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Mary Ann WalshSeptember 24, 2014

The Third Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, October 5-19 in Rome, addresses “The pastoral challenges for the family in the context of evangelization.” It is preparation for the 2015 ordinary synod and it’s time to address the situation of divorced and remarried Catholics.

Statistics from the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimate that the United States is home to 4.5 million Catholics who are divorced and remarried sans annulment. Church law bans them from the Eucharist, but the situation is confusing. Some don’t know they’re not permitted to receive Communion. Others wrongly think they’re denied Communion because they divorced, though the ban is incurred only if the divorced person marries again without an annulment since the church says the first marriage still exists.

Sorry is the plight of people whose children receive first Communion but they can’t join them. Some exit at Communion, when Mass ends for them. Some feel they serve a life sentence for a youthful mistake.

Pope Francis’ emphasis on the church’s pastoral nature offers hope, but no one should expect the church to alter its teaching on the permanence of marriage. Still, the church must face this issue.

Among the possibilities:

Streamline the cumbersome annulment process. Sacramental marriage requires that the partners be ready, willing and able to marry. Some individuals recognize there were problems such as immaturity and pressure to marry that precluded a sacramental marriage. The annulment process can help couples see why their marriage failed. Yet annulments still have a bad reputation.

CARA estimates that only 15 percent of Catholics who could avail themselves of the process actually do. Suggested remedies: Instead of having witnesses testify as to what they saw in another’s marriage, tribunal judges could accept what the people seeking an annulment say. The process could skip the automatic appeal to another court. To dismiss the canard that you can buy annulments, all dioceses might stop charging for them. Once a tribunal grants an annulment, a priest can bless the new marriage because no sacramental marriage existed, though a civil marriage did.

Encourage more use of the internal forum (not the external forum of church law). This process enables individuals convinced that their first marriage was not sacramental to approach Communion according to their own well-formed conscience. This is not an annulment and does not involve blessing the current union, but it acknowledges the primacy of conscience. It can be the answer for people who cannot successfully pursue an annulment. The church strictly reserves the internal forum to those who have unsuccessfully tried to pursue an annulment, but can there be other options, for example, for a battered spouse terrified of being in contact with the abuser? Might the church be less strict? A confessor could assist someone in development of a well-formed conscience so they can approach Communion if he or she sincerely believes the first marriage was not sacramental and the second one is. (Church practice holds that a priest who recommends this route must call on the couple to live without conjugal relations.)

Consider the Orthodox churches’ solution. In these only the first wedding is considered sacramental: The wedding psalms are joyful; the bride and groom are crowned and process around the altar. When marriages fail, however, the Orthodox are open to reviewing each case, granting a divorce with the possibility of contracting a second or even a third, nonsacramental marriage. The blessing of a second or third marriage differs. This allows participation in the sacraments yet still affirms the permanence of the first marriage.

Two concerns face the Synod fathers. One, after so much consultation, they dare not do nothing. That would be akin to what happened with the encyclical “Humanae Vitae,” when people anticipated a change in church practice but got none. Some say this is why today many Catholic women, according to pollsters, use artificial means of contraception. Others claim this ultimately led to broader rejection of church teaching. Two, the bishops cannot even suggest that marriage is not permanent.

Now, working with the Spirit, the bishops should find a way to comfort the pastorally afflicted and uphold the permanence of sacramental marriage.

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Terrance Wagner
9 years 7 months ago
I think a good conscience decision should be allowed
Claudette Cuddy
9 years 7 months ago
I immediately went to this article to look for hope for the previously unmarried Catholic who has married a divorced non-Catholic. This is a Catholic whose life seems to revolve around "playing by the rules" and does not embrace, for example, the "Internal Forum." Is there hope in the near future for such a situation whereby a fully initiated Catholic could once again be in full communion with the Church?
9 years 7 months ago
Dear Sr. Walsh, While I appreciate that we all have great sympathy for those Catholics who divorce and remarry without an annulment, and then may not receive Communion with their children, I think it is a serious error to change the annulment rules to make annulments easy, fast, and highly accessible. We do not solve problems in Catholic marriage by making it easier to annul. Nor is the annulment process a process of reconciliation with the Church. I think the problem is with divorce. Divorce has become easy, "okay" and acceptable, even to many clergy. The Church is not standing up and saying, "No" to divorce. Instead it stands up and says, "Well, let's make annulments easier!" That does not solve the problem of divorce. My husband divorced me after 27 years of marriage. He now says we were never married, and he will seek an annulment. He lied under oath to the Civil Courts. Do you believe he will NOT lie to a tribunal? And Mary Ann, in your article you say perhaps the remarried person made a youthful error?? What does that mean? That if the marriage lasted 3 years or less then it is to be annulled? Then simply say that: Marriages of three years or less stand a good chance of being annulled, but after that forget it. I think sin prevails because we try to find the good when we do wrong. We need to make annulments more difficult, not easier. Divorce may hurt family, but my children cling to the idea that their parents are still married. You make it easier for my husband X to get an annulment and you will do grave harm to my children and family.
Luis Gutierrez
9 years 7 months ago
I hope the bishops will also consider the church as a family, and recognize that our patriarchal family structure is becoming an obstacle to evangelization as we enter a transition to a post-patriarchal society. Hierarchy is not the problem, and the church must remain apostolic; patriarchy is the problem, and the exclusively male hierarchy is becoming stale as a symbol of the Christ-Church mystery. In this regard, St. John Paul II's Theology of the Body may provide a solid basis for solving the most pressing issues of human sexuality, both in families and in the Church as the family of God, including the ordination of women to the priesthood in the Catholic and Orthodox churches. The TOB endorses neither radical patriarchy nor radical feminism, and provides a vision of marriage, and gender relations in general, that can be summarized as unity in diversity, equality in mutuality, individuality in community. Doctrinally, nothing essential (dogmatic) would have to change in order to ordain women to the priesthood and the episcopate. The TOB confirms that there is one (embodied) human nature, shows that men and women equally share in human personhood, and makes clear that the human body, male and female, is what makes Christ visible. What is needed is "simply" to clarify our sacramental theology to separate patriarchal ideology from revealed truth. With all due respect and sensitivity for those who are heavily invested in the patriarchal order of things, this is a clarification that is possible and urgently needed in the church of the 21st century. Jesus never identified himself as a patriarch. The Holy Family was a not a patriarchy. The Trinity is not a patriarchy. The spousal, sacramental love of Christ for the church is not intrinsically patriarchal (as the TOB exegesis of Ephesians 5 abundantly shows), and Jesus Christ is head of the church because he is a divine Person and our Redeemer, not because he is a human male. The exclusively male priesthood is a choice, not a dogma (CIC 1024, CCC 1598). The church does have the authority (the power of the keys) to ordain women as soon as Peter decides it would be for the glory of God and the good of souls. The patriarchal age is passing away, but the deposit of faith is inexhaustible. Let us pray that all the Christian churches can discern the difference between patriarchal ideology and revealed truth, and act accordingly.
Joseph Pasquella
9 years 6 months ago
Christ establish the all male hierarchy did God when HE established the Kingdom of Israel. In the midst of pagan nations who were very use to having female priests, God wanted something different and He did what he wanted. Jesus always did the will of the Father, so when he Chose 12 men to become the apostle of his Holy Church he meant to have twelve men not women, if women were meant to be part of the Hierarchy of the Church Church would have made women Apostles and His mother would have been an apostle also. Pope John Paul II said let it be definitively held, understood and believed that the Church has no Authority to ordain Women, not even the Pope.
John Feehily
9 years 7 months ago
Petitions for annulments in my diocese may not be filed until one year following the civil divorce. By that time rigor mortis has set in and everyone but certain ecclesiasticsddd believe the marriage is over and done with. Nor do Catholics typically come and seek the priest's opinion on whether they should divorce. On the rare occasion I do I encourage them to make every effort to reconcile. The fait accompli that a divorced and remarried Catholic presents is their good faith desire to be in full communion with the church. Annulment is the first recourse, but not always possible under present procedures. I have wondered aloud how they might handle refraining from conjugal relations. No one has ever regarded that as more than an unrealistic choice. Next comes internal forum conversations in which the individual is asked how they regard the role God played in the first and second unions. If the individual expresses a firm conviction that God clearly brought the present Union into being, I ask why then are they refraining from confession and communion. "Because of church rules, Father" is almost always the response. then comes the conversation about conscience formation that leads to a resolution in the internal forum. If the Synod Fathers assert that such a solution is absolutely invalid there will be hell to pay in terms of credible witness by men who have no knowledge of either marriage or conjugal relations.
Mike Evans
9 years 7 months ago
First of all, the dogma of indissolubility rests on a devious and poor interpretation of scripture. The custom of marriage at Jesus' time was contractual, often accompanied by a bride price in a pre-arranged agreement by each family. It involved issues of property, of loyalty to each other, and of a social unit of family that most often fell under the bridegroom's relatives and forever separated the bride from her own family. Jesus came to help celebrate the marriage at Cana, not to officiate over a new sacrament. For centuries after Christ, marriage was not even celebrated by the church but was instead a mostly civil matter, continuing Jewish and Roman traditions, mostly of "ownership" of the bride and then mother of the groom's offspring. Even Joseph had contemplated divorcing Mary until commanded by an angel to proceed in marrying her. St. Paul found reason to allow a new marriage and nullity for an old marriage when there was conflict over the Christian faith. His advice is for the Christian to "leave" the marriage in order to be free in their belief and worship. Finally, the long-standing tradition in the Orthodox faith is to allow people to move forward into a new marriage since it is needed for their salvation as in 'it is not good for a person to live alone.' Finally, someone must challenge the false assumption that divorce involves sin or a "mistake" by one or both parties, hence the need for forgiveness for not sticking it out. Most of the divorces I have witnessed have been for gross and malicious behavior on the part of one of the parties, to the extent that the so-called love contract cannot continue. Most often it is the innocent party that must suffer the privations of living unmarried even though dependent for support (often not forthcoming and causing a condition of impoverishment) and for human intimacy and the redemption of love. The excommunication of divorced and remarried amounts simply to "cruel and unusual punishment" by ecclesiastical bodies who have no pastoral inclinations whatsoever and cling to a dogmatic understanding that even Christ himself would abhor. Jesus did not excommunicate the woman at the well but gave her his promise of eternal new life! And that after 6 previous marriages!
Robert Killoren
9 years 6 months ago
I was troubled in reading the Instrumentum Laboris, the document the leaders of the Synod prepared to start the discussion among the bishops at the Synod. It states the problems clearly, but its answer to almost every one is that lay people are ignorant of the Church's teachings and rules and all we need is more and better education/catechesis to solve the problems. To point fingers at society and the laity and blame them for the problems of premarital sex, divorce, homosexual marriage, use of contraceptives, dysfunctional families, , etc., is, in my opinion, the wrong place to start a open discussion among the bishops, even if the facts bear that out in many instances. I see a lot of judgments being meted out but not much talk of mercy or acceptance for part of the blame.
Daniel Kane
9 years 6 months ago
There is only marriage. Sacramental marriage exists between baptized males and females. Natural marriages exist with non-baptized. Both are life long. An annulment determines the validity of the marriage predicated on facts present but not known on or about the day of marriage. It does not "de-sacrament" the marriage, it does not even consider the sacrament itself. Annulment reform from an administrative perspective (fees, time-line, appeals, etc.) - all for it and possible. Butt he reform that is necessary is a rigorous catechesis on marriage and the objective denial of matrimony to those unsuited for it. Even this essay has about 4 or 5 errors catechetical errors, illustrating this need. But this is for certain (1) can not change the words of the Gospel (2) can not cancel or remove CCC 2384.
Joseph Pasquella
9 years 6 months ago
I agree that we cannot Change the words of Jesus Himself in the Gospel concerning Marriage, for Jesus raised marriage to a Sacrament, one of the big 7 sacraments of the Holy Church. If one breaks this marriage by divorce, they are not free to marry because they are still bound by the Sacrament which cannot be dissolved. The Catholic church has always had doctrinal problems with the orthodox solution of allowing church divorces and remarriage. But to be far to the Orthodox, they treat their divorce courts like we do annulments and not everyone if free to marry again, just like we do not allow some parties once an annulment is granted to enter marriage. I do not use the word remarry because the church has no authority to remarry someone who is married. We cannot change the Words of Jesus Christ because we live in a world that has reverted back to paganism and hedonism. Our job as faithful Catholics, especially us clergy is the preach and teach, reprove and rebuke when necessary the people of God as instructed by St. Paul. Just as married can only be between one man and one woman, so we must see this always as unbreakable until death to we part. No one who is living outside the will go God, who is in a not in the state of grace can approach the Eucharist to receive the Body Blood Soul and Divinity of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ. The only thing that the bishops can do to address this situation is to make the annulment process more simple with less red tape and duplication of services. Internal Form should only be discussed between a priest and those that confess. But I disagree with giving priest to much authority in this matter, for many priests will do what is easier. We are in the business of Saving Souls not making people feel good and warm and fuzzy inside. Only a well formed conscience and have discernment regarding dogmas of the Church and should never do this alone, even priests and deacons have spiritual directors that they consult.Tell people to follow their heart has been a disaster for our church, look at all the empty Churches that close, empty seminaries, empty houses of formation, and convents etc...that have died out or are dying. We need to obey what the church has always taught.and act accordingly. Better that that die hard dissenters repent or join the Episcopal Church and that goes of religious, and clergy alike.
Jim Lein
9 years 6 months ago
Church rules can change. For example eating meat on Friday. I grew up under that rule which of course was relaxed. I don't recall many people being upset that they had followed the rule for years and now younger people wouldn't have to live under the rule as long as they had to. But some did grumble. And this seems similar to people grumbling about their staying married like forever, while people in the future may not have to stay in a marriage forever. It also seems similar to people grumbling about working all day in the vineyard and getting paid no more than those working only one hour. As Cardinal Walter Kasper has suggested, with marriage, divorce and remarriage, some pastoral discretion (and love and mercy) should come into play rather than strict, cold, formal adherence to a church law in all cases, no exceptions at all no matter what. His suggestions seem the Christ-like way. If all we Catholics do is follow strict, formal rules, how do we let Christ into our lives? He preached and modeled love and mercy rather than strict rule adherence.
Michael Floyd
9 years 6 months ago
It seems to me that there is a very misplaced sense of "mercy" in this view that the remarried ought to be allowed to receive communion. I have seen several instances of those who mention, as an example, parents who cannot receive with their children at first communion. What is mercy, then? Is it the waving of doctrine when a heartbreaking situation presents itself? When I was a child my father left for another woman. To have any relationship with him at all I was to accept his new situation. This is a permanent wound I carry. What I read here implies that the Church ought to place its stamp of approval on this type of despicable behavior. Is mercy now simply making someone feel more comfortable in their skin? Or is mercy properly given to those who repent of sinful practices? ("neither do I condemn you now go and sin no more"). We seem to always land, in this culture, into the obviously absurd position that finally humanity has grown up and understands all these issues more clearly - more subtly . What is obvious is that we live in a society whose moral foundation is crumbling, and articles like this get the notion of moral leadership completely muddled: they want to double down on what is already not working in society and call it "mercy". It is a fine example of the kind of thinking that is leading us into oblivion.
Teresa Mandujano
8 years 1 month ago
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