Recent headlines give the impression that the Catholic Church may soon change her discipline about divorce and remarriage. Pope Francis, in his interview with a Jesuit confrere, sympathetically described a woman who after a failed first marriage has happily remarried and now has five children. The Pope has called an extraordinary meeting of the Synod of Bishops in October 2014 to discuss “the pastoral challenges of the family”. A German diocese drew up its own guidelines for divorced and remarried Catholics, allowing some of them to receive Holy Communion under some circumstances.
What is the average Catholic to think?
To promote a more in-depth understanding on “this pressing subject”, so that clergy may instruct the faithful “in a manner consistent with the truth of Catholic Doctrine”, L’Osservatore Romano published a lengthy article by the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith clarifying the matter. The article, entitled “The Power of Grace: On the indissolubility of marriage and the debate concerning the civilly remarried and the sacraments”, appeared in the issue dated October 23 (actually published on Tuesday, October 22).
In the introductory paragraph Abp. Gerhard Ludwig Müller notes that “the problem concerning members of the faithful who have entered into a new civil union after a divorce is not new. The Church has always taken this question very seriously and with a view to helping the people who find themselves in this situation.” Given the increasing numbers of Catholics in this situation in recent decades, now “even firm believers are seriously wondering: can the Church not admit the divorced and remarried to the sacraments under certain conditions? … Have theologians really explored all the implications and consequences?”
Of course this is not a matter of public opinion or evolving social norms. “These questions must be explored in a manner that is consistent with Catholic doctrine on marriage.” Abp. Müller goes on to survey Church teaching on the sacrament of marriage, citing Scripture, patristic writers in both East and West, the Ecumenical Councils from Trent to Vatican II, and the present-day Magisterium. The article concludes with three shorter sections: “Observations based on Anthropology and Sacramental Theology”, “Observations based on Moral Theology” and “Pastoral Care”.
Jesus himself taught that a valid marriage between two baptized Christians cannot be dissolved (Mt 19:4-9). “The Catholic Church has always based its doctrine and practice upon these sayings of Jesus concerning the indissolubility of marriage. The inner bond that joins the spouses to one another was forged by God himself. It designates a reality that comes from God and is therefore no longer at man’s disposal.” The Fathers of the Church “rejected divorce and remarriage, and did so out of obedience to the Gospel. On this question, the Fathers’ testimony is unanimous. In patristic times, divorced members of the faithful who had civilly remarried could not even be readmitted to the sacraments after a period of penance.”
What about the subsequent Orthodox practice? “In many regions, greater compromises emerged later, particularly as a result of the increasing interdependence of Church and State. In the East this development continued to evolve, especially after the separation from the See of Peter, … towards an increasingly liberal praxis. In the Orthodox Churches today, there are a great many grounds for divorce, which are mostly justified in terms of … pastoral leniency in difficult individual cases, and they open the path to a second or third marriage marked by a penitential character.”
“In the West, … the Catholic Church defended the absolute indissolubility of marriage even at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering. The schism of a ‘Church of England’ detached from the Successor of Peter came about not because of doctrinal differences, but because the Pope, out of obedience to the sayings of Jesus, could not accommodate the demands of King Henry VIII for the dissolution of his marriage.” The Council of Trent explicitly confirmed the Gospel basis for the Church’s teaching that a sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved.
In the Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II presents “a theologically and spiritually profound doctrine of marriage… as an all-embracing communion of life and love, body and spirit, between a man and a woman who mutually give themselves and receive one another as persons.” Their free, mutual consent brings about a “divinely ordered institution… which is directed to the good of the spouses and of their offspring and is no longer dependent on human caprice…. Through the sacrament God bestows a special grace upon the spouses… [and thereby] the indissolubility of marriage acquires a new and deeper sense: it becomes the image of God’s enduring love for his people and of Christ’s irrevocable fidelity to his Church.”
Post-conciliar Magisterial teaching, for instance the Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (November 22, 1981 following the Synod of Bishops on the Christian family in the modern world) reasserts the Church’s dogmatic teaching on marriage but also “shows pastoral concern for the civilly remarried faithful who are still bound by an ecclesially valid marriage.” Pastors are obliged “to exercise careful discernment of situations” (since some failed marriages may not have been valid to begin with). Pastors and parish communities must practice charity; divorced Catholics, too, “belong to the Church; they are entitled to pastoral care and they should take part in the Church’s life. And yet they cannot be admitted to the Eucharist.”
The two reasons given for this should be noted carefully. (1) “Their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” (2) “If these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage”. Both of these reasons are theological: the first concerns the divinely instituted nature of the sacraments of Marriage and the Eucharist and the reverence due to them; the second reflects the right of baptized members of the Church to the full teaching of Christ. The sacramental reconciliation of divorced and remarried Catholics “can only be granted in the case of repentance” and a willingness to separate or (if there are small children to raise), the promise to abstain from marital relations (“live as brother and sister”). “Clergy are expressly forbidden … to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry civilly, as long as the first sacramentally valid marriage still exists.”
The Synod of Bishops in October 2012, in its concluding Message, addressed “the faithful who after the failure of a marital relationship (not the failure of a marriage, which being a sacrament still remains) have entered a new union and live together without a sacramental marriage bond.” The Synod Fathers said: “To all of them we want to say that God’s love does not abandon anyone, that the Church loves them, too, that the Church is a house that welcomes all, that they remain members of the Church even if they cannot receive sacramental absolution and the Eucharist. May our Catholic communities welcome all who live in such situations and support those who are in the path of conversion and reconciliation.”
While recognizing the practical, “anthropological” arguments today against the indissolubility of marriage (e.g. people live much longer nowadays), it offers several in its favor as well: “Above all it protects the children, who have most to suffer from marital breakdown.” Whereas the Church has always acknowledged and respected the human, earthly components of marriage, nowadays “a serious pastoral problem arises from the fact that many people today judge Christian marriage exclusively by worldly and pragmatic criteria. Those who think according to the ‘spirit of the world’ (1 Cor 2:12) cannot understand the sacramentality of marriage…. Sacramental marriage is a testimony to the power of grace, which changes man….”
Under the heading of “moral theology” the CDF Prefect cautions against the idea “that remarried divorcees should be allowed to decide for themselves, according to their conscience, whether or not to present themselves for holy communion.” This argument, of course, is “based on a problematical concept of conscience’, [which] was rejected by a document of the CDF in 1994.” “If remarried divorcees are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage tribunals. Marriage is not simply about the relationship of two people to God, it is also a reality of the Church, a sacrament.”
Other moral theologians have argued that the concept of epikeia can be applied to divorced and remarried Catholics: in other words, even though the Church teaches that a sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved, this general rule does not always apply to specific human situations. Epikeia, however, “may not be invoked here, because in the case of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage we are dealing with a divine norm” that is beyond the Church’s control.
To those who allege that allowing some divorce and remarriage would be a sign of God’s mercy, the CDF Prefect replies, “God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfil them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father…. If pastoral care is rooted in truth and love, it will discover the right paths and approaches in constantly new ways.”