception of the sacrament dependent on attending a retreat. Why is it, he asked, that a 35-year-old, non-Catholic can join the church and receive all of its sacraments in a matter of months while a 15-year-old Catholic might be required to take a two-year course before being confirmed?

McCarthy said it is part of the role of the parish to welcome the nominal Catholic and to seek the alienated, who rarely attend church. Catholics, by virtue of their baptism, acquire the "radical right to receive the sacraments. . . . Anything that impedes the joyful celebration of the sacraments impedes the life of the church," he said.

Monsignor William Broussard of Austin, associate director of the Texas Catholic Conference, said that every time an "unchurched person" requests the sacraments, an opportunity is created to either evangelize or to alienate. The recently created task force assigned to rewrite the state's marriage guidelines is well-aware of this evangelizing moment, he said.

"Of course, we cannot marry carte blanche, nor can we be overly restrictive," said Broussard, who convened 25 married couples last year and charged them with reviewing the guidelines, which may not be guidelines when they are published later this year or in 1994, he said. "Whatever you do, be |pastorally sensitive,'" was the advice Broussard said he heard repeated most often by the couples.

Across the Austin diocese, and throughout much of Texas, Catholics preparing to wed may select Pre-Cana, Engaged Encounter, Natural Family Planning or the Sponsor Couple Program. Some parishes require attendance at a specific program and others allow choice.

But Carman Fallace, associate director for marriage-preparation programs in the New York archdiocese, said the nonpracticing Catholic who shows up at the rectory door and says, "I'm here, take care of me," presents a problem for any pastor. "If you haven't been practicing, then why do you want to be married in the Catholic church?" he asked.

"We're here to help couples. Marriage is serious, we can't be cartle blanche about it. Why not throw out the guidelines unless we intend to follow them?"

Father Thomas Faucher, pastor of Our Lady of the Lake Parish in McCall, Idaho, recently told the bishop of Boise to do just that -- to reject the proposed baptismal guidelines. "We recreate 1,000 hoops for people to jump through, and if they comply we allow them to receive the sacraments," Faucher said.

He said the church has "too many strict interpretations and not enough gray areas." This creates a struggle ecumenically and hurts evangelization, he added.

Faucher said the poor do not fit into the "middle-class categories" the church has created. They are poor financially, socially, educationally and in lack of stability, he said. "They are the modern poor with many marriages, kids by different partners, fuzzy relationships and no schedules."

Father Phil Latronico, who directs Newark's Engaged Encounter, said that one of the greatest hindrances to marriage preparation in his archdiocese is the busy life-styles of married people and priests, which makes it hard to find and train team couples and sponsor couples for all who want to wed in the church.

San Antonio Redemptorist Father Rob Ruhnke said that, whether the problem is a lack of team couples, an over-scheduled, aging and dwindling clergy or the lack of "fundamental family and Christian attitudes" of the fiances, those ministering to the engaged are often discouraged. Ruhnke designed the Sponsor Couple Program now used across Texas, Britain, Canada and in many U.S. sees.

Ruhnke and Broussard said they would like to see Sponsor Couples continue with young married couples into the first years of their union, when many problems occur. It is naive to think that marriage preparation can fix the fundamental problems facing couples, Ruhnke said. The real problem is the fact that families are in trouble, he said.

"It may be hard to face, but marriages are not likely to improve until we can find ways to help the families of our parishes become more healthy," Ruhnke said.
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Title Annotation:Austin, Texas Bishop John McCarthy; marriage rules
Author:Lefevere, Patricia
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Jan 8, 1993
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