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Some Hard Truths about Divorce and Communion

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Jeffrey Bruno

Fr Dwight Longenecker - published on 01/25/14

The Church can't change what Jesus taught, but is there a way she can be more pastorally sensitive?

The rumors are swirling through the popular press that Pope Francis will soon allow a more relaxed approach to the Catholic Church’s treatment of people who have been divorced and remarried. This article from Reuters suggests that a rift has developed between Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and Cardinal Óscar Maradiaga, the head of the Pope’s “G8” advisory board of cardinals.

First, we should be reminded what the discipline of the Church is regarding divorce and remarriage. The Catholic Church teaches that the sacrament of marriage is indissoluble based on the Lord’s teachings that what God has joined together, man cannot divide.

However, the Church also recognizes that because of human weakness, marriages break down. Sometimes, the only answer is separation and even a civil divorce. However, if the marriage is valid, the couple (even if divorced by a civil court) is still considered to be married. Therefore, if the individuals remarry, he or she is committing adultery and attempting a marriage which cannot be in the eyes of the Church. The question then arises as to whether the marriage was valid in the first place. The marriage tribunal of a diocese consists of qualified canon lawyers who examine the marriage and decide if it was valid or not. If it was not valid, then a marriage never existed, and a decree of nullity can be granted.

Every marriage is assumed to be valid unless proven otherwise – and until a marriage is proven invalid and a decree of nullity is granted, those who are divorced and remarried may not be admitted to communion, since they are living in adultery. Many pastors find this approach excessively legalistic, harsh, and judgmental. In response to the German bishops who advocate a more lenient approach, Archbishop Müller has said there can be no change. Cardinal Maradiaga disputed the statement, saying, “Brother, life is not like that.”

The problem is complex, but the solutions may be even more difficult. Those who take a more relaxed position argue that the Lord’s mercy is everlasting and question whether Jesus, who welcomed all, would turn people away from his table simply because of their irregular marriage situation. To the woman taken in adultery, they argue, “Wouldn’t he say, ‘Neither do i condemn you?’” Those who favor a stricter approach emphasize the Lord’s final comment to the woman taken in adultery: “Go and sin no more.” Mercy is offered, but repentance and amendment of life is expected.

Somehow, we have to welcome all with the compassion and mercy of Christ while still upholding the indissolubility of marriage and marriage vows for life. Cardinal Maradiaga takes a practical pastoral approach by saying that “life is not like that.” Catholic moral teaching, however, is never determined only by circumstances. Morality is established through certain revealed, objective criteria. The Cardinal from Honduras says things are not so black and white, but it should be pointed out that you cannot have shades of grey if there is no black and white. In other words, without an objective standard there are no standards, and by definition, an objective standard is immoveable and seemingly harsh.

What can be done when faced with this pastoral dilemma? If individual pastors take the law into their own hands and, out of sincere attempt to be merciful, allow their people who are in irregular marriages to come to communion, they may, in their kindness, be doing more harm than good. The negative effects of each pastor taking a more relaxed approach are many. Firstly, one needs to consider the divorced partner: when a marriage breaks down because of adultery and one partner is left outside and alone, what are we saying to that person when their adulterous spouse is readmitted to communion with no consequences?

Secondly, what are we saying to the children and grandchildren of broken marriages? By relaxing the discipline of the Church, we are admitting that marriages may be broken and new marriages made. Even if we don’t mean to, a lenient approach tacitly condones divorce and remarriage, undermining the marriage vow for future generations. When we condone a man or woman’s re-marriage, we teach their children that remarriage after divorce is acceptable.

The third problem with the relaxed approach to divorce and remarriage is that it doesn’t necessarily bring about the beneficial effect the compassionate pastor desires. He wants to bring people into full communion with the Church and offer them Christ’s welcome. It has been my experience more than once that potential converts to the Church and those who have lapsed from the faith are not impressed by the compassionate pastor’s lax approach to his own Church’s discipline. One former Baptist who wanted to come into the church left the parish where a Catholic priest offered such a lenient approach to her marriage. “Why would I want to become a Catholic,” she asked, “if he runs roughshod over the rules of his own Church and treats the serious situation of my marriage in such a lighthearted and shallow way?”

The lenient approach teaches the divorced and remarried person that their marriage vows didn’t really matter. When a pastor skips the nullity process, he says to the divorced and remarried couple, “Your marriage and your life decisions aren’t important enough for me to take seriously.” This approach treats marriage with the same flippancy that the world does: that people give and take in marriage without much thought or consideration, and at the end of the day it doesn’t really matter.

And yet there remains a real pastoral difficulty. What can be done with so many who are estranged by the Church by their broken marriage? Most importantly, what can be done with the innocent victims of broken marriages? Why should a woman or man whose spouse has abandoned and divorced them be condemned to a life of loneliness, and if they marry, be cut off from the Church?

One way forward would be for the work of marriage tribunals to be delegated to a more local level. Applications for a decree of nullity might be administered at a deanery level, making the procedure more accessible. Funds could be established to allay the cost of the nullity process and better pre-marriage training could be put into place to help people understand the seriousness of their vows and establish valid marriages in the first place.

The answer to the problem is most certainly not to throw the matter open to a total free-for-all. Instead, modifications to the existing system to make it more pastorally sensitive will help the Church uphold the sanctity of marriage while helping to reconcile those who are estranged and heal those whose hearts and souls are wounded.

The Rev. Dwight Longenecker is the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary in Greenville, South Carolina. His latest book, The Romance of Religion, will be published by Thomas Nelson in February.

CatholicismFaithMarriagePope FrancisSacramentsSynod on the Family
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