Catholic World Report
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August 14, 2015
The second part of an essay examining the theological arguments put forward for the readmission of the divorced and civilly remarried to Communion.
(CNS photo/Daniel Karmann, EPA)

This is the second part of 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. The first can be read here.

One may wonder why Eberhard Schockenhoff claims that the step of entering into a second union is supposedly considered the “one unforgivable sin.” [1] John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio and Benedict XVI’s post-synodal apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis have made it clear that even those who are living in a second union, due to common commitments they cannot abandon, are not therefore confined to a tragic situation in which they have to sin. There is a morally feasible way out, namely, to make the commitment to live together as brother and sister, abstaining from acts that are proper to spouses. In a common publication my colleague Prof. Juan José Pérez-Soba and I wondered why in the pre-synodal debate this existing pastoral solution for accompanying the divorced and civilly remarried had been virtually excluded from public ecclesial discourse. [2] It is hence a welcome step forward for the discussion that in its recent publication the German Bishops’ Conference explains the reasons why, to its mind, the solution offered by Familiaris Consortio n. 84 and Sacramentum Caritatis n. 29 is not helpful. In the whole document, the bishops essentially advance three considerations. On page 58 the first two arguments are presented, according to which the said proposal “isolates the sexual realm” and asks too much of the faithful:

To many of those concerned, the ecclesial advice of a conjugal life without sexual relations seems morally questionable, since it isolates the sexual realm and disintegrates life’s sexual dimension from the loving togetherness of man and woman. It tends to ask too much of those concerned and corresponds to the choice of a celibate form of life, to which, however, they are not called. [3]

A little further down the bishops expand on why they think a more differentiated assessment of sexual acts in second unions may be called for. They begin by elaborating on the previously mentioned point about the isolation of the sexual realm:

The ecclesial provisions currently effective assess sexual relations in the new partnership as sinful. These provisions stand in a certain tension with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council on marriage. Marriage is not simply a sexual communion, but a personal relation of mutual love, to which belongs also the mutual sexual giving of oneself. This process view of marriage as a relational event contradicts the isolated consideration and assessment of sexual acts. [4]

Then a further, new argument is advanced:

The Church can recognize the obligations that grow out of a new union. […] Such a union […] is a morally significant reality and cannot be arbitrarily destroyed without the partners incurring grave guilt. The exhortation to sexual continence in the new union can be morally questionable if it endangers the permanence of this union, from which not rarely children have sprung. [5]

Thus there are essentially three reasons for why, to the mind of the majority of the German bishops, the proposal of Familiaris Consortio and Sacramentum Caritatis needs rethinking: calling the divorced and civilly remarried to a life of abstinence

1.   isolates the sexual realm;

2.   asks too much of people who do not have the call to celibacy;

3.   endangers the new union that can be considered a morally significant reality.

In what follows we will discuss these arguments one by one.

1. The Call to Abstinence Isolates Sexuality

The first argument is the most complex one. It requires us to look for some presuppositions that are not evident at first sight. What does one need to think about sexuality, marriage, and extra-marital unions in order to suggest that in exhorting the divorced and civilly remarried to observe continence, one isolates the sexual realm, disintegrates sexual life from loving union, or fosters the idea that marriage is simply sexual union? I’m not sure. The logic of Familiaris Consortio and Sacramentum Caritatis, in any case, is not difficult to follow. It is certainly more easily understood than the claim that their teaching is in tension with Vatican II. The very simple—for some, again, perhaps too simple—way of arguing is this:

1.   Marriage is indissoluble.

2.   One can be married only to one person at a time.

3.   Those who are married and have separated from their spouse and live with someone else do not live in a marriage (conclusion from [1] and [2]).

4.   The only humanly fulfilling and morally responsible place for sexual relations is within marriage. The reason for this is in turn to be found to a large degree in the fact that sexual acts are the kind of acts by which new human life is conceived, which makes sexual behavior also a question of justice, namely:

a.   to the children that may be conceived through it, who in case of extra-marital relations would be deprived of having a father and mother who have committed their lives to each other by a life-long public promise of fidelity and exclusivity.

b.   to one’s spouse, inasmuch as engaging in an act through which one can become a parent implies being ready to be bound forever to another person through the bond of the common child and the implied co-responsibility. To become bound this way to someone who is not one’s spouse is an objective injustice, depriving one’s spouse of one’s undivided heart for him or her, which one has promised and which one’s spouse has a right to expect;

c.    to other persons’ spouses.

5.   Those who are married and have separated from their spouse and live with someone else need to abstain from sexual relations (conclusion from [3] and [4]).

The argument would seem to be valid, that is, the conclusions follow from the premises. Hence, the only way to challenge the conclusions is to contest one or more of the premises. Since everyone engaged in the current debate is quick to affirm premise (1), namely that marriage is indissoluble, what remains to be disputed are premises (2) and (4). As we have seen, by insisting that a person having contracted a valid canonical marriage can civilly contract a second marriage, rightly so called, with someone else, Schockenhoff explicitly denies premise (2). While for him, one cannot be canonically married to two people, one can be simultaneously married to two people in two different ways: canonically in the one case and civilly in the other.

Others, again, would challenge premise (4), namely the idea that extramarital sex is inherently sinful, and this is what the proposal of the German bishops seems to come down to. We see that the purportedly “pastoral” question about the Church’s dealings with those of her faithful who are divorced and civilly remarried is, in reality, the doctrinal question about the place and meaning of human sexuality and the nature of marriage: Is it really true that sexual relations need to be restricted to conjugal relations? Is the Church not, by prohibiting non-conjugal sexual acts, placing too much emphasis on sexual relations? Why are these so important? The argument advanced by the German bishops’ document seems to be that by insisting that the divorced and civilly remarried abstain in order to be able to be admitted the sacraments, the Church implicitly says that what makes the difference between a conjugal union and a non-conjugal one is precisely the sexual dimension. But why would that make all the difference? Isn’t marriage more than sexual relations? After all, Vatican II defined it as an “intimate partnership of married life and love.” [6]

If this is indeed the argument, it will be useful to consider that in its personalist language about marriage and family, the Second Vatican Council never separates the idea of marriage from the idea of parenthood, explaining that “by their very nature, the institution of matrimony itself and conjugal love are ordained for the procreation and education of children, and find in them their ultimate crown.” [7] Furthermore, the Council insists on the need for sexual intimacy to be exclusive to spouses and points to the good of the children as part of the reason for this requirement: “This intimate union and the good of the children impose total fidelity on the spouses and argue for an unbreakable oneness between them.” [8] Only marriage truly takes care of all the needs—and we may say rights—of all three parties involved in sexual relations: the potential mother who can rest assured that her child’s father will support her and her child, the child’s father who has an understandable interest in knowing that the child is his; the child, who will be able to know who his father is, who will have the benefit of being raised by both of his parents, and who will experience the comfort of witnessing their shared life. Both spouses can dedicate themselves to each other with an undivided heart inasmuch as the children of the one are also the children of the other. Thus, if we think of sex and babies together, marriage will appear as a highly reasonable institution. Matrimony etymologically signifies the “office of the mother” (mater-munus); it is the institutional space where a woman can safely become a mother. On this view, a wife is a potential mother and a husband a potential father. Hence, quite logically, the acts by which one can become mother or father are restricted to wife and husband.

Of course one can have a different idea of sex and marriage, and indeed most people today do. Sexuality has been separated from any thought of procreation. The idea is that by excluding any thought of the child, the lovers can focus more on each other and have a more personal relationship. For Anthony Giddens it is here, in the separation between sexuality and procreation, that we find the roots of “plastic sexuality,” which is in turn the condition of what he calls the “pure relationship.” Though one may fail to share the enthusiasm with which he relates these developments, his sociological analysis would nonetheless seem highly acute: “The emergence of what I term plastic sexuality is crucial to the emancipation implicit in the pure relationship, as well as the women’s claim to sexual pleasure. Plastic sexuality is decentred sexuality, freed from the needs of reproduction.” [9] It is “the creation of plastic sexuality, severed from its age-old integration with reproduction, kinship, and the generations [that] was the precondition of the sexual revolution of the past several decades.” [10] At this point, then, the stage is opened for a “pure relationship” that “refers to a situation where a social relation is entered into for its own sake, for what can be derived by each person from a sustained association with another; and which is continued only in so far as it is thought by both parties to deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it.” [11] Ultimately, pure relationships are relationships that include but restructure intimacy. As sexual intimacy has become independent of any thought of bonds deriving from procreation, it is possible to be related both in an intimate and in an uncommitted way. Each partner can exit on a moment’s notice in case the relationship’s perceived costs outweigh its perceived benefits.

But is it really reductive to say that marriage is ordered to procreation, and that, inasmuch as sexual acts are those acts by which procreation comes about, the sexual realm is indeed the distinctive feature of marriage? There is no greater human experience than to become a father or a mother. There is not greater unity two human beings can achieve on this earth than to become father and mother of the same child. Incidentally, this is indeed a completely indissoluble relationship. A man can send away his wife and say, “You are no longer my wife.” Before God and in the eyes of the Church, of course she will always remain his wife as long as both are alive, but before the state, she may indeed cease to be considered this way. But she will always and before everyone, forever and ever be the mother of his children, and he will remain the father of her children, no matter how they call or regard each other.         

The question of course is what marriage is. What brings it about? What are its defining elements? Traditional ecclesial language has spoken about the goods or ends of marriage. When, for instance, Pius XI in Casti Connubii re-emphasizes that the “primary end of marriage is the procreation and education of children,” [12] he has no intention of devaluating the value of the spouses’ conjugal friendship. A little further down, indeed, he praises conjugal faith and the mutual assistance the spouses lend each other in striving for holiness, and, in a quite extraordinary phrase, calls it the “chief reason and purpose of marriage”: “This mutual molding of husband and wife, this determined effort to perfect each other, can in a very real sense […] be said to be the chief reason and purpose of matrimony, provided matrimony be looked at not in the restricted sense as instituted for the proper conception and education of the child, but more widely as the blending of life as a whole and the mutual interchange and sharing thereof.” [13]

Is Pius XI simply contradicting himself here? It does not seem so. The thing is that one can share one’s life with others and even perfect each other in many ways that are not marriage. Also two brothers or four friends can assist each other, and quite loyally so. What sets apart the conjugal friendship as an “intimate partnership of married life and love” (GS 48) from all other forms of friendship is precisely its being ordered to the service of life. Its defining characteristic is that it is a potentially fruitful relationship, which is also the reason it becomes more intimate and comprehensive than any other relationship. Only if the union includes the capacity for fruitfulness will it be truly comprehensive. [14] Though no longer speaking of “ends,” the Second Vatican Council says nothing else in this regard. Concerned that the discourse about “ends” could be misunderstood, the pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes expresses the same idea in a different language without changing the concept. We cite again: “By its very nature the institution of marriage and married love are ordered to the procreation and education of the offspring and it is in them that it finds its crowning glory.” [15]

Girgis, Anderson, and George propose a helpful sports analogy, which we will adjust a bit: from baseball to soccer—to adapt it to a wider cultural context—and from winning to scoring goals—because to our mind one can meaningfully play this game even if one is not trying everything one can to win, while one no longer plays it the moment one gives up one’s endeavors at scoring. [16] What then is the point—the “end”—of playing soccer? Some may respond, “To build comradeship with one’s teammates,” others, “To get physical exercise,” and again others, “To curb one’s aggression.” While all these are certainly part of it, and for many people indeed the main reason for why they play “the beautiful game,” we still haven’t gotten at its essence. After all, one can build comradeship or get physical exercise in many other ways. There is one aim in soccer that makes it what it is, what we may call the “primary end” of soccer. This is to score goals. As Sepp Herberger, former coach of the German national soccer team, once famously summarized the basic point of the game: Das Runde muss ins Eckige (or, less elegantly in English translation: “The round thing has to get into the square thing”). The ball needs to get into the goal. If suddenly the players lost their interest in this end and started aiming at other things, like competing about who is the first to smash the stadium illumination, they would no longer be playing soccer.

Scoring goals is of course not everything. Team spirit also counts, and for some it is the main reason they play: to make friends. Even in professional league soccer, conditions permitting, a coach may, occasionally, not put up his nominally best team, risking even a loss or tie, so as to make sure all players on the team get some time to prove themselves. In a friendly, one may say it is not important who scores more goals. It is more important to try out new tactics. And yet, scoring goals continues to define the activity. If the two teams no longer aimed at outdoing each other at it, they would stop playing the game. This is why the 1982 World Cup encounter between the teams of the German Federal Republic and Austria in Spain has remained in the collective memory as “the Disgrace of Gijón.” Meeting for the last game in the group phase, both teams were sure to advance on a West German win by one or two goals. A tie or defeat would have meant elimination for the Germans, while the Austrians would have been eliminated if they had lost by more than two goals. After ten minutes the Germans scored. What followed then was called by some a “Vienna waltz.” [17] The players kicked the ball among their own lines and hardly any other serious attempt on goal was made. The spectacle was grotesque enough for the Spanish audience to demand that the two teams kiss each other: “¡Que se besen, que se besen!” No longer intent on scoring, neither of the teams continued playing soccer in any meaningful sense of the word.

For all that the analogy is worth, it would seem that marital love is ordered to the procreation and education of offspring (cf. Gaudium et Spes) much the same way that soccer is ordered to scoring goals. Marriage, no doubt, is an intimate partnership in which the spouses mold and perfect each other. And yet, the very reason why this partnership is so intimate and mutually perfecting is that it is a partnership ordered to children. Similar to the way the soccer players only build comradery on the field if they actually aim at scoring goals, allowing this purpose to give order and shape to their behavior, so the spouses build a communion of persons in marriage and make each other grow in holiness only if they are open to welcoming new life, organizing their shared life around that purpose.

Girgis, Anderson, and George point out that the sports analogy invites an objection. Some might read it to suggest that couples who, for reasons out of their control, are unable to conceive are “losers.” And yet, for our authors, “of course it implies nothing of the sort; infertility in no way reflects on spouses’ efforts or character.” [18] No moral quality is implied here. Couples who cannot conceive live no less a marriage than couples who can. They are not worse as husband and wife than those spouses who manage to have children. At the same time, “there is no denying what countless infertile couples would be first to admit: Infertility is a loss, a regrettable lack. It makes it impossible for the couple’s union, though marital, to be in a new and quite literal sense embodied.[19] If children are indeed the “crowning glory” of marriage (cf. GS 48), then most infertile couples will be likely to experience their inability to conceive as a source of suffering, confirming thereby that theirs is a relationship that is as such ordered to being embodied in and crowned by common children.

According to Schockenhoff, “the ordinary canonical vision…reduces marriage to a biological community of purpose, in which the spouses mutually transfer to each other the right to sexual intercourse,” and on this premise it is consistent “to negate the right to sexual intimacy to all unmarried couples and to the partners of a canonically invalid marriage.” [20] It is at least likely that these considerations are also at the basis of the German bishops’ reasoning. Whoever claims that it is always necessary to abstain from non-marital sexual relations does so because of the conviction that the “primary end” of marriage is the procreation and education of children. But this is supposedly a reductive understanding of marriage. And it would indeed be reductive if by “primary end” one understood an end that made of everything else a mere means, as if someone said, “What matters are children, not conjugal love.” We have however tried to show that by “primary end” one can also understand an end that gives orientation to the whole enterprise, and that provides the context of its meaning. It is not an end beside or even opposed to conjugal love. Rather, it is this end that specifies conjugal love as a specific kind of love, just as the primary end of soccer specifies the game as a particular kind of game and in this way allows for all the other goods that are connected with it to be realized. People cannot build comradery or friendship in soccer unless they play soccer. They do not play soccer unless they pursue its “primary,” i.e., its defining end. We have also tried to highlight what happens once the connection between sexuality and fruitfulness is obscured. As Anthony Giddens, among others, has convincingly demonstrated, thinking of sex without thinking of babies inevitably leads to what he calls “plastic sexuality” and “pure relations.”

2. Continence Asks Too Much

According to the majority of the German bishops, the requirement of permanent abstinence for those living in non-marital unions, such as the divorced and civilly remarried, asks too much of the faithful concerned. The German bishops’ line of reasoning takes its starting point from the idea of a vocation. They argue that the moral requirement—or, rather, in their words, “the ecclesial counsel”—of permanent continence “corresponds to the choice of a celibate form of life, to which, however, they are not called.” [21]

Of course, there are the three counsels of chastity, poverty, and obedience that constitute the religious life and require a specific calling. Making the religious profession of these three vows, the religious freely surrender, for the sake of the kingdom, their right to seek to get married and form a family, their right to private ownership, and the administration of their personal affairs. From the fact that chastity, poverty, and obedience are counsels constituting the religious life, it does not follow that under particular circumstances chastity, poverty, and obedience could not also fall under a command. As long as they are young, children’s duty to obey their parents is not a question of counsel; a soldier cannot tell his officer that he will not be commanded because he is not called to the religious life, nor can an employee advance the same argument to his employer who requires a specific, work-related task. While no one has the duty to be poor, all have the duty to acquire their possessions by just means. And about chastity: from the Old to the New Testament, from Apostolic times down to our own, “Do not commit adultery” was not considered a counsel but a command. It has been consistently interpreted as referring to every sexual relation that, in being before or outside of marriage, is not conjugal.

In other words, one does not need a special vocation to be obliged to abstain from non-marital relations. The universal call to holiness of which the Second Vatican Council speaks, is enough. [22] For the Council, not only the religious and clergy are called to the perfection of love, but also the laity. Thus, to the extent that the German bishops’ proposal seems to suggest that the call to live the fullness of the Gospel is only for the few, it stands in tension with Vatican II and rather seems to espouse the attitude once manifested by Cardinal Kasper in an interview to Commonweal Magazine, where he remarks, “To live together as brother and sister? […] It’s a heroic act, and heroism is not for the average Christian.” [23]

According to the received teaching, as the Gospel is addressed to all human beings, so its moral requirements are for all. With regard to the Sixth Commandment, “Do not commit adultery,” those who are separated from their marriage partner, whether they have entered a new union or not, are in the same situation as those who are not yet married, or who for some reason never get to marry. This is not a minor group. Even within a marriage, situations may come up that make it impossible for the spouses to come together for an extended period of time. Suppose one of them has to leave on a long business trip. Should the other say, “I’m not called to be a religious” and seek out a temporary lover to cover his or her spouse’s absence? And what if one of them became ill in a way that it became physically impossible for them to come together sexually ever again? Can we recommend the healthy partner to seek out occasional substitutes or even permanently to leave his or her spouse on the grounds of not being called to the celibate life? Of course abstinence is difficult, whether it is temporary or permanent. But from this it does not follow that under given circumstances, it could not be commanded, i.e., a requirement of love and justice.

It is difficult to see how the German bishops’ proposal in this regard is different from the argument already anticipated by Pius XII in his “Allocution to Midwives.” Pius XII is speaking here about cases in which, due to particular health risks, complete abstinence may be required of husband and wife. It would seem more than legitimate to apply his reasoning also to the divorced and civilly remarried. Pius XII first summarizes the case that is being made:

It will be objected that such an abstention is impossible, that such a heroism is asking too much. […] Even those who should be in a position to judge very differently, either by reason of their duties or qualifications, are ever ready to bring forward the following argument: “No one is obliged to do what is impossible, and it may be presumed that no reasonable legislator can will his law to oblige to the point of impossibility. But for husbands and wives long periods of abstention are impossible. Therefore they are not obliged to abstain; divine law cannot have this meaning.” [24]

In his response, Pius XII grants the major premise: God does not command the impossible. However, for him, it is necessary to invert the argument, which is why different conclusions follow:

From partially true premises, one arrives at a false conclusion. To convince oneself of this it suffices to invert the terms of the argument: “God does not oblige anyone to do what is impossible. But God obliges husband and wife to abstinence if their union cannot be completed according to the laws of nature. Therefore in this case abstinence is possible.” [25]

If we believe that God indeed revealed the Ten Commandments and that he is good and loving, then we will also believe that the Ten Commandments can on principle—and with the help of God’s grace—be observed. Because God is loving, he commands nothing arbitrary but only what is truly good for us. And he will certainly not command the impossible.

Perhaps we are justified in surmising that today, at least in the Western world, it is more difficult to be chaste than it has ever been before. Any suggestion that under certain circumstances—applying not to a few people, and certainly to everyone who is not married—true love requires abstinence will be looked upon as nothing less than a complete absurdity. One could respond to this situation by trying to adjust the Sixth Commandment to the new situation. But one might also consider confronting the situation, by changing one’s personal behavior, but also by challenging the surrounding culture. How can we live chastely if we watch three or more hours of television every day? We will be confronted with so many arousing images that it will require almost superhuman powers not to put into practice what we see. We are imitating creatures by nature. If we allow ourselves to be bombarded by sex scenes and seductive images, it will be really difficult. The old rule taught by driving instructors is applicable not only to driving cars but also to living life: where we look is where we go. And yet, obviously we are not obliged to watch television or to watch it indiscriminately. Public advertisement is another issue. It’s not a natural event that has to be simply accepted like the weather. Why tolerate advertisement devised on the principle that sex sells?

And how about the spread of a romanticized image of marriage? I still remember how in the 1990s, after having watched the movie Titanic (1997), starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, one of my theology professors, a happily married husband and father, came into the classroom highly upset. What had strongly disturbed him was how the relationship between the protagonists was depicted. Toward the end, Old Rose says about Jack, her lover who had given his life for her: “He saved me in every way that a person can be saved.” Now if our young people are taught to enter a relationship with this expectation, then, of course, disaster is bound to strike. They will go from disappointment to disappointment and never settle. As Beck and Beck-Gernsheim say:

Research has shown that the standards set on living together today are considerably higher than they used to be. It is no longer enough to just get along with each other. People want more, they are in search of “happiness and fulfilment […]. Disappointments are inevitable, for the higher the expectations one brings to marriage, the more likely one’s own seems drab compared with these grand ambitions. Furthermore the dream turns into a trap, arousing hopes which cannot be satisfied.”  [26]

But then again, it is not forbidden to make counter proposals. Much can be done to create a culture, or if need be, at least a subculture of the parish, the prayer group, or the movement, in which a life of chaste and faithful love suddenly becomes feasible and livable.

3. The New Union Is of Moral Significance

The third reason for why, according to the majority of the German bishops, Familiaris Consortio and Sacramentum Caritatis need to be rethought with respect to the pastoral solution they offer regarding the divorced and civilly remarried brings us to the heart of our topic on the status of different family models. It is true that Familiaris Consortio recognizes that under certain circumstances the partners of an extra-marital union have contracted new common commitments that prevent them from satisfying “the obligation to separate.” [27] This is precisely the case to which the exhortation to live in complete abstinence applies. Hence the starting point of the German bishops’ reasoning is uncontroversial: “The Church can recognize the moral obligations that grow out of a new union.” [28] This is nothing more or less than what John Paul II would have said. But what follows then is more debatable. From the concession that the partners cannot correspond to the obligation to separate, the bishops now move to the affirmation that “such a union […] is morally significant and cannot be arbitrarily destroyed without the partners incurring grave guilt.” [29] As a final step then, the “exhortation to sexual continence in the new union” is made out to be “morally questionable if it endangers the permanence of this union, from which not rarely children have sprung.” [30] The new union has become a morally significant entity, which needs to be protected. Sexual relations bind the partners closer together, while sexual continence may endanger their union.

Here we are reminded of Schockenhoff’s claim that the new union contains all the constitutive elements of marriage—save validity in the eyes of canon law: permanence, exclusivity, and openness to new life. [31] Why should it then not be protected as marriage itself? The Church would never impose a general obligation of continence on canonically married couples. Why then would she impose such obligation on couples who are living all the goods of marriage and are only lacking canonical recognition, which would just seem to be a question of legality and which the Church, if she wanted to, could regulate in an instance?

We have already discussed the fact that it is not a question simply of legality, but rather of

-              whether human powers can dissolve a marriage, and if not

-              whether someone can be married to two people at the same time, and if not

-              whether it can ever be licit to have non-marital sexual relations.

To at least one of these questions Schockenhoff and the German bishops would have to respond in the affirmative to be consistent.

But to take up the argument again, we would like to emphasize that the suggested reading of John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio is highly doubtful. Indeed, the Polish Pope writes, “when, for serious reasons such as, for example, the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate [non valeant necessitati separationis satisfacere], they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence.’” [32] John Paul II certainly did not say “they must not separate.” He clearly affirms the general necessity to separate, which, however, under certain circumstances cannot be satisfied. Now the question is what is meant by this “cannot.” 

Of course, the whole dilemma for which Familiaris Consortio tries to find a solution is here: the divorced and civilly remarried have a responsibility to separate from a partner who is not their spouse (the one they are currently living with, even if they are joined by civil rite). They also have the duty to educate their children, which may require them to stay together. This dilemma does not suddenly turn the new union into a moral reality that needs to be promoted and protected at all costs. Their irrevocable moral responsibility is for the welfare of their children. How this is best achieved must be seen in the concrete situation. It may be that this responsibility in fact incapacitates them (“non valeant”) from separating as their other responsibilities would require them to do. In this way, their staying together is presented more in terms of a concession than in terms of an obligation, even if the concession is made on the grounds of a moral obligation, namely the obligation to educate their children. In other words, the German bishops perform the logical leap from “you don’t need to separate” (on the grounds of serious reasons) to “you must stay together.” From this “you must stay together” they conclude that the partners must not be admonished to observe complete abstinence, which is yet another leap, since it is well imaginable that two people are able to stay together and educate their children even without engaging in sexual relations.


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

[2] 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, 34-43.

[3] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,” 58.

[4] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,” 71.

[5] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,” 71.

[6] Second Vatican Council, Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, December 7, 1965, n. 48

[7] Gaudium et Spes, n. 48.

[8] Gaudium et Spes, n. 48.   

[9] Anthony Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy. Sexuality, Love and Eroticism in Modern Societies, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK 1992, 2.

[10] Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy, 27.

[11] Giddens, The Transformation of Intimacy, 58.

[12] Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Casti Connubii, December 31, 1930, 17.

[13] Pius XI, Casti Connubii, 24.

[14] See the argument proposed by Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Encounter Books, New York 2012.

[15] Gaudium et Spes, n. 48.

[16] Cf. Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Encounter Books, New York 2012, 30-31.

[17] Cf. George Vecsey, “When West Germany and Austria Danced a Vienna Waltz,” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 29, 1982, 12.

[18] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Encounter Books, New York 2012, 31.

[19] Sherif Girgis, Ryan T. Anderson, Robert P. George, What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, Encounter Books, New York 2012, 31 (original emphasis).

[20] Schockenhoff, Chancen zur Versöhnung? 144.

[21] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,” 58.

[22] Second Vatican Council, Dogmatic Constitution Lumen Gentium, November 21, 1964, n. 11: “All the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord, each in his own way, to that perfect holiness whereby the Father Himself is perfect.”

[23] Matthew Boudway and Grant Gallicho, “Merciful God, Merciful Church. An Interview with Cardinal Walter Kasper,”

[24] Pius XII, Allocution to Midwives, October 21, 1951.

[25] Pius XII, Allocution to Midwives, October 21, 1951.

[26] Ulrich Beck and Elisabeth Beck-Gernsheim, The Normal Chaos of Love, trans. Mark Ritter and Jane Wiebel, Polity Press, Cambridge, UK 1995, 93.

[27] Cf. John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 84.

[28] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,” 71.

[29] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,” 71.

[30] Secretariat of the German Bishops’ Conference, ed., “Theologisch verantwortbare und pastoral angemessene Wege,” 71.

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

[32] John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, n. 84.

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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