A proposal to reconcile divorced Catholics with the church, from America's archives

Approximately three million American Catholics have married, divorced and remarried. Most of the second marriages have not received the blessing of the church. Many Catholics involved in these second marriages wish there were a way to "save" the second marriage and still participate fully in the sacramental and apostolic life of the church. There is hardly a Catholic family in the United States that does not have a relative or a friend involved in such a second marriage.

Under the present doctrine and law of the church, there are only four situations in which it is permissible for a Catholic to enter into a second marriage: termination of the first marriage by the death of the other spouse; annulment of the first marriage; the Pauline privilege; and the Petrine privilege. As a practical matter, these four possibilities do not provide a solution for most second-marriage Catholics. From the official point of view, these Catholics are living in "bad" marriages, are not free to share in the Eucharist and are not welcome to serve or provide leadership within the church.


The personal hardships to many second-marriage Catholics are often severe. Regardless of the reasons for the breakup of the first marriage, regardless of the proven sincerity of the desire now to live fully a Catholic married life and to engage fully in the worship and ministry of the church, there is no officially approved way for most second-marriage Catholics to both save the second marriage and live fully as Catholics.

Most American Catholics (including the clergy engaged in the pastoral ministry and many theologians and canon lawyers) consider this situation both unjust and unchristian. Dissatisfaction with the official practice of the church is deep and widespread. Millions of Catholics in perfectly good standing in the church do not understand or agree with the official practice of the church. Very few matters in the day-to-day life of the church have provoked so much bitterness, so much subterfuge and so many defections from the church.

In an effort to cope with this situation, many priests have put into practice the carefully reasoned suggestion of prominent canonists and theologians that an "internal forum" solution is possible. The gist of the internal forum solution is that Catholics involved in second marriages may receive Holy Communion if they are sincerely convinced, after careful consideration, prayer and counseling, that their first marriage was invalid. Even if there is no hope that they could prove the invalidity of the first marriage in a church marriage court, they may follow their own conscientious convictions about the invalidity of their first marriage. Since no official declaration of invalidity is possible, Catholics who adopt the internal forum solution are urged to do so "discreetly" in order not to "scandalize the faithful."

The internal forum solution has brought some degree of solace to many thousands of second-marriage Catholics. But it is obviously a far cry from a full and official solution to one of the church's most pressing pastoral problems. "Internal forum" Catholics are inevitably second-class or back­door Catholics. If, in fact, some or many second-marriage Catholics are entitled to receive the Eucharist, their right to do so should be recognized officially.

Some prominent canonists and theologians have proposed much more far-reaching solutions to the problems of second-marriage Catholics. One is a radical change in the present doctrine of the church on the indissolubility of marriage—a change justified, it is argued, not so much by the hardships that the present doctrine imposes as by the earnestly argued "fact" that the doctrine is only about 400 years old.

A much more traditional, but still far-reaching, proposal emphasizes the scriptural and theological foundations for developing the doctrinal shift at Vatican II from a "contract" to a "covenant" approach to marriage. One practical consequence of such a development would be a great increase in the ease with which annulments could be secured on the ground of defective marital consent. The requirements for a valid "covenant" consent would be much greater than the pre­sent requirements for a valid "contract" consent.

While the theologians have been busy exploring indissolubility and covenant marriages, the canonists have been doing a great deal of work on taking maximum advantage of existing law and proposing simplifications of the procedural and evidentiary rules in annulment proceedings. There has been a dramatic increase during the last ten years in the percentage of cases in which the Roman Rota has found grounds for annulment due to lack of genuine marital consent. The presumption in favor of the validity of marriages celebrated in a church and duly consummated on the honeymoon has crumbled in the face of overwhelming evidence that many such marriages break down rapidly. They simply should not be considered marriages in the first place. Even with existing law, diocesan tribunals that take full advantage of developments in Rotal jurisprudence can give full, official relief to many second-marriage Catholics.

Unfortunately, whether you can get an annulment still depends to some extent on where you live. Despite the age-old doctrine of the church that marriage is a fundamental right, some bishops still act as if they had a discretionary veto over annulments. No bishop will say so openly; but the obstacles that some put in the path of annulment, through private instructions to the officials of their diocesan tribunals and through inadequate staffing and financing, are tantamount to the exercise of a veto power. Church law should make it easy for Catholics trapped in such a diocese to institute proceedings in another diocese that is functioning in accord with church law and doctrine. If there is anything that really scandalizes the faithful, it is the realization that whether you can get married in the church or not can depend on whether you live in Philadelphia or Brooklyn.

While theologians study, canonists argue and most bishops try earnestly to improve their marriage tribunals, second-marriage Catholics live and die. Some of them, understandably impatient with the snail's pace of progress in the official solution to their problems, have formed the Divorced Catholics Group of the Paulist Center Community in Boston (5 Park Street, Boston, Mass. 02108). At a recent national conference for divorced Catholics, this group sponsored a call to the American Catholic bishops for “amnesty.” They asked the bishops "to welcome back into full membership in the Roman Catholic communion all women and men who have been separated because of divorce and remarriage." The Boston group felt that such an amnesty would be appropriate during the 1975 Holy Year called by Pope Paul VI, and would make the church "a living sign of reconciliation in the world." According to this proposal, Catholics who have grown through marital failure and who have taken the risk of loving again should be reconciled to the church "in the privacy and confidentiality of the sacrament of penance" without any constraint upon the human fulfillment of their present marriages.

If this amnesty were legally possible, it might well be desirable as a stopgap measure. Given the present laws of the church, however, the amnesty is not legally possible. Moreover, it would not provide a permanent, official solution for second-marriage Catholics. Regrettably, the amnesty asks for both too much and too little from the American bishops.

Any official solution to the second-marriage problem must preserve all of the values that the church has traditionally associated with marriage. Marriage is a fundamental human right; it is also a sacred event, a social event, a sacramental event. The proper basis of the church's interest in marriage is precisely its spirituality and sacramentality—an interest that endures even after the church has lost, in most countries of the world, whatever influence it once had over marital property rights and the custody of children.

The church must continue to insist that true conjugal love is not blindly romantic but, in the words of Pope Paul VI, "total, faithful, exclusive and creative." The mere fact that two people are infatuated with each other is no reason for the church to recognize their union as a marriage. There must be a permanent, mutual giving of each other in Christ for spiritual as well as purely natural growth.

At the same time, however, the church must continue the development of its doctrine and law on marriage. Revelation ended with the apostles, but the process of understanding revelation and applying it to contemporary problems is never-ending. The church’s doctrine and law on marriage have undergone substantial and almost continuous development throughout the church’s history. Christ's seemingly absolute denunciation of divorce and remarriage did not prevent the apostolic church from developing the form of divorce and remarriage known as the Pauline privilege or the medieval and modern church from developing the form of divorce and remarriage known as the Petrine privilege. The "contract" doctrine of the Council of Trent did not prevent the development of the "covenant" doctrine of Vatican II.

With respect specifically to the proper way to treat Catholics involved in second marriages, the discipline of the church has undergone many developments in the course of the last 20 centuries, and is quite obviously in a state of flux at the pastoral level right now. It is important, therefore, to determine whether the present official discipline of the church toward second-marriage Catholics can legitimately be changed, even if the church does not or cannot change its doctrine on indissolubility.

For the reasons explained below, the discipline can and should be changed, at least with respect to those Catholics who can satisfy the following four conditions: 1) Their first marriage is irretrievably lost. 2) The present methods of official reconciliation—death of the first spouse, annulment, Pauline and Petrine privileges—are unavailable. 3) The parties to the second marriage have demonstrated by their lives that they have a sincere desire to participate fully in the life of the church. 4) There are solid grounds for hope that the second marriage, even though it cannot be officially celebrated as yet by the church, will be in all other respects a Christian marriage.

Catholics who meet these four conditions should be allowed to receive the Eucharist and to serve and provide leadership within the church. The basic justification for this change in discipline with respect to these Catholics is that marriage and family life are fundamental human rights which may not be denied except for the most compelling reasons. There are only two reasons that can fairly be urged as compelling in this instance:  Christ’s denunciation of divorce and remarriage (Mk. 10:11) and the high social and spiritual interest involved in preserving the stability of marriage and family life. Careful examination of these reasons, however, discloses that they are not sufficiently compelling to justify the exclusion from the life of the church that is presently inflicted on even those second-marriage Catholics who meet the four conditions described above.

If, in fact, the first marriage of these Catholics was not valid, then neither Christ's injunction nor the common good is violated by the second marriage. In many instances, there is simply no way to tell whether the first marriage was valid or not. Given the practical impossibility of resolving the issue, the question is: What options do Christ's teaching and the demands of the common good leave open to the church?

One option is to preserve the present discipline of the church, thus avoiding any possibility of violating Christ’s teaching or of weakening the bonds of marriage. The church, however, is not compelled in doubtful matters to resolve all doubts against the individual. There is doubt among Scripture scholars about exactly what Christ meant by His injunction against remarriage.  Was he condemning only the Mosaic law (specific) context in which He spoke, or did He literally mean that every second marriage by a divorced person is an act of adultery? There is even more doubt among theologians, canonists and priests engaged in the pastoral ministry that Christ meant that any divorced person who enters into a second marriage must abandon the second marriage or forgo full participation in the life of the church, regardless of the circumstances of the breakdown of the first marriage and regardless of the human and spiritual developments that take place in the second marriage.

Given these doubts and the fundamental nature of the right to marriage and family life, it seems more consistent with Christ's very clear teachings on repentance and the ever-present possibility of beginning a new, full Christian life for the church to modify its discipline and to put more emphasis on the present spiritual dispositions of second-marriage Catholics. For the last four centuries at least, the church has put too much emphasis in its marriage discipline on the common good and too little on the individual rights and present dispositions of those who from malice, mistake or psychic incapacity at the time, failed to achieve a tolerable first marriage.

The church can avoid the dilemma of being unfaithful to Christ's teaching or of violating the rights of individual second-marriage Catholics by taking a middle ground between denunciation and blessing. In its necessary concern for fidelity to Christ's teaching and for the common good involved in the stability of marriage, the church can refuse to give official blessing to the second marriage as such until the first marriage has been certainly dissolved or proven invalid. In its necessary concern for the rights of the individuals involved, the church can rely on the present dispositions and good consciences of those second-marriage Catholics who meet the four conditions I have described. The church can and should leave the question of the validity and dissolubility of the first marriages to God.

Some will object that this proposal for official reconciliation of certain second-marriage Catholics is nothing more than a subtle attempt to seduce the church into condoning divorce and "living in sin." Such an objection, however, is in itself nothing more than a refusal to "look in the telescope." It refuses to face the history of the church, the many doctrinal and disciplinary developments on marriage, the complex issues and insoluble doubts that are involved, and the fundamental rights of the members of the church whose family life, Christian worship and service are at stake.

Still others will object that official adoption by the Pope and bishops of this proposal for reconciliation will cause a tremendous "scandal of the faithful." Catholics will no longer trust the leadership of the church; every doctrine and rule will be up for grabs; contributions will dwindle.

The answer to this objection is twofold. First, the actual reaction of most Catholics will almost certainly be one of enormous relief and gratitude. Secondly, ecclesiastical self-interest and fear of the unknown must not be allowed to overcome fidelity to the gospel imperative of love and compassion for every human being, no matter what serious mistakes or serious sins they have committed.

Unquestionably, official adoption of this proposal for reconciliation would require careful explanation to the membership of the church of the reasons for the change in discipline. It must be abundantly clear that the purpose of the change is to show compassion and to do justice, not to introduce covertly another form of divorce into the church. Whether such a form may or should be introduced is a question that must be left to the continuing development of theology and canon law. As Father Denis J. Burns, presiding judge of the marriage tribunal of the Archdiocese of Boston put it: "If ever a change in so fundamental and historical a doctrine is made, it could only be made after long study, serious consideration, profound soul-searching and divine inspiration."

What can be done now, while the theological and canonical development continues under the guidance of the Spirit, is for the church to make possible an official reconciliation for Catholics involved in stable second marriages, when their first marriage is dead and they have demonstrated the sincerity of their desire to live, worship and work in the church. To justify the reconciliation of these Catholics, it is not necessary to determine the validity or indissolubility of their first marriages. Full justification is found in the doctrines of the church that marriage is a fundamental human right, that there are no unforgivable sins and that repentance for the sins and mistakes of the past always opens the door to a new chance for a full life in the Christian community.

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