At some point in the media’s ongoing coverage of Pope Francis, one would assume they would start to get a clue about how Catholicism works.
So far, one would be mostly wrong in doing so–especially as regards the Catholic view of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony.
For example, here are some recent headlines: from the Huffington Post, “Vatican Halts Catholic Remarriage Debate: Annulment Still Required for Divorced Couples to Receive Communion”; from Religion News, “3 Ways the Vatican Could Allow Divorced Catholics Back to Communion”; and from the U.K. Guardian, “Pope Francis’ Quiet Campaign to Rethink Divorce in the Catholic Church.”
The content of these stories is not all bad (actually, the Guardian story is moving and interesting), but the headlines are a mess.
In short, here’s the issue. When a Catholic engages in a valid sacramental marriage (which can even apply to someone married by non-Catholic clergy), the Church considers that marriage to be indissoluble except by the death of one of the spouses.
A civil divorce is a legal matter (belonging to Caesar, not God), so while it may create a separation under law, it does nothing to affect the sacramental marriage (click here for a detailed discussion of Church law regarding the subjects of divorce and remarriage), which is based on an understanding of matrimony that came from Christ Himself. Also, just getting a civil divorce is not considered a sin and does not bar the Catholic from the Sacraments.
But, when a divorced Catholic with a living spouse remarries (or a Catholic seeks to marry a divorced non-Catholic who had a valid sacramental marriage in another Christian denomination), without seeking a Church annulment first, that’s considered adultery.
Anyone committing a mortal sin like adultery is barred from receiving communion until they repent, confess, receive absolution and cease engaging in the sin (the advice Christ gave to the woman caught in adultery after he headed off her death by stoning).
There have been cases where a Catholic couple, upon being told that their marriage is invalid because one of the individuals is still sacramentally married to another, have chosen to live together in chastity (no sex) until the situation can be resolved one way or the other. In the meantime, they can take advantage of confession and return to full participation in the Sacraments. Yes, it happens. Often? No, but it happens.
So, to the Huffington Post: There wasn’t a debate; there was a proposal floated by problematic retired Cardinal Kasper from Germany (where doctrinal adherence by clergy has been a problem), and then leaked to the media (and now in book form), which was quickly rejected. And there was no indication from the pontiff that that the proposal would have any effect on Church practice.
Speaking to Raymond Arroyo on March 20 on his EWTN news show “The World Over,” American Cardinal Raymond Burke, prefect for the Apostolic Signatura (the highest legal authority in the Church short of the pope), explained:
The pope) stated to us, when we had our plenary meeting of the Apostolic Signatura…he met with us at the end of it, gave us an audience, made very clear the Church’s teaching on marriage and the indissolubility of marriage, the importance of the work of the Church’s tribunals to uphold the sanctity of marriage by giving just settlements (in annulment petitions) where a couple or one party wants to dissolve a marriage.
Specifically regarding Cardinal Kasper’s proposal, Cardinal Burke said:
There are many difficulties with the text of Cardinal Kasper. I say that openly, and I have said it, and I trust that in coming days, as that text is becoming more and more used, and is becoming kind of a rallying point for people who falsely believe that the Church’s practice in this regard could change, I trust that the error of his approach will become ever clearer.
To Religion News (which should know better): Being civilly divorced is not an impediment to a Catholic receiving the Eucharist but subsequently remarrying without an annulment or the death of the first spouse is, because Catholic doctrine considers that adultery.
And to the U.K. Guardian: Again, civil divorce isn’t the issue, it’s remarriage, and that’s still adultery. Cardinal Kasper did put forward the notion of a “penitential process”–similar to a practice of the Orthodox Churches–conducted by a local pastor, after which a divorced and remarried Catholic could be re-admitted to the Sacraments.
Said Cardinal Burke:
In my estimation as a canonist (an expert in Church law), I don’t think it’s possible. It’s creating a great deal of potential dissolution, to give people the idea that we can uphold the truth about marriage–and here we’re not talking about truth that has developed over time; we’re talking about the very words of Christ Himself in the Gospel, in which he taught, and no one contests, he taught the indissolubility of marriage.
You cannot uphold that teaching and, at the same time, engage in a practice where you say to individuals, ‘Yes, your marriage was indissoluble, but you, in some way … it’s shipwrecked; it’s broken. You’re now living with another person who, to use hard words, is not your husband or your wife.’ Until and unless there’s a declaration by the Church that the marriage was indeed not a true marriage, how can you say to that person, ‘You have access to the Sacraments’ and so forth?
We’re talking about fundamentally someone who is living in a state contradictory to one of the most fundamental teachings of the Faith.
For instance, on this question of what he calls the ‘penitential way,’ which is taken from the Orthodox, is very problematic, even for them. The whole sense of it is very different from the idea of truly a second marriage, which even they recognize can’t possibly be. This is a contradiction to our life in Christ.
There are those who argue it’s cruel and merciless to force divorced Catholics who remarry without first seeking an annulment to live with the consequences of their choices and remain barred from the Sacraments (and if they’re seeking the Sacraments, one assumes they’re Catholic enough to have realized that, regardless of the state of the first marriage, the second was illicit).
But Cardinal Burke doesn’t feel that concocting fictions is the answer to this pastoral problem, saying:
The mercy is to understand the situation of those who are in a situation where they’re divorced and remarried, to welcome them in the Church to the degree that they’re able to live that life in the Church, try to help them lead the best possible life they can. That’s the mercy–but not tell them something that’s not true, namely, that you can enter another marriage. This just doesn’t work.
So, what does work? The Church offers a remedy to divorced Catholics–an annulment. Now, annulment doesn’t mean that a valid first marriage is dissolved; it means that one never existed (which, by the way, does NOT make children of the union illegitimate).
Marriage vows aren’t considered to be magic formulas that work if you just say the right words. They’re only meaningful if the person is free to marry, makes a free choice to marry, makes promises with the full intent to keep them, and is in a correct frame of mind.
The Church also realizes that the often inadequate catechesis (religious instruction) of the past few decades, even for those who attended Catholic schools, results in people entering sacramental marriage with a deficient understanding of the concept and implications.
Writes John T. Catoir, who has a doctorate in canon law and has worked on annulment tribunals:
An ecclesiastical annulment is a declaration by the Church that a marriage which was thought to be valid was not legally binding. This might be because of some defect in the consent given on the day of the wedding, or possibly a defect in the psychological capacity of one of the parties.
When an annulment is granted, the Church is not saying that there never was a marriage. The union certainly was a sociological fact, and the memory of it may even be cherished, but the legal contract on which it was based turned out to be invalid.
Depending on the diocese and the tribunal involved, the annulment process can be long and involved, and it cannot begin until after a civil divorce is granted.
So while Church teaching on the indissolubility of a valid sacramental marriage cannot change, there may be a reform of the annulment process to recognize the realities under which many of today’s marriages were contracted. This is no guarantee that everyone who seeks an annulment will get one, but many people may have grounds for one and not realize it.
Interestingly, according to the Boston Globe‘s John L. Allen, Jr., African bishops dealing with traditionally polygamous cultures are joining the chorus reasserting Catholic teaching that a valid sacramental marriage is indissoluble and that second (or third, etc.) simultaneous marriages are not possible.
After all, the Catholic Church is a worldwide entity, with consistent doctrines across national, ethnic, and cultural borders. What might make life easier for Americans or Western Europeans could make things much more difficult for the Church in the rest of the world. U.S. Catholics may not bother to think about that, but be certain the pope does.
All this will be discussed in October in Rome at the Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme of “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelization.”
But those expecting big doctrinal shifts will be disappointed.
Said Italian Archbishop Bruno Forte in a piece on the Synod at Catholic Online, the effort to address contemporary family life “is not, therefore, a matter of debating doctrinal questions, which have in any case been clarified by the Magisterium recently. The invitation deriving from this is for all the Church is to listen to the problems and expectations of many families today, manifesting Her closeness and credibly proposing God’s mercy and the beauty of responding to His call.”
Either way, according to Italian Cardinal Carlo Caffara, not even the Holy Father can change what the Church’s founder handed down. The Church may conduct the ceremony of Holy Matrimony, but it is God that joins the couple together.
Those who make these suggestions have not, at least up until now, answered one simple question: what happens to the first valid and consummated marriage? If the Church admits them to the Eucharist, She must render a judgment on the legitimacy of the second marriage. It’s logical. But, as I said, what about the first marriage?
The second marriage, if we can call it that, cannot be a true second marriage, because bigamy is against the teaching of Christ. So the first marriage, is it dissolved? But all the popes have always taught that the pope has no authority over this. The pope does not have the power to dissolve a valid and consummated marriage.