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Rules against remarriage driving souls away


In one of the more distant Chicago suburbs where there are no alleys, there is a mega-church that can draw over 15,000 worshipers on a Sunday in Ordinary Time and over 30,000 on holidays of the first class. From time to time, I’m told, the minister will ask for a show of hands. “How many of you are Catholics?” he asks.

And half the crowd stands to acknowledge their cradle faith.

One reason that Catholics take their souls to a heretic church is that they feel they have forfeited their membership in the Roman church because they violated one or more of the complex marriage laws. Their numbers are growing faster than some other branches of the tree of Christianity. But the church does not seem inclined to relax the rules. In fact, just last July 6, the Vatican announced that divorced and remarried Catholics are prohibited from receiving the Eucharist while sacramentally bound by a previous valid marriage. Fortunately, I can’t think of a parish that bar codes its parishioners in order to insure adherence to this cruel prohibition.

In the Dec. 16 issue of America, Michael Hout, professor of sociology at the University of California at Berkeley, presents some disturbing statistics on the impact of the current discipline in the church.

According to Hout, one-half of American Catholic marriages end in divorce. Half of the divorced Catholics remarry, thus affecting about 10 million people. Perhaps as many as 10 million Catholics will marry these divorced Catholics.

Currently, 17 to 20 percent of divorced and remarried Catholics leave the church. Sixteen percent of the 51 million adult Catholics in the United States are currently divorced, and 9 percent have been divorced and remarried in the past. All told, some 17 million Catholics have experienced divorce. In fact, by the 20th anniversary of their first marriage, Hout concludes, 48 percent of Catholics have been divorced.

While divorced Catholics attend Mass as regularly as married Catholics their age, about one in five of those who remarry consider themselves ex-Catholics, and at least one-third join and become active in a congregation of another faith.

If any other faith or social group were experiencing such leakage, its leaders would be in a panic. Further, in the church’s canon of sins, an invalid marriage may be the only sin left that bars one from a place at the table. Sadly of late, the pastoral church has become the Pentagon church, drowning in rules and regulations.

I am saddened when I scan the obituary notices in the public prints each morning and discover people with names and detailed backgrounds that reflect a Catholic heritage. I discover that they are being buried from the funeral home or following a service at another Christian church. Many list stepchildren that suggest a second marriage and thus an exit visa from the Catholic church.

The information brought me back to a cluster of theology courses I took at Fordham University during summers in New York over 40 years ago. One of the theological morsels had to do with an item called the “reception of doctrine.” I may be oversimplifying, but the term had to do with a process in which the faithful accept a teaching or decision of the church. It could have to do with a matter of faith or morals, a council decision, a disciplinary ordinance, a liturgical decree, a marriage law -- just about anything having to do with life in the church. However, if the faithful did not receive the teaching, then it wasn’t considered real doctrine. Doubtful laws simply did not apply.

Perhaps the best example of this teaching is the release of Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae, the 1968 encyclical that informed Catholics that, if they practiced any form of birth control, they would not pass “Go” or collect $200. But the encyclical never achieved the adoption by consensus implied in the doctrine of reception, and the papacy lost much of its moral authority.

Reception of doctrine has now been reduced to reception by obedience. The notion of doctrine by reception has all but disappeared. The result is that laws regarding divorce and remarriage are now a series of impersonal commands, often monitored by celibate clergy who have a vested career interest in enforcing the status quo.

In recent decades, the losses caused by this rigid adherence to arbitrary rules have likely caused the loss of nearly 20,000 parishes of 1,000 souls each. Today, the consensus of the people has been pushed aside by the powerful magisterium that reserves to itself even decisions as to the proper species of wheat to be used in Communion breads.

On Sunday mornings, when our turn comes, Jean and I are Communion ministers to long lines of faithful coming to the altar steps to receive eucharistic nourishment. It’s likely that a good number of souls who come up the aisle have an impediment that prohibits them from approaching the banquet table. (Sadly, some parishes require that eucharistic ministers themselves supply proof of valid marriages before they can perform this function.)

Fortunately, the magisterium’s thunderous voice does not reach across the growing moat between the chancery turrets and the parish steps. Paraphrasing Tip O’Neil, the late House Speaker, most pastors believe that all pastoring is local. Indeed, some grant annulments “in the box” to Catholics who seek to repair a damaged marital history rather than have them endure what is often two years of questions and waiting.

I simply don’t know a Catholic family that hasn’t been touched by an invalid marriage or a divorce and remarriage. In many cases, the relatives are torn between the love of family and the love of church. The family virtually always comes out ahead, and many small family units are lost to the church.

I wonder if Jesus’ first mourners ever heard of such rules.

Tim Unsworth writes from Chicago where he is doing a confidential census of all Catholics in good standing. His e-mail address is unsworth@megsinet.net

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001