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Reopening the divorce question

NCR Staff

In subtle fashion, a handful of figures have put the church’s treatment of divorced and remarried Catholics on the table at the European Synod. In so doing, they have reopened a question the Vatican declared closed five years ago.

Most provocatively, Cardinal Godfried Danneels, 66, has hinted at the need for flexibility on whether Catholics who divorce and then remarry without obtaining an annulment can receive the sacraments. An annulment is a judicial decision from the church that the first marriage never existed.

Officially, the Vatican ended discussion of that issue in 1994 with a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. It held that allowing Catholics to receive the sacraments under those circumstances would undercut the church’s teaching on marriage.

Though the synod’s official propositions now appear unlikely to address the issue -- they will instead simply call for pastoral care for divorced Catholics -- the conversation here suggests the matter is anything but settled.

Given the high divorce rates in the developed world, where one in every three marriages ends in divorce (with rates for Catholics similar to the general population), the question of how the church treats divorcees reaches into the routine of virtually every priest and parish in Europe and North America.

The United States is especially noted for the number of annulments its church tribunals issue. In 1968, 338 annulments were granted in the United States -- today the figure is around 40,000, approximately 70 percent of the total worldwide. More than 80 percent of U.S. requests for annulments are approved (in Italy, by way of comparison, only 37 percent are granted). Some have criticized the relative ease with which American Catholics can obtain annulments as a form of “Catholic divorce.”

Nevertheless, even in the United States the number of annulments falls far short of the number of Catholic divorces, meaning that most divorced people never attempt the process. Some Catholics report they find annulments either disingenuous -- because they are asked to claim that their marriage never existed -- or demeaning because of the personal detail required in order to establish what church law calls a “defect of consent” to marriage.

Danneels first raised the issue outside the formal boundaries of the synod, in a talk at the French national church in Rome Oct. 6. He stressed that the first principle in dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics must be compassion -- pastors must not presume to judge the decisions these individuals have made, he said.

Danneels said access to the sacraments should remain an open question. He suggested that the Catholic church may need to learn from the Orthodox church, in which the sacraments are understood as “medicine for the soul” rather than as a privilege earned by correct application of church rules.

The Orthodox church permits a second and even a third marriage following divorce. The liturgy for the second and third marriages, however, is different from the first. It contains a penitential element, expressing regret for the collapse of the previous marriage.

In response to a question from the audience at the French church, Danneels cautioned that discussion of the issue may not lead to immediate change, since the power to admit remarried divorced persons to the sacraments is vested in the Vatican. That means existing practice is likely to continue -- “for now.”

As the synod entered its second phase -- moving from speechmaking in the general assembly to discussions in small groups organized by language -- Danneels reintroduced the issue.

The French language group chaired by Danneels made “sacramental discipline” the final point of its report. The group noted that many couples seek a church wedding in order to ritualize an important moment in their lives or to offer their marriage stability. In many cases, couples do not grasp the full theological meaning of a church wedding. This raises the question, Danneels’ group said, of whether these marriages are valid.

Some priests, the group noted, resolve the dilemma by demanding high levels of preparation, effectively turning away many couples. Other priests are less rigorous, since canon law specifies that marriage is a right of all the baptized. But this leaves open the possibility of a later divorce.

In either case, the group said, the priests “have a problem of conscience that is a type of martyrdom in their lives as ministers.”

Though the group did not spell out how to resolve the dilemma, its comments were taken as a call for a reevaluation of how the church copes with broken marriages -- many of which were perhaps, under the terms of canon law, not really marriages in the first place.

Danneels is not alone in raising the issue. Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan included “the discipline of marriage” among his list of issues facing the church. The Dominican superior Fr. Timothy Radcliffe also addressed the issue.

Radcliffe included divorced persons among his list of marginalized groups. “Our words for Christ will not have authority unless we give authority to their experience, learn their language, accept their gifts,” he said.

In the synod’s third phase over the weekend of Oct. 16 and 17, as officials culled material from the small group reports for official propositions (which, if approved by a vote of the synod, will go before the pope), any mention of revising the church’s discipline on marriage was omitted. Synod observers, however, say this is a normal part of the process, as items considered to be controversial typically do not make it into the final documents.

On the European scene, the issue of pastoral care for remarried divorced persons has been a matter of controversy since July 1993, when three German bishops -- Karl Lehmann of Mainz, Oskar Saier of Freiburg and Walter Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart -- issued a joint pastoral letter on the subject. (Kasper has since been appointed secretary of the Pontifical Commission for Promoting Christian Unity).

The bishops offered pastoral guidelines for cases in which divorced and remarried persons might be admitted to the sacraments. They argued that individual Catholics who, with the guidance of a priest, decide in conscience that their marriage was invalid but who cannot (or do not wish to) obtain a decision from a tribunal to that effect, should be allowed to receive the Eucharist and the other sacraments.

“The church cannot assume the right to disregard the word of Jesus regarding the indissolubility of marriage,” the bishops wrote, “but equally it cannot shut its eyes to the failure of many marriages. For wherever people fall short of the reality of redemption, Jesus meets them in mercy with understanding for their situation.”

Canon law can “set up only a valid general order; it cannot regulate all of the often very complex individual cases,” the bishops said.

In September 1994, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a document rejecting this solution. “If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Holy Communion as long as this situation persists,” it said.

“Should they judge it possible to do so, pastors and confessors, given the gravity of the matter and the spiritual good of these persons as well as the common good of the church, have the serious duty to admonish them that such a judgment of conscience openly contradicts the church’s teaching.” The letter was signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and approved by the pope.

Observers say the Vatican hoped to cut off any tendency at the local level toward de facto tolerance of civil remarriage. Among European church-watchers, the fact that none of the three bishops has gone on to become a cardinal is viewed as a signal of Vatican disapproval.

The issue has, however, refused to go away. Last year another group of German bishops proposed that divorced people be allowed full participation in the sacraments after a period of “repentance.”

At an extraordinary conference over the weekend of Oct. 16 and 17, the Italian bishops’ conference called for an undefined “Jubilee gesture of reconciliation” toward divorced Catholics. They also affirmed that “divorced people remain full members of the church.”

Even Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the Vatican’s top doctrinal officer, has voiced doubts as to whether “every marriage between two baptized people is truly ipso facto a sacramental marriage,” given the pervasive secularization of culture. He made the comment in the introduction to a document from his congregation, “On the Pastoral Care of Remarried Divorcées.”

National Catholic Reporter, October 29, 1999