Are We Heading Toward ‘Catholic Divorce’?
COMMENTARY: The synod final report’s proposed ‘way of accompaniment and discernment’ would clearly make the option of being divorced and remarried more attractive. Fourth of four parts.
Lifelong fidelity in marriage is difficult (as is celibacy in the priesthood). All married persons at one time or another face the temptation to be unfaithful. Christian spouses who face this temptation are greatly benefited when Catholic pastors proclaim clearly and consistently the truth that Jesus taught about the permanence of marriage. This is by no means all that married couples need to remain faithful. But when they face very severe temptations to break their commitments, the thought, “I cannot rightly do this; it’s against my faith; if I do, I won’t be able to receive holy Communion” is a very powerful mental barrier standing between fidelity and infidelity.
If the Catholic Church were to officially approve the “way of accompaniment and discernment,” it would plainly send the message that consummated sacramental marriages are effectively dissoluble. These tempted Catholics will look around and see other remarried divorcees returning to the sacraments without having received annulments, and treated as members in good standing in the Church, and they will understandably ask: “If Adam and Eva, and Joe and Mary can divorce and remarry, why can’t I?” Some who ask this might be in good faith. But for others who are dissatisfied with their marriages, the question “Why can’t I? Why can’t I? Why can’t I?” will worm through their minds like a virus and bear fruit in rationalization. In this way, the example set by the new “way” will lead some Catholics to rationalize abandoning their spouses and becoming involved in new romantic relationships.
Defenders of the “way” have consistently argued that the indissolubility of marriage is not in question, only the prevailing pastoral practice of excluding remarried divorcees from the sacraments. But what the Church does will speak louder than the mere repetition of words about marriage’s indissolubility. And the action of the Church according to the new “way” would show that even sacramental consummated marriages are in practice dissoluble. All can and will see the new “way” for what it is: a form of “Catholic divorce” for those who have access to a priest willing to guide them through it. If the German bishops officially approve the emancipationist-progressive way for Catholics in Germany, and the Polish bishops maintain in Poland a practice consistent with Catholic Tradition, then European Catholics will say: “Divorce and remarriage are permissible in Germany but not in Poland.” And some who are eager to take advantage of the new liberties will cross the border to do so.
To cause scandal means to lead another to sin through one’s example. The proposed “way of accompaniment and discernment” would plainly make the option of being divorced and remarried more attractive than it otherwise would be.
And what about the many separated Catholics who have resisted temptations to become involved in new romantic relationships? All of us know of situations where Catholic wives have been discarded by their husbands who “fell in love” with other women or husbands who have been abandoned by their liberated wives who announce, “I owe it to myself to do something with my life.” Believing that Jesus’ teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is true, separated but conscientious Catholic spouses, moving on with their lives and believing that where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more (Romans 5:20), have endeavored to witness to the indissolubility of marriage by courageously carrying the cross of singleness, with its many sacrifices, alongside of Jesus. Not only will these people experience new temptations to remarry, but, also, they will feel abandoned by the Church.
And what about the innocent children of those who gave in to the temptation to walk away from a troubled marriage? They will pay a great price indeed for their innocent part in the “way of accompaniment and discernment.” What message will they take away from the new pastoral practice? Troubled waters need not be endured.
Frustrated defenders of the “way” will reply: “For heaven’s sake, stop changing the bread of the Church’s teaching on marriage into stones to throw at sinners. Stop heaping unbearable burdens on those who are weak and sick. These innocent children have been tossed around. What they need is stability in the ecclesial community. Give up your rigorism and admit that this is the best solution to an intolerable situation!”
This presumes two false theses. The first is that the current practice of excluding remarried divorcees from the holy Eucharist harms children more than would the emancipationist-progressive practice.
A splendid article published recently in the Jesuit magazine America replies to this thesis. Written by four Catholics, each of whom was affected by divorce, with parents who themselves divorced and/or are now living in irregular unions — Catholics who refer to themselves as “part of a generation of walking wounded” — the article warns: “An overly solicitous pastoral approach, rooted in an abstract conception of mercy, will deeply undermine the Church’s evangelical credibility.”
Dismiss Their Needs
Returning the divorced and remarried to holy Communion will not in fact “accompany the children” of remarried divorcees in the way they most need, the authors of the America article assert. It would “dismiss” their needs “in order to satisfy the desires of adults.” It would confuse “the little souls” by communicating “that divorce is not a big deal,” and this will “have ripple effects in the Church’s pastoral practices and in our homes.”
The authors conclude:
“And it should come as no surprise when a child, watching as the Church ‘sides with’ the adults who are, often, the very ones who have caused such great hurt in his or her life, grows up skeptical of the moral authority and evangelical credibility of the Church. What children need is for the Church to stand with them and to speak the truth about what their parent or parents have done. As Catholics, we understand that God’s judgment is a sign of his mercy and love, especially the judgment of those actions that have destructive consequences for the people we love. Lest we forget, encouraging repentance and reparation for our wrongs toward others is for the good of our souls and for the well-being of those around us.”
The second thesis is that sexual acts performed by the divorced and civilly remarried are not adulterous. This was floated by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, to the synod in his Oct. 14 address:
“The advice to refrain from sexual acts in the new relationship appears unrealistic to many. Not only this, it is also questionable whether sexual actions can be judged independent of the lived context. Can we judge the sexual acts that are performed in a second civil marriage without exception to be adultery, irrespective of an appraisal of the concrete situation?”
His answer is obviously: “No, we cannot judge them without exception to be adultery.”
But Jesus teaches the opposite in Matthew 5:39 and 19:9, in Luke 16:18 and in Mark 10:11-12, as does St. Paul in Romans 7:2-3. They teach that whoever divorces his spouse and marries another commits adultery against his spouse; and St. Paul follows this in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11 with the precept — which he refers to as a “command of the Lord” — that if true spouses separate they should either remain single or reconcile to one another.
However, “unrealistic” this teaching may seem to “many,” the Catholic Church has no authority to change it.
Since everything Jesus did and taught for our salvation must be considered part of the divine message of mercy, this truth about the indissolubility of marriage and its implications must, too, be a merciful message.
A competent field hospital tries to heal wounds and save lives. To do this, it sometimes unintentionally causes pain. But the pain is a necessary side effect of the healing process. If, however, to avoid causing pain it merely anaesthetized wounds and left them to fester, then it would not be competent. It would be insidious. Promised freedom from pain, wounded and weary soldiers would seek it out for comfort; but they would find only a specious comfort; beyond temporary and superficial relief, they would find infection, dysfunction and, ultimately, death.
The Catholic Church must never cease proclaiming that at the heart of the Christian message of mercy is Jesus’ invitation to “repent and believe” (Mark 1:15). Was not John the Baptist’s message to Herod — “Repent of your adultery so you won’t die in your sin” — a merciful message?
To spread this message of mercy throughout the world, the Church must preach the word in season and out of season, convincing, rebuking and exhorting, as St. Paul enjoins in his Second Letter to Timothy (Timothy 4:2; also 1 Timothy 5:20). In this way, she fulfills her duty to her children as Magistra, “Teacher.” But she is not only Magistra; she is also Mater — Mother. She not only proclaims the truth to wounded sinners; she also, like the Good Samaritan, takes pity on them, binds their wounds, pours oil and wine, carries them to safety and cares for them until they’re strong (Luke 10:33-35).
She is always at once Mater et Magistra. She breathes the message of mercy with both lungs: She proclaims the saving message of Jesus to sinners and helps them to accept it and live accordingly. Pope Benedict referred to this union of mater et magistra with the phrase caritas in veritate: Our love must always be in the truth.
The “way of accompaniment and discernment” is a noxious temptation to amputate from the Church’s pastoral body one of her lungs. If she officially approves it and then implements it, it will cause disunity, jeopardize the salvation of some, be unjust to others and undermine the credibility of her evangelical testimony to the truth of marriage; in other words, it will slowly suffocate her apostolate to married persons. And if she fails in her role as the God-authorized teacher of truth, then what kind of mother is she? She will be a daycare worker.
The Catholic Church must resist this temptation.
E. Christian Brugger, the senior fellow in ethics and director of the fellows’ program
at the Culture of Life Foundation in Washington, holds the
Stafford Chair of Moral Theology at St. John Vianney Theological Seminary in Denver.