In a highly publicised article published in L'Osservatore Romano Oct. 22, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, wrote extensively about the Church's teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics.
Entitled 'The Power of Grace', the article was an in-depth reaffirmation of the Church's teaching, but it also underlined the imperative to show pastoral concern to those who find themselves in these irregular situations. The full text of the article can be read here.
To gain an expert reflection on the significance of the article, I spoke with Father Luis Navarro, dean of the canon law faculty at the Pontifical Univiersity of the Holy Cross in Rome.
Professor Navarro, what is your reaction to Archbishop Mueller’s article?
It’s a very interesting article in that it has a very good summary of the doctrine of the Church from different points of view: anthropological, scriptural, moral and, in a certain sense, also from the canon law perspective. It discusses marriage and why it is indissoluble, why you cannot break it. It remind us that the marriage bond is indissoluble which is extremely important, especially in our time. The key for any pastoral solution is there: it has to respect the truth of the marriage bond.
All the media tries to find something special, something new, that may allow all those in an irregular situation to receive Communion. But this won’t happen. The idea of the Pope is to have a very pastoral approach to everybody, including those who are in the Church. But this is quite different to allow everybody to receive Communion. What can the Church do to help those people get closer to God? This is the concern. They first need to have explained to them what marriage is and why the bond cannot be broken. This is fundamental and this is what Archbishop Mueller has done with this article.
Some media reports have suggested it might signify a relaxation in the process of annulments, as Archbishop Mueller talks about difficulties of being married in an increasingly secular world. How true is this?
We have to be very realistic in the sense that we should look at the truth about marriage and the truth of every single marriage, the truth about what has happened in each case.
I agree some, or even many, marriages are truly null and therefore should be declared null. But what we cannot accept is to declare null a valid marriage. During the last century there was a deeper understanding of marriage and this is reflected in the 1983 Code of Canon Law: there is not only a better understanding of marriage as such, of the marriage consent, but also of the grounds of nullity. Some marriages are null but others are not. The nullity has to be proven. In some cases this won’t be possible, because the marriage is valid. Therefore the spouses, if they divorce, cannot get married again in the Church, because they are already married. Does it mean that these person are forced to be unhappy for the rest of their lives?
In our society many people think the most fundamental right is be happy, happiness is the goal of everyone, but we often forget that happiness is not found on this earth. Real and definitive happiness comes after death: in Heaven is where we find real and true happiness. And this is to be recalled by everybody, including those who are divorced. All of us we need to have a better understanding of this.
So does this article put a definitive end to speculation of changes?
The article is recalling the teaching of the Church, taking into account that any discussion and any solution in order to help people has to be based on this truth. We cannot change because the teaching cannot be changed – it is what God has done. Archbishop Mueller rightly underlines that the sacrament of marriage has a very strong value, because it is an image of the unity between God and the Church, and this unity cannot be broken. In a similar way, the unity between a man and a woman in marriage cannot be broken.
This is the sense of this article: to recall what is the essential content and perhaps to say: “We can move and make changes but only within the framework of this doctrine.” We can develop a more pastoral approach in caring for divorced and remarried Catholics. Perhaps we can find other ways and do more in order to make them aware that they are members of the Church, and to experience the love of God in their lives. The framework in which to do this is shown in this article.
We can get closer to these members of the Church. The model is Christ and He is close to everyone, independently of all the mistakes, errors or sins a person may have committed. God is close to him or her, and God will not reject anybody if they repent. But God’s ways are not our ways sometimes. The truth of marriage can be considered as a burden on those in an irregular situation. Our Lord sees beyond the immediate situation of a married and divorced person: their suffering has a deep sense, as it had in the life of Jesus. The reasoning of our Lord is, well, you will suffer now but you will be in heaven later on. To better understand this, prayer is needed. Sometimes we forget all of this.
What other reflections do you have?
People also need to pray for the future synod which has to handle all these issues and give some pastoral guidelines.
From a canon law perspective, there can be a very practical contribution: to speed up the process of declarations of nullity. This can be done. It is the responsibility of marriage tribunals to process, in a smoother way, evidence of the validity or invalidity of the marriage. To reduce the length of the process so that spouses can know in a shorter time if their marriage was null and if it was, proceed to a second wedding, would be a great service. It is not only an issue of procedure but it depends also on how many people work in tribunals. Some tribunals lack personnel and cannot handle pending cases in a short time.
Canon law and also canon lawyers working in tribunals are at the service of truth. Any improvement in order to serve better the people of God is welcome. But the improvement cannot go against the truth. I cannot deny the truth about marriage, as I cannot pretend that a baby does not exist because I just cancelled his registration from the register. He is there even if some papers say he does not exist.