Friday, July 21, 2017

Marriage in Honduras

This is a reflection that had been going on in the back of my mind for years and I am a bit reluctant to share my concerns. But I think it’s time for me to write something. I recognize that I am writing from the perspective of a non-Honduran, seventy-year old celibate who is still very culturally from the US. But I will dare to share my thoughts, hoping that others can help me think through these concerns.

As I visit the communities throughout the parish, I have found myself by the small number of people married in the church. I also am surprised that there are so many who are not married civilly, even though they’ve lived together for several years and have children. In face of this I keep encouraging people to get married in the church.

But it’s not all that simple.

First of all, I wonder if there really is a culture of marriage and the sacrament of matrimony in the villages. How many young people grow up with single parents or with parents who are not married either civilly or in the church?

There are also the costs of getting married civilly. You have to get married civilly before you can get married in the church. The costs could run to the equivalent of one hundred dollars.

There are also the expectations among some that a church wedding has to be a big affair – and therefore costly.

There are also concerns about commitments and whether they’ll be able to live up to them (and if the man will be faithful). The ideal of marriage is set very high and there does not seem to be a realistic sense of the ways that couples and families can really deal with conflict, complaints and so forth. The presence of significant domestic violence bears witness to this.

Seeing couples breaking up can be another disincentive.  

What I do see happening all too often is two people just getting together. At times, there is a child on the way, but not always.

Recently, according to an article I read, the Honduran Congress just raised the marriage age to eighteen and abolished the possibility of young people getting married if they were sixteen and had their parent’s permission.
Belinda Portillo from children's charity Plan International said Honduras had “made history” by passing the law in a country where one in four children are married before the age of 18. “The fight against child marriage is a strategic way of promoting the rights and empowerment of women in various areas, such as health, education, work, freedom from violence…”  
I don’t think this is good.

Am I wrong or jaded?

The problem is not that, until now, the law permitted marriage under eighteen with parental consent. though the person had to be sixteen.

A new law will not stop young people cohabiting before they are eighteen. They just won't be able to be legally married. 

What is the problem? Why do I see so few couples married?

As I see it, there is not a culture of marriage in many places. A macho culture may also be responsible for part of this. Lack of decent formation in sexuality is lacking.

In addition, n many places, there is nothing to do after sixth grade. Jobs, outside of work on the farm or seasonal work on the coffee harvest, are hard to find.

Even if there is a law that mandates education till ninth grade, how many kids drop out of school even before finishing sixth grade. The other day in one village, talking with kids, three ten-year olds told me that they had dropped out of school in the second or third grade. The common complaint was boredom.

There are classes up to sixth grade in almost every village, at least around here. But in one zone of the parish there is only one place where “educación básica” – the equivalent of middle school – is offered during the week. There is one weekend program. But there are villages where there is no “middle school” within thirty minutes walking distance and there is very limited public transportation. Yes, there are families who value education and see that their children get middle school and even high school education. But these young people often have to go to Santa Rosa – more than an hour away with a significant bus fare.  

To be truthful, there are families that do not value education, especially for girls. They want the young people to help the family by working in the fields or in the house. 

There are other families that make major efforts for the education of their children or grandchildren.

I am a strong advocate of education for young people, but I realize the problems here.

I also am an advocate of marriage. But the challenge is the lack of preparation for adolescence and adulthood among the young people. And sexual education? I once asked a few of the youth group leaders about this. In the schools, it’s about avoiding diseases (and pregnancy). Catechists and religious leaders in the communities seldom speak about sexuality – and most often it’s in terms of what not to do. But there seems to be almost no formation in emotional development.

What do I do? I encourage people living together with children to get married. I see a good number of them who come to the Masses or Celebrations of the Word and, of course, don't receive communion.

I also encourage young men I know who are in relationships to respect the young women and, with those whom I think trust me, I even advise them, mischievously, “Keep your zipper zipped up.”

But more needs to be done, especially among the young. We need to find ways to promote healthy relationships among the young before and during marriage.

A law prohibiting marriage of 17 year olds even with parental permission looks good – but I fear this will not help. I think it may only discourage marriages.

What do you think?


Bill Barrett said...

Is there any back door to blessing a marriage sacramentally without the civil piece? That might be an interesting place to start. Can the state prohibit a blessing?

This certainly isn't the case with you, and maybe not at all anymore, but I recall many years ago being told by unmarried couples that most priests, especially out in the campo, charged far more than they could ever manage. (And I have no way of knowing if it was the civil license cost which they confused with what the church said they had to pay.)

Just thinking out loud. You are so right to bring this up. It's so deeply rooted.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

As i understand it there is the possibility of a civil penalty if a member of the clergy celebrates the sacrament of marriage without a civil marriage beforehand.

The church does have a suggested donation but it's not usually extravagant - especially not in our parish. At times the mayors have declared a reduction or remission of municipal costs in August (the month of the family), but there are still costs for medical examinations.

It is a difficult question but we are trying to help the people find ways to sacramentalize their union.

To decrease costs I even suggest having several marriage together and share the costs of the celebration (especially if they are int he same village.) I also use the example of the wedding of the elderly couple here on June 1 in which the villages base communities provided tamales, rice, tortillas, and beverage.

Tom Kent said...

We saw the same thing while we were living in Bolivia, and we share a lot of the same concerns you raised. One additional thing that we saw was that women who had a child (or multiple) couldn't afford to support them on their own, so they find a guy to live with that can help. We'd ask them about getting married and she'd say that she doesn't like the guy well enough to marry him. I still haven't fully processed that, it must be a very difficult position....which I got the feeling was very common.
Sex education was very similar in Bolivia, it was all about disease with the understanding that pregnancy was a part of it too. Nothing on family planning in any form. A lot of the young girls were excited about having a baby, but they didn't have much concept for the responsibilities that came with that...which very much contributes to the number of single moms.
It also hurt to see only maybe 10% of the crowd at mass go up for communion, because of the number "living in sin", I can only imagine that the long term effect of being segregated like this every week pushes people away from the church. I understand why the church works this way, but in my heart I feel that if Jesus were there seeing that, he would be very sad.

Phil said...

When I worked in Peru, I had to deal with my own gringo attitudes which were reinforced by my canon law courses and of course my own option living in religious life which was really just a form of "cult-lite" but still not the most objective or morally compassionate grounds from which to evaluate the situation of others. I wrote to my canon law professor, internationally recognized as one of the best, because I was concerned that very few men accepted "permanence" as related to fidelity as being ideal or even possible. With such an almost widespread "intention" that did not accept a "fundamental" of a church marriage, how could people be accepted for marriage. My professor did not want to answer the question as obviously from a legalistic point of view very few people would be able to get married. His advice which was uncharacteristically pastoral for a canon lawyer was "go with the flow".

The Peruvian church wanted people to get married in the church and did not require civil marriage, and even accepted people for religious marriage when one of them was already in a civil marriage with someone else. The rationale of the church was that baptized people are bound by the laws of the church so any civil marriage is invalid and not recognized by the church. It was not uncommon to learn about men who were married to one by the church, another by civil ceremony and living with a third by common law. In a macho culture women were conditioned to accept what they could get. A nun missionary was shocked when a woman parishioner claimed that her husband loved her because he showered after coming home from the brothel and going to bed with her. From that woman's point of view that was a sign of respect which other women acknowledged as an act of respect and kindness.

First I would suggest that you leave behind your North American value system and clerical judgmentalism. As Pope Francis was quoted "Who am I to judge?" If a couple are living together as a couple (heterosexual, homosexual) and have a history of being together in a respectful and loving relationship, they are just about as close as anyone in this world gets to being "married" in the eyes of God. To deny them the sacraments is itself scandalous and far from the spirit of what Jesus was teaching in his short ministry. And even according to canon law, it is recognized that the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the couple themselves. Any deacon or priest or other designate is simply a "formal witness". (I know two nuns in Cajamarca Peru who were the ordinary ministers for marriage in their parish, they conducted liturgies using hosts blessed in the main city and brought in once a month and they counseled people in prayerful reconciliation without playing the "absolution" game.) So those are are doing it, living together, somewhat faithful, blessed with children and grandchildren, are really already married.
Civil marriage should be encouraged as that is what gives to a couple, and especially to the woman and children, some semblance of official protection and rights for support. Well, in Honduras that may not go too far, but at least it is a beginning. What I saw happening in Peru, and church people can be very proactive in this, is in organizing mass weddings on special occasions such as Fiestas Patrias where the cost and process can be simplified and minimized. Such an effort requires organization but it removes a barrier that many couples do face. Formal church weddings can after a period of instructions be reframed as the formalization of what already exists.

Phil said...

part 2
As for the marriage of younger people, a state prohibition limitig the marriage age to 18 is actually progressive and probably better than in many USA states and most of Latin America. Why tie people down to relationships that have a high risk of failure? A prominent "baby bump" is not really a good reason to get married.
The sacraments of the church should not be seen as cotton candy prizes for those who have behaved or bowed to church discipline. They are the "outward signs" of God's grace being offered to a pilgrim people, a people who stumble more often than they realize.
When we come down to it, and with no personal jab intended, where does this come from anyways. We have an almost universal tradition of corrupt and unethical clergy imposing on others what they themselves cannot live. In Canada and the USA, probably most everywhere, the celibate clergy are not celibate, but involved in clandestine relationships that are unhealthy and exploitative. Poor Pope Francis has to deal with sex and drug orgies involving Vatican bureaucrats, continuing sex scandals and the never ending sexual abuse accusations and coverups. JP2 covered for the most corrupt paedofile Maciel and rewards Cardinal Law. It is time the church simply had a bit of compassion for the ordinary people struggling to get by day after day, and somehow still come to the church looking for compassion and reconciliation.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Phil, Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I was hoping that I could spur a healthy discussion - to help me in my service of the people.

When I meet couples who are not married, I try to be as encouraging as possible. What I find really encouraging is that a good number of these regularly participate in Masses and Celebrations of the Word. Because of the judgementalism of many people in the villages, where a very conservative morality rules, they don't come to Communion. Maybe it's me, but I find this very sad. It's not as if many don't want communion. I remember one person who shared with me how she received Communion because of her intense desire, even though she isn't married int he church. I did not condemn or judge. How could I? But I fear that others would condemn if they found out. I listened with compassion - and wonder at her deep longing for the Eucharist.

I do encourage marriage -both civilly and in church - in large part, for the opportunity for support and rights, as you note.

There's much to discern in all this - but most of all how to support those who live together and have lived together for years and who have families. In some ways I see marriage in the church not as a reward for going through ecclesiastical hoops, but as a sign of God's grace firming up the love they are already living.

I like the idea of special marriage in groups and have encouraged it, but informally.

One last note on the challenge here: A few years ago our new pastor changed the rules for baptism of children under seven. The parents didn't have to be in base communities or married int he church, as previous priests had demanded. When I explained this in a parish council meeting, one person indignantly asked whether this meant that children born in fornication could have their children baptized. Before I told him they could, I stated vehemently that we should not use the term "in formation" to refer to couples who are living in "unión libre". I don't think he liked that, as did any number of others. But in the first year of the new system several thousand children under seven were baptized int he parish. (And some of the parents began to return to participation in the church in their communities.

Bill Barrett said...

That note on baptizing those children is very encouraging.

An odd thought about the civil/sacramental wedding conundrum: I'm wondering about some sort of marriage by way of "internal forum," an acknowledging, for those who seek it, that the existing union could be witnessed by the Church (priest/deacon/those cool sisters in Cajamarca/delegate of the Word -- still have them?), without external trappings like civil permission & fiesta, until those can be managed. But like your new pastor, let the community know that the doors are flung open and the table is welcoming.

Yeah, I know I'm extrapolating from the other end of marriage with the internal/external forum, but as an old time Catholic Worker, it seems like a way to "make it easier for people to be good," following Peter Maurin.

All half-baked ideas are strictly my own.

John (Juancito) Donaghy said...

Bill, I am not sure we could use "internal forum" - or some other arrangement, though that sounds interesting. The trouble is that there might be so many and the word would get out to the authorities who might just prosecute the pastor or me. I need to look more closely at civil law and canon law in this regard - or talk more with my pastor.

This morning I spoke with the pastor and he showed me some material that the Diocese of Choluteca, Honduras, is using in their marriage preparation - much better than much of what I've seen with a methodology that is participative. The persons who work with the couples are called "animators" and there is a note that they are not "charlistas" - those who give talks. In fact, the talks that are a part of each section are supposed to be under thirty minutes!

The only trouble is that there are 24 themes - which would mean six months, if they were given once a week. An alternative is to do two each week. Another alternative is to have several all day meetings with couples from different parts of the parish who would come together four times , during which all the themes would be treated.

But there is another alternative which we'll probably be pursuing - training couples - or widows or widowers - from each village with the new material and then go forward with formation in each village.

Life could get very interesting and busy. but it's worth it.