Marriage, Divorce, & Communion: The Upcoming Synod of Bishops

Sep 25th, 2014 | By | Category: Radio

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Listeners to CTC Radio often ask about the Catholic teaching on marriage, divorce, and communion in the Catholic Church. With them in mind, I have attached a brief article I wrote for One Voice, the newspaper for the diocese of Birmingham.

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    Here is the Article:

There will be an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops in October to discuss “pastoral challenges of the family in the context of evangelization.” No doubt the synod will discuss many issues, but none has garnered more media attention than the status of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. In particular, the media have focused on the question of their eligibility to receive communion. Cardinal Walter Kasper encouraged speculation about a change in the Church’s discipline by asking a consistory of cardinals in February whether or not the Church should continue to refuse communion to civilly divorced and remarried Catholics. As the synod approaches, it seems appropriate to reflect on what the Church can and cannot change about her doctrine and discipline.

What is the rationale for barring the civilly divorced and remarried from Holy Communion? The answer to this requires an understanding of Christian marriage. According to the teaching of Christ and the Catholic faith, Christian marriage is by definition a lifelong union, effected by a promise of fidelity and the intent to raise a family, elevated by Christ to the dignity of a sacrament. It is always indissoluble under any and all circumstances.

To understand the current discussion, the key point to emphasize is the indissolubility of a valid Christian marriage. The Catechism states:

Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God’s fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom. (CCC 1640)

The Church has no power to change this teaching, because it is the teaching of Christ. (Matthew 19:11-12) This is something the non-Catholic media often misunderstand. The Church’s dogma on marriage is not a “policy” that can be changed, any more than the Nicene Creed is a “policy.” In this regard, the Church’s Magisterium is a servant of the truth, not its master. The Catechism says, “Yet this Magisterium is not superior to the Word of God, but is its servant. It teaches only what has been handed on to it.” (CCC 86)

Because marriage is indissoluble, a validly married Catholic who obtains a civil divorce from a judge and then contracts another civil marriage is objectively in the state of ongoing adultery. Jesus said, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.” (Mark 10:11-12) Again, following the teaching of Christ and the words of Sacred Scripture, the Church has no choice but to withhold communion from those deemed to be in grave sin. (1 Corinthians 5:5; 1 Corinthians 11:27-29; Matthew 18: 17)

Some have asked whether or not a person could “repent” for a failed first marriage, receive the sacraments of reconciliation, and then be admitted to communion while remaining in an invalid second marriage (i.e., a relationship the Church deems adulterous). This proposal fails to take into account the doctrine on Christian marriage and the doctrine on reconciliation and penance. By definition, there is no forgiveness of sins and no reconciliation as long as one intends to persist in grave sin. St. John Paul II explains, “Without a sincere and firm purpose of amendment, sins remain ‘unforgiven,’ in the words of Jesus, and with him in the Tradition of the Old and New Covenants.” (Dominum et Vivificantem) If a valid marriage exists, all subsequent unions are adulterous by definition. “Repentance,” in this context, must mean repentance for the subsequent union, whatever else may be involved.

The Church does recognize some situations in which reconciliation with a spouse is impossible and in which subsequent civil unions have resulted in children being born. In these cases, the Church sometimes permits the parents in these unions to remain together for the sake of the children, provided they agree to live as brother and sister. This is not a tacit recognition of the subsequent marriage, but rather an unusual and, quite frankly, difficult concession that Catholics must make for the sake of children.

What then could the Church change? Theoretically, some change is possible to the process by which Catholics obtain annulments. It is highly unlikely, however, that such changes could dispense with canonical expertise or judicial process, since the declaration of nullity is a finding of juridical fact and requires moral certainty on the part of the judge. The most likely outcome to the Synod is a deepening pastoral emphasis on the means and the virtue of chastity, and a renewed catechesis on the meaning of Christian marriage. A good deal of ink has been spilled on this topic and I fear that many people may have unfulfilled expectations for what the Church can and will do. Let us remember the Bishops and the Holy Father in our prayers, and ask that they have wisdom and grace to communicate the Church’s teaching with compassion and clarity.

12 comments
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  1. Dr. Anders,
    Are you suggesting that if the Synod does in fact change the current stance on marriage into something like what Cardinal Kasper prepared (to the applause of Pope Francis and the current support of near every German Bishop) that the gates of Hades will have prevailed and the Church will have officially taught error? I just want to understand what exactly is on the line

  2. Hi Kenneth,

    Obviously, I don’t know precisely what the synod will do but I do know that the Synod will not change Catholic dogma. Nor are any organs of infallibility (Pope/Ecumenical Council) going to suddenly approve an Arian Creed, or a Zwinglian doctrine of the Eucharist. Nor are they going to deny the indissolubility of marriage. It is theoretically possible (however unlikely) for a majority of bishops at any one time to defect from some article of Catholic faith, as they did on semi-arianism during the blasphemy of Sirmium. But it not possible for the magisterium in its organs of infallibility to teach error. It is also possible, however, for the magisterium to fail to condemn error as clearly as prudence and justice would demand, as Honorious failed to do during the monothelite controversy. But in none of these cases did the gates of hell prevail.

    -David

  3. Dr. Anders,

    I understand that, theologically speaking, we believe that there can be no contradiction. I guess what I am asking is:

    1. What authority can/do “synods” like this carry? i.e. will the Church be exercising an organ of infallibility?

    2. In your opinion, is Cardinal Kaspers proposed “solution” impossible for the Church to implement? That is to say, if the liberal cardinals win the day, will this in your eyes be enough to disprove Catholic claims of infallibility?

  4. Kenneth,

    The upcoming Synod is not an ecumenical council and will define no dogma of the faith.
    I don’t know what “winning the day” would look like in this context. What if Bishops get the right (responsibility) of deciding annulments? This is something “the left” wants very badly. Would that be a threat to the dogma of infallibility? Not at all, but it would be a really bad idea for reasons Ed Peters has explained.

  5. Hi David,

    As someone who has many divorced and remarried Protestants in my family – one thing I don’t understand – why are witnesses needed to determine invalidity of wedding vows?

    It seems that the testimony of the man or the woman would be sufficient, in many cases, to attest to conditions about their vows that may have been known only to them. Protestants today (who might be considering full communion with the Church) cannot be expected to know that “openness to life” is a requirement of Christian marriage, or that marriages are indissoluble. Protestants simply aren’t taught these conditions. But who would know other than the participants what they believed or thought about marriage when they professed their vows? How can a witness know what someone else was thinking?

    In addition, it seems the current process is inconsistent with the process for reconciling other issues with the Church. For instance, if I commit a sin which warrants reconciliation, I confess that sin to a priest, promise to do penance, and attempt to sin no more. The priest takes the penitent at his word in granting reconciliation.

    If people are going to lie to the Church, then they’re going to lie to the Church. I can see that requiring a witness would make it more difficult to lie, but a witness can only know so much about how someone understood the vows they were making.

  6. Jonathan (#5)

    As someone who has many divorced and remarried Protestants in my family – one thing I don’t understand – why are witnesses needed to determine invalidity of wedding vows?…it seems the current process is inconsistent with the process for reconciling other issues with the Church.

    The reason, as I understand it, is that a decree of nullity is not a matter of reconciliation. It is a matter of justice.

    A person applying for a decree of nullity has an interest in that decree being made. His putative spouse, on the other hand, may have the opposite interest. The possibility of false witness is clear. Even if the couple are agreed, the marriage, if it is real, is not something that belongs to them, although it required their assent to create it.

    To be sure, witnesses may not be found, or may not be knowledgeable. But the Church, it seems to me, is required to do its best to determine the truth of the matter, not merely the will of the parties.

    jj

  7. The reason, as I understand it, is that a decree of nullity is not a matter of reconciliation. It is a matter of justice.

    Thanks JJ – that makes sense, because what is being asked for is a determination of validity.

    I can understand requiring some witness to the vows that were made. And if that was all that needed to be determined, then that would be great. But what actually needs to be determined is private knowledge – the understanding of the vows held at the time of the wedding. (Is my understanding about this correct? Is it just what was promised that determines validity, or is the essential thing what was the understanding of those promises – the conditions placed in private?)

    In other words:

    1. Is it just to require a public witness to something which is inherently private knowledge?
    2. Is it just to disqualify evidence that against the validity of a marriage because of a mere possibility that the evidence was false? Wouldn’t it be more just to assume truthfulness if that truthfulness isn’t questioned?

  8. Jonathan (#7

    But what actually needs to be determined is private knowledge – the understanding of the vows held at the time of the wedding. (Is my understanding about this correct? Is it just what was promised that determines validity, or is the essential thing what was the understanding of those promises – the conditions placed in private?)

    Exactly right – and I am here a personal testifier. I myself am the recipient of a decree of nullity. I was married in 1962, at a couple of weeks short of age 20. My wife left me six years later (with our one daughter, who is now 51). I had had no religious upbringing of any sort. In 1962, if you wanted to live with a woman, you got married. One didn’t think about marriage; it was just the thing one did if one had any idea of living a normal life in a normal world.

    In 1970 – partly as a result of my divorce, which shattered me – I became a Christian (“street Christian” context). Over the ensuing 25 years I had to learn about Christianity for myself. In 1993 I had the horrifying experience of thinking that the Catholic faith might be true.

    At the beginning of 1995 I and my (second) wife approached our local Catholic parish about becoming Catholics. I already knew what the story was about second marriages. My wife and I had to face the fact that my first marriage (she had not been married before) might be valid. In that case, perhaps the Church would allow us to live together ‘as brother and sister’ – we still had our four children at home.

    I had been married the first time in San Francisco. It was the San Francisco diocesan marriage tribunal that had to consider my case. Because we live in Auckland, a sister in the Auckland diocesan tribunal interviewed me.

    She wanted information about contacting my first wife. I said that I didn’t know how to contact her; that she had stopped writing to me years before, and that letters I had sent had been returned, addressee unknown. She said she was sure they would be able to contact her. I don’t know if they ever did.

    But in addition she wanted to know my understanding of marriage at the time of our marriage. I told her what I have said above: that I wanted to live with this woman and no other way ever occurred to me but marriage. Did I intend exclusivity? I must not have done, since my only concern at adulterous behaviour was that she might catch me. Did I intend lifelong commitment? I had never thought of the matter.

    My decree – which came (by a real old-fashioned printed telex!) on 23 December, 1995, the day before we were received into the Church – was based on the well-known ‘lack of due discretion’ – essentially, young ignoramus that I was at not-quite-20, I had no business being married.

    ‘Lack of due discretion’ is, I think, a matter of concern for us all. It is, surely, susceptible of very subjective judgements. But I have heard it said that the reason more and more null marriages are quite accurately due to that for the simple reason that as a culture we are more and more unable to understand what marriage actually is.

    I have gone on at some length here about my own case because it seems to illustrate the sort of situation you are concerned about. In my case, there were not, so far as I know, any witnesses to consult. At least I certainly had no idea how to contact my first wife, my best man, her bridesmaid, anyone who knew us at the time. But I would say regarding this;

    Is it just to disqualify evidence that against the validity of a marriage because of a mere possibility that the evidence was false? Wouldn’t it be more just to assume truthfulness if that truthfulness isn’t questioned?

    I suppose I would say that the situation here is like that in any trial. Protection of the innocent is paramount. The Church views the marriage bond as something to be defended. I would think that you would want evidence that removed ‘reasonable doubt’ as to the invalidity of the marriage. IOW it’s not that party or parties who want out of the marriage who should be given the benefit of the doubt; it’s the marriage itself that is to be defended. Unless there is strong reason to doubt its validity, it should be presumed valid.

    In my case, supposing my best man had been callable as a witness. Suppose he had said that, on the contrary, his understanding of my intention had been that of the Church. It might be me who was trying to get out of my marriage. Perhaps my first wife also wanted the marriage to be shown to be valid. Wouldn’t witnesses to my intent be quite relevant?

    That is, I repeat, my understanding of the Church’s POV on the matter. I wish there were a specialist in marriage jurisprudence available to comment on it. But that is my belief. The marriage bond is the thing being defended, not the right of persons to remarry. Witnesses to intent can be just as relevant as witnesses to material fact.

    jj

  9. Hi JJ,

    I have gone on at some length here about my own case because it seems to illustrate the sort of situation you are concerned about. In my case, there were not, so far as I know, any witnesses to consult.

    Thanks a lot for this. You addressed the exact concern I had about the process. The process seems difficult from the outside. But I was judging the process without actually having experienced it.

    […] it’s the marriage itself that is to be defended.

    Got it – and that’s important.

    Thanks, and Happy Feast of St. Therese !
    Jonathan

  10. This whole thing of Cardinal Kaspers proposal scares me. Being a child that comes from a broken Catholic marriage, and a husband of a Catholic marriage, I find the proposal just wrong. My Parents both understood and understand the bond they made when they decided to get married. Although I believe that my mother understands it more than my father. I myself completely understand the bond I made to my wife. To make it easier for couples to have a marriage annulled, I believe would lead to more divorces. If one wants to reconcile with God of a broken marriage then one can reconcile with their husband or wife. I pray that our Pope and our Bishops make the right decision in this matter.

  11. Dr Anders,

    I think Chris and Kenneth’s worst fears have apparently been actualized. What is your honest opinion of the document from the Synod on Marriage released today?

  12. Steve (re:#11),

    I am interested to hear Dr. Anders’ thoughts on the document from the Synod too, but ultimately, regardless of what he or I or you think of the document, the truth is, according to the Secretariat of the Synod himself, it is only a “working” document. It has no official bearing on any Catholic.

    This article gives some crucial insight into the Synod process. It also speaks of the consternation of many archbishops over how the secular media is (inaccurately) reporting about the Synod: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/synod-secretariat-relatio-is-a-working-document-only/

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