Divorce, remarriage, and sin: a hypothetical case

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Dec 09, 2016

Imagine that you are a priest hearing confessions.

Penitent #1 says that he was drunk last night. He is a struggling alcoholic, he tells you. He’d kept sober for a while, but yesterday he fell into bad old habits. He has sought help with his problem, he’s in a program, and he vows to keep up the fight. You realize that there’s a good possibility he’ll be back in the confessional next week, telling the same sad story. He will struggle and fall, try again and fall. And you will keep absolving him, drawing from the inexhaustible store of God’s mercy.

Penitent #2 was also drunk last night. But as you offer him a few words of advice about sobriety, he interrupts and asks you to hurry up with the absolution. There’s a Happy Hour beginning in just a few minutes at the local pub, he informs you, and he wants to be there on time to begin a long evening of heavy drinking. You can’t give him absolution. The problem isn’t the nature of his sin; that wasn’t an obstacle for Penitent #1. It isn’t even a question of the likelihood that he will sin again; for all you know, Penitent #1 is already at that Happy Hour. The problem is that #2 shows no remorse. On the contrary, he’s actively planning to sin again.

Penitent #3 tells you that he has been having sexual relations on a regular basis with a woman who is not his wife. He was married long ago but divorced, he says. He has subsequently met another woman, and married her in a civil ceremony. He expresses true sorrow for the breakdown of his marriage, but says that he will not leave his new partner. They have children, he explains; he can’t break up the family.

Now if Penitent #3 is willing to live with his new partner as brother and sister, his situation is similar, in some ways, to that of Penitent #1. You’ll need to discuss his irregular marriage, and the possibility of causing scandal, and his responsibilities toward the children (if any) of his original marriage. If you conclude that he is justified, in his particular circumstances, to continue living with his new partner, you must recognize the likelihood that he too might fail in his commitment to abstinence. Still at least he is struggling.

But if Penitent #3 says that he plans to continue conjugal relations with his current partner, isn’t his situation more like that of Penitent #2? If not, why not?

Maybe you think that his first union was not a true marriage. You needn’t make the decision yourself, however. Indeed you probably shouldn’t, since you’re unlikely to have all the facts. You can send him to the diocesan marriage tribunal to settle the question. If there are some special circumstances that make the case seem clear-cut, you can go straight to the bishop for a quick judgment, thanks to the new procedures approved by Pope Francis.

Or maybe, if the tribunal has already turned him down, you conclude that he did have an earlier, valid marriage, but you don’t really think that he has sinned; you doubt that his current behavior constitutes adultery. But if that’s the case, your argument is not with the niceties of Canon Law but with the words of Jesus. And if you have a quarrel with Jesus, perhaps you shouldn’t be absolving sins in his name.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: fenton1015153 - Dec. 10, 2016 2:32 PM ET USA

    Your point is well made. I was once told by a priest that things aren't black and white but are shades of gray. If he represents most priests then perhaps your example is too black vs white. Can you add some gray to your example please. LOL

  • Posted by: MatJohn - Dec. 09, 2016 6:54 PM ET USA

    Phil, your simple hypotheticals lead to a laser-like conclusion that Catholic moral ,teaching can not allow the camel's nose under the tent.