Pope Francis started it. He said that we need to look at how the Church can better minister to people in “second marriages.” That doesn’t seem so bad. It seems like a very pastoral concern. He even decided to have the Synod of Bishops brainstorm some ideas this fall. A great idea. However, it seems that the Holy Father might as well have pushed a snowball down the start of large mountain.
From the time that Pope Francis informally mentioned his concern, it seems that everyone from “high ranking theologians” to talk show hosts have now decided that the result of all this will be that the Church is going to radically alter her teaching on marriage. Although I was not alive at the time, I can’t help but think that this all has a very similar feel to 1968.
Venerable Pope Paul VI saw a pressing pastoral problem in his day too. The Catholic faithful were abandoning the teaching of the Church to follow the rest of society in the use of contraception. To help him think through the issue, he formed a commission to advise him. Meanwhile, the media and popular opinion began to create the narrative that the result of all these deliberations was inevitable; obviously the Church would “get with the times” and approve the use of contraception.
When the Pope’s commission concluded their work, most of these important theologians concluded that they had come up with some theology to explain how contraception could be tolerated and that the Pope should approve it. Case closed. Problem solved. Except for one thing…the Holy Spirit. Human wisdom can of course fail, but Jesus promised that his Church would not. As affirmed at Vatican I, the Holy Spirit will prevent the Holy Father from formally teaching error on a matter of faith and morals intended for the universal Church, and that’s exactly what happened here.
Venerable Paul VI released his famous encyclical Humanae Vitae in July of 1968 which not only failed to approve contraception, but infallibly taught that it was a great evil that would have evil consequences for the world. Today, we can look back and see how right Paul VI was and breathe a sigh of relief that the Church came down on the right side of this. His decision was of course no surprise to God, but it shocked the rest of the world, including many of the Christian faithful.
Although the Holy Spirit did in fact prevent the Church from formally teaching error, the results were problematic. Because everyone was led to believe that a change in teaching was not only possible, but really a forgone conclusion, they had great difficulty accepting what seemed to be a surprise. The truth is that there was never a chance that the Church would come out in favor of contraception; God would not allow it. Yet, the speculation and false leadings of the media and theologians led to a lot of unnecessary hurt and confusion.
I think the present discussion regarding the situation of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could end up mirroring that of 1968 and I fear a similar outcome.
People are speculating or even assuming that certain things will change where there is simply no chance that they will. Here are a few points to keep in mind as we prepare for the Synod this fall. Some things are possible; others are not.
Things That Can’t Change
- A Sacramental, consummated marriage is completely indissoluble. There is no possibility for the Church to change this. The Church did not create the Sacrament of Marriage and has no power to alter it.
- This means there is no way that the Church could ever “forgive” a valid marriage (as has been suggested), certainly less dissolve or annul it.
- This is not a matter of forgiveness or mercy. When two people come before God to enter into marriage they ask God, “Please join us together in a way that is so permanent that no one, not even we ourselves, are capable of breaking this union.” The couple not only consents to this but begs God to do it, and he does.
- Holy Communion usually cannot be received by those who have attempted a second marriage because, by engaging in marital relations with someone who is not their spouse, they are committing adultery. That is the explicit teaching of Jesus. You can’t be forgiven of a sin you’re not sorry for and have no intention of stopping.
Things That Could Change
- There is talk that the ability to leave one’s marriage and enter a new one should be decided “pastorally” rather than “juridically.” Certainly the primary concern is always the care of souls. One is always aware of trying to help a person in these difficult situations. However, we have to be clear about what question is being asked. The question that must be answered is, “Who is married to whom?” Messy as it may be, this is of its essence a juridical question, not a merely pastoral one. If you’re already married to a living person then you can’t get married again. How we determine who is married to whom and how quickly this determination is made is something that could change.
- We could ignore the sin. I know…I can’t believe I’m putting this out there. It’s not my opinion, but I guess I can’t say that it’s theologically off the table since just yesterday a Cardinal of the Church put forward basically this argument. In his language, he says we could never “accept” a second marriage, but we could possibly “tolerate” one. I have no idea what this means.
One thing I do know is that Jesus would never leave anyone beyond hope. No matter how deep one is in sin, there is always a way out. The Holy Father said yesterday that we must “accompany” those in this difficult situation and not condemn. Amen. But how should we accompany them? When one’s brother is lost in the forest, one does not accompany him by walking further in the wrong direction lest both of you become lost. The thing to do is to show up with a map and compass and lead the way out.
Until now, the pastoral “way out” of the sin of attempted marriage has been for the couple to live as brother and sister. Often they have children by this second relationship. They do not have to leave this relationship, but they have to act in a way that recognizes that they are not married, most especially in not having marital relations. This pastoral “way out” is already there. Is there another? That is the real question that the bishops will be asking this fall. Until then, let us all work to dispel myths about what can and cannot change. Let us work to avoid another 1968.