PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The dilemma of divorced-and-remarried Catholics should prompt consideration of changes in the Church’s approach to annulments and the Eucharist, but without compromising Church teaching, said Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, R.I.
“The challenge for the Church, of course, is how to maintain and proclaim the irrefutable teaching of our Lord Jesus that marriage entails a sacred and permanent bond between husband and wife, while also providing spiritual care for those Catholics who have fallen short of the ideal,” he said in a column written for the local diocesan paper, the Rhode Island Catholic.
“Although the teaching of Christ and his Church about the permanence of marriage is clear and undeniable, the lived reality is that many individuals, for a variety of reasons perhaps — personal, catechetical or cultural — are ill-equipped to fulfill the lofty demands of the law,” he said.
Next month, bishops the world over will meet with Pope Francis in Rome for a synod to discuss "The Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization."
Among the topics to be discussed is the issue of whether divorced-and-remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive the Eucharist, as well as the efficiency of the annulment process.
Church teaching holds that a second marriage cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. Therefore, divorced Catholics who remarry without obtaining an annulment are “in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law” and should not receive the Eucharist.
Pope Francis has called for the synod to examine a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the divorced and remarried, leading many to speculate on how the situation could be addressed.
In his column, Bishop Tobin pointed to the Gospel of Mark 2:23-28, in which the disciples were walking through a wheat field on the Sabbath and began eating grain because they were hungry, in violation of Jewish law. While the Pharisees condemned them, Jesus responds: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.”
“In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, Our Lord clearly placed it in a ‘pastoral context,’ exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment,” the bishop wrote.
“Could we not take a similar approach to marriage law today? Could we not say, by way of analogy, that matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?” he questioned.
In his column, Bishop Tobin said he “understand(s) completely the arguments against taking a more ‘pastoral approach’ to this topic, primarily that to do so would betray the sacred teaching of Christ we are obliged to uphold.”
“I know that even within the current discipline, divorced-and-remarried Catholics, though barred from holy Communion, are still valued members of the Church and that there are many ways for them to participate in ecclesial life,” he continued. “And I believe in the value of ‘spiritual communion’ as a truly worthwhile devotional practice for those unable to receive the sacrament.”
However, the bishop wondered whether these Catholics are being unnecessarily denied the “consolation and joy” of the Eucharist, a central part of the Catholic faith.
“The Church has taught the pre-eminent value of receiving the holy Eucharist, and I keep hearing the words of Jesus about the Eucharist, words that are just as valid and important as his words about marriage: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you’ (John 6:53).”
The bishop said that he has agonized over the many divorced Catholics who have left the Church and questioned the “pseudo-Catholic politicians” who receive holy Communion despite defying Church teaching on “gay marriage” and abortion in their legislative work.
Part of the solution to the growing number of divorced-and-remarried Catholics who don’t have an annulment could be a simplifying of the “formal court-like” annulment process itself, Bishop Tobin suggested.
“Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams and automatic appeals to other tribunals?” he asked.
“In lieu of this formal court-like process, which some participants have found intimidating, can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive holy Communion?”
In his conclusion, Bishop Tobin admitted that he does not have all the answers to the questions that have been raised, but expressed hope that the Holy Spirit guides the discernment of the Pope, bishops and theologians, “who are a whole lot smarter and holier than I am” and who are wrestling with these issues before the synod.
Whatever changes are made, Bishop Tobin said he hopes they are at a universal rather than a diocesan level, for the sake of consistency within the Church.
But changes must be made, he emphasized.
“For the spiritual well-being of the divorced-and-remarried members of our Catholic family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!”