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A familiar note about divorce

NCR Staff

For the fourth time under John Paul II, the Vatican has refused to relax church rules on the reception of Communion by divorced Catholics who remarry under civil law. If the past is prologue, however, pressure for change will continue despite this latest attempt to choke it off.

On July 6, a Vatican agency issued a document reiterating that Catholics who divorce and remarry without receiving an annulment, a church declaration that their first marriage was invalid, are barred from receiving Communion. In itself, experts say, the document adds little to previous declarations.

What makes the issue unusual is that the most prominent challenges to the official position have come not from activist groups or dissident theologians, but from members of the hierarchy, especially European bishops who have gently but insistently pushed for reconsideration.

At the same time, other bishops welcomed the document as a useful reminder of church teaching. Compassion, they argue, can never mean confusion on basic truths.

Approximately 6 million Catholics in the United States, and several million more in Europe, are estimated to have remarried without an annulment, creating an immense pastoral challenge. Experts say that most Catholic divorcees never attempt the annulment process. Some report they find annulments either disingenuous because they are asked to claim that their marriages null under church law, to some, tantamount to a ruling that the marriage never existed. Others find the process demeaning because of the personal detail they are asked to divulge. Some also complain of excessive delays and expense.

Offense to sacraments

The July 6 document came from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, an agency charged with interpreting canon law. It was presented as a clarification of canon 915, which says that people “who obstinately persist in manifest grave sin” cannot receive the Eucharist.

The document insists that remarried divorcees fall under the canon, and that allowing them to receive Communion creates offense both to the sacraments of Eucharist and marriage and to those Catholics who faithfully follow the rules. It asserts that church teaching on the point is a matter of divine revelation and cannot be changed.

The document adds that Catholics in a second, civil marriage cannot receive the Eucharist unless they separate or agree to abstain from sex. In the latter case, because the second marriage is visible to the public while the vow of chastity is not, the document warns that these Catholics must be careful to avoid scandal.

Though the principle that remarried divorcees are ineligible for Communion predates this pontificate, the Vatican under John Paul has been unusually forceful in asserting it. The pope first underlined the ban in his 1981 document Familiaris Consortio. The position was repeated in the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church and in a 1994 document from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith addressed to all the bishops of the world.

During the 1990s, several bishops have advocated modifications in the church’s position. In July 1993, three German prelates - Karl Lehmann of Mainz, Oskar Saier of Freiburg and Walter Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart - issued a joint pastoral letter on the subject.

The bishops offered pastoral guidelines for cases in which divorced and remarried persons might be admitted to the sacraments. They argued that individual Catholics who, with the guidance of a priest, decide in conscience that their marriage was invalid but who cannot (or do not wish to) obtain a decision from a church court to that effect, should be allowed to receive the Eucharist.

‘Not helpful’

The 1994 document of the Vatican’s doctrine office, which appeared under the signature of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was widely seen as a response to this initiative.

Kaspar, who is today a Vatican official himself as the secretary for the Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity, said when Ratzinger’s document appeared: “Pastorally the congregation’s answer is not helpful and leaves many pastoral ministers helpless. I think that theology, the church’s tradition and the Holy Spirit give us the possibility to reflect more widely upon this problem and to find new solutions that can be acceptable to the universal church.”

Other bishops have echoed the call for change. In 1998 another group of German bishops proposed that divorced people be allowed full participation in the sacraments after a period of “repentance.” At an extraordinary conference Oct. 16-17, 1999, the Italian bishops called for a “Jubilee gesture of reconciliation” toward divorced Catholics. They also affirmed that “divorced people remain full members of the church.”

During the 1999 Synod on Europe, Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium led the charge for new thinking. In a talk at the French national church, Danneels said that Catholicism may need to learn from the Orthodox church, in which the sacraments are understood as “medicine for the soul” rather than as a privilege earned by correct application of church rules.

The Orthodox church permits a second and even a third marriage following divorce. The liturgy for the second and third marriages, however, is different from the first. It contains a penitential element, expressing regret for the collapse of the previous marriage.

During the synod, a group chaired by Danneels noted that many couples seek a church wedding in order to ritualize an important moment in their lives, or to offer their marriage stability. Often these couples do not grasp the full theological meaning of a church wedding. This raises the question, Danneels’ group said, of whether their marriages are truly valid as the church has traditionally understood the term.

Danneels was not alone in raising the issue. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan included “the discipline of marriage” among his list of issues facing the church, and the Dominican superior Fr. Timothy Radcliffe included divorcees among a list of marginalized groups needing greater pastoral attention. “Our words for Christ will not have authority unless we give authority to their experience, learn their language, accept their gifts,” Radcliffe said.

The latest statement of Vatican inflexibility disappointed Catholics who work with divorced and remarried persons. “To hear many divorced persons tell their story, especially those who had no choice in the divorce decision, the church has heaped on additional pain,” said Irene Varley, executive director of the North American Conference of Separated and Divorced Catholics, a 1,500-member group based in Richland, Ore.

Even if they did all they could

“People feel like they are worse than murderers, unforgiven, unclean because of their divorce, even if they did all they could do to change things,” Varley told NCR. “Add remarriage to this and you get an unworthy person so bad that they cannot even receive Communion. Does this sound like a church that teaches the love of God?”

Denver’s Archbishop Charles Chaput told NCR that discussion of the issue will undoubtedly continue.

“One of the most disappointing things about Catholic life in recent years is how quickly we try to explain away unwelcome teaching, no matter how explicit it is. The Holy See teaches something - and an industry seems to spring up overnight to dispute, minimize or circumvent it,” he said.

Chaput said that while the new document is not meant for reading from the pulpit, it does not lack pastoral sensitivity.

“We only make things worse - murkier and more complicated - when we hedge the truth in the name of a false compassion,” he said. “What the church teaches about marriage and divorce is true. It’s very clearly rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself and the long reflection and lived experience of the church. To water it down would lack both justice and mercy because ultimately it would wound people far more seriously, by lying to them.”

Chaput’s point was echoed by Archbishop Julián Herranz, head of the council that issued the document. In an interview with the Roman news agency I Media, Herranz said the church follows the example of Christ, “who pardons the adulterous woman in the gospel and tells her, ‘Go and sin no more.’ Christ does not justify adultery, even as he pardons this woman.”

The e-mail address for John L. Allen Jr. is jallen@natcath.org

National Catholic Reporter, July 28, 2000