THE FIGHT OVER MARRIAGE
IS CAUSING SERIOUS WOUNDS
Election hubbub and subsequent sneaky attempts to undo its results may have distracted you from the shootout that’s going on throughout the Catholic Church over the question of divorce / remarriage / communion. In case you’re not fully conversant with this issue…
The Church has always held that marriage is indissoluble. That is to say, once married always married, unless one or the other spouse dies.
This is based on a statement of Jesus in Matthew 19, where the Lord speaks against divorce…
“I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
And so, the Catholic understanding of marriage would seem to be simple and unambiguous. Except that it’s not.
The Church recognizes the possibility that a marriage may have been invalid from the start. It can declare that bond nullified, clearing the way for a valid remarriage. And when an annulment is granted, no obstacle exists for full participation in the Church’s sacramental life (meaning you can take Communion).
This recognizes, quite humanely, that things aren’t always as we assume them to be. For instance, Canon Law (1101, sec. 2) specifies that a marriage is invalid if…
“You or your spouse married intending, either explicitly or implicitly, to deny the other’s right to sexual acts open to procreation.”
In other words, one prospective spouse may have been holding something back, or the other may not have been paying attention.
There are plenty of other circumstances that can invalidate a marriage as well. But the Church’s flexibility in granting annulments has created all kinds of problems throughout history. Refusal of an annulment to Henry VIII was a key factor in the Protestant Reformation. On the other hand, plenty of prominent figures have received annulments of marriages that lasted years and were highly visible (certain Kennedys come to mind).
Today, there is a wide disparity in the evaluation of annulment criteria from diocese to diocese. Consequently, annulment is often (not altogether unjustly) dismissed as “Catholic divorce.”
Within the last couple of years, the Church has held two synods of bishops examining the annulment situation (along with other family-related matters). And last spring Pope Francis issued a follow-up commentary — what’s termed an “apostolic exhortation” — titled Amoris Laetitia (“The Joy of Love”).
Not to put too fine a point on things, all hell has broken loose.
The dispute centers on a passage in which the Pope observed that receiving Eucharist (Communion) could be beneficial to some couples in irregular marriages (that is, remarried without nullification of previous bonds) but unable to separate for the sake of the kids.
Francis reasoned that, even though their living arrangement is objectively sinful, extenuating circumstances might keep the partners from being subjectively culpable of their sin. And he opened the door to broad pastoral discretion in permitting couples in such situations to partake of the sacraments.
This suggests a departure from the Church’s previous (and long-standing) doctrinal position.
Writing on the blog portal, Patheos, Catholic apologist Scott Eric Alt pointed out that in an earlier exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (1981), Pope St. John Paul II instructed that such couples should receive Eucharist only if they “agree to abstain from sexual union,” and so would no longer be in an objective situation of sin.
As one might imagine, this is not a popular option.
There is fear that the door has actually been opened to unrestricted divorce and remarriage. A side door, no doubt — Francis isn’t saying that doctrine should be changed. But broadening pastoral discretion makes it difficult to specify under which circumstances someone could be denied the sacraments, whatever their marital situation.
It isn’t that people wish to perpetuate unhappy marriages or create impenetrable obstacles to full sacramental life. What worries them is the possibility of Catholicism going they way of some Protestant denominations that have gotten a bit soft on traditional moral norms.
It’s argued that there’s a direct link between acceptance of divorce and acceptance of every colorful variety of sexual immorality we see today. And arguing otherwise isn’t easy.
Writing for the online journal, The Catholic Thing, David Carlin, author of The Decline and Fall of the Catholic Church in America, makes the logical case…
“If you approve of bank robbery, you won’t be able to condemn the act of shoplifting candy bars from a convenience store…. If you approve of a greater evil, you can’t logically condemn lesser evils of the same genus….”
“…if you are a Catholic who approves of adultery, you cannot very well condemn contraception and fornication….
“Pope Francis seems to approve of what has hitherto been regarded by the Catholic Church as adultery. He asserts — or at least he certainly seems to assert — that in certain circumstances a divorced-and-remarried Catholic should be allowed to consider his/her second marriage a true marriage. In other words, this divorced and remarried Catholic should be free to have sinless sexual relations with his/her spouse and should be free to receive Communion.”
This is not some abstract intellectual debate. Rather, it’s stirring confusion right down to the grassroots parish level. That confusion is compounded when Amoris Laetitia is read in light of the Pope’s recent criticisms of rigidity among priests in dealing with moral questions.
Writing on Life Site News, Fr. Peter Mitchell, a priest of the Diocese of Green Bay, Wisconsin, has observed…
“According to the more ambivalent language of Amoris, a pastor is no longer able to explain to people simply that certain actions are mortal sins — as the Church has always taught — and that those who commit them need to repent and receive the Sacrament of Penance prior to receiving Holy Communion. Instead, I am now advised to exercise ‘pastoral discernment’ and recognize that ‘the consequences or effect of a rule need not necessarily always be the same’….
“It seems that those who wish to teach what is taught by the Catechism are now being condemned as divisive and lacking obedience to the Magisterium [the Church’s teaching authority]. Those who would dissent from the Catechism are now praised as being in union with the Magisterium and promoters of unity. Everything seems to have been turned upside down.”
Four cardinals (Caffarra, Burke, Brandmüller and Meisner) have submitted a request for clarification (as it’s called, a dubia), but the Pope has declined to respond. This has caused division in itself.
As reported by National Catholic Register, Kazakhstani Bishop Athanasius Schneider has called the four cardinals “a prophetic voice” in prodding the Pope for answers…
“The Four Cardinals only did their basic duty as bishops and cardinals, which consists in actively contributing so that the revelation transmitted through the Apostles might be guarded sacredly and might be faithfully interpreted.”
On the other hand, Catholic journalist and commentator Austen Ivereigh has charged that, by raising their questions in so public way as submitting an official dubia, the cardinals are promoting dissent…
“Most Catholics understand the synod, and Amoris Laetitia, as an inspired response to our times, a means both of rebuilding marriage and of helping to bandage those wounded by the failure of marriage.
“This is why Francis can no more respond to the cardinals’ dubia than Benedict XVI could answer a petition to ordain women as deacons: because the Catholic Church has its own mechanisms of development, based on consultation and spiritual discernment.”
Cardinal Burke, one of the four who submitted the dubia — and until recently patron of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — has suggested that Amoris Laetitia may actually represent “serious error” on the part of the Pope. In an interview with the Register, he raised the possibility of corrective action against Francis, explaining that…
“There is, in the Tradition of the Church, the practice of correction of the Roman Pontiff. It is something that is clearly quite rare. But if there is no response to these questions, then I would say that it would be a question of taking a formal act of correction of a serious error.”
It’s noteworthy that Cardinal Burke has been removed by Francis from his position with the Order of Malta.
Whose voice is the prophetic one here? The four cardinals’? The Pope’s? I admit to being as confused as the average Catholic layman.
And I’m grateful my wife and I are not directly effected. We were married in a non-Catholic church. But since neither of us had been wed before, there was no need for any annulments in order to have our marriage regularized.
The one situation that does seem clear to me is that of a divorced person who wasn’t Catholic, whose previous marriage was done civilly or in some other church, and who had no reason to think that Catholic doctrine would ever be an issue. As I wrote in a September 2015 blog post…
“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.”
Yes, I get that if a first marriage is deemed valid by the Church then it is valid and must be treated accordingly. But surely it could not have been entered into with understanding about “the nature of marriage,” which Canon Law stipulates is essential (Canon 1096, sec. 1) — not a Catholic understanding, anyway.
It seems to me a matter of both justice and mercy for the Church to protect those folks from falling into sin by pretty much automatically annulling such a non-Catholic first marriage. And yet I’ve known people who have struggled for annulments, often for years.
Maybe my view is too worldly. And if I’m wrong in holding it, I’d very much appreciate someone who’s knowledgeable explaining why. I’m just the guy in the next pew. I make no claim to expertise about Church doctrine.
I do see, however, that the marriage issue is tearing our Church apart and fracturing our unity as God’s people. One even hears suggestions of schism. That word has been used explicitly by those on both sides of the debate, including by one of the Pope’s staunchest defenders, Emeritus Bishop Fragkiskos Papamanolis, president of the Bishops’ Conference of Greece…
“This is indeed the way schisms begin in the Church.”
And he didn’t hold back from criticizing the four cardinals…
“It is clear from your document that, in practice, you do not believe in the Pope’s supreme magisterial authority, backed up by two Synods of Bishops coming from the whole world. Obviously, the Holy Spirit inspires only you and not the Vicar of Christ, nor even the Bishops gathered in Synod….”
As for those who are convinced that Francis is the Anti-Christ (or his agent) — well, they’re having a field day.
I realize that souls are at stake when people sin, either intentionally or blindly. And so the divorce / remarriage / communion question requires a definitive resolution.
At the same time, how many souls will be lost if this controversy persists, damaging the Faith and driving more people away from the Church?
Somehow we’ve got to get everyone who’s shooting it out at the Vatican corral to put down their guns.
…and to David Carlin’s argument on The Catholic Thing about why softening the Church’s line on divorce and remarriage could weaken moral objections to sexual sin in general…
Writing on Life Site News, that Green Bay priest, Fr. Peter Mitchell, captures the quandary in which many pastors find themselves these days trying to balance the Magisterium with the Catechism…
Edward Pentin, Rome correspondent for the National Catholic Register, reports on the strong support which Cardinal Burke and his three colleagues have received for their dubia asking Pope Francis for clarification of Amoris Laetitia…
Pentin also goes right to the horse’s mouth in an interview with Burke…
You can get your own impression of Amoris Laetitia and its implications by reading the full text on the Vatican website…