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The dangerous pressure for change in Church teaching on divorce and remarriage

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Feb 24, 2014

As the October meeting of the Synod of Bishops draws near, we’ll hear more and more about one question: Whether Catholics who are divorced and remarried should be allowed to receive the Eucharist. Clearly this is the question on the minds of reporters, the question being posed by liberal bishops, the question that agitates Catholics especially in the German-speaking countries.

But this is not the question being asked by Pope Francis, or the question that was asked by Pope Benedict before him. Both Pontiffs spoke about the need to provide pastoral care for Catholics in these irregular unions. They both mentioned the possibility that some marriages should be annulled, and the process of annulment might be changed. But they did not talk about changing the perennial teaching of the Church.

Writing in the Boston Globe, John Allen suggests that the question might do for Pope Francis what Humanae Vitae did for Pope Paul VI. As he explains, in 1968 there were high expectations that the Pope would change Church teaching to allow the use of contraceptives. When his encyclical reaffirmed what the Church has always taught, Pope Paul dashed those expectations, liberal Catholics felt that they had been betrayed, and the Pope’s popularity (which, to be honest, had never been terribly high) plummeted. Now in 2014 there are high expectations that Pope Francis will change Church teaching, yet it seems highly unlikely that he would—or could—do so. The Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage is not really open to question at all; it is based on the very clear words of Jesus Christ. Because of his phenomenal popularity, Allen argues, Pope Francis is “probably in a better position to deliver what some people are likely to perceive as bad news.” Still, the news will come as a shock. The media will be jolted out of the foolish belief that Pope Francis will change all the rules. The popular narrative about this pontificate will be changed dramatically.

Until that news comes, however, we’re likely to hear more speculation about the possibility of a change. On his canon law blog, Edward Peters remarks that this speculation can do some real damage to the spiritual welfare of Catholics who are caught up in the expectation of a major change. Some people are being led to believe that change is inevitable; a few apparently think that the change in teaching has already taken place. It’s not just the teaching authority of the Church that’s being damaged by all the loose talk; it’s also the welfare of souls.

Theologians can debate about new ways to interpret the Church’s teaching, but it’s healthier for everyone concerned if they conduct those debates in their own professional journals, rather than in newspaper interviews. Canon lawyers can talk about altered annulment procedures, and there are realistic possibilities for change in that regard, as Pope Benedict suggested. (Easier access to annulments probably would not make an enormous difference in the US, however, since in this country annulments are already so very easy to obtain.) But the Church is not going to alter the Gospel, Pope Francis is not going to contradict Jesus, and those who suggest otherwise—perhaps in a misguided effort to increase the pressure for change—aren’t doing anyone any favors.

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Show 6 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Mar. 06, 2014 8:25 PM ET USA

    As one who has been through an annulment in the US, I can comment on its benefit to those who experience it. The process of answering the questionnaire was very much like an examination of conscience, and brought me to a clear understanding of how the relationship fell apart before it even began. Those who are in irregular relationships should be encouraged to request a judgment of nullity. Even if they don't receive it, the process will be of great value to them.

  • Posted by: feedback - Mar. 01, 2014 8:22 AM ET USA

    It's charming that so many varied folks want to be able to receive the Holy Communion, however, (1 Cor 11; 27-29) "Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord. A person should examine himself, and so eat the bread and drink the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. "

  • Posted by: charlesteachout5398 - Feb. 28, 2014 8:33 PM ET USA

    Has anyone heard a word from a Catholic bishop anywhere on this issue? Are our Catholic people being "protected" from the clear teaching of the Church on the Sacrament of Matrimony? Is anyone Catholic concerned about the Biblical interdiction of homosexual behavior, or have the "theologians" decided that such teaching is "time conditioned", and no longer applicable to our faith?

  • Posted by: tmsharel5764 - Feb. 25, 2014 8:08 PM ET USA

    A canon lawyer nun at a Midwest tribunal notified a Respondent in a nullity case that the ground would be Exclusion of Partnership and would be argued with evidence like was the housework shared by both spouses? I have researched the granting of annulments in American tribunals for 20 years. This ground is ridiculous as are so many others. However, many judges do not think so and they have the power to make you think they can destroy your family. They must be stopped.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 25, 2014 9:47 AM ET USA

    A major problem is the overwhelming 'can do' philosophy among those who desire absolute individual autonomy. Thus the non-practicing, non-believing Catholic becomes as good a Catholic as the most faithful Catholic. "Yes we can." Inclusion becomes the greatest good and institutions surrender their identity to individual expression. There are no absolutes other than: anything is possible. Momentum builds exponentially. The baptized must resist the assault, the allure notwithstanding.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Feb. 24, 2014 6:50 PM ET USA

    The 1968 decision made by Paul VI to reaffirm the Church's teaching concerning sexual relations, far from alienating this Catholic, cemented my belief in the supernatural constitution of the Catholic Church. Any institution that could face down a PR challenge like that one, HAD to be divinely inspired. I do have one question, though, that I have asked before but still have no answer for: What exactly is the thinking of Orthodox churches concerning divorce and remarriage? How do they allow it?

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