Divorce and Remarriage

Friday, May 23, 2003



I am currently married, and it is my first marriage, and by God's grace, I hope it will be my only marriage. I enjoy being married, and consider meeting my wife one of the best things that ever happened to me. I believe that divorce is wrong, and even sinful in most situations. Nevertheless, I have questions about the Church's teaching regarding divorce and remarriage and the subsequent reception of communion.
1649 Yet there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons. In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart. The spouses do not cease to be husband and wife before God and so are not free to contract a new union. In this difficult situation, the best solution would be, if possible, reconciliation. The Christian community is called to help these persons live out their situation in a Christian manner and in fidelity to their marriage bond which remains indissoluble. (Cf. FC 83; CIC, cann. 1151-1155.)
Note that the Church recognizes that there are situations where living together in a marriage becomes practically impossible. Such situations include, but are not limited to spouse abuse, cases of incest, drug abuse, or other circumstances involving sin that may not be fault of both parties.

I believe the Church rightly encourages both parties in such situations to remain open to the possibility of reconciliation. For this reason, a person who separates from an abusing spouse and does not seek another marriage is acting in a praiseworthy manner.

However, what happens if the door to reconciliation is closed. For example, what is to be done if a person separates from an abusive spouse, and the abusive spouse remarries to a third person?

Even in cases where we are not speaking of abuse, people grow and mature in faith. People undergo conversions even after baptism. What do we do with a baptized Catholic who was lapsed for a period, and during the lapse divorced to remarry another, has children in the second marriage, but now wants to reconcile with the Church.
1650 Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ - "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mk 10:11-12) the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.
What I question is the permanency of the prohibition to receive communion if a Catholic is engaged in a second marriage. It seems to me that Christ taught mercy and reconciliation. This reconciliation was most fully symbolized in the sharing of bread with sinners. Indeed, it was this act that scandalized the Pharisees, and it is no coincidence that the presence of the Lord is most real for us Catholics in the breaking of bread.

To deny a person communion is tantamount to saying that the person cannot be saved as long as they remain in the condition that prevents them from going to communion. If a person is not worthy of receiving Christ on earth, they will not be more worthy in the next life. Is it really the sense of the faithful that every person who is living in a second marriage while their first spouse is still alive would go to hell if they died in that instance?

Conservatives will argue that the answer is simple: dissolve the second marriage and stop living in adultery, or annul the first marriage. This does not strike me as reality. If the second marriage has children, and is a healthier, happier, and more loving union, I am not sure that God is really commanding its dissolution or considering it adultery. Likewise, with annulment, there may be children so that the couple does not want them considered illegitimate, and there may even be admission by the couple that the marriage was valid, but no longer is viable. How do such people reconcile with the Church?

Don't get me wrong. Divorce is not God's desire for us. Even the Old Testament prophets began to condemn divorce before the incarnation of Christ:
And you say, "Why is it?"-- Because the LORD is witness between you and the wife of your youth, With whom you have broken faith though she is your companion, your betrothed wife. Did he not make one being, with flesh and spirit: and what does that one require but godly offspring? You must then safeguard life that is your own, and not break faith with the wife of your youth. For I hate divorce, says the LORD, the God of Israel, And covering one's garment with injustice, says the LORD of hosts; You must then safeguard life that is your own, and not break faith. (Malachi 2:14-16)
The prophets were likely concerned about maintaining religious, racial, cultural and ethnic purity in a situation where many Jewish men were divorcing their Jewish wives in order to marry pagan women.

In the New Testament era, some scholars have suggested that the early Christians were opposed to divorce because a divorced woman was left without means of livelihood in a patriarchal culture. There may have been a social justice dimension to the strong opposition to divorce among early followers of Jesus. While I believe there is some truth to this, the Scriptures do portray other factors.

Mark's Jesus elucidates the reasons that divorce violates God's will by rooting the meaning of marriage in the act of creation.
The Pharisees approached and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing him. He said to them in reply, "What did Moses command you?" They replied, "Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her." But Jesus told them, "Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate." In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. He said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." (Mark 10:2-12)
Mark makes marriage a permanent union, something like scrambling two eggs together. The Church describes this as an "indissoluble bond". The two persons become one flesh, and cannot be separated due to a union established by God.

Luke seems to agree with this absolute prohibition against divorce:
Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery. (Luke 16:18)
This teaching is echoed in Pauline thought in the following passage:
To the married, however, I give this instruction (not I, but the Lord): a wife should not separate from her husband, and if she does separate she must either remain single or become reconciled to her husband--and a husband should not divorce his wife. (1 Cor 7:10-11)
Paragraphs 2382 to 2386 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church speak strongly against divorce and remarriage as a form of adultery and a violation of the indissoluble bond made real in a valid marriage.

However, there are some passages of the New Testament that add some nuance and qualification to our understanding of what has been said.
"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.' But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (lewd conduct is a separate case) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. (Matthew 5:31-32)
Note that Matthew's Jesus allows an exception to his own rule against divorce. The exception is variously translated as "lewd conduct", "adultery" or an "unlawful union". The word is porneias, which is the same root word for the English "pornography". Paul uses the same word to describe the man who entered into marriage with his step mother (1 Cor 5:1). Biblical scholars are uncertain of the precise meaning of the word in this context, but we know that the author of the gospel clearly believed there is an exception to the rule against divorce.

John's Christ encounters a Samaritan woman at the well in John 4:6-39. The woman claims to have no husband, and Jesus seems to gently chastise her because he knows she lives with a man who is not her husband. Then he says something very interesting:
For you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband. What you have said is true." (John 4:18)
It appears that John's Christ recognizes five valid husbands, even if he does not recognize her current union as a valid marriage.

In Matthew 22:23-33, the Sadducees pose a question to Jesus primarily aimed at disproving the notion of a resurrection of the dead. They tell Jesus of a woman who married a man who died leaving her without children. Obedient to the law, she then successively married his six brothers, each dying without leaving her any children. The Sadducees then ask Jesus whose wife she will be at the resurrection. Christ responds:
Jesus said to them in reply, "You are misled because you do not know the scriptures or the power of God. At the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage but are like the angels in heaven. And concerning the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was said to you by God, 'I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob'? He is not the God of the dead but of the living." (Matthew 22:29-32)
Certainly, the main point of this passage is about the afterlife and the final resurrection of the dead. Yet, Matthew's Jesus is not really answering the question we human beings grapple with regarding the indissoluble bond of marriage. For us, if there was a valid marriage, there must have been an indissoluble bond with one of the brothers. Christ refuses to say which brother had such a bond, and one can argue all or none of them did. Christ is seemingly responding that God's ways are not our ways, and we cannot fully comprehend the answer to such a question.

Indeed, I often wonder why we have no problem accepting a second marriage if a first spouse has died of natural causes?

Christ is clearly saying in the passage above that the indissoluble bond of marriage does not survive death, and Paul also permitted remarriage after a spouse is deceased.

However, it is difficult for me to imagine that my wife and I will not share a special bond in the next life, and I believe that most people who marry once and are happy in their marriages feel this way. Many widows and widowers choose not to marry again, feeling that they would be betraying their first spouse if they did. Is it wrong to feel this way?

Yet, according to Scripture, physical death can dissolve the bond of marriage, which we know must be true since we have it in the gospels as coming from Christ. If this is true, can we not speak in a sense of a marriage dying due to mortal sin? If a marriage dies due to sin, might a person be free to marry again?
Therefore, a bishop must be irreproachable, married only once, temperate, self-controlled, decent, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not aggressive, but gentle, not contentious, not a lover of money. (1 Tim 3:2-3)
Certainly, the Church does not interpret this verse as meaning that a Bishop must be married as opposed to celibate (though the verse does demonstrate some Bishops were married). However, the emphasis here is that the Bishop is to have only one wife, as opposed to more than one wife.

The implication is that there were members of the early Christian community who may have had more than one wife, but these people were not eligible for consideration as Bishops. Nevertheless, these people were members of the community, or else there would be no consideration of the question.

If some early Christians were polygamous, which is likely as Christianity spread into pagan lands, is it possible that polygamists were permitted to receive communion, even though their married status was morally ambiguous? In the Old Testament, David and Solomon were polygamous, and David is called a man after God's heart. I do not believe in polygamy, but is it on par with the unpardonable sin, which is what a permanent denial of communion implies?

If this was the tradition of the apostles, should we not consider this today when faced with similar circumstances? Divorce and remarriage is wrong, and it is not the perfect Christian way. However, we are sinners living in an imperfect world. Perhaps prohibiting people from receiving communion indefinitely is not the appropriate response to our current circumstances.
If the unbeliever separates, however, let him separate. The brother or sister is not bound in such cases; God has called you to peace. (1 Cor 7:15)
This passage is called Pauline privilege in Roman Catholic Canon Law. The verse is set in the context of Paul's writing primarily against divorce for the purpose of becoming celibate, though he includes teaching against all divorce. Yet, we see here that Paul admitted exceptions. The Church grants an easy annulment declaring a first marriage invalid if one of the partners was un-baptized and the marriage fails.

If we move outside of the New Testament era, we see that there were instances where the fathers of the Church permitted polygamists and divorced and remarried people to come to communion.

As regards trigamy and polygamy we have decreed the same canon as in the case of digamy, analogously. For it is a year in the case of digamy, but two for the others. As for those who are guilty of trigamy, they are excommunicated for the space of three years and often four years. For such a marriage is no longer to be called a marriage, but polygamy, or rather mitigated fornication. Wherefore the Lord told the Samaritaness who had had five husbands in succession,
'and he whom thou now hast is not thy husband' as being no longer themselves worthy when they have exceeded the measure of digamy to be called by the appellation of husband or wife. We have taken to the custom of condemning trigamists to five years excommunication not on the ground of any canon but only on the ground of usage followed by those who have preceded us. But it behooves us not to exclude them entirely from the Church, but instead to entitle them to listening in some two years or three, and thereafter to permit them to co-standers, though obliged to abstain from communion with that which is good, and then after exhibiting some fruit of repentance, let them be restored to the status of persons entitled to communion.
(This was approved by the 4th, 6th, and 7th Ecumenical Councils.)

One who marries a second time is not sinning, but he is not fulfilling the demands of evangelical perfection. It does him heavenly glory if he keeps the marriage tie sundered by death untainted by gladly obeying the economy.
An Orthodox priests explained to me that our Eastern brethren permit a person to marry three times before permanently barring the person from communion. Each marriage after the first marriage requires an examination and approval by the bishop to ensure that individual was not entirely at fault for the failed marriage, or that reconciliation of the first marriage is impossible.

A first marriage is celebrated with great joy, while second and third marriages are celebrated in a penitential rite. A person may be forbidden communion for a period of time, but not indefinitely. There is a recognition that divorce and remarriage is a sin and not to be encouraged. The Orthodox simply believe that, due to our sinful condition, a person may need more than one chance to get marriage right. There are means for the divorced and remarried to reconcile with the Church.

It is this last point that I feel is missing in the Roman Catholic expression of faith. It is not that our theology of an indissoluble bond is necessarily wrong. Nor is our desire to discourage divorce and remarriage wrong. Marriage is a beautiful thing that we want to protect and support.

However, I feel that we need a means for those who have remarried to reconcile with the Church. Christ's whole life proclaimed the possibility of reconciliation with God. This reconciliation means we need to take into account that there may even be children involved in both marriages, such that we may not want to determine a marriage "invalid" (and the children "illegitimate"). This reconciliation also means that we account for the growth in love that may occur in a person involved in a second marriage. I believe that the mercy and compassion shown by Christ demands that we take a more forgiving approach regarding this issue.

Peace and Blessings!

Readers may contact me at jcecil3@attglobal.net


posted by Jcecil3 1:25 PM

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