Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church. Edited by Robert Dodaro, O.S.A. Ignatius Press (2014)
Of the four volumes Ignatius Press is publishing for this purpose, Remaining in the Truth of Christ is the weightiest, providing the reader an in-depth examination of the history and theology of marriage from some of the Church’s most respected minds, including five Cardinals. Each responds, from varying perspectives, to questions raised by Walter Cardinal Kasper who has proposed “a change in the Church’s sacramental teaching and discipline, one that would permit, in limited cases, divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to be admitted to Eucharistic Communion following a period of penance” using “a formula by which second marriages are ‘tolerated.’”
After a brief, introductory article by Robert Dodaro, O.S.A., President of the Patristic Institute, Paul Mankowski, S.J., scholar-in-residence at the Chicago-based Lumen Christi Institute, discusses “Dominical Teaching on Divorce and Remarriage: The Biblical Data,” in a detailed “bible study” of verses that illuminate the Christian understanding of marriage as indissoluble and exclusive.
There are many beautiful insights in this section. When Jesus acknowledges the Mosaic concession to “divorce”, he adds that those seeking such concessions have hardened hearts. “In contrast to a sentimentalism current in our own day that views openness to divorce as a manifestation of charity, Jesus distances himself from the ostensible ground of the concession (‘your hardness of heart’) and proceeds to place himself in the paradoxical position of a new lawgiver vindicating the original and divinely ordained union of man and wife.” (p. 44-45)
There is also a developed consideration of the Jesus’ observation that in marriage “the two” become one according to God’s creative will. “[T]he focus changes from man’s recognition of connaturality with the woman to the divinely designed purpose of the male-female duality. Jesus does not comment directly on the relation of the divorce commandment given by Moses to the will of God, but by explicitly connecting the marital becoming one flesh to the pristine order of creation, he is stating as emphatically as possible that the oneness of husband and wife is divine will and not a human contrivance.” (p. 46) This observation has implications for many contemporary questions besides the situation of divorced, “remarried” Catholics.
The marriage practices of the early Church are examined by John M. Rist, emeritus professor of classics and philosophy at the University of Toronto and a former chair of philosophy at the Catholic University of America. His essay, “Divorce and Remarriage in the Early Church: Some Historical and Cultural Reflections,” is particularly essay in the light of Cardinal Kasper’s assumptions regarding the development of doctrine.
Professor Rist frankly acknowledges the cultural shifts and pressures facing a contemporary marriage as well as detailing the complex ways various Christian communities have rationalized marital failures. However, for the overwhelming majority of “patristic theologians of the first five centuries… as for the New Testament writers, second marriages (except, with some reservations, for widows and widowers) are forbidden during the lifetime of the original spouse.”(pp. 81-82) The “merciful” solution of bringing divorced, “remarried” Catholics into full Communion with the Church, perhaps after a period of penance, is not simply “unknown in the ancient Church, but …virtually none of the writers who survive and whom we take to be authoritative defend it; indeed when they mention it, it is rather to condemn it as unscriptural.”(p. 82)
Close examination of those few texts that might seem to offer exceptions –and Professor Rist gives them thorough scrutiny – brings him to conclude that “although among ancient Christians second marriages during the lifetime of a spouse were normally forbidden and those who were engaged in them were denied Communion, there were a very small but noticeable number of exceptions to the rule that, however, were almost invariably condemned.” (p. 92) There isn’t much in the ancient evidence to which those seeking change can appeal.
The Orthodox perspective is provided by Archbishop Cyril Vasil, S.J., Secretary of the Congregation for Oriental Churches, who has written “Separation, Divorce, Dissolution of the Bond, and Remarriage: Theological and Practical Approaches of the Orthodox Churches.” This is an interesting essay in the light of Cardinal Kasper’s reference to Orthodox practice as a model the changes he would like to introduce.
Archbishop Vasil acknowledges a wide disparity of practice among various branches of Orthodoxy and with great historical and theological detail, explains that “the Orthodox Churches have practically never elaborated a clear doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage that could bring the New Testament requirements to the judicial level.” (p. 125)
To the question, therefore: “Could the practice of the Orthodox Churches be considered ‘a way out’ for the Catholic Church in the face of the growing instability of sacramental marriages, by providing a pastoral approach toward those Catholics who, after the failure of a sacramental marriage and a subsequent civil divorce, contract a second, civil marriage?” (p. 95), Archbishop Vasil poses another question. “Is it thinkable to resolve the difficulties that Christian marriages must confront in the contemporary world by lowering the demands of indissolubility? Will we have helped to cultivate the dignity of matrimony, or do we offer it only a placebo, as in the Old Testament, for the hardness of hearts?” (p 127)
A somewhat more current history of Church teaching about marriage is provided in “Unity and Indissolubility of Marriage: From the Middle Ages to the Council of Trent” by Walter Cardinal Brandmüller, former President of the Pontifical Committee for Historical Sciences. The stories of historical marriages in which the Christian understanding of marriage begins to replace pre-Christian forms and norms of marriage among converted peoples demonstrate “no doubts regarding the theological foundations, but … considerable uncertainties regarding the application of the Christian teaching of marriage to concrete cases, which emerged in social conditions that still bore the stamp of pre-Christian traditions. In fact, in this process of ‘inculturation’ of the gospel we encounter individual bishops and even synods that believed they could dissolve marriage and allow remarriage…” (p. 139)
This brings Cardinal Brandmüller to ask, then, if “in the current situation and in the face of present pastoral difficulties” historical precedents permitting divorced people to remarry while the first spouse still lived might offer “a doctrinal position already taken in the past and from accepting a ‘more humane’ practice—as one would put it today—concerning divorce and remarriage?” Would this resolve our problems?
He answers, “It is not for nothing that history has moved beyond [compromised practices of the past]—their theological legitimacy does not rest on solid foundations. Tradition in the technical-theological sense of the term is not an antiques fair where one can look for and acquire particular desired objects.” (p. 141) The inherent injustice of various idiosyncratic historical aberrations are precisely what led to the Church’s establishment of canon law norms.
Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, is the interviewee of another recent Ignatius publication The Hope of the Family: Dialogue with Gerhard Cardinal Müller. The Hope of the Family describes, in clear, simple terms, the controversies that will face the upcoming Synod on the Family and the Church’s position on some of them. Here, in an essay titled “Testimony to the Power of Grace: On the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Debate concerning the Civilly Remarried and the Sacraments,” Cardinal Müller picks up those themes and develops them.
“Marriage can be understood and lived as a sacrament only in the context of the mystery of Christ” Cardinal Müller writes. “If marriage is secularized or regarded as a purely natural reality, its sacramental character is obscured. Sacramental marriage belongs to the order of grace; it is taken up into the definitive communion of love between Christ and his Church. Christians are called to live their marriages within the eschatological horizon of the coming of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.” (p. 154)
Catholics who have divorced and “remarried” must, of course, be welcomed by the local church, whose pastors and congregants “are bound to stand by the faithful who find themselves in this situation, with ‘attentive love.’ They too belong to the Church; they are entitled to pastoral care, and they should take part in the Church’s life.”
But, there is a larger pastoral concern at work here. “[T]hey cannot be admitted to the Eucharist” because “their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist.” It would lead others “into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”(p. 155) One might add, it would also lead remarried divorcées into a false understanding of their own situation.
“The institution of marriage has undergone a ‘storm’ the likes of which has never been seen in history,” Carlo Cardinal Caffarra, Archbishop of Bologna, begins his essay, “Sacramental Ontology and the Indissolubility of Marriage.” (p. 166) He makes the salient observation that “the drama of the individual person does not consist in the possibility of becoming a ‘case’ considered exceptional or not according to the law. It consists in the fact that freedom can affirm or negate the truth of the person through the choices that person makes. Hence, the method we should apply does not consist in learning to proceed from the universal (the law of indissolubility) to the particular (the marital situation), but in educating the person to be free, that is, to be subject to the truth about the Good.” (pp. 168-169) The Synod on the Family must “recall us to a ‘conversion of thought’ in an ‘orthoptic’ way, to look at marriage without reducing it to the couple as it is considered in postmodern Western thought.” (p. 170)
One particularly appreciates Cardinal Caffarra’s observation that speaking of a “second marriage” as though it “participates in an imperfect way in the ratio coniugii (the essence of what marriage is) is a serious offense against logic.” (p. 179) Secular language is inadequate for this discussion.
Velasio Cardinal De Paolis, C.S., who is emeritus president of the Prefecture of Economic Affairs of the Holy See, authored “The Divorced and Civilly Remarried and the Sacraments of the Eucharist and Penance.” He details the Church position, which “is not a punitive or discriminatory rule against the divorced and the civilly remarried, but rather expresses an objective situation that makes impossible admission to the Eucharistic Communion per se” (p. 185) and explains its applicability to all the faithful.
From this position, he examines Cardinal Kasper’s proposals for readmitting the civilly divorced and civilly remarried Catholic to Eucharistic communion. “I have tried to understand Kasper’s reasons. Inasmuch as I have been able to understand them, I do not find any valid argument to give an affirmative response to the question whether a penitential via media between laxity and rigorism can be found that would enable the divorced and civilly remarried to receive the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist.” (pp. 193-194) The bulk of Cardinal De Paolis’ essay, however, demonstrates that he understands the arguments all too well, and finds them well-intentioned, perhaps, but intellectually – and pastorally – wanting.
“Pastoral care is often placed in opposition to doctrine, both moral and dogmatic, because the latter is thought to be abstract and not relevant to real life or spirituality, as if doctrine proposes an ideal of Christian life inaccessible to the faithful,” writes Cardinal De Paolis. “Similarly it is commonly thought that because the moral law is universal and regulates life in general, it should be adapted to concrete cases, or not applied at all, because not all concrete cases can be covered by the law. But this is an erroneous view of pastoral care, which is an art, the art with which the Church makes herself into the people of God in everyday life. It is an art based on dogmatics, morality, spirituality, and the right to act prudently in the specific case. There can be no pastoral care that is not in harmony with the truths of the Church and her morality. A pastoral care in contrast to the truth believed and lived by the Church easily becomes a harmful arbitrariness.” (pp.210-202)
Raymond Leo Cardinal Burke, who was Prefect of the Supreme Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura at the time of writing his essay, “The Canonical Nullity of the Marriage Process as the Search for the Truth,” closes the volume defending the existing juridical process by which the Church determines the validity of a given marriage. “While it is true that the judicial process for the declaration of nullity of marriage is not itself of divine law, it is also true that it has developed in response to divine law, which demands an effective and appropriate means of arriving at a just judgment regarding a claim of nullity.” (p. 213)
In a beautiful tribute to the law, rightly practiced, Cardinal Burke continues: “It is particularly surprising that today, despite so many proclamations of the rights of the individual person, one finds a lack of attention to the carefully developed judicial procedures through which the rights of all parties, in a matter pertaining to their very salvation, are carefully safeguarded and promoted. I refer to the right to a judgment, in accord with the truth, about the alleged nullity of their marriage.” (P. 214)
It is precisely this right that is threatened by some of the proposals proffered by Cardinal Kasper’s camp. “[T]the truly pastoral and spiritual approach that aims to show compassion and love to the faithful in question must, by its very nature, be founded upon the truth of their situation. A practice can never be pastorally or spiritually sound if it does not respect the truth of the juridical state of the faithful.” (pp. 214-215)
This is the fundamental message that runs throughout the various essays here. People in difficult personal situations are not helped by wishing the situation away – by creating a “merciful” pretense. Among the many gifts the Church has to offer broken humanity is that she can see the individual’s place in a larger picture, that moves beyond transitory personal feelings and considers the welfare of all parties from a perspective that the individual rarely can. “Mercy” isn’t a band aid that covers the wound; it’s a salve that confronts the wound to achieve a salubrious end.
The above excerpts are too brief to adequately convey the depth and scholarship of Remaining in the Truth of Christ. These qualities, however, render the volume indispensible to anyone who wishes to better appreciate the solid ground on which Church doctrine rests. For those interested in or requiring a more succinct explanation of Church teaching on the matter of divorce and “remarriage,” however, Gospel of the Family and The Hope of the Family (along with the auxiliary volume, On Human Life) may be more suitable.