Josh Shaffer

She felt called to the Catholic Church but she can’t join

The copper-coated dome of Raleigh’s new cathedral shines for miles in every direction, its cross touching the clouds. Looking west from downtown, it dominates the horizon while the sun drops behind the tree line – a majestic shadow on a hill.

The $41 million church called to Maril Doster long before it rose 170 feet high, even before it gained its steel skeleton. Not long past the groundbreaking day in January 2015, she pulled her car off Centennial Parkway and drove as close as she could to the site, stepping outside to bow her head and pray.

“I felt,” said Doster, “like God spoke to me and said, ‘This is your home now.’”

Doster, a retired baker who is nearing 60, hadn’t spent much time in church since she grew up a Scandinavian Protestant in Minnesota. And even though the Raleigh cathedral that so inspired her, the Holy Name of Jesus, wouldn’t be finished until later this year, she vowed to become Catholic.

“My first experience in the Catholic church still warms my heart,” she said. “I went to Mass with a friend and her husband. At the end of the Mass, when it was time for my friends to go forward to receive communion, my girlfriend said to me, ‘You can't take communion with us, but you can walk with me and receive a blessing.’ I had no idea what that meant, but I followed her to the front of the sanctuary. ‘Cross your arms across your chest, so Father will know to give you a blessing,’ she said. So I did. Father blessed me. He said a blessing for me.”

Then came the hitch.

Doster got divorced in 1986. Before she could be accepted into the faith and take sacraments, she would need to seek annulment of her first marriage. She was more than willing. But because she had remarried, her husband, Michael, an atheist, would need to annul his first marriage as well even though he had no desire to join the church. At a three-way impasse, Doster stopped attending Mass, heartbroken.

“It’s a really emotional issue for me,” she said. “This is not my husband’s journey. Why does he have to be a part of this?”

I don’t tell this story to aim criticism at the Catholic Church, atheism, divorce or cathedral construction. The story of a woman who has a religious experience outside of a church but can’t fully join that church strikes me as some sort of cosmic misunderstanding, and I wish an exception could be made. But I understand every club has its rules, whether a church or a labor union or a fraternal lodge, and if you don’t like them, don’t join.

I told Doster that this wrinkle in her spiritual journey didn’t surprise me considering history stretching back to King Henry VIII. But not being Catholic, I sought to know more, and I wrote to Evyatar Marienberg, a religious studies professor at UNC-Chapel Hill whose research interests include contemporary Catholicism.

“The Catholic Church is interested in the status of the other person because, just like for tango, one needs two for a marriage,” he explained in an email. “Even if you ‘solve’ the issue of the previous marriage of the woman who joins the church, she is still living with a person who is canonically married to someone else, thus, she is still committing a sin.”

Next, I reached out to the Diocese of Raleigh and heard from Vikki Newell, director of the tribunal, the church’s court of justice.

If both spouses have been previously married, she wrote, both must apply for a declaration of nullity. This is universal to all Catholic dioceses and parishes as part of the Code of Canon Law. In Raleigh, the diocese absorbs any cost of seeking nullity, which isn’t the case everywhere.

“In many cases,” Newell wrote, “when one spouse is unwilling to pursue a declaration, the best resolution may be found through prayer and time. Often the spouse will decide that, for the good of their husband/wife, they will apply for a Declaration, freeing their loved one to join the Catholic Church in full unity.

“When someone seeking to join the Catholic Church has been previously married, the path is not always straight or easy,” she continued, “but it is the hope of the Church that old wounds would be healed through the process and that the individual is able to find full communion with the Catholic faith.”

I have no doubt that many people will write inviting Doster to their churches, which welcome all regardless of marital status. Many of her friends have already made this gesture, and others have recommended other Catholic churches that may have a more lenient attitude. Doster feels her path leads back to that day outside the cathedral, and she intends to stay on it somehow.

“Men are standing in my way right now,” she said, “but I truly, deeply feel that this is where God wants me to be, and where God wants me to worship. I do not feel led to search from faith to faith, trying to find the right fit. I’ve already found it.”