Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Mercy for the Divorced and Remarried

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Mar 12, 2014

Another high-ranking Churchman, this time the President of the Pontifical Council for the Family, has emphasized that the status of divorced and remarried Catholics “should be looked at with a merciful eye.” This is certainly something we all need to keep in mind, but the $64,000 question is what this means for changing the pastoral practice which bars couples in this “status” from receiving Communion.

None of this is easy, not any part of it. Cardinal Kasper has written a whole book to struggle with this question. Yet if we raise the same question about those who have robbed, or murdered, or engaged in immoral sexual acts, or committed virtually any other sin, the problem is simple enough. Be sorry (including a firm purpose of amendment), confess your sins, receive absolution, perform your penance and get back in the Communion line. The same is true, in essence, even of sins which incur excommunication, which must be lifted by the proper authority, such as participation in an abortion.

But the great problem with the Sacrament of Matrimony is that it is different. We can say we are sorry to have divorced and remarried, and that we deeply regret the spiritual consequences. But if we continue to live in a literally impossible marital relationship we cannot confess the sin and be absolved, because contrition is not real without a real purpose of amendment.

Sometimes, of course, a legitimate process of nullity can lead to a sacramentalization of the second marriage. Where annulments have been excessively hard to get (not in the United States), attention to this is definitely warranted. But what if there are no grounds for nullity? In that case, separation or living as brother and sister apply, and in fact both options have serious spiritual drawbacks. There may be children involved, which makes separation unfair and damaging to them. This is what leads to the “brother and sister” solution. And yet this solution, while morally sound in principle, will be fraught with spiritual danger of its own. Truly, in these matters we weave a tangled web.

If the Church creates a rite of reconciliation for people who are sorry but unwilling or unable to break from each other, then the full truth about marriage will be obscured, and the commitment necessary for marriage will in some measure be sapped from every other couple. If the Church offers groundless annulments to solve the problem, exactly the same thing will happen.

Some suggest that modern culture so conditions us that most or even all couples are incapable of entering meaningfully into the commitment of lifelong marriage. This is one reason pre-Cana programs have become so extensive. But if that is true—so that annulments can become essentially automatic—then it would seem that the Church should never witness a marriage. If we automatically assume an incapacity in Round One, so to speak, it is difficult to see how that incapacity automatically disappears in Round Two or Round Three or Round Four.

Once again, the great problem is that one of these things is not like the others. And that one thing is Matrimony. The media would have us believe that the problem discussed here will be the central point of the upcoming Synod on the Family. That is unlikely to be the case, but it is one obvious concern, and it may be an intractable concern. Truly, then, we must do as Pope Francis asked. We must pray “that the Spirit may illumine the Synodal Fathers and guide them in their important task.”

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: james-w-anderson8230 - Aug. 17, 2017 1:47 AM ET USA

    Thanks Tom, for linking to your interview with Mark again. The first time I didn't have 96 minutes but I forgot to go back to it. Tonight I took the time and I greatly enjoyed it. It was time well spent.

  • Posted by: cvm46470 - Mar. 22, 2014 12:34 AM ET USA

    Thanks for this post. I heard, with alarm, a DRE express this very view - confession as the answer to divorce/remarriage - even before the latest media frenzy. Your clear explanation (and prayer for correction) is just what I need to share with him.

  • Posted by: - Mar. 18, 2014 6:01 AM ET USA

    In an age of no-fault divorce (a device created to "liberate" women from abusive marriages), good Catholics (ironically, mostly women) have divorce forced upon them against their will. Are we really to deny these victims access to Holy Eucharist if they remarry?

  • Posted by: Joseph Paul - Mar. 16, 2014 5:54 AM ET USA

    God has promised that he will be with us always even unto the end of the world. The Church will never stray from teaching the truth no matter what the secular world wants to think. The Catholic Church is always counter cultural. It always will be regardless of German bishops or lax Catholics.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Mar. 15, 2014 11:32 PM ET USA

    Re jg23753479 Why not raise that question on Dr. Edward Peters' blog or Canon Law Made Easy or| Ask a Canon Law Catholic Church Question, Get an Answer ASAP!

  • Posted by: FredC - Mar. 15, 2014 9:02 PM ET USA

    Living as brother and sister is the answer. It gets easier as you get older. I know a successful and loving couple who started living as brother and sister at age 55. The husband was so impressed by the wife's example that he converted to Catholicism.

  • Posted by: wojo425627 - Mar. 15, 2014 1:18 PM ET USA

    @Jg237. Follow this link to an online orthodox catechism and scroll down through the marriage section it has a couple of paragraphs on divorce and remarriage. Seems protestant to me in their understanding.

  • Posted by: TheJournalist64 - Mar. 15, 2014 7:09 AM ET USA

    If we significantly change Church teaching on this matter, it does many things, none of them really good. It tells the couples so affected that the words of Jesus don't mean what they say. It gives bad example to those ecclesial communions who are working their way toward the correct, Biblical position, and it makes us just like the Anglicans were 150 years ago. Do we really want that?

  • Posted by: extremeCatholic - Mar. 13, 2014 10:50 PM ET USA

    The short answer is that a Catholic will present a final civil divorce decree to a parish secretary who will update the Church's record to reflect an "annulment", and that's it. You read it here first.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Mar. 13, 2014 8:37 AM ET USA

    I ask once again something I have posted before: How do the autocephalous Orthodox Churches treat this matter? I cannot find a satisfactory answer to the question of how churches whose sacraments we recognize excuse away divorce. Are their second marriages also recognized as valid by Rome? What would be their status in one of our dioceses if an Orthodox couple in such a 2nd union decided to become Catholic?