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Divorce & Remarriage

The issue of whether or not a way can be found to re-admit those who are divorced and remarried to the eucharistic table will be one of the thorniest issues at the twin Synods on the Family. On the one hand, it will take some rather exquisite exegesis to get around “what God has joined, let no man put asunder.” On the other hand, for those Catholics who find themselves in this situation, with widely varying degrees of moral culpability for so finding themselves in this situation, the Church must have more to say than “too bad.”

The Holy Father has indicated that the first synod, this autumn, will focus on the “state of the question” and the synod in 2015 will ponder what pastoral initiatives are needed to address that question. This methodology is itself startling: One of the problems the Church has in communicating its teaching on marriage is that we pretend that we have all the answers, even on a subject like this one, in which the ministers of the Church who are articulating those answers have no direct experience of marriage and/or divorce. I do not believe that experience ever trumps competing intellectual, moral, and doctrinal claims, but in our day, this want of experience is viewed with suspicion. This must be acknowledged and the decision to spend an entire synod focusing first one what the reality of family life is, this is a welcome effort to keep the Church’s teachings for sounding impossibly detached from reality.

The theological and canonical issues are enormously complicated, to be sure. I do worry that some people think the Church can do whatever it wants, change this or that as the perceived needs of the people require, manufacture a solution. This misunderstands both marriage and the Church, and the misunderstanding is located precisely at what I perceive is a core problem: How does grace operate? The Church can only be truly the Church if it acts “in full obedience to the Lord” as we sing in the hymn, “The Church of Christ in Every Age.” If we do not believe that, if we think we can do whatever we want, regardless of what the tradition instructs about what God wants, we are truly lost.

But, it seems to me, so many people in our culture really are lost when it comes to marriage. We expect a couple to pledge themselves to each other forever. But, we can’t see forever. We can’t touch it or taste it. We know there is a forever only through grace and only in grace can we perceive the demands and the promise of forever. We ask the couple to respond to their vows with the words “I do” but for how many people is that “I” a conflicted, crimped, consumer-trained, educationally deprived, sociologically challenged I. And, if you have ever looked at the bridal section of a large magazine rack, you will know there is a whole marriage industry that frets far more about the appropriate floral displays at the reception than about the action of divine grace upon a couple in a sacrament.

Here, I think, is the starting point. Marriage is a sacrament. Sacraments are, first and foremost, a sign of God’s fidelity, not ours. Cardinal Walter Kasper spoke beautifully about this in his address to the College of Cardinals in February. “Jesus’ good news is that the covenant, which the spouses establish, is embraced and borne by God’s covenant, which continues to exist even when the fragile human bond of love becomes weaker or even dies.” There was a time when the human bond was not so fragile, when the ambient culture considered divorce a thing to be avoided at virtually all costs. I suspect much human misery was entailed. But, in our time, the fragile human bond receives very little support and for a generation, my generation, the Church did a pretty lousy job of instructing those preparing for marriage in the sacramental significance of what they were about to do. Marriage preparation courses have diminished that lack of instruction, but a married couple will still venture into a culture that does little to cultivate the value of delayed gratification, let alone the idea of lifelong fidelity.

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There are those who wonder why we Roman Catholics cannot simply embrace the practice of the Eastern Orthodox, who do not confer a second sacramental marriage, but, cognizant of God’s enduring mercy, will bless a second union, in a rite that is deeply penitential. First, the caveat: We have not been able to agree with the Orthodox about the date for Easter, so thinking there will be some miraculous coming together of hearts on minds on the theology of the sacrament of marriage is a bit naïve. The Eastern Orthodox resist the legalistic approach of the West to the issue. For example, when we RCs talk about a sacrament being valid but illicit, they roll their eyes. And, the validity of the sacrament of marriage for the Orthodox has to do with the priest who administers the sacrament, not the consent of the couple. There is no real annulment process in the Orthodox Church. So, the idea that we can just mimic what they do is unrealistic at best.

Yet, two things about the Orthodox approach warrant our attention. First, their tradition is apostolic, which suggests that our human understanding of the jure divino need not be as univocal as we Romans tend to like it to be. Second, the Orthodox practice permits a person to recognize the sense of moral failure where it belongs, on the failure of the first marriage. In our Roman tradition, we do not bar a person from Communion at the time of divorce but at the time when that person is filled with hope, beginning a new life with another, and seeking to regularize that united life before the law and before God. It is then that we say, “Sorry, no more communion.” I understand the theology and the canons on this point, but experientially, that is to say pastorally, the focus is off.

Cardinal Kasper recognized that experience is not a trump card. “Because marriage as a sacrament has a public character, the decision about the validity of a marriage cannot simply be left to the subjective judgment of the parties concerned,” he said. “However, one can ask whether the juridical path, which is in fact not jure divino, but has developed in the course of history, can be the only path to the resolution of the problem, or whether other, more pastoral and spiritual procedures are conceivable.” We have noted previously that in this pontificate, it appears that moral theology will be seen as an extension of pastoral theology, and not the other way round, and this is a very good thing. Put differently, our understanding of the sacrament of marriage and the reality of divorce must not be seen as something beyond God’s mercy.  

Indeed, the Holy Father seems to be thinking along the same lines as Kasper, as seen from his homily on Monday morning. Preaching on the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, Francis said: “Jesus goes beyond the law. He does not say: ‘adultery is not a sin!’ But he does not condemn it according to law.” This – the Pope said – “is the mystery of mercy. It is the mystery of the mercy of Jesus.”  And, later on, the Holy Father applied this lesson:

We look at the sky, there are many, many stars; but when the sun rises in the morning, the light is such that we can’t see the stars. God’s mercy is like that: a great light of love and tenderness. God forgives us, not with a decree, but with his love, healing the wounds of sin. Because He is involved in forgiveness, He is involved in our salvation. So when Jesus acts as confessor to the woman he does not humiliate her, he does not say: ‘What have you done? When did you do it? How did you do it? With whom did you do it?’ No! He says: ‘Go and do not sin again!’ God’s mercy is great, Jesus’s mercy is great. Forgive us and heal us!

The phrase, “God forgives us, not with a decree, but with his love” points to what has been missing in so much of the discussion about divorce and remarriage, and about other issues on which we humans continually fall short of what the moral law demands. The legalistic approach to pastoral theology carries within it that neo-pelagianism the pope has warned us against, the idea that we can earn our way to salvation by being good little boys and girls. It is not only patronizing, it does not cohere with the Gospel.

These twin synods on the family will have their work cut out for themselves. There are no easy answers to these complicated issues. Various news reports indicate that some cardinals did not welcome Cardinal Kasper’s comments. But, he is on to something, and at its core, that something is this: The abstractions of the moral law, however valuable they may be, must be put at the service of the pastoral ministry of the Church, and that ministry is first and foremost a ministry of mercy. Jesus “goes beyond the law” as the Holy Father said and his followers must be willing to do the same. We do not go beyond to law to achieve a libertine disdain for the moral law. We go beyond it in search of God’s mercy.  

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