The National Catholic Review

The tragedy of divorce has in some way touched nearly every family in the contemporary Western world. Large numbers of Catholics have not been spared. In the agonizing aftermath of divorce, many encounter great spiritual and psychological challenges. They often wonder, for example, whether they will ever love again and even whether they are loveable at all. Catholics who have divorced and entered into a second civil marriage without a decree of nullity from the appropriate church authority, moreover, bear an additional burden. According to the current church regulations, they may not receive absolution or holy Communion under most circumstances. Recent reports in the media, however, indicate that the Synod of Bishops on the Family that convenes next month may examine anew the pastoral situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics.

It is in this social and ecclesial context that Cardinal Walter Kasper, the former president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, has asked that the church critically evaluate the current rules. Cardinal Kasper’s invitation, which he reiterated in these pages last week ("The Message of Mercy,” 9/15), is rooted in the imperative of mercy, which he sees as the central message of the Gospel and the motive force of the church’s pastoral ministry. “What does [mercy] mean for the church itself and its behavior,” the cardinal wrote, “not only toward those who are poor in a material sense but toward people within the church who feel neglected, put aside, marginalized and excommunicated—if not in a strict canonical sense, then in a de facto sense—because they are not allowed to take part in the table of the Lord?”

We should bear in mind what Cardinal Kasper is not saying when he asks this question. First, the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage is settled doctrine; it is not within the power of any human being to change it. Second, we must not frame the question as a choice between law and love. The church’s authority “to bind and to loose,” which she receives from the Lord himself, Cardinal Kasper has said, has a legal as well as a pastoral character and both are essential dimensions of the church’s ministry. Far from seeking to undermine the juridical character of that ministry, Cardinal Kasper seeks rather to preserve it, by rendering the church’s discipline more effective and credible in light of contemporary challenges. Third, Cardinal Kasper’s proposal involves neither the casual re-admittance of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to the sacraments, nor the casual application of mercy, which would make “cheap grace out of God’s precious grace.”

At the same time, “canon law should be interpreted and applied in the light of mercy because mercy opens our eyes to the concrete situation of the other.” The question before the church and the synod, says Cardinal Kasper, is this: If a Catholic who is divorced and civilly remarried, without a decree of nullity, “repents of his failure to fulfill what he promised before God, his partner and the church in the first marriage, and carries out as well as possible his new duties and does what he can for the Christian education of his children and has a serious desire for the sacraments, which he needs for strength in his difficult situation, can we after a time of new orientation and stabilization deny absolution and forgiveness?”

The Gospel, as well as the essential pastoral character of the church, which was more fully illuminated by the Second Vatican Council, suggest that the answer to the cardinal’s question is “no.” Some pastoral accommodation should be made for the kind of person he describes. Identifying and implementing such a change, however, will not be easy and we should bear the following in mind: First, any change to the regulations should also account for the men and women who have derived spiritual benefit from their fidelity to the church’s current discipline. Second, every party to the discussion and deliberations should presume the good intentions of the others. While Catholics may disagree on this matter, it is both reasonable and right to presume that most everyone involved has the good of the other as his or her primary motive. Third, any change should be seen not as a revolutionary gesture on the part of the current pope, but rather as the church’s response to the signs of the times. Cardinal Kasper’s modest proposal is in essential continuity with urgent appeals for mercy, forgiveness and reconciliation that characterized the ministries of Pope Francis’ immediate predecessors. As the pope said in one of his recent daily homilies, the church sometimes calls us to change our structures, to pour “new wine into new wineskins.”

Finally, we must trust that, as ever, it is ultimately the Holy Spirit who guides the church’s discernment. Let us pray that all of our choices will bear the marks of the Holy Spirit, which are, as well, the visible signs of the church’s ministry everywhere: generosity, charity, fidelity and hope.

Comments

Lisa Weber | 10/21/2015 - 5:45pm

Cardinal Kasper is right in calling for evaluation of the current rules. Banning people from the sacraments because of divorce is too likely to lead to their leaving the church entirely and taking their children with them.

Kathleen Burke | 10/19/2015 - 8:22am

What message would Cardinal Kasper's "modest proposal" send to those Catholics who went through the process of obtaining a decree of nullity, or Privilege of the Faith?
We negotiated the canoninical labyrinth--for what?

Charles Erlinger | 9/20/2014 - 12:27pm

Reference the following quote from the article:
"We should bear in mind what Cardinal Kasper is not saying when he asks this question. First, the church’s teaching on the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage is settled doctrine; it is not within the power of any human being to change it."
I read John T. Noonan's book "A Church that Can and Cannot Change" eight or nine years ago and got a different impression. Did I misinterpret Noonan or is the author implicitly asserting that Noonan is wrong?

Michael O'Connor | 9/17/2014 - 12:40am

The Church’s biggest sin in the clerical sexual abuse scandal is its neglect of the victims. It has focused its attention on the Church itself and the perpetrators.
In the divorce/remarriage issue the same could be happening.
There are victims to be considered theologically and pastorally. Unfortunately I am one.
After twenty-nine years my wife left what she said was “a good marriage” to marry another divorced Catholic. There is no annulment.
I love her and remain faithful to her, to the Church, my word, and myself.
To put the issue in stark terms I seek answers to two questions arising from what could be a real situation: when receiving the Eucharist I observe that she and/or he also receives the Eucharist.
Firstly, what theological understanding can be provided to satisfy my intellect, especially in terms of Eucharistic union in Christ, considering the situation of our sacramental matrimonial union in Christ?
Secondly, what pastoral theology would satisfy my spirit if confronted with this situation? What would I share with Jesus about them at this moment of Communion?
The love I have for my wife and for her partner desires that they each have the most intimate relationship with the Lord. I strive to see how while continuing adultery.
These are genuine concerns that give some reality to the deliberations of the Synod of Bishops.

Tim O'Leary | 9/17/2014 - 2:34pm

Very relevant point, Michael. I hope the synod invites some Catholics to participate who are in your situation who have been abandoned by their spouse to marry another person. Whatever the Synod decides, they have to speak to people in your situation, and advise you on what freedoms Church doctrine permits you for your future, earthly and spiritual.

God Bless

JIM MCCREA | 9/16/2014 - 10:15pm

There is an increasingly insupportable belief that any marriage performed in front of a Catholic priest, "God has joined together."

The reality of it all gives lie to that myth.

Thomas Piatak | 9/15/2014 - 11:01pm

Cardinal Kasper's proposal should be rejected. Among other reasons, it simply ignores what Our Lord said about remarriage after divorce constituting adultery. Kasper says that those who remarry should be allowed to receive Communion if they repent of the failure of their first marriage. Kasper does not require any repentence for the second marriage for the simple reason that he does not regard remarriage after divorce as adulterous. In this Kasper directly contradicts the clear words of Jesus Christ and the clear tradition of the Church. Accepting this proposal wll legitmize divorce, encourage more divorce, and undermine Church teaching.

John BIVONA | 9/28/2014 - 11:35pm

The state has already legitimized divorce to the "nth" degree. It carries the title of " no fault" and treats all marital unions as economic partnerships.

In New York first we resolve the parenting and economic issues, then dissolve the marital Union.

Perhaps the Church need consider a mediation process with trial separations, particularly for the sake of the children.

In New York we also entertain orders of protection for goldfish and other family pets as part of the Matrimonial conflagration.

Tim O'Leary | 9/14/2014 - 12:36am

I leave it to the Synod to see how mercy can be increased without doing damage to the Truth, and I second the last paragraph. However, one issue that is currently not being raised is why we have seen such a large increase in broken families, even among Catholics. While it could be multi-factorial, it seems to me that the contraceptive mentality, which has invaded the Church despite Church teaching, has a lot to answer for this. Many divorces I am aware of were preceded by infidelity of one party, and contraception has made infidelity far easier to hide. Another contributing factor, not completely unrelated to the Pill, is the elevation of sexual pleasure and romantic love above the self-giving and openness to the will of God and the obligations to children. The horizontal relationship, and its fulfillment (romantic love and sexual pleasure) seems to have compromised the vertical relationships (fidelity to God and one's children). The smaller families and the absolute demographic decline provide supporting evidence of this shift. All of this was foretold in Humanae Vitae. So, whatever the Synod decides, I hope they do not end up further increasing the number of broken families.

Abigail Woods-Ferreira | 9/13/2014 - 1:56pm

On one hand, as a Catholic happily living in a sacramental marriage, I deeply value the indissoluble nature of that union. Both my husband and I grew up in intact families, with lots of close extended family, and surrounded by the intact families of our friends, and I have incredible reverence for the dignity and permanence of marriage. I have not had much experience with divorce - but the little experience I have had with it has hit home what a horrible sundering of something not meant to be sundered it is.

On the other hand...my experience of people who have divorced is that almost always the divorce was inevitable, or one party was innocent. Continuation in the marriage was not possible. I have never known anyone who divorced casually, or because they just didn't "feel" love anymore, or because they wanted some more excitement in life. There is nothing less convenient than a divorce - who would go through that for anything other than a complete and intolerable breakdown of the relationship? The few divorces I have been witness to have been situations were one party was a victim, or situations where the relationship between two people truly was destructive and destroyed beyond repair. How can mercy not be extended to people who go through that, and then find love again?

There also is a social justice angle, I think. Divorce is far more common among the poor and working class, because a lack of economic stability makes it so difficult to keep a marriage together. The exclusion of divorced and remarried Catholics disproportionately effects the poor and the working class from trying to do the best they can in their domestic situation while maintaining their bond with the Church. While I think it is vital for the Church to strongly advocate for social and economic conditions that will reduce divorce among the poor, it is also important that the poor aren't being disproportionately excluded from the table of the Lord because of the situations they find themselves in, not because they are less moral, but because their family life often has so many more crosses to bear. Marriage is a social justice issue, and until we make it so, there will be no renewal of family life.

I think a situation like the one being discussed is both merciful and faithful. Cardinal Kasper is a true pastor and a blessing to the Church.

Helen Cohenour | 9/23/2014 - 12:19pm

I totally agree with your comments.

Pat Petry | 9/12/2014 - 11:49pm

Here is what's hypocritical about this "law". My husband was baptized as a Catholic as a child and was raised Catholic. However, he married a women who was Lutheran and they were married in her church. They had 2 children and eventually divorced. I met him 2 years later and eventually we decided to get married. I am also Catholic. When we went to Catholic Church to inquire about getting married there, they said "No problem. His first marriage didn't take place in a Catholic Church so it's OK for him to get married now in the Catholic Church". So we were married in a Catholic. HOW HYPOCRITICAL IS THAT???? If his first marriage had taken place in a Catholic Church, we wouldn't have been able to get married in the Catholic Church without an annulment, but since his first marriage was in the Lutheran Church, they didn't "count" that. That's ridiculous!!! A marriage is a marriage no matter what "church" it takes place in. The Catholic Church won't allow Catholics who got married in the Catholic Church to get remarried, but it doesn't matter if they got married civilly first or in another church - THAT'S HYPOCRITICAL!!!!!

Jonathan Watson | 9/14/2014 - 6:17pm

When we went to Catholic Church to inquire about getting married there, they said "No problem. His first marriage didn't take place in a Catholic Church so it's OK for him to get married now in the Catholic Church". So we were married in a Catholic. HOW HYPOCRITICAL IS THAT????

Well, I don't think it's hypocritical at all. Hypocrisy is defined as "the practice of claiming to have moral standards or beliefs to which one's own behavior does not conform." Provided that the Church always held the same standards for all people, and followed them, treating different situations differently is not hypocrisy. However....

With that said, whomever you consulted was incorrect - the Catholic Church does judge most marriages from other faith traditions to be valid under its law. The Catholic Church almost always requires annulments in cases like you present. Some priests are unaware of those, or choose not to notify the couple, but Canon law requires an annulment in order to have the marriage be considered valid.

For example, from: http://www.churchannulment.com/divorce_remarriage_annul.html:

I’m a divorced non-Catholic. Why do I need a Catholic annulment?

You only need one if you want to remarry a Catholic in the Catholic Church, or possibly, if you want to become a Catholic. That’s because the Catholic Church recognizes Protestant, interfaith and most civil marriages as valid in Catholic church law. Once the Catholic Church recognizes a marriage contract as valid, then any question of invalidity needs to be addressed by the Church.

For example, when two Lutherans marry in the Lutheran Church, the Catholic Church views their marriage as a valid marriage contract in Catholic Church law. Suppose the Lutheran couple divorces, and the divorced man now wishes to remarry a Catholic woman. He is not free to do so in the Catholic Church until the Catholic Church annuls his prior Lutheran marriage. The same illustration also has implications for unbaptized individuals.

Or, the site referenced by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops - http://www.foryourmarriage.org/catholic-marriage/church-teachings/annulm...

Why does the Catholic Church require an intended spouse, who is divorced but not Catholic, to obtain an annulment before marrying in the Catholic Church?

The Catholic Church respects all marriages and presumes that they are valid. Thus, for example, it considers the marriages of two Protestant, Jewish, or even nonbelieving persons to be binding for life. The Church requires a declaration of nullity to establish that an essential element was missing in that previous union preventing it from being a valid marriage.

Therefore, even under your definition of hypocrisy, the Church is not guilty, as it applies the same standards to most marriages.

Gregory Henderson | 9/12/2014 - 11:06pm

Galatians Chapter 6. May the Synod read it and let the spirit work as it will.
I wonder if Jesus would dine with tax collectors, sinners, and the divorced in 2014?

ANDY GALLIGAN | 9/12/2014 - 3:51pm

Isn't it true that the Church has based its teaching upon the words of Jesus as recorded in our New Testament? Jesus uttered those words during his ministry, and they were addressed to ALL his listeners . There was not as yet any obligatory sacrament of baptism, was there? Wasn't Jesus, therefore, addressing married people (mainly Jews) who were not in sacramental marriages? He seems to have been forbidding divorce and remarriage to EVERYONE who was married. Yet we know that the Church, thankfully, has gone on to allow it in many cases over the centuries and today limits Jesus' prohibition only to what it has come to deem "sacramental marriages." I should think and hope that in the name of God's mercy and compassion the Church that can bind and loose could go on to loosen Jesus's words yet some more. Read Matthew 5:31-37. Why does the Church insist so strictly on verses 31-32, and yet has not insisted on the following few verses that forbid all oath taking? Fundamentalism is not a Catholic thing.

Michael Barberi | 9/12/2014 - 7:16pm

Andy,

There is a fundamental disagreement among Catholic and Christian scholars over the interpretation of Matt. 5:31-37 in particular the translation and meaning of porneia or mopveia. The Catholic Church teaching is that it refers to incestuous relations, namely, an endogamous marriage, that is, a marriage with the extended family member (a relative that is too close or not separated enough from the marriage partner).

The other common meanings are:

> premarital intercourse, sexual immorality committed by the woman with a man other than the one to whom she is betrothed, and

> extra-marital sexual intercourse, which many Catholic, Christian and Jewish scholars believe is the most logical meaning. It is commonly referred to as the 'exception clause'.

Granted, we only find this so-called exception clause in Matt. Nevertheless, many argue that Jesus was not to be understood as revoking the Torah or Deuteronomy 24, but perhaps as upholding it more rigorously. Certainly, Jesus was not going to enter the debate over the interpretation of "shame of matter" in Deut 24:1, or in adopting or supporting the Shammai position.

This issue about the so-called exception clause is far from clear. It continues to function as an impasse both within Catholic theological circles and in the interpretations given it by Christian and Jewish religions.

I don't believe the Synod on the Family will be changing this teaching. However, I do believe that the Synod fathers will find a way to give Catholic's a second change in terms of the divorce and remarried and access to the sacraments of reconciliation and Eucharistic reception "under certain conditions". This will not be an easy road to navigate, but there is much hope for not denying Catholics who made a mistake, perhaps due to immaturity, ignorance and other reasons, and seek forgiveness and mercy and want to live a life pleasing to God.

Bill Taylor | 9/12/2014 - 12:14pm

I respect the truth of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage, but I think we have not looked long enough at how rarely a sacramental marriage really exists. The current approach is ridiculous. A couple comes to my office and wants to arrange a marriage. a) He is Catholic, she is Catholic. But it is not the level of their faith, but their baptism that is important.. Whether or not they have made a mature commitment is irrelevant. Their baptism seems to exist in the objective order, like some kind of vaccination, with automatic effects as soon as they consummate their marriage. So often, one or both are indifferent Catholics who manage to ignore the real demands of their wedding preparation. All they want is the church and the ceremony, to please Grandma. They get married. Comes the probable divorce, and now the torture of a formal case, because they are "sacramentally married."
b) It is even more silly when we talk about Protestants, who don't even believe marriage is a sacrament. But, because of their baptism, something magic has happened. And again, no matter the level of their faith, their marriage is assumed to be a sacrament. I find myself trying to convince a skeptical fiance why they have to put off their marriage until they finish with the long agony of a formal case.

One final thought: Did Jesus teach that a sacramental cannot be dissolved, or that it should not be dissolved. From my reading, the early Church leaned toward the latter opinion.

Mike Evans | 9/12/2014 - 3:00pm

The Hebrew and even early Christian communities had their own problems with failed marriages and had procedures in place to deal with the issues. Jews could divorce. Christians who split over religion could marry anew (Pauline Privilege). There was and still is the "privilege of the faith' or Petrine dispensation (not very clearly defined, obviously). The Orthodox church has the principal of "economia" which recognizes that a person cannot live alone without the support and comfort of a spouse. Even the promise of celibacy can be dispensed for deacons wishing to remarry after the death of a spouse, or a priest who asks to be laicized. These are obviously necessary pastoral solutions to vexing human problems that otherwise defy simple formulae. The Church is the Body of Christ, Christ the most merciful and forgiving. When people talk about "encouraging divorce" they are already judging tragic results as mere fraudulent inconveniences. Too many who were too young, too oblivious to issues between the parties, full of inadequate preparation for a committed life as husband or wife, etc. have the woeful burden of trying to prove the "unfitness" or "poor judgment" of themselves or former spouse in order to show grounds for an annulment. The annulment then says something was structurally missing in the intentions or disposition of the party or parties to the extent the marriage itself was not real "sacramental" regardless of children, best efforts, reconciliation and counseling and even extended years. Finally even Cardinal Kasper makes the continuing error of trying to find blame so as to "forgive" a trespass. The church seems to insist that it can seriously sit in judgment about issues and circumstances it really has no direct understanding of. And Bill Taylor is right on about his observation of the way we treat Protestant or non-religious prior marriages. Nothing is more disheartening than to delay or discourage an RCIA candidate or catechumen from proceeding to the joy of Easter because they are divorced and remarried. Moreover, their current spouse falls under the condemnation of the church for marrying a divorced person. So determined are the adjudicators, that the sentence of excommunication remains forever! The entire church needs to reflect on WWJD with this problem. Most likely, he would send them on their way to a life of joy with both his blessing and sympathetic forgiveness.

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