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Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage, Fidelity, Communion, Vocation

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 19, 2014

In response to Phil Lawler’s City Gates piece about the Impending Catholic debate on divorce (March 14th), a Sound Off! comment by “Dan” raises the question of whether we really want abandoned women to be barred from receiving the Eucharist. Here’s the full question:

In an age of no-fault divorce (a device created to “liberate” women from abusive marriages), good Catholics (ironically, mostly women) have divorce forced on them against their will. Is it just for the Church to deny these victims access to the Sacraments?

This is a reasonable question, but it appears to be an easy rhetorical question (eliciting an answer of “No!”) only because it obscures two very important factors.

Before exploring the answer, let me exclude from my purview the question of “no-fault divorce”. It is not clear to me that no-fault divorce was a device to free women from abusive marriages; it seems more to have been a recognition of both the difficulty and the futility of worrying about just cause in a situation which is frequently indecipherable, and in a society which really no longer seriously objected to divorce anyway. Nor is it clear to me that it is mostly women who have divorce forced upon them. Statistics could probably be found to confirm or deny this assumption, but in any case the resolution of these uncertainties is irrelevant to the question raised about the Church.

Marriage, Divorce, Remarriage

The first factor that is seriously obscured by the question is that in the Catholic Church nobody is refused communion because of civil divorce. The Catholic Church does not recognize a civil marriage between two Catholics as a real marriage (for Catholics, marriage outside the Church is, in fact, a condition of nullity). More important here, the Catholic Church does not recognize civil divorce as ending a marriage. Civil divorce does not somehow “undo” a sacrament. In no way does it free the couple to regard themselves as unmarried, such that they would then be free to marry others.

This, of course, is the nub of the misunderstanding that plagues so many when they try to wrap their minds around the Catholic understanding of marriage. The process of a civil divorce may or may not be gravely sinful, depending on the circumstances, but it does not alter a Catholic’s state in life, or a Catholic’s vocation. Nor does it bar a Catholic from receiving Communion. No, the difficulty with Communion arises from entering into another marriage when one is in fact already married. The impediment is committing oneself to a formal adulterous relationship in mockery of a valid marriage and a sacrament. This is what prevents a Catholic from receiving the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

How does this change our initial question? Let ujs rephrase it and see. In doing so, I will also clean up the reference to “the sacraments”, which is inadvertently inaccurate. The question should now read:

Is it just for the Church to deny Communion to an abandoned spouse who, while already sacramentally bound in marriage, decides to contract a pretend-marriage and engage in the marital act with someone else?

That’s quite a semantic shift.

A Lifetime Commitment to Fidelity

What the proper wording of the question does is throw us back to a deeper issue, far deeper than mere questions of Church discipline. This deeper issue is whether the Church should hold her members to the permanence of the marriage vows in cases where one spouse is abandoned by the other. All kinds of emotions swirl around this issue. Nearly everyone can recognize the intense suffering caused by any sort of failed marriage, and what appears to be a permanent abandonment must be very hard to bear indeed. So why doesn’t the Church ease that suffering?

She does not because she cannot. This, and all that it encompasses, is the second factor obscured by the original question. A valid sacramental marriage between two Catholics cannot be undone. By its very nature it is a lifetime commitment with three participants, the spouses and God, who provides the grace and the strength which makes matrimony both possible and salvific. That’s what marriage is. No failure on the part of one spouse, even to the point of abuse or abandonment, justifies the other spouse in being unfaithful to his or her sacramental covenant. Separation is justifiable when necessary, and the civil arrangement of divorce (for distribution of property and protection against abuse) is also justifiable when necessary. But the marriage bond persists, and it is not possible to justify infidelity to its lifelong character at any point.

As a practical matter, then, we can see that the Church cannot really take any measure which communicates that the marriage vows are not permanent, or not sacramental, or not worthy of enormous sacrifice and self-denial to preserve. Insofar as divorced and remarried Catholics are treated ecclesiastically as if they have not repudiated their sacramental bond, the sacred reality of that bond is undermined, and the determination of other couples to treasure it is reduced.

Vocation

In this context we at last begin to see the truth. Once a valid sacramental marriage is contracted by a couple, this marriage is ratified by God as their vocation, even if the couple entered into the marriage while ignoring or resisting some other calling which Our Lord initially proposed. Now it is precisely through fidelity to this vocation that the husband and wife will work out their salvation, and it is through the graces of the sacrament and of the vocation as a whole that they will find the path to holiness and the final perseverance which assures eternal life. Despite suffering—or, as we should say, through the Cross—deep happiness in both this life and the next comes to us through fidelity to our vocations.

It is necessary also to point out that fidelity to one’s marriage vows, even in abandonment, at least keeps open the possibility of reunion and reconciliation between the spouses, whereas entering into a second “marriage” effectively renounces that possibility. I suspect most of us know of cases where years of prayer by a faithful spouse have been rewarded by the return and renewed commitment of the wayward spouse. This will not necessarily happen, and yet in other ways the faithful spouse may still be the effective agent of the salvation of the one who has been unfaithful. These possibilities cannot be discounted. Deliberately closing them off is a chilling and faithless decision, even under recognizably extreme duress.

This is the reality of marriage, and it explains why it is truly in the best interest of each spouse to remain faithful, even in abandonment. Faithful wives and husbands will not be abandoned by God, nor will they be outdone in generosity. It is in this light that the Church both counsels and demands fidelity to our marriage vows. It is in this light that she would do souls an immense spiritual disservice if she were to pretend that the reality of marriage is something other than it is. And it is in this light that, while our emotions may recoil at human suffering, our deeper understanding ought to cause us to think twice before we answer the question with which we began. In fact, our love ought to cause us to answer in a way which seeks and supports the true and ultimate good of those involved—the good that Faith teaches comes from God, Who knows us better than we know ourselves, and Who loves us more.

Note: The Church does afford a process which any spouse can pursue to determine whether an original marriage may not, in fact, have been valid in the first place. This is a completely different question. It explains why I speak only in terms of valid marriages above.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 22, 2014 4:25 PM ET USA

    I write in hope that there is someone knowledgeable in the Orthodox communion reading this; it is of interest to Catholics since we all want reunion with our separated brothers. Given the truths repeated by Jeff Mirus here, how exactly do the Orthodox Churches countenance marriage after a divorce as I know at least some of them do?

  • Posted by: John J Plick - Mar. 20, 2014 4:35 PM ET USA

    “…a Sound Off! comment by “Dan” raises the question of whether we really want abandoned women to be barred from receiving the Eucharist…” The same argument exists in the context of abortion for “rape and incest…” And the same “counter” exists as well…, reality is reality and “evil” doesn’t essentially change it. My father (May he enjoy his Eternity…!), a lawyer, also used to say “Special cases make poor law…” And so it is…

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