Michael Toogoodtobetrue, young and educated and willing, comes to see Father John White, veteran pastor of Saint Calliope’s, a racially mixed Chicago parish of about 700 Catholic families. Michael wants to join the parish and take some responsibility for its success. Everything about him is appealing: he’s smart and articulate, committed to the church, leads a well-organized life as a productive citizen and responsible family man. And he can afford to be generous when the collection basket comes around. Just one problem: he has what’s called in Catholic circles a “bad marriage”–he’s been divorced and remarried.

Father White can welcome him into the fold and sign him up for the parish committee of his choice, or he can politely tell the bright young prospect, who not incidentally also has a soul to be saved, to get lost.

“It’s a matter of taking him in or sending him away,” says Father White, who’s been at this kind of work for 36 years. “But if you want to take him in, you have to forget about canon law.”

That’s what Father White does. He forgets about the law of the church and takes Mr. Toogoodtobetrue in, him and his bad wife and their bad kids. He “regularizes” the couple’s marriage on his own, bypassing the official apparatus of the archdiocese. Michael becomes a member in good standing, with benefit of clergy. What the archbishop doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

That’s what dozens of other Catholic priests in Chicago do too, to judge from what White and four other parish veterans testified in closed session with this reporter. Representing a centuries-old institution hoary with precedent and known for its hard public line on sex, marriage, and related matters, they are also pastors trained to be compassionate when the need arises. So they bend church law to meet pastoral needs.

“There is no reason for someone walking away without being reconciled in some way,” said Father Tom Green, 18 years a priest, pastor of a 275-family “struggling” black inner-city parish. “If not on the spot, then after a pastor has worked with them and their conscience.”

His name isn’t Green, no more than White’s is White. Their names, and those of others quoted here, have been changed to protect the guilty and their endangered ministry. “Keep this law-bending anonymous,” said one, “because if it were known, it would be stopped.”

They would be called in and told to cease and desist by their velvet-hammer archbishop, Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, who would feel obliged to set them straight, no matter how much experience they have. To them it’s a matter of common sense and compassion; to him, or at least to people he must take into careful consideration, it’s defiance of authority.

In the unofficial argot of Catholicism, a “bad marriage” is a second marriage “attempted” while the first marriage is still in effect. Since Catholics can’t divorce, the first marriage is always in effect, and the second marriage therefore does not exist. There is no second marriage. None. Nada. Pas de mariage. It’s living in sin, grounds for automatic excommunication. The partners can’t take communion. The offspring are illegitimate. If the sons ever want to be ordained priests, the pope’s permission is required, so as to lift the burden of bastardy. It is heavy stuff, posing the knottiest of questions to the commonsensical everyday garden-variety parish priest, the kind quoted here.

There’s annulment, of course–of the first marriage–or “Catholic divorce” as it’s known. This is a “declaration of nullity,” which is to say an official judgment that the first marrriage never existed. (Which means the male offspring of that marriage would have to be relieved of his bastardy if he ever wanted to go clerical.)

Annulments used to be hard to get. In the 1950s, when Father George Gray started his clerical career, it took impotence or “proof of forced marriage,” and even then it had to be requested before the marriage was consummated. Gray, now pastor of an 1,800-family, mostly white-ethnic suburban parish, said, “Now “psychic impotence’ is the norm, something completely different.”

Psychic impotence is of the mind and heart rather than of the usual organ. The marriage partner is judged to have been immature or worse at the time of the wedding, incapable of taking on and living up to the commitment. This, obviously, is a much easier criterion to meet, and today annulments are given out “like popcorn,” said Father Gray. “People know that. We had a guy married 22 years. Divorced and remarried, his first marriage was declared null. If he could, anyone can. People sense that.”

“Some accept it as a game,” said Father Brown, 45 years a priest, an associate pastor in a blue-collar parish of 2,700 families. “I don’t think anybody believes in annulment.”

Though annulments are easier to obtain than they used to be, they still involve a long formal procedure. The wheels of canon justice do not turn swiftly. So Father Gray expedites the process by giving his own annulments. “I say to myself, if the diocese gives annulments, so can I. One of our best parishioners faced a year-and-a-half delay. I thought, She’ll get one in a year and a half? I’ll give it to her now.”

Gray witnesses the second marriage and records it in church books, ignoring the previous one. “I don’t do it often,” he says. “I’m not ‘Marryin’ Sam.’ And one of these days, I know damn well, I’m gonna get caught.”

It’s not the sort of thing a young, inexperienced priest should do, said Father Brown, but he considers Father Gray qualified to make such decisions, and he considers himself qualified too. He tells people, “If you want a small ceremony, come to the parlor [of the rectory] and get a blessing. If you want a big one, go downtown,” meaning to the chancery, where they can get a formal annulment.

“If we only had thought of this 35 years ago,” said Father Gray, who remembers the dozens of black Catholics, some like Michael Toogoodtobetrue, who were turned away because of bad marriages.

Father White agreed. “As priests, we’re here to promote goodness, not pass judgment, not condemn and tell people what they can and cannot do,” he said. “That’s malarkey.”

Their position is standard operating procedure for many parish priests. Of the seven parishes in his “cluster,” only one does not handle marriages this way, said Father Brown. The rest “are at the cutting edge”–that is, willing to cut corners.

It’s the same story in Father Gray’s suburban environs, even among priests who hew to the line in other matters they don’t believe in–like blessing throats on February 2, the feast of Saint Blaise, to ward off respiratory ailments.

The “regularized” second marriage is justified because times have changed, argued Father Gray. “Divorce is culturally accepted. There’s no rationale in church law for keeping people from communion, only in tradition based on the law. Anyhow, in this matter the only one who can say if the person is wrong is the person himself. Meanwhile, people are hurt. The divorced and remarried just forget about the church.”

Birth control and abortion almost never come up, the priests agreed. People don’t ask. “The church did a good job teaching people about using their consciences when it came to birth control,” said Father Thomas Black, 20 years a priest, referring apparently to churchmen like himself. On the A question, abortion, people have made up their minds, and Catholics of good conscience range from “abortion clinic bombers” to “doers without hesitation.”

Burial of the dead is another touchy issue. Suicides, people married outside the church, and resigned priests married without church permission are all officially to be refused Catholic burial. Nonetheless, most pastors would bury any and all of these, said Father Black.

Papal authority is a problem in itself. “Our people, who are well educated, are aware of the pope, but among them his popularity is zilch,” said Father Gray. “They’re openly critical, especially as regards birth control and remarriage after divorce. They say, ‘He’s crazy, who cares about him?'”

Then there’s the conflict over the Sacrament of Reconciliation, formerly called Penance or just “going to confession.” Instead of kneeling in a darkened box and whispering through a screen to a priest (who for some reason is called the confessor, though he mostly listens), Father Brown’s blue-collar parishioners participate with five other congregations in group or communal reconciliation services that forgive the sins of 3,500 people at a time. These services are worlds apart from the bleak one-on-one confrontation familiar even to non-Catholics from movies and TV. In most churches these days the confessional–that dark, wardrobe-size box–is largely an antique, something toddlers try to get into during overlong Sunday sermons.

Indeed the confessional had already fallen into disuse when church worship experts came up with what seems to be a viable substitute, namely this reconciliation service with lights, music, and the company of one’s neighbors. At such a service, having preached and prayed and led in prayer and song, a squad of priests give absolution en masse, then one by one the penitents come to the front to receive the “laying on of hands,” which more or less confirms the process.

At issue is whether the centuries-old requirement of individual confession to an ordained judge can be ignored in favor of something that “works” pastorally–that is, achieves in a different way what the old system can’t. Officially this communal forgiveness is reserved for emergencies, like imminent shipwreck or battle. Authorities would stop the practice as Father Brown described it; indeed he urgently asked that his parish’s identity be kept secret.

But he and his fellow renegades also feel the need to justify what they do. They may be free-lancers or incipient “congregationalists,” to use a disparaging term favored by Cardinal Bernardin, but they are conscientious free-lancers. So they asked the opinion of a sympathetic theologian (who didn’t want to be identified either, such is the pressure from above in these matters), and he gave them a rationale for what they do, thus tying them in with tradition, a many-splendored thing. Their consciences are clear.

(It was another such expert, a canon lawyer, who worked out–in the semipublic forum of learned journals–a rationale for the psychic-incapacity annulment. These experts serve as rabbis, you might say, interpreting the law. Jews and Catholics may have more in common than they realize.).

The reconciliation service gives a great sense of community, said Father Brown. This is its attraction, he thinks, but he and his colleagues couldn’t say for sure. He talked about it like a man in search of what works: You try this, you try that. You don’t sit still or rest on laurels. Somewhere there’s the perfect service.

What they have preserves both “public and private” aspects of the sacrament, Brown said, again speaking as one who measures until he has it right. The public part is strictly Vatican II. Very few Catholics before that time thought there was supposed to be anything public about confession. It was between God and sinner–oh, and that disembodied voice in the darkness, on the other side of that screen.

The expert theologian showed the rule-bending priests how to get at both sides, the public with the communal service, the private with the laying on of hands. They told him what they were doing, and he gave his imprimatur, you might say.

It’s a church where law and tradition matter, but the guys who are supposed to enforce the law and uphold the tradition aren’t always well versed in either.The priests want theological and historical grounds on which to defend their actions. They draw on “the history of moral theology,” as Father Brown put it, the better to interpret yesterday’s law for today’s church.

Beneath all these issues simmers the question of law and its role in the church. These priests don’t want to flaunt their flouting of the law, nor do they consider it out-and-out flouting, for that matter. But neither do they consider the law sacrosanct. “When the law does not serve people, the law should be changed,” said Father White, after all echoing the Founder, who had something seminal to say about for whom the sabbath was made and for what man (read people) was not.

Nonetheless, there’s another small problem. When law stays put but practice goes its own way, what happens to honesty? What to do about the gap between public, official proclamation and private, unofficial practice?

“We priests proclaim both the hard and the compassionate sayings of Jesus,” said Father Green. “The institutional church preserves the hard sayings. But the pastoral side–meeting one to one with a priest–emphasizes the compassionate side. But that’s never made public. The public side preserves the hard line. It used to, anyhow. Now it’s getting fuzzy. Dissent is more publicized. Even learned articles, once the preserve of professionals, are more widely read. People have their own ideas.”

Some, on the other hand, “are suspicious when they hear of the tradition of the compassionate pastor,” said Father Green. “It’s been a semisecret. Now it’s in the open.”

But “compassion was taught in the seminary,” said Father Brown. Among other things seminarians learned the principle of epikeia (Greek for reasonableness), which requires bending the letter of the law to fulfill the lawmakers’ intent. In practice, Brown said, it means “You can forgive anything, but don’t make it public.”

He told the story of an east-coast cardinal-archbishop who years ago prescribed for his priests a hard line on birth control, shortly after publication of Humanae Vitae, the 1968 papal encyclical forbidding it. A young priest worried aloud, in front of the cardinal and a large gathering of his priests, about how difficult it would be for him to withhold absolution (forgiveness) in confession. “Refuse absolution?” said the cardinal in horror. “I’ve been a priest 40 years and I’ve never done that.” His public position had to be hard-line. His pastoral approach was something else.

Father Gray said it’s dishonest to maintain the image of the church as all-knowing when it isn’t. That has to change. “It means saying less and claiming less. We are not nearly as sure as we once were. We have to learn to live comfortably with that.”

A complicating factor is the changing profile of the priesthood. Priests in their 40s, 50s, and 60s generally look back on the second Vatican Council as a watershed in their experience of the church. But younger priests, many formed by reaction to Vatican II rather than by the council itself, often lack a Vatican II vision and are “much more conservative,” said Father White.

“It’s a national situation,” said Father Brown.

Most lay people, on the other hand, accept change as a regular thing. But not all. Some seem to yearn for the authoritative institution of old. They look for guidance and want it specific, even seem eager to see dissenters punished.

It’s a matter of growing up, says Father Gray, “like forgiving your parents for not being perfect. Once we do that, we can love them as adults. We were taught the church is perfect, but we see it now as a human institution inhabited by God.”

Better to face up to the old man’s or old lady’s failings, even when she’s Mother Church, than leave her cold, Gray said. “The church can make hash of things. It has done so for centuries. We rejoice when it does well, grieve with it at other times. But we don’t leave it, because we have learned how to forgive it.”

Where then does authority reside? “In our deepest wisdom,” Gray said, enunciating a view of the matter that it is safe to say my old monsignor would not have enunciated 50 years ago.

“Sometimes in church authority, sometimes in the community of faith, where consensus of the faithful leads us to the truth. The greatest wisdom is no longer expected from celibate clergy but from people’s life experience. It’s not clear-cut. We must wrestle with it.”

The faithful are up to it, Gray and the others feel. A parishioner asked Father Brown if he could take communion at a Lutheran church, where a friend was getting married. Brown told him, “It’s against the rules. But if it was a close friend of mine, I’d do it.”

“Thanks, Father,” the man said. “I’ll do it and leave it up to God.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tony Griff.