Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The Casuistry of Divorce and Remarriage

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Feb 28, 2014

At daily Mass this morning, Pope Francis contrasted the reality of marriage as upheld by Jesus Christ with the casuistry of the Pharisees. Casuistry is the application of moral principles to particular cases so as to determine the required course of action. But abuse has given the word very negative connotations. Thus casuistry is typically understood as clever but unsound reasoning which multiplies unjustified distinctions so that a moral duty may be avoided.

Moral distinctions are important, but when abused they can obscure the greater realities that are at stake. This was the case in the Scripture reading on which the Pope commented, in which the Pharisees asked Our Lord whether divorce is permissible for any reason. Divorce was permitted by the law of Moses if the husband went through a process of formal certification. But Our Lord replied that Moses permitted this only because of the hardness of their hearts. This was not the way creation was designed “in the beginning”, and in fact any man who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery (Mk 10:2-12; cf. Mt 19:3-9, Mt 5:31-32; Lk 16:18).

Pope Francis emphasizes the depths of Revelation as opposed to the casuistry of men and women who refuse to regard marriage in its full and proper light. God’s own relationship with us is in fact spousal. Christ is irrevocably married to His Church, and at tremendous cost. And so Francis comments:

This is the love story, this is the history of the masterpiece of Creation—and before this path of love, this icon, casuistry falls and becomes sorrowful. When, however, this leaving one’s father and mother, and joining oneself to a woman, and going forward... when this love fails—because many times it fails— we have to feel the pain of the failure [and] accompany those people who have had this failure in their love. Do not condemn. Walk with them—and don’t practice casuistry on their situation.

The Pope’s point is simply this: It is casuistry to minimize the wonder and dignity and beauty of marriage by coming up with rules and procedures which justify its dissolution. We practice casuistry on the situation of a couple whose love has failed by coming up with excuses as to why they should not have to suffer the consequences of this failure. In other words, by justifying failures in particular cases (casuistry), we obscure the deeper reality. The Pope also refers to this as “special pleading”.

In fact, the failure of a marriage is catastrophic, mirroring the failure of love between Our Lord and the soul. But the failure does not occur on our Lord’s side, and any sort of casuistry or special pleading which obscures that fact is a denial, as the Pope says, of “the great mystery of the masterpiece of creation.” This is why the widespread effort to explain away this failure is more catastrophic still.

Given the topic of this year’s synod, which will begin in October, these reflections are extraordinarily timely. Questionnaires on the understanding of marriage and family life have been circulated and are being analyzed. As a result, there is widespread speculation that at last the Church will begin to give up her outworn notion of marriage. But Pope Francis affirms that marriage is rooted in the mystery of creation, which is bigger than any of us. When we disrupt that mystery, the Pope says, we should all be willing to share the pain. But this is done by reaffirming our love for each other, not by obscuring the mystery of that love in Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Duns Scotus - Mar. 02, 2014 3:13 PM ET USA

    I don't understand what Baseballbuddy's point is. Though I might, I won't guess. I just hope his occult meaning does not involve casuistry, a word, BTW, loaded with meaning for any Jesuit, e.g. Pope Francis

  • Posted by: MattJDG1696 - Mar. 02, 2014 2:27 PM ET USA

    Divorce: There are very few articles to help divorced men who try to keep The Faith. Why? Men have problems also with being rejected and left alone. I have sought professional and spiritual counseling to help me for over 30 years, its always centering on the problems that the wives have had. I guess the men are to be tough and silent..prayerful is a help but not easy to do all the time. I would like to think The Church has advice for divorced men as well. Not just a blessing.

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Mar. 02, 2014 12:04 PM ET USA

    Considering present age civilization as one with a plenty "hardness of the hearts", I wonder if, under pressure coming from the neo-pagan masses of faithful as well as quite a few monsignors, our Church leaders will yield, as Moses did, and relax the applicable doctrines?

  • Posted by: - Mar. 01, 2014 11:20 AM ET USA

    With all the statistics on this subject at the disposal of the Vatican, I find it difficult to understand why longevity has never entered the marriage discussion. In the old days, marriages were short, half of children were not raised by their mothers who likely died in childbirth - it was a wholly different dynamic from today. Can we work on this new dynamic? My grandmother hoped to have a few children before she or her husband died. Today, longevity changes all that...