Consecrated to the Heart of the Redeemer under the patronage of the Theotokos and Fr. Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.

27 July 2013

I Hate Divorce, But I Love The Divorced

Our local daily recently featured the efforts of several area churches that offer informational and supportive programs for the separated and divorced. One participant happily noted that the Catholic Church is "beginning to recognize that divorce is real."

This and other quotes are best understood in their contexts: the whole article, the whole interview (much of which didn't likely make the article), the life of the speaker, and so forth. Articles are necessarily selective, and therefore are subject to scrutiny and contention.

Articles also can foster genuine dialogue, the mutual search for truth-in-charity. To that end, I would affirm that the Church has always recognized divorce, in the sense that it's a reality, that people do it. Recognition, permission, and approval are three different words.

Divorce long predates the Church. In Dt 24:1-4, Moses recognized that couples already were divorcing on the basis of "something indecent" that the man found in the woman. Neither the laws nor the culture admitted reciprocity, whenever the woman might have found indecency in the man's conduct. Earlier, in Dt 22:13ff, Moses treated a divorce scenario that involved dishonesty (as many do, from both parties!). Then you have the prophet Malachi, whose biting sound byte says it all: "For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel" (2:16; for context see 2:10-17, if not the whole book--it's short).
With curiosity I note that Mal 2:!6 expresses divorce with the Greek participle ἐξαποστείλῃς  ("sending away"), rooted in [ex]apostello, the origin of apostle.
Jesus declared Moses' divorce laws to be a concession, "by reason of the hardness of your hearts" (Mt 19:8f), and reaffirmed the primordial arrangement: "Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' and said, '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" (19:4-6).

The Church cannot fight the fact that the civil law may terminate the civil dimensions of a marital contract. The Church cannot fight the fact that men and women cease to live together as husband and wife (which often happens long before the civil divorce date, indeed long before the physical separation). For the Church, or anyone, to claim that these are not realities would be insane.

When the woman in the above article praises the Church's recognition of the reality of divorce, I suspect she means to praise her parish and other congregations that are offering forums for compassion, education, and support, even if local-level support has taken a couple of decades to materialize.

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In 1980, a Synod of Bishops first addressed the marital problems that Catholics and others face within the positive context of Church teaching. In conjunction with that synod, Pope John Paul II wrote Familiaris Consortio.  In 1997, Pope John Paul II addressed the Pontifical Council for the Family in response to their meeting "On the Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried."

To summarize the 1997 document:
  • The Church will do what she can to assist the baptized who have attempted non-sacramental marriages, affirming the grace of God and the Church's maternal compassion even while affirming Church teachings.
  • Remarried Catholics are welcome in the Church. Like everyone else, they must listen to the Word of God and engage in prayer, repentance, and charity, so to foster genuine hope for their eternal salvation.
  • Special attention must be paid to the formation of children born to non-sacramental marriage, as well as to their "support network" (close influences among their family and friends).
While non-Catholic religious bodies may sanction second-plus marriages, the Catholic Church maintains that a sacramental marriage remains binding until the death of a spouse, or until the validity of the bond has been disproven by the Church Tribunal's scrutiny. This latter situation is called the "declaration of nullity" or "annulment," for short. It does not intend to pass judgment on the good intentions of a couple, but rather whether the consent they exchanged truly gave rise to the Sacrament of Matrimony. Tribunals rely on the honest testimony of the petitioning spouse and those enlisted to offer corroborating testimony.

Divorced but not remarried Catholics are encouraged to remain faithful to the Sacraments, to prayer, sacrifice, and charity. They must also preserve the integrity and chastity of their initial bond, because it is considered sacramental and binding until proven otherwise. We recognize that many Catholics initiate dating and indeed courtship after (and often before!) civil divorce; to deny this would be as foolish as to deny the reality of divorce itself. These couples must preserve chastity like any other unmarried couple, and must also avoid giving the "wink-wink" impression of being as married as anyone else "except for the technicality."
I recall (and still shudder at the recollection of) one best man who publicly declared of the  groom, "It's about time he makes an honest woman of her (the bride)." A ceremony of the highest solemnity will not make a dishonest person honest. Grace builds upon nature.
As far as I am aware, this couple is no longer married to each other.
"But when the Son of Man comes, will he find valid marriages on earth?" #thingsJesusneversaid

For various reasons some Catholics attempt subsequent marriages without seeking a declaration of nullity for their first union. And there are situations in which the couple had sought a declaration but the Church would not grant it (by far the minority, and for reasons that are beyond the scope of this article, and my competency, to discuss). The Church owes compassion to Catholics in this situation, though they may not partake of the Sacraments of Eucharist or Reconciliation until the initial bond (and any intervening bonds, where applicable) is declared null and the current marriage is solemnized ("convalidated") by a duly-authorized priest or deacon of the Catholic Church.
Some finer points on these matters are treated by this 1994 letter from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Here as always, it is most prudent not to act on one's own intentionally isolated judgment of conscience, but rather to consult a qualified external source on the local level (e.g. a parish priest, deacon, or pastoral minister).
This teaching is hard to accept, but personal experience in my own family attests that it can be accepted and lived, though patience is needed during the time of ineligibility to receive the sacraments, and during the annulment process.

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The Reading Eagle article did not specify whether these post-divorce programs were assisting the (validly or invalidly) remarried. Whether or not remarriage is involved, these spiritual initiatives are laudable. Alongside our premarital preparation programs, they express the Church's ardent care for souls, as well as her insistence upon the sacredness of Holy Matrimony.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for discussing this topic, Father Zelonis! I have not read the Reading Eagle articles, but I would suspect that for many Sunday Catholics who may not have read the Church's teachings on the topic, divorce can seem like the "elephant in the room that no one is talking about." And so, their understanding of the Catholic teaching on divorce is superficial, or perhaps defined by the secular media's distortions. Folks are often surprised to hear what Jesus Himself had to say about divorce and remarriage. I think divorced Catholics need to hear first and foremost... "Your situation is painful, but Christ is the answer. You must strive to be as close to Jesus as possible." Too often, that is assumed but not spoken, while the only spoken advice that many folks hear is "seek an annulment." That may indeed be a prudent step at some point, but seeking closeness to Jesus must be the primary objective. Thank you! John