The discussion about marriage within Catholic circles has been heating up recently, more than usual. This time it’s not about contraception or homosexual ‘marriage’, but about divorce and remarriage. In the last few months, there were statements made by Cardinal Kasper, a group of German Bishops, but then also many rebuttals such asand Dr. Ed Peters. For a review, read John V. Gerard’s article from Aleteia. Now, to add to the confusion and debate, we have the Pope’s infamous phone call to the Argentinean woman about being allowed to receive communion while living as married to a divorcee.
It is an important and complex debate. Many are on the edge of their seats, very anxious and impatient to see what will happen at the Synod in October. Some are applauding, while others are shaking their head in disbelief. While all this has been ensuing, there is a deeper question that should be gnawing at our Catholic consciences.
Almost every time a new opinion piece is written about the divorced and remarried receiving communion, there is a statement about divorce not being a prohibition to reception of the Eucharist, only remarriage is. This is likely to be even more central to the ensuing discussion about the claim that Pope Francis told the Argentinean woman that "A divorcee who takes communion is not doing anything wrong." While, it is true that civil divorce, in and of itself, does not constitute a mortal sin, there is much more nuance to Church teaching that needs to be addressed.
One problem in this discussion is that divorce and remarriage, without an annulment, is basically black and white. It is adultery and thus, if you have the understanding and have chosen it freely, a mortal sin. Divorce alone though, is a large area of grey. No one can judge another based on a decree of divorce alone. Does this mean that divorce is never a mortal sin though?
The Church understands that in our human weakness, there are problems in marriage that are unlikely to be resolved. Married couples realize quickly that there are going to be many issues that arise in which neither will both be fully satisfied with the outcome. Marriage takes dying to self, loving even when it hurts, and a lot of compromise.
Sometimes though, the differences are so great and harmful, that a separation is prudent for the sake of spiritual, physical, or psychological well-being. The Church allows for this when duly needed. If one is in immediate grave danger, they can separate from their spouse without prior permission from their Bishop (CIC 1153). Here still, permission must be sought to continue separation though (CIC 1151 §3), and the goal is always towards reconciliation of the marital union (CIC 1152; Familiaris Consortio, 83). When not in immediate danger, separation may be allowed, but the permission is to be sought beforehand. The same goal of reconciliation applies here as well. Even if reconciliation never happens, husband and wife are called to strive for it and to have hope, even when by worldly standards, all seems hopeless.
Canon law allows for civil divorce too, but when it is the only means by which to gain civil protection for the children or financially (CCC 2383). Because marriage is also governed by the state, it might be that the only way to get proper custody for one’s children is via divorce proceedings. There are many circumstances where one spouse is obstinately making the protection of children difficult or is withholding financial assets from the other as punishment. These are considered entirely excusable reasons to seek the civil decree.
If marriage is meant to always seek union and reconciliation, and divorce is only allowed when civilly necessary, what about all those who seek divorce and do not fall under either of these conditions? For a sin to be mortal it must be grave in nature, one must know that it is sinful, and s/he must be freely participating in the sin (CCC 1857). Scripture and Catholic teaching is very clear about the high importance of the indissolubility of marriage (CCC 2384; Note that "divorce is a grave offense" and that "contracting a new union… adds to the gravity of the rupture."; my emphasis). Countless bottles of ink have been spilled by saints and philosophers, telling of the difficulties of marriage, but they stand firm behind the permanence of it, nonetheless.
To address whether one is in sin when separated or divorced, here are some questions to consider: Were the reasons truly in line with what constitutes immediate grave harm or was it based on the secular standard of happiness? Has one done all they could to make amends or have they put the burden on the other to change? Has one shown mercy and understanding to the humanness of the union or has unrealistic standards been expected? Has one sacrificed their desires, expectations, pre-conceived notions, wants, etc. or have they spent most of their energy demanding the other fulfill them? When excuses are made for marriage today, how many can say that they have lived the example of Christ in the very act that was His marriage to the Church: His death on the Cross?
One might have compelling reasons to think they are not in a valid marriage. The fact that one must gain a civil decree of divorce to even start the annulment process adds confusion to this issue. The most commonly cited reasons for requiring a civil divorce are that it protects the Church from lawsuits and because there is an assumption that a civil divorce is evidence that the marriage is irreconcilable. Using a civil decree, which can be gained without both parties’ consent and within as little as a few months, as evidence of anything definitive, is theologically and psychologically problematic. Even more problematic, is that clergy, who preach forgiveness and God’s all powerful grace, can turn around and deem a relationship irreconcilable. Those conflicting concepts are what is irreconcilable, not the relationship. No person, or marriage, is beyond redemption and healing while they are still alive.
The discussion of how to handle with mercy and love the many who find themselves in remarriages and wanting communion with the Church is most definitely an important question. Just as we cannot water down our faith or offer a false mercy to those, we also cannot for those who are seeking divorce without just cause and full consideration of the sacramental duties.
With this issue, there are many difficult questions, some that are raised by the very contradiction in the Church ordinances and practical application. To truly address the problems raised by Cardinal Kasper, we need also address the problems that happened before a remarriage occurs. There is a need for better marriage prep, faith formation, marital support, and an overall fuller understanding of what constitutes invalidity. The issue of divorce is the last major step before one finds themselves in an adulterous relationship. This step is all too often accepted and ignored by clergy and lay Catholics. If we could be more clear about what are allowable reasons for separation and divorce, plus support those who find themselves in that situation, to stay faithful “through good times and bad”, we might find fewer people in the even more painful situation of choosing between a second ‘marriage’ and receiving our Lord in Holy Communion.
Catherine Seiwertis the director of Pure & Simple Health Education. She holds degrees in psychology, behavioral science, and public affairs. Her passion is helping others understand God’s love through their marriage. Find her on Twitter @cseiwert.