The True Dimension of God's Mercy
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Q: The problem of the divorced and remarried has recently been brought to public attention again. On the basis of a certain interpretation of Scripture, of the patristic tradition, and of the texts of the magisterium, solutions have been suggested that propose innovations. Is a change of doctrine on the way?
A: Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because its founder, Jesus Christ, has entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings and his doctrine to the apostles and their successors. We have a well-developed and structured doctrine on marriage, based on the word of Jesus, which must be offered in its integrity. The absolute indissolubility of a valid marriage is not a mere doctrine, but rather a divine dogma that has been defined by the Church. In the face of the de facto rupture of a valid marriage, another civil “marriage” is not admissible. If it were, we would be facing a contradiction, because if the previous union, the “first” marriage - or rather, simply the marriage - is really a marriage, another subsequent union is not “marriage.” It is only by a play on words that one can speak of a first and second “marriage.” A second marriage is possible only when the legitimate spouse has died, or when the marriage has been declared invalid, because in these cases the previous bond has been dissolved. If this is not the case, we are in the presence of what is called the “impediment of the bond.”
In this regard, I would like to emphasize that then-cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the congregation over which I now preside, with the approval of the pope at the time, St. John Paul II, had to intervene expressly to reject a hypothesis similar to that of your question.
This does not prevent one from speaking of the problem of the validity of many marriages in the current secularized context. We have all witnessed marriages in which it was not very clear if the contracting parties really intended to “do what the Church does” in the rite of marriage. Benedict XVI made insistent appeals to reflect on the great challenge represented by nobelieving baptized persons. As a result, the congregation for the doctrine of the faith took note of the pope's concern and put a good number of theologians and other collaborators to work in order to resolve the problem of the relationship between explicit and implicit faith.
What happens when even implicit faith is absent from a marriage? When this is lacking, of course, even if the marriage has been celebrated “libere et recte," it could be invalid. This leads us to maintain that, in addition to the classical criteria for declaring the invalidity of marriage, there must be further reflection on the case in which the spouses exclude the sacramental nature of marriage. Currently we are in a phase of study, of serene but tenacious reflection on this point. I do not think it is appropriate to jump to conclusions, since we have not yet found the solution, but this does not prevent me from pointing out that in our congregation we are dedicating a great deal of energy to providing a correct response to the problem posed by the implicit faith of the contracting parties.
Q: So if the subject were to exclude the sacramental nature of marriage, like those who rule out children when they get married, this fact could invalidate the marriage that has been contracted?
A: Faith belongs to the essence of the sacrament. Of course, the juridical question posed by the invalidity of the sacrament because of an evident lack of faith must be clarified. One famous canonist, Eugenio Corecco, said that the problem arises when one must specify the level of faith necessary for the sacramental nature to be realized. The classical doctrine had admitted a minimalist position, requiring a simple implicit intention: “To do what the Church does.” Corecco added that in the current globalized, multicultural, and secularized world, in which faith is not a given that can simply be presupposed, it becomes necessary to require a more explicit faith from the contracting parties, if we really want to save Christian marriage.
I again insist on repeating that this question is still in a phase of study. Establishing a valid and universal criterion in this regard is not really a futile question. In the first place because persons are in constant evolution, both in terms of the knowledge that they gradually acquire with the passing of the years and in terms of their life of faith. Formation and faith are not statistical data! Sometimes at the time of contracting marriage a certain person was not a believer; but it is also possible that a process of conversion has taken place in his life, so that he has experienced a “sanatio ex posteriori" of what at the time was a grave defect of consent.
I would like to repeat in any case that, when we find ourselves in the presence of a valid marriage, in no way is it possible to dissolve that bond: neither the pope nor any other bishop has the authority to do this, because this is a reality that belongs to God, not to them.
Q: There is talk of the possibility of allowing spouses to “start life over again.” It has also been said that love between Christian spouses can “die.” Can a Christian really use this formula? Is it possible for the love between two persons united by the sacrament of marriage to die?
A: These theories are radically mistaken. One cannot declare a marriage to be extinct on the pretext that the love between the spouses is "dead." The indissolubility of marriage does not depend on human sentiments, whether permanent or transitory. This property of marriage is intended by God himself. The Lord is involved in marriage between man and woman, which is why the bond exists and has its origin in God. This is the difference.
In its intimate supernatural reality, marriage includes three goods: the good of mutual and exclusive personal fidelity (the "bonum fidei"); the good of welcoming children and educating them in the knowledge of God (the "bonum prolis"), and the good of the indissolubility and indestructibility of the bond, which has its permanent foundation in the indissoluble union between Christ and the Church, sacramentally represented by the couple (the “bonum sacramenti"). So even if it is possible to suspend the physical communion of life and love, the so-called “separation of bed and board,” for the Christian it is not permissible to contract a new marriage as long as the first spouse is alive, because the legitimately contracted bond is perpetual. The indissoluble marital bond corresponds in a certain way to the character (“res et sacramentum") imparted by baptism, confirmation, the sacrament of orders.
Q: In this regard there is also a great deal of talk about the importance of “mercy.” Can mercy be interpreted as an “exception” to the moral law?
A: If we open the Gospel, we find that Jesus as well, in dialogue with the Pharisees regarding divorce, alludes to the pairing of "divorce" and "mercy" (cf. Mt 19:3-12). He accuses the Pharisees of not being merciful, since according to their subtle interpretation of the Law they had concluded that Moses had granted a presumed permission to repudiate their wives. Jesus reminds us that the mercy of God stands against our human weakness. God gives us his grace so that we may be faithful.
This is the true dimension of God's mercy. God forgives even a sin as grave as adultery; nonetheless he does not allow another marriage that would cast doubt upon a sacramental marriage already in existence, a marriage that expresses God's fidelity. Making such an appeal to a presumedly absolute mercy of God is equivalent to a play on words that does not help us to clarify the terms of the problem. In reality, it seems to me that this is a way to keep from perceiving the profundity of authentic divine mercy.
I witness with a certain sense of amazement how some theologians use the same reasoning on mercy as a pretext for allowing the divorced who have remarried civilly to receive the sacraments. The premise is that since Jesus himself took the side of those who suffer, offering them his merciful love, mercy is the special sign that characterizes all authentic discipleship. This is true in part. Nonetheless, a mistaken reference to mercy involves the grave risk of trivializing the image of God, according to which God would not be free but rather obligated to forgive. God never tires of offering us his mercy: the problem is that we tire of asking for it, of recognizing our sin with humility, as Pope Francis has insistently recalled in the first year and a half of his pontificate.
The facts of Scripture reveal that, in addition to mercy, holiness and justice also belong to the mystery of God. If we were to obscure these divine attributes and trivialize the reality of sin, it would make no sense to beg for the mercy of God on behalf of persons. This makes it understandable why Jesus, after treating the adulterous woman with great mercy, added as an expression of his love: “Go, and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). The mercy of God is not a dispensation from the commandments of God and from the teachings of the Church. It is entirely the contrary: God, in his infinite mercy, grants us the power of grace for the complete fulfillment of his commands and so as to reestablish in us, after the fall, his perfect image as Father of Heaven.
Q: Evidently this brings up the relationship between the sacrament of the Eucharist and the sacrament of marriage. How can the relationship between the two sacraments be understood?
A: Eucharistic communion is an expression of a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ. Unlike our Protestant brothers and in line with the tradition of the Church, for Catholics this expresses the perfect union between Christology and ecclesiology. So I cannot have a personal relationship with Christ and with his true Body present in the sacrament of the altar and at the same time contradict the same Christ and his mystical Body present in the Church and in the ecclesial communion. Therefore we can affirm without error that if anyone finds himself in a situation of mortal sin, he cannot and must not receive communion.
This applies not only to the case of the divorced and remarried, but rather to all cases in which there is an objective rupture with what God wants for us. It is by definition the bond that is established among the various sacraments. Because of this we must be on our guard against an immanentist conception of the sacrament of the Eucharist, an understanding founded on an extreme individualism that would make the reception of the sacraments or participation in ecclesial communion dependent upon the individual's needs or tastes.
For some the key to the problem is the desire to communicate sacramentally, as if the mere desire were a right. For many others, communion is simply a way of expressing membership in a community. Of course, the sacrament of the Eucharist cannot be conceived of in a reductive manner as the expression of a right or a communal identity: the Eucharist cannot be a "social feeling"!
It is often suggested that the decision to receive Eucharistic communion should be left to the personal conscience of the divorced and remarried. This argument also expresses a problematic concept of “conscience,” already rejected by the congregation for the doctrine of the Faith in 1994. Before approaching to receive communion, the faithful know they must examine their conscience, something that also obliges them to form it continually and therefore to be impassioned seekers of the truth.
In this unique dynamic, obedience to the magisterium of the Church is not a burden, but rather an aid in discovering the greatly desired truth about the good for oneself and for others.
Q: At this point there emerges the great challenge of the relationship between doctrine and life. It has been said that, without touching doctrine, it is now necessary to adapt this to the “pastoral reality.” This adaptation would suppose that doctrine and pastoral practice could follow different paths.
A: The split between life and doctrine is characteristic of Gnostic dualism. As is separating justice and mercy, God and Christ, Christ the Teacher and Christ the Shepherd, or separating Christ from the Church. There is only one Christ. Christ is the guarantee of the unity between the Word of God, doctrine, and the testimony of life. Every Christian knows that it is only through sound doctrine that we can attain eternal life.
The theories you have pointed out seek to make Catholic doctrine a sort of museum of Christian theories: a sort of reserve that would be of interest only to a few specialists. Life, for its part, would have nothing to do with Jesus Christ as he is and as the Church shows him to be. Strict Christianity would be turned into a new civil religion, politically correct and reduced to a few values tolerated by the rest of society. This would achieve the unconfessed objective of some: to get the Word of God out of the way for the sake of ideological control over all of society.
Jesus did not become flesh in order to expound a few simple theories that would tranquilize the conscience and ultimately leave things the way they are. The message of Jesus is a new life. If anyone were to think and live by separating life from doctrine, not only would he deform the doctrine of the Church by turning it into a sort of idealistic pseudo-philosophy, but he would also be fooling himself. Living as a Christian means living on the basis of faith in God. Adulterating this arrangement means realizing the dreaded compromise between God and the devil.
Q: In order to defend the possibility that a spouse could “start life over again” with a second marriage while the first spouse is still alive, recourse has been made to some of the testimonies of the Fathers of the Church that would seem to incline toward a certain leniency for these new unions.
A: In patristics as a whole one can certainly find different interpretations or adaptations to concrete life, nonetheless there is no testimony of the Fathers oriented toward peacefully accepting a second marriage when the first spouse is still alive.
Of course, in the Christian East a certain confusion took place between the civil legislation of the emperor and the laws of the Church, which produced a different practice that in certain cases amounted to the admission of divorce. But under the leadership of the pope the Catholic Church over the centuries developed another tradition, incorporated into the current code of canon law and into the rest of ecclesiastical regulation, that is clearly contrary to any attempt to secularize marriage. The same thing happened in various Christian communities in the East.
I have sometimes noticed how certain precise citations of the Fathers are isolated and taken out of context in order to support the possibility of divorce and remarriage. I do not believe that it is correct from the methodological point of view to isolate a text, take it out of context, turn it into an isolated citation, detach it from the overall picture of the tradition. The whole theological and magisterial tradition must be interpreted in the light of the Gospel, and in reference to marriage we find some absolutely clear words from Jesus himself. I do not believe that it is possible to give an interpretation different from the one that has been presented by the tradition and Magisterium of the Church without being unfaithful to the revealed Word.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.
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