Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Vatican: Church Teaching On Divorce Not Changing

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.


Aron Wall said...

I'm not sure I agree that the document is clear. Many parts seem to strongly suggest that the primary thing the Church is calling remarried people to do is abstain from communion, while seeking other forms of connection with God, such as "repentance and prayer".

This seems incoherent to me. Either continuing to have sex with a new partner is always a sin, or in some situations it is not. If it is not a sin, then it seems utterly unjust to deprive such people of the Eucharist, for doing the right thing in their situation (somethng which would presumably be a sin for them to stop doing).

But I take it that the reason for the rule is that it IS regarded as a sin. In this case, it is highly misleading to focus primarily on the Church asking them not to take communion. Rather, the Church wants them to STOP sinning, and (only) then to START taking communion. Totally different.

For the sake of full disclosure, I am a Protestant. However, I don't intend this particular comment as a criticism of the Catholic Church, but only of the clarity of this particular document.

Enbrethiliel said...


Aron: If I had a lot of time on my hands, I would read the whole document myself before jumping into this conversation, but I hope that you don't mind if I simply ask you to specify the "many parts" which you are referring to. You see, I'm not getting that sense at all from the excerpts which Darwin has quoted. Quite the opposite: I find them stunningly clear.

I'm not sure why it's "incoherent" that the Church would ask someone guilty of a grave sin to abstain from Communion, to repent and to pray. These three actions go hand-in-hand and they only underline the fact that there has been a sin.

Nor do I understand why it is "misleading" to focus on Communion. Ask any Catholic: Communion is the whole point. That you should stop sinning so that you may start receiving Communion again goes without saying. Once more the existence of the sin and its gravity are taken for granted.

Darwin said...


Some of this may have to do with how Catholics specifically would read this. When Muller points out that we may not receive communion when we know ourselves to be in a state of mortal sin, and that even if a divorced and remarried couple believe in their own consciences that they are justified to be living as they are, they may still not receive communion because their state is objectively clear according to Church teaching, I think that at least in Catholic-speak it's very, very clear that he's saying that living in such a state is a sin. (Also, I'm not sure if you went through to the whole document, I probably quoted about a third, but as he's going through the biblical and patristic understandings of marriage and divorce, he makes clear that remarriage after separating from a still living spouse is adultery.)

I think the reason why the document does not emphasize separation is:

1) The document is primarily addressing the question of receiving communion, so that's just not the topic and

2) There's a tacit acknowledgement that there are cases in which separation would violate other obligations. If they have children together, they may have an obligation to continue to provide their children with a stable home with both parents. Even absent children, they may have an obligation to continue to provide for and care for one another. The most virtuous thing to do in such a situation would be to live together in a non-sexual relationship. The document addresses this twice:

Where nullity of marriage cannot be demonstrated, the requirement for absolution and reception of communion, according to the Church’s established and approved practice, is that the couple live “as friends, as brother and sister”.


Reconciliation through sacramental confession, which opens the way to reception of the Eucharist, can only be granted in the case of repentance over what has happened and a “readiness to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage.” Concretely this means that if for serious reasons, such as the children’s upbringing, the new union cannot be dissolved, then the two partners must “bind themselves to live in complete continence”.

Human circumstances are messy and individual, and while it's universally the case that those living together without being validly married may not receive communion, there are going to be a lot of different ways in which such a situation will end up being resolved. So in that sense, I think it's natural that the document focuses on the commonality and not on the varied ways in which such a situation can be ended.

Also, in a lot of situations, human beings being what they are, people may be both unwilling to cease living together in an invalid marriage, and also unwilling to cut themselves off completely from God and the life of the Church. In such a situation, I think encouraging continued prayer and repentance is the correct answer. Until death, we're still creatures in the world, and as such our decision for or against God is not absolute. We remain both attached to God and attached to sin, and the Church needs to encourage people in that situation to grow their attachment to God so that it will eventually overpower their attachment to sin.

Aron Wall said...


I did read the entire document. I could still imagine someone reading the two passages you quote as saying "it's okay to keep having sex with my new spouse so long as I don't take communion". That is, the obligation is always presented as a conditional obligation (if you want to take communion, you must do this), not an obligation simpliciter.

I agree that's not the correct reading, but since you assert that the document is clear, I'm trying to imagine how someone stupider might read it. Perhaps you are right that no one who is adequately informed about Catholicism would read it that way, although for someone who was already adequately informed, the document wouldn't be necessary at all, now would it. :-)


The bit that was bothering me the most was the last paragraph, particularly:

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.

this seems to be in some tension with what you are saying:

Ask any Catholic: Communion is the whole point.

I agree it is not incoherent to ask people guilty of a grave sin to abstain from Communion, to repent and to pray. It would be incoherent if they said that the person was doing the right thing given their situation, but should nevertheless abstain from Communion. I'm not accusing the Catholic church of teaching this; I'm saying that I could imagine someone reading the document that way, incorrectly.

But perhaps I'm wrong. It may have been better for me to wait for some actual person to misinterpret it, rather than spilling so many electrons on the hypothetical possibility that someone might.

Bob the Ape said...


Having read the document, it seems clear to me that it is concerned entirely with the question of those who, having entered into a new civil union after a divorce, nevertheless want to receive the Eucharist. Someone whose attitude is "it's okay to keep having sex with my new spouse so long as I don't take communion" does not fall into this category.

Enbrethiliel said...


Aron -- I can think of another reason why people doing the right thing given their situation should still abstain from Communion: scandal. It really could lead some others astray if "public sinners" received the Eucharist. Yes, they may be doing the right thing now, but isn't that like saying that it's okay to sin as long as you repent later?

But what if we leave other people out of it? . . . Let's say that a remarried couple who discover that their union is invalid also see that they have an obligation to stay together for the sake of their six children. So they live as brother and sister the entire time and do not date other people. It's just the lesser of two evils and while the situation lasts, they are still arguably "living in sin."

Of course, all this begs the question of whether breaking up the family--which I'd personally consider the greater evil--would actually make the couple eligible to receive the Eucharist again. A wacky point. =P But I think that most Catholics understand the general "rule" that until you're done "cleaning up your mess," you probably shouldn't receive Communion. It's just that in this case, the mess might take a few decades to clean up. =(

Aron Wall said...


Sure, that's the intent of the document. But it's important to make sure that one doesn't clear up one subject in a way that confuses another. The question is what people will think after you eliminate the position they started with.


I don't think avoiding scandal is the main reason for the Catholic church's policy in this particular matter. After all, the Church DOES allow these people to Confess and take Communion if they agree to live together celibately, but unless the matter is explained to the entire congregation, this looks externally exactly like the couple continuing to live in sin.

If doing the "lesser evil" leads to being denied the Eucharist, but doing the "greater evil" allows one to take it, that is precisely the paradox I'm trying to argue against.

Your suggestion that it is a "general rule" that people need to fully "clean up their mess" before recieving the Eucharist, and that admiting public but repentant sinners to the Eucharist would be like "saying its okay to sin", would logically lead to everyone being turned away. What about the mercy of God?

Unless you think that the job of raising six kids ends at age 18, such a policy would basically doom whichever spouse dies first never to take Communion until their death, even if for decades they have been doing nothing but what you think is the right thing.

At one time, I understand that it was Church policy to impose lengthy penances on those who sinned after baptism, before they could be readmitted to Communion (if ever). Those days are no more.

Correct me if I am wrong, but my understanding is that a murderer may now receive Communion immediately after making a valid Confession. They may be assigned a penance, but they are not necessarily obliged to complete it before taking Communion. Isn't that right?

Darwin said...


To the best of my knowledge you are correct both that in general people are received back into full reception of the sacrament as soon as they have received absolution (there are some situations in which absolution might not be made right away, but this is really rare) and also that concern for scandal would not usually prevent an invalidly-married-but-living-as-brother-and-sister couple from receiving communion.

Thinking over your response to Bob, I think I'd say: Yes, at a logical level I can see the argument that someone might read the document and take it that it was "okay" to remain invalidly "married" so long as one didn't receive communion. At the same time, I have trouble seeing that as a conclusion someone would reach in the Church as it exists here and now. (I could imagine someone coming to that conclusion 100 years ago, when a more legalistic approach was more common.) In the current day and age, there's a very strong emphasis on communion and wanting to be acknowledged as living a "basically good" life. If anything, I think this results in people trying far too hard to minimize real sins. (Which is what we're seeing with people arguing that invalidly married people should be re-admitted to the sacraments.) Because it's become common over the last two centuries for most mass-attending Catholics to receive the Eucharist every week (as opposed to doing so only occasionally and after lots of preparation) telling someone that they can't receive at all until their marriage is regularized is a pretty strong message in the modern Church, which I think is why the tendency is to emphasize that this doesn't mean that now you're "the enemy of God" or something and need to simply give in to despair.

bearing said...

Would just like to point out that an invalidly married couple living together as brother and sister does not have to cause scandal to receive communion.

They can arrange with their pastor to receive communion privately rather than publicly at Sunday Mass;

they can (possibly) arrange to attend Mass in a parish where the state of their union is not known;

they can choose to be deliberately open about living together as brother and sister.

If an invalidly married couple has contracted duties that compel them to continue living together for the duration of their impediments, rather than to separate -- for example, if they have children together -- then continuing to live together as brother and sister is not the "lesser of two evils." It is, by definition, their duty.

I would think that the need to receive the sacraments frequently, not to mention their canonical right to the sacraments, would trump the risk of scandal anyway. But even so, it's possible to avoid scandal (albeit with some sacrifice). So there's no reason for them not to receive communion.

Enbrethiliel said...


Aron, this is another conversation I jumped into without spending a few days to think things over, so it's definitely just my own biases which make me harder on divorced people. Having finally been able to compare my last comment to the whole CDF document, it's clear that what I was saying is not also what the latter is saying. And you're right that the document's statement that the issue "should not be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist" is in opposition to my statement that "Communion is the whole point." But this is also why the scenario which you bring up in which remarried divorcees would be barred from Communion until their deathbeds is also the wrong focus.

What I do think the document underlines is that the nature of marriage trumps all attempts to do "the right thing" in an objectively bad situation. All the good deeds in the world can't validate an invalid marriage, so as long as remarried people are separated from their real spouses, there's a sense in which they're "living in sin." This doesn't mean that their pastor should never give them Communion; in fact, if both were aware of the truth and truly repentant, I'd hope that he would.

But I think the part of the document which you quoted in your first response to me is for those who might still be in denial. If their pastor doesn't give them Communion, whatever his reasons, that doesn't mean they can't still have fellowship with God.

Bob the Ape said...

Aron, I think you're setting the bar impossibly high when you insist that a document, dealing with an issue as complex and nuanced as the one under discussion, be worded so that it cannot be misunderstood; especially as there is in this case such a strong incentive to willfully misunderstand it.

Enbrethiliel said...


Aron, you might find this illustrative. Here's a comment on the same document which I found on another blog:

I am a divorced catholic, remarried outside of the church.
My heart aches to receive the Eucharist. Some days I wonder why do I continue to attend mass. Yes go apply for an Annulment like going to the store to purchase a dress, no one realizes that Annulments are not easy and lengthy and expensive. No, I am not a cafeteria Catholic, or do I feel things should be my way.
I will take my sin to the grave and pray that the Lord will have mercy on my soul.

I think the author of the comment clearly understands that "Communion is the whole point," but is tortured rather than comforted by it. When the blogger responded to her, he said that the document is meant to be hopeful and encouraging, reminding even those who are barred from sacramental Communion that they are still part of the Church and in spiritual Communion with Christ and the rest of His Mystical Body.

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