True Mercy and the Indissolubility of Marriage

In his foreword to a new book, Cardinal George Pell argues that “one cannot maintain the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the ‘remarried’ to receive Holy Communion.”

Cardinal George Pell gestures during an interview at the Vatican in file photo. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

The following appears as the foreword to the book The Gospel of the Family: Going Beyond Cardinal Kasper’s Proposal in the Debate on Marriage, Civil Re-Marriage, and Communion in the Church, which will be published by Ignatius Press next month. The book is co-authored by Juan José Pérez-Soba, a priest of the Diocese of Madrid and the director of international research in moral theology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, and Stephan Kampowski, an associate professor of philosophical anthropology at the John Paul II Institute in Rome.

This book is important for many reasons. A courteous, informed, and rigorous discussion, indeed debate, is needed especially for the coming months to defend the Christian and Catholic tradition of monogamous, indissoluble marriage—focusing on the central elements of the challenges facing marriage and the family, rather than being distracted into a counterproductive and futile search for short-term consolations.

The health of an organization can be gauged by observing the amount of time and energy devoted to the discussion of various topics. Healthy communities do not spend most of their energies on peripheral issues, and unfortunately the number of divorced and remarried Catholics who feel they should be allowed to receive Holy Communion is very small indeed.

The pressures for this change are centered mainly in some European churches, where churchgoing is low and an increasing number of divorcees are choosing not to remarry. The issue is seen by both friends and foes of the Catholic tradition as a symbol—a prize in the clash between what remains of Christendom in Europe and an aggressive neo-paganism. Every opponent of Christianity wants the Church to capitulate on this issue.

Both sides in this discussion appeal to Christian criteria, and everyone is dismayed by the amount of suffering caused to spouses and children by marriage breakups. What help can and should the Catholic Church offer?

Some see the primary task of the Church as providing lifeboats for those who have been shipwrecked by divorce. And lifeboats should be available for all, especially for those tragic innocent parties. But which way should the lifeboats be headed? Toward the rocks or the marshes, or to a safe port, which can only be reached with difficulty? Others see an even more important task for the Church in providing leadership and good maps to diminish the number of shipwrecks. Both tasks are necessary, but how are they best achieved?

The Christian understanding of mercy is central when we are talking about marriage and sexuality, forgiveness and Holy Communion, so not surprisingly, in this excellent volume the essential links between mercy and fidelity, between truth and grace in our Gospel teaching, are spelled out clearly and convincingly.

Mercy is different from most forms of tolerance, which is one of the more praiseworthy aspects of our pluralist societies. Some forms of tolerance define sin out of existence, but adult freedoms and inevitable differences need not be founded on a thoroughgoing relativism.

The indissolubility of marriage is one of the rich truths of divine revelation. It is no coincidence that monogamy and monotheism are found together in Judeo-Christianity. Lifelong marriage is not simply a burden but a jewel, a life-giving institution. When societies recognize this beauty and goodness, they regularly protect it with effective disciplinary measures. They realize that doctrine and pastoral practice cannot be contradictory, and that one cannot maintain the indissolubility of marriage by allowing the “remarried” to receive Holy Communion. Recognizing their inability to participate fully in the Eucharist is undoubtedly a sacrifice for believers, an imperfect but real form of sacrificial love.

Christianity and especially Catholicism constitute one historical reality, where the apostolic tradition of faith and morals, prayer and worship, is maintained. The doctrines of Christ are our cornerstone.

Interestingly, Jesus’ hard teaching that “what therefore God has joined together, let no man put asunder” (Mt 19:6) follows not long after his insistence to Peter on the necessity of forgiveness (see Mt 18:21–35).

It is true that Jesus did not condemn the adulterous woman who was threatened with death by stoning, but he did not tell her to keep up her good work, to continue unchanged in her ways. He told her to sin no more (see Jn 8:1–11).

One insurmountable barrier for those advocating a new doctrinal and pastoral discipline for the reception of Holy Communion is the almost complete unanimity of two thousand years of Catholic history on this point. It is true that the Orthodox have a long-standing but different tradition, forced on them originally by their Byzantine emperors, but this has never been the Catholic practice.

One might claim that the penitential disciplines in the early centuries before the Council of Nicaea were too fierce as they argued whether those guilty of murder, adultery, or apostasy could be reconciled by the Church to their local communities only once—or not at all. They always acknowledged that God could forgive, even when the Church’s ability to readmit sinners to the community was limited.

Such severity was the norm at a time when the Church was expanding in numbers, despite persecution. It can no more be ignored than the teachings of the Council of Trent or those of Saint John Paul II or Pope Benedict XVI on marriage can be ignored. Were the decisions that followed Henry VIII’s divorce totally unnecessary?

This work contains some penetrating analyses of the cultural causes of family disintegration in today’s pansexual culture. The point is well made that a correct diagnosis is more important than ever in an epidemic!

One claim is that divorce is the most important social revolution in modern times, and, without doubt, the crisis of marriage mirrors the crisis of faith and religious practice. Which is the chicken, and which is the egg?

As well as the long-standing intuition that a weakened faith means fewer children, I think it highly likely that the decision to have no children, or very few, itself results often in a serious weakening of faith. The influences run in both directions.

We are presently in a somewhat new situation, unparalleled since the days of the Second Vatican Council, where an increasing range of moral options are being canvassed publically, even by clerics. This brings benefits as an increased number of the formerly disinterested begin to discuss Christian claims, but pain and wounding are also inevitable.

Believers in the tradition, such as the authors of this volume, should be commended when they state their case calmly and charitably. We still have the best tunes.

We also need to work now to avoid a repetition of the aftermath of Humanae vitae in 1968. We should speak clearly, because the sooner the wounded, the lukewarm, and the outsiders realize that substantial doctrinal and pastoral changes are impossible, the more the hostile disappointment (which must follow the reassertion of doctrine) will be anticipated and dissipated.

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About Cardinal George Pell 2 Articles
Cardinal George Pell is prefect emeritus of the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy.