Vatican: Church Teaching On Divorce Not Changing

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Among Catholics who hope (or fear) that Pope Francis’s new style indicates that Church doctrine and practice are up for grabs, the announcement of a synod to be held next year to discuss marriage and the family, and particularly the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics, caused some stir. However, a document put out by the head of the CDF makes is clear that the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage (and the inability of those living with someone they are not sacramentally married to to receive communion) will not be changed and indeed cannot be changed. If clarity is what you like in Church documents, Abp. Muller brings it in spades:

After the announcement of the extraordinary synod that will take place in October of 2014 on the pastoral care of families, some questions have been raised regarding the question of divorced and remarried members of the faithful and their relationship to the sacraments. In order to deepen understanding on this pressing subject so that clergy may accompany their flock more perfectly and instruct them in a manner consistent with the truth of Catholic Doctrine, we are publishing an extensive contribution from the Archbishop Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The problem concerning members of the faithful who have entered into a new civil union after a divorce is not new. The Church has always taken this question very seriously and with a view to helping the people who find themselves in this situation. Marriage is a sacrament that affects people particularly deeply in their personal, social and historical circumstances. Given the increasing number of persons affected in countries of ancient Christian tradition, this pastoral problem has taken on significant dimensions. Today even firm believers are seriously wondering: can the Church not admit the divorced and remarried to the sacraments under certain conditions? Are her hands permanently tied on this matter? Have theologians really explored all the implications and consequences?

These questions must be explored in a manner that is consistent with Catholic doctrine on marriage. A responsible pastoral approach presupposes a theology that offers “the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, freely assenting to the truth revealed by him” (Dei Verbum 5). In order to make the Church’s authentic doctrine intelligible, we must begin with the word of God that is found in sacred Scripture, expounded in the Church’s Tradition and interpreted by the Magisterium in a binding way.

He then explains the basis of the Church teaching on marriage and divorce based on scripture, the early Church fathers, and in Church teaching up to the present day. One section that particularly jumped out at me as perhaps blunter than we would have seen under John Paul II or Benedict XVI was this one on the practice of allowing divorce and remarriage by the Orthodox.

In many regions, greater compromises emerged later, particularly as a result of the increasing interdependence of Church and State. In the East this development continued to evolve, and especially after the separation from the See of Peter, it moved towards an increasingly liberal praxis. In the Orthodox Churches today, there are a great many grounds for divorce, which are mostly justified in terms of oikonomia, or pastoral leniency in difficult individual cases, and they open the path to a second or third marriage marked by a penitential character. This practice cannot be reconciled with God’s will, as expressed unambiguously in Jesus’ sayings about the indissolubility of marriage. But it represents an ecumenical problem that is not to be underestimated.

In the West, the Gregorian reform countered these liberalizing tendencies and gave fresh impetus to the original understanding of Scripture and the Fathers. The Catholic Church defended the absolute indissolubility of marriage even at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering. The schism of a “Church of England” detached from the Successor of Peter came about not because of doctrinal differences, but because the Pope, out of obedience to the sayings of Jesus, could not accommodate the demands of King Henry VIII for the dissolution of his marriage.

The Council of Trent confirmed the doctrine of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage and explained that this corresponded to the teaching of the Gospel (cf. DH 1807). Sometimes it is maintained that the Church de facto tolerated the Eastern practice. But this is not correct. The canonists constantly referred to it as an abuse. And there is evidence that groups of Orthodox Christians on becoming Catholic had to subscribe to an express acknowledgment of the impossibility of second or third marriages.

Note also the placing of “Church of England” in quotes. I can’t help wondering if, to the extent that Francis does not have a European a focus as John Paul and Benedict, there’s less concern under his guidance about speaking clearly about the areas in which the Orthodox Churches and Protestant groups do not conform to Church teaching and practice.

Muller goes on to specifically reject several approaches to dealing with divorced and remarried couples which have been suggested of late by those hoping for change:

It is frequently suggested that remarried divorcees should be allowed to decide for themselves, according to their conscience, whether or not to present themselves for holy communion. This argument, based on a problematical concept of “conscience”, was rejected by a document of the CDF in 1994. Naturally, the faithful must consider every time they attend Mass whether it is possible to receive communion, and a grave unconfessed sin would always be an impediment. At the same time they have the duty to form their conscience and to align it with the truth. In so doing they listen also to the Church’s Magisterium, which helps them “not to swerve from the truth about the good of man, but rather, especially in more difficult questions, to attain the truth with certainty and to abide in it” (Veritatis Splendor, 64). If remarried divorcees are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage tribunals. Marriage is not simply about the relationship of two people to God, it is also a reality of the Church, a sacrament, and it is not for the individuals concerned to decide on its validity, but rather for the Church, into which the individuals are incorporated by faith and baptism. “If the prior marriage of two divorced and remarried members of the faithful was valid, under no circumstances can their new union be considered lawful, and therefore reception of the sacraments is intrinsically impossible. The conscience of the individual is bound to this norm without exception” (Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, “The Pastoral approach to marriage must be founded on truth” L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 7 December 2011, p. 4)

The teaching on epikeia, too – according to which a law may be generally valid, but does not always apply to concrete human situations – may not be invoked here, because in the case of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage we are dealing with a divine norm that is not at the disposal of the Church. Nevertheless – as we see from the privilegium Paulinum – the Church does have the authority to clarify the conditions that must be fulfilled for an indissoluble marriage, as taught by Jesus, to come about. On this basis, the Church has established impediments to marriage, she has recognized grounds for annulment, and she has developed a detailed process for examining these.

A further case for the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments is argued in terms of mercy. Given that Jesus himself showed solidarity with the suffering and poured out his merciful love upon them, mercy is said to be a distinctive quality of true discipleship. This is correct, but it misses the mark when adopted as an argument in the field of sacramental theology. The entire sacramental economy is a work of divine mercy and it cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same. An objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive. The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man. Jesus encountered the adulteress with great compassion, but he said to her “Go and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfil them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father. [emphasis added]

Muller then goes on to explain what real pastoral care in such situations consists of:

Even if there is no possibility of admitting remarried divorcees to the sacraments, in view of their intrinsic nature, it is all the more imperative to show pastoral concern for these members of the faithful, so as to point them clearly towards what the theology of revelation and the Magisterium have to say. The path indicated by the Church is not easy for those concerned. Yet they should know and sense that the Church as a community of salvation accompanies them on their journey. Insofar as the parties make an effort to understand the Church’s practice and to abstain from communion, they provide their own testimony to the indissolubility of marriage.

Clearly, the care of remarried divorcees must not be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist. It involves a much more wide-ranging pastoral approach, which seeks to do justice to to the different situations. It is important to realize that there are other ways, apart from sacramental communion, of being in fellowship with God. One can draw close to God by turning to him in faith, hope and charity, in repentance and prayer. God can grant his closeness and his salvation to people on different paths, even if they find themselves in a contradictory life situation. As recent documents of the Magisterium have emphasized, pastors and Christian communities are called to welcome people in irregular situations openly and sincerely, to stand by them sympathetically and helpfully, and to make them aware of the love of the Good Shepherd. If pastoral care is rooted in truth and love, it will discover the right paths and approaches in constantly new ways.

It goes without saying, the head of the CDF does not put out documents like this without due consultation with the pope. Anyone who hopes to assert that this is not in the “spirit of Francis” needs to remind himself: These words were undoubtedly read and approved by the pope.

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  1. this makes it sound like those who are re married are damned to hell because a marriage didn’t work out…is this what we are to understand??

  2. J.A.C.,

    A person is never damned to hell by either the Lord or the Church. Ultimately, each of us are judged in our response to the Gospel of Christ-how we have or have not cooperated with the abundant grace offered ib Christ. Certainly this Gospel includes all the moral teaching of Christ, including His teaching on marriage and divorce: marriage is between one man and one woman in a life giving and love giving union for life. He forbade divorce. He did so, not because of a lack of mercy or compassion but because what divorce does to both spouses and the children involved.

    According to “the Law of Moses” a man could easily divorce his wife. What many do not realize is that when divorced, women were rejected and abandoned, many becoming prostitutes not so they could get sex but so they could eek out a living, as sad as that is, in His teaching Jesus forbids divorce. He forbids a man to get a divorce and forbids a woman from getting a divorce-thus stating that both are equal in marriage.

    The disciples are astonished when Jesus teaches this- just as we are astonished by this teaching. The disciples cry out, “if this is the case, it is better that a man does not marry”. What is really interesting is that only in three teachings do His disciples find it hard to believe what Christ teaches: about Christ’s approaching passion and death (Mark 8); about the Eucharist (John 6) and about marriage (Mark 10 and Matthew 5 and 19)

    The Church cannot just decide to undo or overturn or just forget this teaching. Now, especially today, the Church is looking to how best to address all the issues facing Catholics in and outside of marriage.nthat is what will be addressed in the upcoming extraordinary Synod in 2014.

    Ultimately, J.A.C. The Church is about proclaiming the grace of Christ which transforms us through ongoing conversion, sustains in the sacraments, in this case especially those in the sacrament of holy matrimony. We tend to forget this grace which can empower a couple to live their married life ‘in the Lord’, living out Christ the Bridegroom and the Church, the Bride’s loving and fruitful union.

    For those who sadly gone through divorce there is always the offer of mercy when the person asks, seeks and knocks for it

  3. This is the most correct statement I have yet read:

    “The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man.”

  4. JAC,

    I think Botolph covered this pretty well, but just to respond as well:

    – The Church does not teach that any particular person is going to tell, though she does teach that certain people (saints) are in heaven.

    – Getting divorced civilly (formally separating from someone one is married to) is not necessarily a sin at all. However, if a valid marriage can not be dissolved, so if one attempts to remarry, that person is in fact living in adultery. It’s the remarriage that is the sin, not necessarily the divorce.

    – Someone is not definitively “going to hell” until the particular judgement, after death. Barring someone who is living in a state of sin from communion is not a way of saying “you’re going to hell” but rather a call to repentance — a clear and visible reminder that the person’s actions are separating him from Christ and that only through repentance can he regain union with Christ and His sacraments.

  5. Point of Information: This answer (divorce + remarriage = adultery) is not only found in “Church Teaching.” The Gospels quote Christ Jesus’ clear and concise teaching on divorce/remarriage. The only “grounds” may be infidelity/unchastity. See Matthew 5:31-32 and 19:9, Mark 19:11-12; Luke 16:18.

    The choice may be too hard for post-modern man/woman, who increasingly turns away.

    In addition to selling your property and giving the money to the poor, I think, Christ also taught to abandon “carnal knowledge” outside sacramental, procreative marriage . . . Both concepts shocked (How then can anyone attain the Kingdom?) the Apostles.

    Here’s my down and dirty. What God has joined, let no man put asunder. You make a vow for better or worse, in sickness and health, until death. If you can’t take it and run out, what does that say about you? In short, everyday you choose: good or evi; life or death; the here-and-now/carnal “comfort” or the rewards of eternal life . . .

    Christ descended from heaven to convert us. He didn’t come to say, “There there . . . ” Christ Jesus purchased with His life, death, and Resurrection the rewards of eternal life. We ought to try to imitate Him (the bravest man since the day of creation, too).

    In this case, I am not a “pollyanna.” I am in a troubled marriage for over 35 year. I can’t count the times I murmured “Forgive all injuries!” Remember, we are poor, banished children of Eve, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears, and begging Mary to pray for us to be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

  6. I also posted this comment in Don’s post on the subject, but thought I’d post it here, as well.

    I may be missing something here, but this is my take on this new document. My guess is that this part of the document described by Sandro Magister will prove to be the exception that swallows the rule (there’s that ugly word “rule” again):

    “But Müller also recognizes that in a context like that of the present “invalid” marriages are very numerous.

    “Exactly as Pope Francis had noted, again on the return flight from Rio de Janeiro, when he recalled that his predecessor in Buenos Aires, Cardinal Quarracino, used to say: “For me half of marriages are null, because they get married without knowing that it is forever, because they do it for social convenience.”

    “But if null marriages are so great in number, how will the diocesan tribunals be able to examine all of them, juridically ascertaining their invalidity?

    “Müller does not pose this question explicitly in his document. However, he cites a 1998 article by Joseph Ratzinger republished in “L’Osservatore Romano” of November 30, 2011, in which the predecessor of Pope Francis explored the pros and cons of a hypothetical solution: the possible recourse to a decision in conscience to receive communion on the part of a divorced and remarried Catholic, in the event that the lack of recognition of the nullity of his previous marriage (on account of a sentence maintained to be erroneous or because of the difficulty of proving its nullity in the tribunal procedure) should contrast with his well-founded conviction that the marriage is objectively null.

    “It can be presumed that the synod of bishops of October 2014 – to which Pope Francis has entrusted the question – will examine precisely this “Ratzinger hypothesis” in order to innovate in this matter, albeit with the reaffirmation of the absolute indissolubility of marriage.”

    In short, the Church will reaffirm the absolute indissolubility of marriage, but will further liberalize the availability of declarations of nullity, as well as the so-called “inner forum” thing that Magister refers to as the “Ratzinger hypothesis”.

    And I’m not convinced that, at least in the short term, this isn’t the correct solution. We know we have at least a generation of poorly catechized Catholics who have gotten married for all sorts of reasons without a proper grounding in the Church’s teachings on marriage. Cardinal Quarracino was probably correct in his assessment that “… half of marriages are null, because they get married without knowing that it is forever, because they do it for social convenience.” Perhaps, in the short term, the Church should be more, for lack of a better word, liberal in its assumptions about how many marriages are in fact sacramentally invalid.

    However, the Church’s position going forward should be this:

    “Okay, going forward, now you’re on notice. To get married in the Church, you’re going to have to go through INTENSIVE catechetical training on the indisolubility of marriage. Converts are going to have to go through that same training as part of RCIA, and once they’re in the Church have their marriages convalidated in a Catholic marriage rite. After that, then we REALLY mean business that those marriages are FOREVER. No declarations of nullity will be granted except in the cases of obvious invalidity.”

  7. Jay brings out another profound aspect on the difficulties concerning marriage in our day. Many entering into Holy Matrimony are doing so because they want a church wedding. I do not question that they have made a decision to get married versus living together. This needs to be said and appreciated. However, that being said, given the culture in which they/we live, with so many having first lived together, coming from families where divorce and frequently remarriage are part of their own history, how many can even enter into a lasting, faithful and exclusive relationship.

    A further dimension however is even more serious for the Church. Holy Matrimony is a sacrament of faith. One needs faith to enter it, celebrate it and live it. We have couples entering into Holy Matrimony who are baptized (which gives the baptized infant the beginnings of faith) however they have not come to a full faith through the proclamation of the Kerygma (basic gospel message that is the foundation of faith) or further catechesis (which cannot and should not end with Confirmation as if that sacrament were a graduation from CCDS and out of the Church)

    There is no dispute that catechesis in the 60’s, 70’s and even the 80’s was itself in turmoil. That has been solved overall (yes there are places etc where it is still a mess) especially with the Catechism of the Catholic Church as the norm for all catechesis. What is still lacking however is the lack of consciousness that the real norm is that thevChurch is a community of adult disciples. This means, after a point each individual adult Catholic must take up the responsibility of ongoing and ever deepening conversion and ongoing and ever increasing faith.

    To apply this to the sacrament of Holy Matrimony-are those asking for the sacrament really believers? Without faith Many are ponting out (Benedict chief among them) there is no real sacrament thus it can be annulled Next year’s Synod will be fascinating

  8. The framing of the canon of the Council of Trent is noteworthy. “If any one says, that the Church has erred, in that she has taught, and does teach [Si quis dixerit, ecclesiam errare, quum docuit et docet], in accordance with the evangelical and apostolic doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema. (Sess XXIV c 7)”

    The rather convoluted phrasing, “that the Church has erred, in that she has taught,” was designed to avoid anathematizing those Greek Fathers who had acquiesced in the laxer practice, but did not, like the Reformers, accuse the Latin Church of erring in its interpretation of scripture, especially, Matt 19:9, μη επι πορνεια ; probably no three words have attracted such a wealth of commentary.

  9. Michael Paterson Seymour has brought up the important issue of the “exception clause” found in Matt 19.9. The issue is the meaning of the Greek word porneia. In general, the word can be interpreted as sexual immorality, more specifically, adultery. Thus the allowance by the Reformation of marriage to be ended by adultery.

    However, the Roman Catholic Church has not seen adultery in of itself as the basis of declaring a marriage annulled-basing its position on the words of the Lord Himself.

    The Church has as.its patrimony, in it’s Tradition the first council of the Church, that which took place in Jerusalem in 49 AD with Peter, Paul and James, as well as others present to discern what the Spirit was saying to the Church at that time. Among other decisions was the reception of Gentiles into complete membership in the Church. Gentiles were prohibited what was already part of the Covenant with Noah. Among those prohibitions was “porneia”, understood to be illicit sexual unions. It is in light of the meaning of this use of the word porneia that the Church sees the exception clause in Matthew’s Gospel.

  10. Botolph

    Yes, especially because μοιχαται = commits adultery (from μοιχεύω) occurs in the same verse. This suggests that πορνεια means something different, otherwise one would expect Our Lord to have used the unambiguous μοιχεία, if that was what He meant.

    That one meaning of the word is incest is clear from ! Cor 5, where St Paul calls the behaviour of the man who married his father’s wife, “τοιαύτη πορνεία ἥτις οὐδὲ ἐν τοῖς ἔθνεσιν” [Such pornia as is not found among the nations (gentiles/pagans?)]

    Again, in Mark 10:11 and Luke 16:18, the exception is not included, suggesting it was a mere aside, pointing to a case so obvious as to be hardly worth mentioning, something that goes without saying, such as incest or bigamy.

    By the by, μη επι πορνεια gets 2,450,000 hits in Google, so I doubt if there is anything I can usefully add.

  11. If it really is so impossible for someone who lives in a divorce-culture to enter a valid marriage, shouldn’t the Church forbid priests to witness marriage ceremonies at all? For example, in the U.S.A., 50% of the marriages end in divorce, so the Church could conclude that all the people in the U.S. are raised in a divorce culture, influenced by this culture, and probably enter invalid marriages – so to protect from this, we should simply forbid Church marriages.
    How many fathers of the bride are going to be comfortable walking their daughter down the aisle when the Church itself, according to the Prefect of the Congregation of the Faith, says that many Christians probably enter invalid marriages because today’s mentality is opposed to the Christian understanding of marriage?

    Repeatedly in Müller’s article, he referred to people who “find themselves” in second marriages. People don’t “find themselves” in second marriages. Someone abandoned the first marriage by a free will choice. When a Catholic makes that choice, the Church could be a better shepherd to those lost sheep that abandon marriage – when the abandonment occurs – not years later after a second “so-called” marriage happened.

    During the 2014 Synod of Bishops on the pastoral care for families, they could study the situation of professed Catholics abandoning marriage while acting as if they are doing nothing wrong. In the US, marital abandoners feel justified because they think they deserve an annulment.

    There is a whole section in canon law on the pastoral care for those in troubled marriages relative to separation and divorce. Marriages could be saved and scandal prevented if the Church started practicing the law as it was intended (c. 104, 1151-1153, and 1692). The Church can teach about the difference between morally legitimate reasons for separation of spouses compared to martial abandonment which is a grave offense against nature and immoral.

    For more information see LINK to Annotations and Commentary on the Code of Canon Law recommended by the president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts. Search 1692Annot.html#violatedivinelaw

  12. Bai Macfarlane,

    If it really is so impossible for someone who lives in a divorce-culture to enter a valid marriage, shouldn’t the Church forbid priests to witness marriage ceremonies at all?

    Since the Church also teaches that it is a mortal sin to live together as husband and wife without being validly married, this would mean that the Church should condemn a culture to live in sin or die out due to lack of families, rather than, say, doing it’s duty by teaching anew the indissolubility of marriage.

    But I get the impression this was not put out there as a real suggestion anyway, but rather as an attempt to refute the suggestion that a large percentage of marriages attempted in the modern US are not in fact valid marriage.

    I don’t think, however, that’s necessarily a big stretch. Remember, we’re not just talking about church weddings by practicing Catholics. We’re talking about all marriages — a Catholic who marries his girlfriend in front of a justice of the peace in Las Vegas; or a couple of non-denominational Protestants who get married in a religious ceremony; anyone. I don’t think it’s a reach to say that many of these people do not mean what the Church means by marriage when they get married. And yet, if one of these people shows up, divorced and in a second marriage, wanting to enter or re-enter the Church 20 years later, one of the first things that the Church will end up having to look at is whether that second marriage is valid or not.

    This is where it’s important to keep in mind that when we talk about these issues for the whole Church, we’re not just talking about people like us. You’re right, of course, when you say:

    Repeatedly in Müller’s article, he referred to people who “find themselves” in second marriages. People don’t “find themselves” in second marriages.

    But a lot of the time, the situations that our priests and bishops are having to sort out are not ones in which active and catechized Catholics get divorced and remarried — after all, we already have some roadblocks in the way of that in that you can’t contract a second marriage in the Church without having the validity of the first examined — but rather situations where someone who was baptized Catholic but has effectively been away from the Church for over twenty years shows up in his mid forties, in a second marriage with several children, and wanting to come back into the Church. Obviously, the Church has a good reasons for wanting that person to come back to the Church and bring his children up in the faith. However, the question of these marriages has to be sorted out.

  13. I don’t think it’s a reach to say that many of these people do not mean what the Church means by marriage when they get married. And yet, if one of these people shows up, divorced and in a second marriage, wanting to enter or re-enter the Church 20 years later, one of the first things that the Church will end up having to look at is whether that second marriage is valid or not.

    OK, that takes care of Deal Hudson. How about the lady once known as Mrs. Geoffrey Vining?

    (This can be a depressing subject).

  14. An eminent Scots lawyer once observed, “It is a curious fact, though true, that there must always be a considerable number of persons who could not say off-hand whether they were married or not. It is only when the question has been decided by a consistorial tribunal that their doubts can be removed. But although they do not know if they are married, and no one could tell them with certainty till the action was tried, it is nevertheless true that they must be either one or the other. There is no half-way house.”

    That is inevitable under any system of law, ecclesiastical or civil.

  15. In a valid marriage or not, one is considered married until the church says one is not married. In cases of adultery one is free to divorce. One is not free or entitled to re-marry. Being in a failed marriage can prove that one is not mature enough to be married and is not marriage material.

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