God’s Bureaucracy

In the never-ending saga of seeking permission from the Vatican to marry my fiancé, I recently had an exasperating meeting with a Priest.  At one point I asked whether there was anything more I could do to speed up the Catholic marriage-paperwork processes – for example, could my fiancé and I complete the Catholic marital counseling requirement in parallel while we await Vatican approval?

The Priest said no.  The two sets of paperwork must follow in serial, even though that will delay our marriage by (at least) an extra six months.  Those were The Rules.  Then, with an admirable level of sincerity regarding Vatican bureaucracy, he offered this counsel.  “Consider this a blessing,” he said.  “Both of you have had failed marriages before, so this extra time is a gift from God to grow together, pray together, and be sure that you are ready to undertake the serious commitment that is the Sacrament of Marriage.”

How sweet.  At one level I agree – every day with my sweetheart is a blessing from God which brings us closer together and fills my Facebook friends’ feeds with saccharine geekery.  It’s called “being in love.” The fact that we already have a contented, joyful relationship is why I’m willing to laugh while jumping through Olympic hoops to get married.

But on another level?  Seriously.  Just stop.  Even affording full respect to Catholic theology, even assuming that Catholic doctrine on marriage and divorce is imbued with papal infalliblity, its procedure isn’t.  Paperwork is not a blessing from God.  A shortage of qualified canon law desk clerks at the Vatican is not a blessing from God.  The need to translate official documents is not a blessing from God.  (For Biblical literalists, that last one is actually a Tower of Babel curse.)

God the Omniscient judges everyone perfectly and instantaneously, taking into account every merciful nuance.  God knows, right now, whether I meet the theological eligibility requirements to be married in a Catholic church.  The Vatican’s random institutional delays in checking boxes (and my own admitted delays in finishing paperwork) are an imperfect reflection of that theology.  They are not divine blessings, they are human-created hindrances.

I’m a lawyer.  I can accept that rules and procedures are necessary.  I can accept that set policies provide training and help ensure consistency in results.  I can accept that organizations are understaffed.  I can accept that we are human and make mistakes.  And I can accept that in spite of all of our human flaws, God has the power to shape them into something truly divine.  Knowing the greatness of God, I have faith in a God with a miraculous ability to “consecrate thine afflictions for thy gain.” (2 Nephi 2:2)  [1]

But there’s a lesson I learned from my (painful) prior marriage that applies equally here: God’s ability to use affliction as a growth opportunity does not mean that the affliction is his will.  God blessing us to make the most out of a bad situation does not mean the bad situation is a blessing.  We are not stuck with the status quo.

This lesson applies equally to the LDS Church.  Not every administrative decree uttered by Salt Lake is the Word of GodNot every procedural policy outlined in the Handbook is the product of divine revelation.  We’re allowed to identify the real pain our flawed policies cause for real people and seek to change them, in order to build up a more loving body of Christ.

Take one example.  When the Church lifted the restrictions on temple service for divorced and single adult men last week, no doctrine changed.  A policy did.  No temple doctrine said these saints were in any way unworthy.  No matter how many times it was spun as one, our prior policy of telling our fellow saints that they could no longer find solace in temple ordinance service when their marriage fell apart or they turned 31 was not a blessing.

Or another example:  I’ve heard many different stories, from many different parts of the world, about Salt Lake dictating building plans.  The Church Office Building often exports our cookie-cutter “racetrack” chapels to save on architectural costs around the globe – whether to Florida or New Zealand or Ghana.  What follows is predictable: local members comment that the air conditioning system was designed for Salt Lake’s dry desert, not tropical humidity – if implemented as designed, it will result in rampant mold.  Or maybe, they dare to suggest that perhaps an organ is not needed in a musical culture that does not use that instrument, or a full-size basketball court is not the best use of worship space in a country that does not play that sport.  Time and time again, these members have been told that the current blueprints are divinely inspired, come from Salt Lake, and cannot be questioned.  And so the buildings are mold-infested, the organs squawk out awkward notes, and the basketball courts sit lifeless.  Blueprints are not scripture.  (But at least the global WiFi password is the same!)

We’re all human; we all err.  And forgiveness is divine.  But let’s stop ascribing God’s hand to our institutional imperfections and mistakes.    To quote Elder Holland:

“So be kind regarding human frailty—your own as well as that of those who serve with you in a Church led by volunteer, mortal men and women. Except in the case of His only perfect Begotten Son, imperfect people are all God has ever had to work with. That must be terribly frustrating to Him, but He deals with it. So should we. And when you see imperfection, remember that the limitation is not in the divinity of the work.”


[1]   I’d like to add the caveat that in the grand scheme of things, the Catholic Church’s delays in letting me get married are more amusing inconveniences than true afflictions.  I know they will go away eventually, they don’t affect the happiness of my day-to-day relationship, and I love entertaining my friends with the whole hilarious saga.


  1. “How sweet.” Cracked me up. This is great fun, in the nicest possible way. I hope things get cleared up quickly.

  2. Cross stitch worthy:
    “God’s ability to use affliction as a growth opportunity does not mean that the affliction is his will. God blessing us to make the most out of a bad situation does not mean the bad situation is a blessing.”

  3. I guess I am confused. Most of your posts seem to come from the view of a member of the LDS Church. However, this post seems to imply that you are a convert to Catholicism waiting for a Papal clearance to get married.

    So, are you a former LDS member, now converted to Catholicism now giving advice to Mormons on dealing with bureaucracy in the LDS church or what?


  4. Jb- I get the impression the author is LDS but planning on getting married in a Catholic Church to her Catholic fiancé.

  5. And totally off topic but it is just so weird for me as I am in the UK and it is Monday morning here but shows up that I am posting late on Sunday night as the posts record time in a different time zone!! Kind of surreal….but like time travel!

  6. I think that both bureaucracy and the idea of “God’s will” allow people to avoid believing that we’re all deeply vulnerable to danger and also radically responsible for our own actions and how they affect others. If we assume that a micromanaging God tailors trials to the “needs” of people, then it’s less uncomfortable when we’re the cause of other people’s trials (just doing God’s work!). We can also get complacent about suffering (others’ and our own), because God controls everything and he presumably knows what they (or we) can handle, and besides there’s some good in every bad situation.

    On the other hand, if you assume God is generally a non-interventionist, and take the view that people are frequently struck by undeserved, meaningless tragedies that leave them worse off in every way, suddenly it becomes much more urgent to reach out and try to relieve suffering and change harmful, unsafe situations. I’ve adopted this view recently and it scares me, but I think it also makes me instinctively more proactive about addressing problems.

    Anyway, super interesting post.

  7. “Time and time again, these members have been told that the current blueprints are divinely inspired, come from Salt Lake, and cannot be questioned.”

    Who has said this time and again? Or once? I ask because I’ve never heard it, and I’m an architect who keeps pretty close tabs on the church’s building habits and their implications.

    Speaking of which, the author’s characterization of the LDS Church’s building processes shows a pretty limitted understanding of the reality.

  8. Andrew, I’m interested in the current reality of Church building. Do tell. The negative stories are common and I experienced some myself. But my personal (negative) experience was all 20-30 years ago. Hopefully much has changed.

  9. Andrew, I have heard of it being said by local leaders, but have not heard it myself. However, I have had experience with some practical matters that indicated clearly that “blueprints… cannot be questioned.” In one remodeling case, the blueprints (and construction, as relevant local persons were not allowed to see them or the remodeling until it was finished) required place 1″ think oak panels in front of the electronic organ speaker chambers. These panels had 1/4″ holes drilled in them about every 1 1/2″, but not enough to get the sound out of those chambers. Rather than take the panels down, the after-the-fact solution was to hang the organ speakers on the back wall of the chapel where they could function for congregational singing at the cost of blasting out those who sit on the back row and never being able to use the organ with the choir. In one new construction case, the stake president and I suggested a revision to the choir and podium seating to get away from very long straight rows and allow the choir members to sit in a near semi-circle so they could hear each other. No changes to walls would have been required. The stake president was told that no such changes could be made; any insistence on changes would require that we start all over trying to get permission to build the building at all. Note: a few years later the standard “barn plan” was revised to put the choir in a near semi-circle as had been requested. While we were lucky not to hear the “divinely inspired” claim in these instances, the effect was the same as if we had and as rumored in other instances.

  10. @andrew: the stories I’ve heard also mainly relate to buildings that are 20-30 years old, and come mainly from two sources: a civil engineer who was on various high councils and reviewed the blueprints, and a former employee of the church building department. I’ve also had friends in the South who literally could not attend church anymore because the mold was so bad it made them sick.

    I’ve also heard a few others more recently relating to construction in foreign countries. A member in New Zealand posted one such complaint a couple years ago on her blog that led to a lively discussion. Let me see if I can dig it up.

    (But I also welcome further education! I agree my understanding is relatively limited.)

  11. Also @jb and @claire: Claire is right. I’m a life-long Mormon, attend church, hold callings, etc. I’m engaged to a Catholic and we’re planning to get married in a Catholic Church. I also attend mass with him most Sundays, and I have a general obsession with interfaith matters. So my posts end up reflecting that.

  12. Michael D. LeFevre says:

    And the question that is hanging out there like an 800 pound gorilla…What if Il Papa says no?

  13. When my dad was called as a stake president in the midst of plans to build a new stake center, the GA quipped that he would have to deal with the part of the church that isn’t true.

  14. Will someone please tell me the global wifi password?!

  15. Brian – ask any of the teenagers in your ward. They will all know it. (Hate to post something like that online, although guaranteed if you search enough you will find it.)

  16. Brian, sadly once added in to all necessary devices it’s quickly forgotten, speaking for myself, but then I’m not a teenager. I can however attest that it works as well in various ward buildings here in the UK, and also Japan.

  17. All of the stories I’ve heard of church construction are many years old as well, and that may reflect more decision-making placed in the hands of local stake leaders as my area (Minnesota) has grown stakes. But apparently, the routing of water pipes in the building designs didn’t account for the fact that winters here include long stretches of time where the temp doesn’t rise above the freezing point of water. Only after repairing the damage from the burst pipes were mods made to accommodate the issues that the locals had predicted all along.

    I know that it would come as a shock to many in my area to hear that the Handbook is not an inspired, doctrinal document. Unfortunately, my stake presidency would probably be among those shocked.

  18. I’ve heard stories of local leadership having to contend mightily with the building department to win some minor deviations from the standard plan when the Palmyra stake center was built. Later, from what I’ve been told, some of those changes, ended up incorporated into the standard plan itself.

    The story of the basement in the Minneapolis stake center is a pretty funny one. Don’t recall all the details now, but basically, the builder used common sense to deviate from the standard plan and made a basement, the stake asked for certain repairs/maintenance for the basement, and the building department refused to even acknowledge that the basement existed, like for decades; and then when they finally admitted it was real, they wanted to fill it in. I think the end of the story was that eventually sanity prevailed and the basement was not filled in.

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