Marriage, Communion, and the Teachings of the Church

Two of the contributors to the book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church, discuss the Scriptural, historical, and theological foundations for Catholic doctrine

Rev. Robert Dodaro, OSA, is president of the Patristic Institute, Augustinianum, in Rome. He is the editor of the forthcoming book, Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius Press, early October 2014), in which five cardinals of the Church, along with four other scholars, respond to Walter Cardinal Kasper’s call for the Catholic Church to harmonize “fidelity and mercy in its pastoral practice with civilly remarried, divorced people.” Those contributors are Walter Cardinal Brandmüller; Raymond Cardinal Burke; Carlo Cardinal Caffarra; Velasio Cardinal De Paolis, CS; Paul Mankowski, SJ; Gerhard Cardinal Müller; John M. Rist; and Archbishop Cyril Vasil’, SJ.

Dr. John M. Rist, one of the nine contributors, is Emeritus Professor of Classics and Philosophy at the University of Toronto, and former holder of the Kurt Pritzl, OP, Chair of Philosophy at the Catholic University of America.

Catholic World Report recently corresponded with Fr. Dodaro and Dr. Rist about the book.

CWR: What were the reasons for writing and producing this volume?

Fr. Dodaro: The five cardinals and four other scholars who contributed to this book wanted to respond to Cardinal Kasper’s proposal [in The Gospel of the Family, published by Paulist Press, 2014] that the Catholic Church should adopt a variation of the Eastern Orthodox practice of admitting divorced and civilly remarried persons to the sacraments, specifically to penance and Holy Eucharist. We wanted to show the bishops and other faithful that Cardinal Kasper’s proposal contradicts both Christ’s teachings in the Gospels and the interpretation of His teachings by the early Church.

Finally, we wanted to show that the current teaching and sacramental discipline of the Catholic Church offers a pastorally sound and, yes, even merciful approach to the care of civilly remarried Catholics.

CWR: What are the key issues and concerns that you and the contributors address in the book?

Fr. Dodaro: We explain the teachings of Christ and St. Paul as these are recorded in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke as well as in Romans and 1 Corinthians. Jesus Christ revolutionized the way people of his time thought about marriage. He criticized the prevailing Jewish and pagan conceptions of marriage and divorce, and introduced a radical view of marriage based on natural law that even his disciples at the time recognized as extremely demanding. But Christ also gave the members of His Body, the Church, the grace to live out what would otherwise be too difficult for them.

We then review the principal early Christian texts that Cardinal Kasper cites in his book and we show how his interpretation of these texts is faulty. In doing this we demonstrate that the overwhelming concern in the early Church was to prohibit remarriage in the event that sin should lead to the lamentable separation of two spouses.

We also examine closely the history and theology of the Eastern Orthodox practice of oikonomia that Cardinal Kasper cites as a model for the Catholic Church today. We show that the Orthodox practice contradicts the Catholic understanding of the indissolubility of marriage. I believe that readers of our book will be astonished by what this chapter shows about the ways that Eastern Orthodox Churches treat theological and pastoral questions concerning marriage and divorce.

We then move from this biblical and historical argument to an examination of the theology of marriage in the Catholic tradition. We demonstrate that the proposal to admit civilly remarried Catholics to Holy Communion contradicts the belief of the Church concerning their first marriages.

CWR: Dr. Rist, your chapter focuses on the matter of divorce and remarriage in the early Church. What are some of the key assertions made by Cardinal Kasper about the practices of early Christians? What are some of the problems with his arguments?

Dr. Rist: Cardinal Kasper suggested that the position of the Church Fathers on divorce and remarriage during the lifetime of the other spouse was a open question. This is quite misleading; although there is evidence that a few bishops tolerated that situation, the overwhelming view of the Fathers (well summed up by Origen) is that such an attitude is totally contrary to Scripture.

If you think about this, and compare it for example with the arguments against women priests, you will recognize that in the latter case the evidence—that Jesus’ Apostles were only male—enables people to infer that he would only ever want male priests. In the case of marriage we are dealing, as the Fathers recognized, with the actual words of Jesus himself, so that unless you want to argue that what we have in the Gospel are not really the words of Jesus at all, but some construct of the early Church, the evidence is clear that Origen’s comment is entirely justified, as the vast majority of the Fathers realized.

CWR: Historically, what key differences are there between how the Western and Eastern churches have interpreted and applied the words of Jesus about divorce and remarriage? Does the Eastern Orthodox practice of today offer solutions or alternatives for the Catholic Church? Why or why not?

Dr. Rist: As regards Eastern practice, it seems that, contrary to the view of some of their own clearer thinkers (like Theodore the Studite) they allowed themselves to misread patristic texts, largely under lay (i.e., imperial) pressure. In this sense they did something like what Henry VIII insisted on doing in England, tolerating second and even third remarriages after some sort of penance for the failure of the first one.

If the Catholic Church follows this line, the future of its teaching on sex and marriage will become increasingly Anglican.

CWR: Fr. Dodaro, what are some of the main misunderstandings—theologically, historically, otherwise—that seem to exist about the Church’s teaching about marriage, divorce, and remarriage?

Fr. Dodaro: I will say that in my opinion, and leaving aside the question of divorce and remarriage, I think that Catholic teaching on marriage itself is almost incomprehensible to most Catholics, and I include priests here.

It’s a very difficult teaching first to understand correctly and then to accept, let alone to put into practice. The core of the teaching—and therefore of the difficulty—seems to me to lie in the nature of the bond that unites one man and one woman as “one flesh” (cf. Gen 2:24). When Jesus criticizes the Jewish acceptance of divorce in the case of porneia (sexual immorality) that prevailed in His day, He cites this verse from Genesis as evidence for His claim that “in the beginning it was not so” (Mt 19:8; cf. Mk 10:5-6), and concludes that divorce was not permitted by God who instituted marriage. So it is Jesus who points us back to Genesis 2:24 as the essential definition of marriage.

The early Christians reflected on this teaching within diverse cultures—Jewish and Gentile—that regarded divorce by reason of adultery (on the part of the wife) as normative, even obligatory, in order to protect the rights of the legitimate children of their father to inheritance of his goods. In pagan cultures at the time polygamy could also be regarded as acceptable. So I suppose that the first or core misunderstanding that exists today about Christian teaching—Christ’s teaching—on divorce is that Christians should view marriage just as everyone else in the world does. In fact, we don’t, and we never have. Christ’s teaching was always counter-cultural, and early Christians were laughed at for being weak and irrational when it came to marriage—something not unlike what is portrayed about Christians on Western television and in movies in our own day.

So I believe we need to think hard about just how counter-cultural Christ’s teaching about marriage was in order to understand, in part, why His teaching is so difficult to understand even for many believers today. Remember, too, that when Jesus explained his teaching to his disciples, they reacted with surprise bordering on incredulity: “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery. The disciples said to him, If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry” (Mt 19:8-10). When St. Paul communicated Christ’s prohibition of remarriage following divorce to Corinthian Christians, he even felt obliged to say, “to the married I command, not I but the Lord” (1 Cor 7:10), perhaps anticipating the difficulty they would have in accepting this teaching.

CWR: Dr. Rist, you open your chapter by focusing on some of the contemporary challenges to a proper and robust understanding of Catholic teaching about marriage. What are some of those challenges? How can the Church and families best meet those challenges?

Dr. Rist: The problem in the contemporary West is the huge power of secularism. The Church is inclined to fear to confront it directly and is always looking for compromises (as again did many of the Henrician bishops in England): this time the power is not with the king but with the post-Enlightenment intellegentsia, in politics, the judiciary, the media, Hollywood, etc.

As I have said before, the Church has only very perfunctorily tried to face the new situation. Marriage instruction is usually poor if not worse, and the very different world in which young people grow up has not been recognized—though lip service is often paid to that fact in pious platitudes. And (again as I have said) the great length of life makes a huge difference: if you die at 35 you do not face the “male menopause” when men may well start looking for a younger “model.” And it is so much easier then to think, “Neither I nor my present wife are what we were,” so there is nothing wrong with changing partners.

• The Table of Contents and Fr. Dodaro’s Introduction can be downloaded (PDF file) from the book’s webpage.

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