Over the past several months there has been a lot of speculation on if and how the Church should change her teaching on marriage and divorce. Ross Douthat recently wrote a thoughtful column that sums up recent debates and concerns. (Here: More Catholic than the Pope?)
But those who seriously think that the Church can execute a fundamental change in our stance on divorce and remarriage will get a simple answer from me: “Impossible.” To the inevitable follow-up question, I can be equally brief in my response: “Divine Law.”
The Church’s teaching and concerns about divorce and remarriage do not have their origin in some sort of “uptight” Church with a bunch of “uptight rules,” (to use an unfair characterization). The forbiddance of divorce and remarriage is Divine Law; that is, it comes from the very lips of Jesus.
Despite the widespread allowance of divorce in His own culture, and even some allowance of it in the Mosaic Law, Jesus, when asked if divorce and remarriage were permissible, simply says, “No” (Mat 5:32; Mat 19:9; Mark 10:11; Lk 16:18;). He goes even further and says that those who do so commit ongoing adultery in their second marriages. This teaching is repeated several times in Jesus’ ministry.
This is Divine Law, sovereignly stated by Jesus. No Pope, no Council, no Synod, no priest in any confessional—no one has any right or capacity to set aside Divine Law. Those who argue that the Church should change her teaching on this matter are asking the Church to do something she cannot do. They are asking her to overrule Jesus. Appeals to culture, pointing out what certain Protestant denominations do or don’t do, even the practice of the Orthodox churches—none of these can or should overrule the stance of the Roman Catholic Church. We have held, properly, that Jesus’ teaching on the matter cannot be set aside by formulas, human rituals, human judges, human clerics, or any number of euphemisms.
Jesus is clear: to be validly married and then to divorce and marry someone else is to be an ongoing state of adultery. If this does not seem “nice” or “pastoral,” let the complainant talk to the chief Shepherd, Jesus, because He is the one who said it. Whatever pastoral stance the Church adopts, whatever language she employs, she cannot adopt any sort of stance that overrules this clear teaching of Jesus’.
But of course this brings forth the next question: What about annulments? Are they not a breaking of Jesus’ teaching? No, at least not according to the very words of Jesus himself. Let’s consider the matter a little further.
The Biblical Root of Annulments. The Lord says this in regard to marriage: “What God has joined together, let no one divide (Mat 19:6). On the face of it, divorce or any sort of annulment would seem forbidden by this. But actually the text serves as a basis for the Church’s allowance of annulment under certain circumstances.
The text says “What GOD has joined together” cannot be divided. Now just because two people stand before a Justice of the Peace, or a minister, or even a priest and swear vows, it does not mean that what they do is a work of God. There have to be some standards that the Church insists on in order for us to acknowledge that what they do is “of God.”
There are a number of impediments that can render what they do ipso facto invalid. Things such as prior bond (married before), consanguinity (related by blood too closely), minor status (under legal age), incapacity for the marital act (i.e., cannot have sexual intercourse), and the use of crime or deceit to obtain consent—any of these things can render a “marriage” invalid. Further, it is widely held that if one or both parties were compelled to enter the marriage (e.g., by social or financial pressure), or if they display(ed) a grave lack of due discretion on account of immaturity or poor formation, such marriages are nullified on these grounds.
All these are ways that the Church, based on evidence, can come to a determination that what appeared to be a marriage externally was not in fact so. Put more biblically, the putative marriage was not “what God has joined together.”
One may ask, “Who is the Church to make such a determination?” She is in fact the one to whom the Lord entrusted, through the ministry of Peter and the Bishops, the power to bind and loose (Mt 18:18) and to speak in His name (Lk 10:16).
Thus, Annulments are not Divorces. A decree of nullity from the Church is a recognition, based on the evidence provided, that a marriage in the Catholic and biblical sense of the word never existed. Hence, since a person has not in fact been joined by God to another, he or she is free to marry in the future. In such a case a person does not violate our Lord’s declaration that one who divorces his spouse and marries another commits adultery (cf Matt 19:9).
Hence the Church does not set aside the Lord’s teaching by her teaching on annulment. Rather she has reflected on His teaching and seeks to apply the Lord’s premise for a valid marriage, namely, that it is “what God has joined together.”
But here then comes the basis for the great debate: are we giving too many annulments? While it is clear that the Church has some pretty precise canonical norms regarding marriage, like any norms, they have to be interpreted and applied. Certain American practices and norms have evolved over the last thirty years that many think are too permissive and thus no longer respectful of the binding nature of marital vows.
Many troubling statistics could be presented to show that there has been a true explosion in the number of annulments granted. In the early 1960s, there were about 300 annulments granted per year in the United States. Today that number is over 60,000!
When it comes to annulments, I as a Catholic pastor am somewhat torn. Permit me two thoughts on both sides of the question.
Issue # 1 – Somewhere we have lost our way. As a Church that forbids divorce and remarriage, historically we have insisted on the fact that marriage is an unbreakable bond. Our straightforward insistence on this actually led Henry VIII to found his own “church” when the Pope refused to allow him to divorce and remarry.
In recent decades I fear we have become an “uncertain trumpet” on this topic. We still say “no divorce and remarriage,” but we don’t really seem to mean it, at least not in the minds of most people, who do not have command of the finder points of canon law. If one does go the route of divorce and remarriage, routinely we seem to “work it all out for them.”
That so few annulment requests are refused makes it seem a bit of a charade to say that we teach against divorce and remarriage. Now I said it makes it SEEM this way; I did not say that we in fact DO teach that divorce and remarriage is OK. But our teaching forbidding it surely seems an abstraction to many; for in the end and there appear to be no real consequences for anyone who divorces, other than having to go through a tedious and legalistic process that almost always ends in the granting of the annulment.
Hence our pastoral practice does not seem to reflect our faith and doctrine vigorously. Pastorally, this is troubling, and it has grave effects on marriage in the Church and on how people regard it. Are we really serious about upholding the Lord’s strict doctrine on marriage? Though doctrinally I think we are, pastorally I think most Catholics don’t think we are all that serious about it in the end. What we do speaks more loudly than what we say. And this is a big problem.
Issue # 2- Many pastors struggle with Annulment, not as an abstract debate about policy, but rather as a problem that affects real people who come to them with needs. Often it isn’t as crass as somebody coming in and saying, “Well I got rid of my first wife and have got me another I want to marry; let’s get the paperwork going, Father.” It is usually far more poignant than that. Perhaps someone married early, before he or she was really very serious about the faith, and married someone abusive. Now, years after the divorce, he or she has found someone supportive in the faith. Perhaps they even met right in the parish. Should a marriage that was entered into in the young and foolish years, and lasted all of six months, preclude entering into a supportive union that looks very promising? Maybe so, some still say.
Another common scenario is a person showing up at RCIA who has recently found the Catholic faith and wants to enter it. However, he or she was married 15 years ago in a Protestant Church to someone who had been married before. Now, mind you, the current marriage is strong and they have both been drawn to the Catholic faith. They have four children as well. What is a priest to do? Well, I can tell you that this priest will help the one who needs an annulment to get it.
And I can tell you, a lot of cases come to the Church this way. It’s hard and perhaps even unjust to say to someone like this that there is nothing the Church can do—he or she will never qualify for the Sacraments. No, we just don’t do that; we take such individuals through the process for annulment.
Perhaps too, another person shows up at the door: a long lost Catholic who has been away for 30 years. During that time he or she did some pretty stupid stuff, including getting married and divorced—sometimes more than once. Now he or she shows up at my door in a current marriage that seems strong and helpful, and which includes children. The person is in desperate need of Confession and Holy Communion. What is a pastor to do? He takes him or her through the process of annulment to get access to those Sacraments.
So there it is. There are very grave pastoral issues on both sides. On the one side, we lack coherence for many when we say we are against divorce and remarriage, but then grant so many annulments. On the other side are tens of thousands of people whom we seek to reintegrate into the life of the Church and her Sacraments.
Frankly, some of the reports (and they are only reports) of the upcoming Synod have been a bit discouraging. Many influential leaders, Bishops among them, have suggested a further watering down (my assessment) of the teaching of Jesus (who himself refused to water it down when pressured to do so) on divorce and remarriage. My own prayer is that we would move more in the direction of internal clarity regarding valid grounds for annulment. Right now the lack of clarity over what is meant by “grave lack of due discretion” (a.k.a. “immaturity”) sows confusion and even cynicism among the faithful.
It will be granted that some degree of maturity is required to enter into sacramental marriage. We don’t let 10-year-olds marry for good reasons. And when someone turns 18, he or she doesn’t magically reach the maturity required to enter into a valid Catholic marriage. However, when does one reach maturity? What are the signs of or criteria for such maturity? Exactly how much maturity is required for one to enter into a valid marriage? On what grounds can a priest refuse to marry a couple he deems to be immature? As you can see, nailing down the concept of “maturity” may seem easy, but it is not.
This is significant because many, if not most annulments are rendered on the grounds of grave lack of due discretion (a.k.a. lack of full maturity).
If there could be any reform that might be helpful coming from the Synod, it would be to order further clarity and reflection over what we mean by “due discretion” and proper maturity. Sadly, I do not see such a proposal on the table. If reports are true, it sounds like many are looking for (hoping for) a solution that, to my mind, makes things far more murky, and may even set aside or weaken what Jesus taught without compromise.
Thanks be to God for the Holy Spirit, who I am sure will prevent the Synod from teaching outright error. But protection from error is a “negative protection” in that it only prevents error. And thanks be to God for that! But is it too much for me to pray for greater clarity, for me to pray that the Spirit will lead us to become clearer and more prophetic in our teaching? Veni Sancte Spiritus!