Second marriages and the casualties of spiritual combat
Spiritual combat: the phrase that is not often heard from the pulpit these days. But it is a phrase worth keeping in mind as we wrestle our way through the confusion that now clouds the Catholic teaching on marriage.
In the early days of this pontificate, Pope Francis raised eyebrows with his repeated references to the Devil. He unabashedly stated the belief—unfashionable today, but still unquestionably a part of Church teaching—that in this life we face a powerful adversary. Whether we recognize it or not, we are engaged in spiritual combat: a battle to save our souls.
To engage in combat requires sacrifice, and a willingness to suffer for the cause. A general preparing for a military campaign recognizes the reality—unhappy but unavoidable—that his troops will take casualties. If the campaign is already underway, and his unit is in a difficult defensive position, casualties are all the more likely.
In the spiritual combat, too, there are times when we must suffer and sacrifice. That is certainly the case for Christians who find themselves in troubled marriages. They may suffer, and the Church should offer them every possible means of support in their struggles. But having made vows “for better or worse,” they are obligated to remain faithful even when things are, in fact, worse.
The debate currently raging through the Catholic world centers on the question of whether married people are obligated to remain faithful to their vows even after a relationship has irreparably broken down. If the answer is Yes—if the marital bond is indissoluble, as the Church has always taught it is—then it is always gravely wrong for someone who has contracted a valid marriage to have sexual relations with anyone other than his spouse. There is no ambiguity, no gray area, no nuance in the words of Jesus Christ: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her.”
In upholding the teachings of Christ the Church is not seeking to punish someone whose marriage failed. Forgiveness is always available, for any fault that led to the breakdown of the union. In some cases, when a spouse has been abandoned, there may not even be any serious failing to forgive. Still that marriage, if it was a real marriage, was a permanent commitment. To enter into another marriage—to say “until death do us part” for the 2nd time—would make a mockery of the vow. So the Church cannot accept, and certainly cannot witness, a second marriage.
The situation is complicated for Catholics who return to the active practice of their faith after having already entered into a second civil union. Perhaps there are children of this new union, and good reasons to continue living with the new partner. The Church has always recognized this possibility. Nevertheless, since this couple was not validly married, the Church insisted on sexual abstinence, instructing them to live as brother and sister.
(In happier times, the Church was also keenly sensitive to the fact that, even if the divorced and remarried couple did live as brother and sister, they could cause scandal, since their neighbors might assume that they were sexually active. Today, unfortunately, we have become so inured to extra-marital affairs that the question of scandal barely arises.)
Is it difficult for a loving couple to live together in abstinence? Absolutely! The Church, in giving that instruction, is issuing one of those “hard sayings” for which Jesus was known. It is difficult. But it is not impossible.
Father Thomas Reese, writing about the hypothetical case of a woman deserted by her first husband and now living with a supportive partner, says: “Telling her to abandon her new husband or live as brother and sister is not only absurd, it is unjust.” Isn’t it odd that a man who has taken religious vows should suggest that it is “absurd” to abstain from sexual activity? Or for a Catholic priest to say it is “unjust” to uphold the perennial teachings of the Church.
There are many people—not just religious—of whom the Church demands sexual abstinence. Unmarried people, for instance. Moreover, some married couples have no choice in this matter; some are forced to abstain from sexual relations, because of long absences or medical problems. They suffer, but the Church supports them in their suffering—just as the Church should support the divorced and remarried couples who make the same sacrifice voluntarily.
In the spiritual combat, some people make great sacrifices voluntarily. Others have the sacrifices thrust upon them. Still others find that, because of decisions they have made in the past, they are placed in a position from which there is no graceful escape that does not involve suffering. If we acknowledge the reality of spiritual combat at the outset, we may be more prepared to provide true care and comfort for these casualties, rather than pretending that we can all continue the battle without any suffering at all.
A final thought: When the Church firmly upholds the permanence of marriage vows, the casualties can include the couples whose marriages fail. If the Church does not uphold the indissolubility of the vows, the casualties—not just spiritual, but emotional and material—will be the children.
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