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.