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Some Hard Truths about Divorce and Communion

Jeffrey Bruno
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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?

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