Catholic World Report
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August 01, 2015
The underlying principles on which these diverse “family models” are based are for the most part directly contrary to what the Christian family is all about. © Natalia Merzlyakova

The following is an essay by Dr. Kampowski addressing theological arguments on divorce and remarriage, especially as these questions were raised during last year’s Synod of Bishops. In the coming weeks, Catholic World Report will be publishing Dr. Kampowski’s essay in five installments. This is the first.

Introduction: Idealizing marriage and family?

“To most people the Catholic Church’s sexual morality and her teaching on marriage and family appear to be hopelessly far from life and no longer reconcilable with their own experiences and with the challenges involved in arranging one’s life individually and as a couple.” [1] With this analysis the German theologian Marianne Heimbach-Steins points at an undeniable difficulty that the Church faces in her proclamation of the Gospel: particularly when it comes to her teaching on sexuality, marriage, and family, many people live in cultural contexts so far removed from what is being presented that there seems to be no point of contact. One may safely surmise that this problem of the divergence between the Church’s teaching and the lives of many of her faithful was one of the main reasons for Pope Francis’ decision to convoke two synods of bishops on the topic of marriage and family.

While most would agree that the problem exists, the question of what is at its root and how to go about responding to it is more controversial. Heimbach-Steins, in any case, presents a clear diagnosis: “The incapacity of communicating [the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, marriage, and family] is caused to a large degree by a compulsive idealization of marriage and family in ecclesial pronouncements.”[2] In other words, people do not listen to what the Church says because the ideal she proposes has nothing to do with people’s concrete life situations. The remedy would then also be clear: the Church needs to present a more true-to-life picture of marriage and the family that allows the faithful to relate to it again. In other words, the crisis of communication derives from an unrealistic content, and the solution lies in the de-idealization of the Church’s message. Heimbach-Steins can detect a “threefold idealization of marriage and family in the Church’s proclamation” that “bespeaks a partial refusal of social reality,”[3] namely the ideas that the sole purpose of marriage is fruitfulness and hence the formation of a family (what Regina Ammicht Quinn calls the “ideology of fruitfulness”), the notion that all social problems derive from problems within the family or at least have something to do with it (the “cell ideology”), and the conviction that Christian spouses naturally live in harmony so that every form of conflict is unnatural (the “fusion ideology”).[4]

Heimbach-Steins surmises that the concern behind this purported idealization is to give people clear direction in their lives, but in this one cannot succeed if “the tension between the ideal and reality can no longer be bridged.”[5] After all, reality is not ideal, and whoever has tasted the painfulness of real life situations will no longer be inclined to give credence to an idealized proposal. If the problem is with the Church’s teaching being ideological, or at least idealizing, and hence not credible, then the evident solution is to “develop proposals mediating between non-renounceable basic positions and the ever changing lived reality with regards to partnership, family, and marriage.”[6] The Church’s teaching, in other words, is an unreachable ideal. To make its communication more credible, one needs to bring it down, adapting it to people’s lived reality. One needs to distinguish what is really central from what is a poetical presentation of an unrealistic ideal—an unlivable ideal that should, in any case, be reformulated so as to avoid the possible misunderstanding of those who otherwise would take it literally. The ideal would just serve for general orientation. According to this approach, which we can call “pragmatic,” concrete instructions on how to live would have to be given on a more pragmatic level, and nothing hinders us from finding aspects of the ideal even in situations that are not in full accordance with it. Indeed, we may rejoice in these aspects and speak of family wherever people in one way or another seem to realize some of the goods proper to family life even if what they live has previously not been called by that name.

Agreeing on the symptoms—that is, the fact that in many places there is a difficulty with the Church’s effective communication of her message on sexuality, marriage, and family—one may nonetheless come to a different diagnosis and hence also propose a different remedy. Thus some see the main problem as not lying in the fact that people reject the ecclesial teaching as too far removed from life. Rather, the difficulty is considered to lie in the fact that this teaching is not actually known. As the Instrumentum Laboris of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod reports, “a good number of episcopal conferences mention that, when the teaching of the Church is clearly communicated in its authentic, human, and Christian beauty, it is enthusiastically received for the most part by the faithful. When an overall view of marriage and the family is sufficiently set forth according to tenets of the Christian faith, its truth, goodness, and beauty are clearly visible.”[7] From this derives the need “that the clergy be better prepared and exercise a sense of responsibility in explaining the Word of God and presenting the documents of the Church on marriage and the family,”[8] and the quite general “need of forming pastoral workers to communicate the Christian message in a culturally appropriate manner.”[9] This approach, which we may call “prophetic,” would propose that what is needed is not the adaptation of the ideal but the courage of our conviction. What is necessary, on this account, is to understand better what the Church’s teaching actually is and why it is what it is. As far as need for adequate academic formation, which means the formation of those who will be the future pastors and teachers of the Church, is concerned, “various episcopal conferences recall the importance of developing the insights of Pope St. John Paul II in his ‘theology of the body’ series, in which he proposes a fruitful approach to the topics of family through existential and anthropological concerns and an openness to the new demands emerging in our time.”[10] The idea is that people will feel attracted to the truth of the Gospel, even if it involves a countercultural way of life. Independent of whether he was always consistent with his own insight, in his 2014 speech before the consistory of cardinals, Walter Cardinal Kasper expressed a profound intuition: “Truth persuades by means of its beauty.”[11] This approach, then, trusts that the Church’s ally is the human heart, that this truth will resonate and ultimately convince, even if it is demanding.

In what follows we will examine both approaches, the pragmatic and the prophetic, though we will dedicate more space to the first. First of all, we will discuss how elements of the pragmatic approach are present

-          in the writings of Eberhard Schockenhoff, whom we have chosen inasmuch as his ideas are influential and representative of a whole current of thought;

-          in a recent pronouncement by the German Bishops’ Conference, and also

-          in a number of paragraphs of the documents produced by the 2014 Extraordinary Synod of Bishops.

These texts have in common that they tend to present the Church’s teaching on marriage and the family as an ideal that can find its expression also in other types of unions, which in secular discourse would be called “diverse family models.” While Schockenhoff and the German bishops are restricting their argument to the divorced and civilly remarried, nothing keeps one from applying the presuppositions of their reasoning also to other non-marital unions. The Synod’s final document speaks about cohabitation, civil unions in general, and the divorced and civilly remarried in particular, while its midterm report also includes a discussion of same-sex unions. Our examination will be respectful but critical. It aims at showing that these diverse family models are not the more or less perfect or imperfect expressions of the same ideal as represented by the Christian family as it has always been understood by the Church. Rather, we will seek to point out how the underlying principles on which these diverse “family models” are based are for the most part directly contrary to what the Christian family is all about.

In a second step that will be briefer, we will also examine the prophetic approach. We will argue that given the surrounding cultural context informed by ideologies like pansexualism, emotivism, and gender, which have lost all contact with reality, a prophetic stance is more convenient than a pragmatic one, which in this context may risk being misunderstood as willing to grant the ideologies’ major premise that everything is relative and dependent on the individuals’ preferences alone. We will then proceed by attempting to clarify the ideal, arguing that while the Church’s teaching is certainly informed by hope, it is not ideological, but in tune with reality. In fact, we will make the case that the Church’s ideal is not only beautiful but, despite all difficulties and hardship, also possible.

I. The Ideal of Marriage and the Reality of the Divorced and Civilly Remarried: Eberhard Schockenhoff and the German Bishops’ Conference

Second “marriage” or second “union”? Finding the goods of marriage in the new union

One case in particular that lends itself to applying the above-mentioned approach of bringing down the ecclesial ideal to people’s lived reality is the issue of the divorced who have entered a second civil union. Everyone involved in the current ecclesial debate on this topic will readily agree that a consummated, validly contracted sacramental marriage is indissoluble. The idea that this indissolubility means that one cannot contract a second marriage with someone else while one’s spouse is still alive, however, may readily be seen as part of the idealizing features of the marriage and family model hitherto proposed by the Church, a model which can no longer be credibly communicated to the faithful. Hence, Eberhard Schockenhoff proposes that “contracting marriage a second time can be morally justified or even be experienced by the partners as an obligation in conscience.”[12]

His choice of the word “marriage” is deliberate: “Using the term matrimonium invalidum (invalid marriage) proper to canon law to refer to a civil second marriage, one still designates it as marriage; also the term matrimonium nullum should not be translated with ‘no marriage’, but with ‘invalid’ marriage.”[13] It is true that under certain conditions canon law foresees the possibility of validating an invalid marriage, once the impediments are removed or dispensed from, though the consent—which is what makes marriage[14]—needs to be renewed.[15] And even if the possibility of validation suggests that canon law distinguishes between an invalid and a non-existing marriage attempt, to speak of an invalid marriage as if it were a type of marriage is still little convincing. On the same logic one would have to speak of an invalidly ordained priest as a type of priest. Few would argue that there are two types of priests, the validly ordained ones and the invalidly ordained ones. An invalid ordination attempt is one that does not bring about its effects; it fails to “produce” a priest or deacon or bishop, however the case may be.

An invalid marriage, or more properly speaking an invalid marriage attempt, is by definition one that did not bring about the intended results, that is, uniting two people in marriage. In the case of second civil unions, however, this “non-marriage” certainly is not nothing. It even becomes a legal institute in civil law. One needs to give it a name. Magisterial documents usually speak of “second” or “civil unions,” consistently trying to avoid the term second “marriage.” The reason for this way of speaking is simple. If marriage is indissoluble, that is, soluble only by death, and if one can be married only to one person at a time, then one cannot marry someone else as long as the person with whom one is married is still alive.

This reasoning is so simple that some would argue it is too simple. Why not affirm indissolubility as an ideal and then adjust it to lived reality? Just as Schockenhoff insists on calling a second union by the name of second “marriage,” so he emphasizes the good elements inherent in it, all of which “are constitutive of marriage according to the Church’s view,” namely: “the will to lifelong faithfulness, the affirmation of exclusivity, the readiness for a comprehensive communion of life, the openness for children.”[16] For this reason “an invalid marriage, in which the partners live what is essential of marriage, cannot be called a non-marriage let alone a concubinage, as has been the practice in earlier ecclesial parlance.”[17]

It can of course be granted to Schockenhoff that these elements do make marriage, which essentially comes about through the promise of lifelong fidelity, exclusivity, communion of life, and the openness to children. What is at stake, rather, is the question of whether one can promise and live such elements with two people simultaneously. What Schockenhoff ignores is the irony peculiar to the contracting of a second union: by the very act of making a promise of lifelong fidelity, one breaks a prior promise of lifelong fidelity. By promising exclusivity one breaks a prior promise of exclusivity. By entering a comprehensive communion of life one seals one’s definitive exit from a comprehensive communion of life. What is the worth of a promise that I break in the very act of making it?

In support of his view, Schockenhoff appeals to the partners’ subjective experience. Spouses do experience a sense of guilt about the conflicts that cause them to separate. On the other hand, according to Schockenhoff, “they usually do not feel guilty toward their divorced spouse anymore when they take the one step that from the perspective of canon law is supposed to be the basis of unforgivable guilt: when after their separation they enter a civil second marriage with a new partner.”[18] And not only do they not feel guilty, for Schockenhoff “it is not to be excluded that one of the partners in a civil second marriage would like to make up for his failure—of which he sincerely repents—in his first canonically valid marriage.”[19]

It is noteworthy that the German Bishops’ Conference, in its proposal on the pastoral care of the divorced and civilly remarried, uses arguments very similar to those presented in Schockenhoff’s essay, which is why we are discussing the texts together. The document of the German Bishops’ Conference was published on November 24, 2014, that is, more than a month after the conclusion of the extraordinary Synod. However, it had already been voted on by the bishops on June 24, 2014, receiving a great majority of the votes, though falling short of unanimity.[20] As a premise, we would like to emphasize that the bishops’ text in question here is a theological and pastoral proposal, not a teaching document. It expresses the opinion of the majority, though not of all German bishops. By the way the bishops treat the argument, they imply that to their minds the matters are open to discussion. In what follows, we will examine their proposal.

Appealing to the conscience of the faithful

We will begin by examining a paragraph in which the episcopal document, using the same logic as Schockenhoff’s argument just mentioned above, makes an appeal to the faithful’s purported lived experience in order to argue for the possibility of giving ecclesial recognition to a second, civil union, even if the rightful spouse of at least one of the partners is still alive:

While in most cases separating from one’s spouse is experienced as a process fraught with guilt, entering a new union and possibly a civil remarriage is usually not considered as guilt toward one’s first spouse, not even by practicing Catholics. On the contrary, after the failure of their first marriage, many faithful see their second marriage as an often unexpected chance to dare start over, avoid the mistakes and omissions of the first marriage and to experience the mutual self-donation and love that they were painfully missing in their first (sacramental) marriage.[21]

One may assume that both Schockenhoff and the episcopal document adduce the presumed fact that many partners do not consider the step of entering a new union as sinful as an argument from the sensus fidelium. If the sense of the faithful does not consider the act sinful, then it may indeed not be so. After all, “Christ […] fulfils this prophetic office not only by the hierarchy […] but also by the laity. He accordingly both establishes them as witnesses and provides them with the appreciation of the faith (sensus fidei) and the grace of the word.”[22] By showing contrition about their marital failure, they give evidence of having a moral sense. Could it not be precisely by being eager to start anew and make things better this time around that they show their willingness to remedy past wrongs, which is the sign of true repentance? Would not a conscience that acknowledges past failures and is eager to correct them have a certain authority when judging a second union as something positive? This is one way of looking at things.

One could also look at them from a different perspective, namely as the result of a catechetical and moral formation that has failed to educate properly the conscience of the faithful. It is surprising how many people actually think that the sin that bars them from being admitted to Holy Communion is their being separated or divorced from their spouse. But being separated or divorced is not as such necessarily a sinful state. There may be circumstances in which separation from an abusive husband may not only not be sinful but be morally obligatory for a wife who needs to protect her children and give her husband a wakeup call. She may feel bad about this, though it may well be what love for herself, for her children and for her husband demands of her at a given point. Of course this may be painful, and it is easy to confuse painfulness with sinfulness.

Now imagine she falls in love with someone else. By entering a new union with a new partner, she seals the separation, which is then no longer temporary, in view to a possible future reconciliation, but permanent. A new romantic involvement will let her forget the pain for a while, will make her feel elated, and she will be able to think of a thousand reasons why her children need a man in the house, even if he is not their father. It is here that she becomes unfaithful to her husband. One can easily understand why what she considers her “conscience”—but what is really her sense of emotional elation—sanctions her new union, while her authentic moral conscience is silenced by the disappointment and hurt she still feels with respect to her husband. Conscience is not an oracle. It needs formation. And one needs to distinguish it from the emotional response of being in love.

Furthermore, one must ask about the very basis of the claim that many who enter a second union do not feel guilty about it. On what grounds has it been made? Has a sociological survey been conducted? And even if a scientific sociological survey had been conducted, it would still be questionable if it could provide substantial information. People are usually highly confused themselves in these situations. Many don’t even know what they feel. If they did not love their spouse they would not have married him or her. The years spent together and their possible common children are bonding. The idea to be able to start from scratch is an illusion for historical beings like us. As William Faulkner once remarked, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”[23] How could one just forget, with a sleight of hand, the love of one’s life, to whom one has sworn life-long fidelity? Of course, there are also those deep-seated hurts, the disillusions, disappointments, and betrayals that make one want to forget. And there is the new romantic experience. Who is to tell what’s going on in one’s heart? This is just to say that the claim that most people enter a second union serenely, without any doubts in conscience and with the pioneering spirit of a new beginning is at least not as obvious as Schockenhoff and the German bishops suggest.

In Schockenhoff’s version of this argument there is also the curious emphasis on the perspective of canon law, suggesting that the indissolubility of marriage and the consequent incapacity to enter a second marriage in the lifetime of one’s spouse derives simply from a canonical disposition. It is sure that canon law regulates questions of marriage, but that does not make canon law the foundation of marital indissolubility. Indissolubility would rather seem to be a moral, anthropological and theological question much before it also becomes a canonical one. It is a moral issue, for instance, inasmuch as it involves the virtue of justice; it is an anthropological matter, inasmuch as it regards the human person’s capacity to give definitive shape to his temporal existence, making promises that bind one’s whole life. It is a theological question, insofar as the sacramentality of marriage is involved. Reducing it to a canonical issue simply does not do it justice.

[1] Marianne Heimbach-Steins, “Die Idealisierung von Ehe und Familie in der kirchlichen Moralverkündigung,” in Konrad Hilpert, ed., Zukunftshorizonte katholischer Sexualethik, Herder, Freiburg i.Br. 2011, 300 (all translations of passages from works not available in English are my own).

[2] Heimbach-Steins, “Die Idealisierung von Ehe und Familie,” 300.

[3] Heimbach-Steins, “Die Idealisierung von Ehe und Familie,” 307.

[4] Cf. Regina Ammicht Quinn, “Vom Leben für andere: Frauenfragen als Beziehungsfragen? Überlegungen aus der Perspektive theologischer Ethik,” in: Marianne Heimbach-Steins - Gudrun Cyprian (eds.), Familienbilder. Interdisziplinäre Sondierungen, Oppenladen 2003, 66, cited in Heimbach-Steins, “Die Idealisierung von Ehe und Familie,” p. 301.

[5] Heimbach-Steins, “Die Idealisierung von Ehe und Familie,” 307-308.

[6] Heimbach-Steins, “Die Idealisierung von Ehe und Familie,” 308.

[7] General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum laboris, III Extraordinary General Assembly, “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization, Vatican City 2014, n. 13.

[8] General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum laboris, n. 12.

[9] General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum laboris, n. 17.

[10] General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, Instrumentum laboris, n. 18.

[11] Walter Kasper, The Gospel of the Family, trans. William Madges, Paulist Press, Mahwah, NJ 2014, pp. 33-34. For a critical discussion of this speech, see: Juan José Pérez-Soba - Stephan Kampowski, The Gospel of the Family. Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate on Marriage, Civil Re-Marriage, and Communion in the Church, Ignatius Press, San Francisco 2014.

[12] Eberhard Schockenhoff, “Ausgeschlossen vom Mahl der Versöhnung? Plädoyer für eine Revision der kirchlichen Praxis gegenüber wiederverheirateten Geschiedenen,” in Konrad Hilpert, ed., Zukunftshorizonte katholischer Sexualethik, Herder, Freiburg i.Br. 2011, 283. For a more extended treatment of the question by the same author cf. Eberhard Schockenhoff, Chancen zur Versöhnung? Die Kirche und die wiederverheirateten Geschiedenen, Herder, Freiburg i.Br. 2011.

[13] Schockenhoff, “Ausgeschlossen vom Mahl der Versöhnung?”, 283, note 11.

[14] Cf. Code of Canon Law, Can. 1057 §1.

[15] Cf. Code of Canon Law, Can. 1156 §1.

[16] Schockenhoff, “Ausgeschlossen vom Mahl der Versöhnung?” 283.

[17] Schockenhoff, “Ausgeschlossen vom Mahl der Versöhnung?”, 283.

[18] Schockenhoff, “Ausgeschlossen vom Mahl der Versöhnung?”, 282.

[19] Schockenhoff, “Ausgeschlossen vom Mahl der Versöhnung?”, 283.

[20] Cf. Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege zur Begleitung wiederverheirateter Geschiedener. Überlegungen der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz zur Vorbereitung der Bischofssynode,” in: Die pastoralen Herausforderungen der Familie im Kontext der Evangelisierung. Texte zur Bischofssynode 2014 und Dokumente der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz, Arbeitshilfen Nr. 273, Bonn 2014, p. 42.

[21] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,“ p. 70.

[22] Vatican Council II, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964, n. 12.

[23] William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun, Act 1, Scene 3.

About the Author
Stephan Kampowski 

Stephan Kampowski is professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome. Following his doctoral dissertation on the action theory and moral thought of Hannah Arendt, his recent work has focused on issues in bioethics.

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