THE CHURCH MUST ADDRESS
A MORAL AND HUMAN QUESTION
My daughter called with distressing news about some friends who have decided to divorce after 14 years of marriage.
This sad situation touches her in a special way because these warm and charming people are very close to her kids. They’ve shared in many family camping trips and other good times that have helped to leaven the childhood of my two grandsons.
“How am I going to explain it to the boys?” she asked, a tear in her voice.
My only (very insufficient) advice was that she must take care not to stoke the natural insecurities children have about their own family stability…
Gee, could Mommy and Daddy get divorced too? What would happen to our family? Where would we live?
Tough questions — and all the more unsettling as children watch their own little friends impacted by divorce in a time when family life seems less and less dependable. One such friend of my grandsons is currently being sent to live with his father because his mother is remarrying (imagine the emotions whirling around inside that boy).
Marriages fail for all kinds of reasons. Sometimes the circumstances involve conflicts that could have been resolved with effort and good faith. Often people simply give up too quickly.
But not always. There are situations that are beyond resolution — sometimes dangerously so.
In the Gospel, Jesus is explicit about marriage being a lifelong commitment (Matthew 19:3-8), explaining that divorce was permitted under the Law of Moses only “because of the hardness of your hearts” (which certainly could account for some of those dangerous situations).
Accordingly, the Catholic Church defends the indissolubility of marriage, as did most other Christian groups until recent decades.
It is not true that half of all marriages fail. The widely quoted 50-percent divorce rate is a myth. While the number of divorces granted in a given year may approach half the number of weddings performed, marriages extend over time. And while many individuals divorce and remarry again and again (think how someone like Elizabeth Taylor or Zsa Zsa Gábor skews the statistics), a substantial majority of couples do stay together all their lives.
Still, marital collapse is common enough, and in truth it’s pretty much as common among Catholics as throughout society at large. This is a scandal in the Church — a scandal exacerbated by the high number of annulments issued, especially in the United States.
For those who are unclear on the point (among whom are many Catholics) the Church defines annulment as a canonical judgment that the conditions which make possible a true, mature, unreserved commitment to marriage did not exist at the time two people were joined, and so the bond is considered null. It’s as if the marriage had never happened in the first place.
Annulment isn’t just the Catholic word for divorce (an erroneous view expressed frequently). Neither does it make any children derived from a nullified marriage illegitimate (an apparent logical inconsistency that adds to the confusion).
Catholics who have been divorced face a daunting ecclesial barrier. If they remarry without having the previous marriage annulled, they are barred from reception of the Eucharist (Holy Communion). It isn’t the divorce, per se, that blocks them. Ending a marriage is a civil procedure, not a Church act. The problem is raised by the remarriage, which under the prevailing circumstances is considered living in sin. As Jesus explained it…
“…whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and whoever marries someone who is divorced commits adultery.”
They aren’t thrown out of the Church, mind you. The Catechism of the Catholic Church specifies…
“They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace.” (Paragraph 1651)
However — and a very big however it is…
“Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance [confession] can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant [indissoluble marriage] and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence. (Paragraph 1650)
If you aren’t familiar with the terminology, that means: NO SEX.
I don’t doubt that such heroic virtue is possible, but it surely is not common. And so options for addressing the daunting ecclesial barrier usually come down to applying for an annulment or leaving the Church.
Annulments vary in speed and difficulty depending on the diocese in which you live. Some dioceses are known as “annulment mills,” whizzing them through — which takes us back into the scandalous dimension — while in others you can grow old waiting for your declaration of nullity, if it comes at all.
Pope Francis has recently issued a new instruction which, while reaffirming Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, is intended to speed up the procedures involved in annulments and make them more uniform.
As has become common with this Pope, the action is stirring controversy. That’s understandable, because it comes in the middle of the Synod on the Family, the forum that’s put a twinkle in the eyes of those who wish to see Church teaching on marriage and sex overhauled stem to stern (think full moral acceptance of homosexuality, blessing of gay unions, and a whole lot of other stuff).
Conservatives are justly worried that when the second session of the Synod kicks off next month, it’ll be: Katie, bar the door!
Given all this, Francis’ new instruction may really have been a tactical move. At least, that’s the suggestion of veteran Church watcher John Allen, who observed in the online journal, Crux…
“It’s no accident that Francis is making this move on the cusp of a special ‘Holy Year of Mercy’ that he has decreed will begin Dec. 8, the same day these changes take effect ….
“All along, reform in the annulment process seemed the most obvious compromise measure, a way of giving both camps at least part of what they wanted. Those opposed to revising the Communion ban [for remarried Catholics] could take comfort that the Church was not softening its stand on divorce, while progressives would be pleased that the Church was at least trying to show greater compassion and outreach ….
“Whatever people may think of the fine points, everyone will be realistic enough to grasp that in the immediate wake of one major reform, it will be a while before the time is ripe for another.”
Allen may be right about this. But even if Francis’ gambit succeeds in easing some of the immediate tensions, the fundamental issue isn’t going away.
My wife and I have been involved in RCIA over the years — that’s Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults, the process by which people enter the Church from other faiths. She’s been an instructor, and I a sponsor.
We’ve dealt with many potential converts who were divorced or marrying someone who is. Usually an annulment is required in order for the person to be accepted into full participation in the sacraments (though not in all cases; some previous marriages aren’t considered canonically valid, and so pose no obstacle).
When the previous marriage was outside the Catholic Church, people always have trouble understanding why an annulment might be necessary at all. They can’t see why they should be held to Catholic Church teaching when that previous marriage wasn’t made according to Catholic precepts or expectations.
The whole thing feels rather ex post facto (imposition of penalties for breaking a rule that didn’t apply at the time), and they perceive this as decidedly unjust.
They have a point.
I think this aspect of annulments is the most urgent question to be settled — and probably the trickiest…
How can we defend the indissolubility of marriage while easing the way for people in irregular marriage situations to enter the Church and participate fully in Christian life?
The Synod fathers — of all philosophical stripes — need to get serious and figure that one out. Forget blessing gay unions. That ain’t never, ever, ever gonna happen. And even thinking about it just sows division and distracts from addressing the real issues.
Perhaps it’s the approach of my 46th wedding anniversary that stirs extra concern for those who haven’t known marital longevity — or who are throwing it away (like my daughter’s friends).
I have been fortunate to share my life with the same woman for nearly half a century. Yet there were times when our marriage might have foundered. I understand why divorce can seem a plausible alternative.
But Kathy and I were blessed in our need.
Despite idiosyncrasies that drove each other nuts and the all-too-human bursts of selfishness that sometimes hampered each other’s progress through life, we each recognized that we shared a kind of loving friendship we weren’t likely to find anyplace else.
That need may appear to cast the value of marriage as something very minimal. It might even appear to be a weakness.
But at this point in my life I recognize what it really is: a genuine gift.
May that gift be shared more widely.
Here’s the link to John Allen’s parsing of the Pope’s gambit on Crux…
Writing on Life Site News, religion journalist Lisa Bourne stresses how Pope Francis has…
“reaffirmed that as far as God and the Church are concerned, divorce and remarriage is never an option ….” and should therefore “make the much speculated-upon issue of a proposal to allow Holy Communion for divorced and civilly remarried Catholics a dead issue at the forthcoming October Synod.”
She adds an important caveat, however, which is…
“provided the Holy Father’s remarks are heeded…”
New York Times religion writer Ross Douthat notes how deeply Church divisions run on questions related to sex and marriage, and suggests that the Francis is actually fanning the fires, wishing to promote…
“a big internal argument over marriage and communion”.
Douthat is convinced that neither the Pope’s changes in annulment procedures nor the Synod debates will…
“actually settle anything for the church. Instead, it would harden the church’s existing divisions, with increasingly divergent Catholicisms in different parishes, dioceses, and countries.”
Well, we’ll see…
Psychologist Diane Medved (wife of film critic and talk show host Michael Medved) has studied the destructive effects of divorce, cataloguing them in her book, The Case Against Divorce (Ivy Books, 1989). Reflecting on her clinical experience, she noted in a 2013 USA Today guest column that kids are the primary victims of family breakdown…
“Children, who never have a say in their parents’ parting, become collateral damage and dismissed with the dubious phrase ‘kids are resilient.’
Read her observations at…