Bishops have recently been meeting in Rome to discuss issues related to family life throughout the world. In particular, we Western Catholics are concerned about what the church’s discipline will be for those who are divorced and remarried.
I did not say doctrine, because the church’s teaching on marriage remains the same, but how the church ministers to those in different situations may change.
In order to understand what is being discussed, it is important to know what is the Catholic doctrine on marriage. Don’t feel bad if you don’t know; most Catholics don’t know either.
The church sees the ministers of marriage being the couple getting married. A priest or deacon is required to witness the marriage, it must be in a Catholic Church (unless this law is dispensed by the Bishop of the diocese), the couple must be a man and a woman who are over 18, and there must be two witnesses who are adults.
If all of these requirements are fulfilled, generally speaking, the two Catholics are married sacramentally and are bound to their vow until one of them dies. The church does not make any pronouncements about what happens after death, like what type of relationship the couple will have in heaven (if both of them get there). Jesus in the Gospels states that there will be no marriage in heaven and that we will live like the angels (Mark 12:25 and Matthew 22:30).
The church will not change her doctrine regarding sacramental marriage, but that is not the question. The question is how can those who are divorced and remarried receive communion and the other sacraments of the church?
The current answer is they should not. A person who is living in a marital relationship with another is living in a way that is against their initial marital bond. Therefore, what needs to be done is to annul the previous marriage and regularize the current one.
The first option is to apply for a church annulment. As I wrote, the ministers of the marriage are the couple, so in order to prove that there was something deficient, either in the will or ability of one or both of the persons to effect the vows, requires a great deal of work by the petitioner of the annulment (one of the spouses).
It also includes the advocate (me for example as a priest), the judicial vicar (a priest who is a canon lawyer, who does all the canon law mumbo jumbo), and anyone else involved in the case, including any number of witnesses who are asked to give their observations about the couple and the marital union that they are attempting to annul.
Many get their annulments and then are able to have their current marriage convalidated by the church, so they can receive communion and the other sacraments of the church. Others, however, have their annulments denied in the sense that there is insufficient proof that their prior marriage was invalid. Others can’t go through the annulment process either because they don’t want to do it, they can’t do it emotionally, and/or they don’t possess a sufficient level of literacy and intellectual ability to be able to go through the process. The annulment process requires a good deal of self-reflection and writing.
Is there another way for those who are divorced and remarried to return to the sacramental life of the church, not having an annulment and their current marriage blessed by the church? What has been proposed is that there be some allowance for those who regret their prior marriage and are unable to separate from their current spouse because they have a good and happy bond now, have children together, etc. If the church were to allow this, it would be quite revolutionary; however, it would be a change in discipline, not doctrine.
Another question that will be examined is regarding the worthiness of the person who receives the sacraments. Most Catholics would say that we are unworthy, most if not all of the time, to receive communion. We all have some sins on our souls that separate us from God. It wouldn’t be outrageous for us to acknowledge that we as Catholics put a great deal of emphasis on our sexual sins, while we seem to forgive ourselves for hating our brother, harming the environment, or living a carefree materialistic and consumerist lifestyle oblivious to the poor.
The Eucharist is also a medication that heals the soul and helps us with Christ’s presence to help us to do better. It is not just for the worthy, but for those of us who need and desire Christ’s healing grace to bring greater wholeness to our divided lives.
Pope Francis’ M.O. seems to not deny doctrine, but to attempt to bring into view the whole picture. He wishes to encourage the church’s ministers to bring more to the community and to emphasize mercy rather than judgment.
There are some Catholics who seemingly disregard the church’s teaching on marriage as many ignore the teaching on contraception. Church teaching is regarded as passé and to be laughed at. The church has nothing to teach and it is up to the individual to figure out what she or he wants to do. Others come to church regularly and forgo receiving communion. They desire it with all their heart, yet for some reason, they are unable to get an annulment and therefore live with this painful separation.
According to my biased judgment, the church teaches what is true about marriage, and I hope that she may develop more pastoral options to help those who are divorced and remarried participate fully in the sacramental life of the church with a clear conscience. I come across many in my ministry for whom the process of annulment for any number of reasons is impossible for them. We will see.
Rev. Dinsdale is the priest at St. Marguerite Catholic Church in Tooele.