Don't Believe the (Divorce-and-Remarriage) Hype

March 20, 2014 | 22 comments

Is the Catholic Church about to change its teaching on divorce and remarriage? All the papers are saying it might. Let’s get to the bottom of this by looking at some history first.

In 2009 and again in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI made remarks about the use of condoms that got the ladies and gentlemen of the secular media worked up into a rich lather.

First, by discounting the idea, floated by some theologians, that married couples could use condoms where there was a risk of transmitting AIDS; then a few months later by suggesting that in certain circumstances—he cited the example of a male prostitute—the use of a condom could be morally justifiable.

The media, predictably, castigated Benedict in the first instance for his Dark-Ages hangups, and in the second, just as predictably, breathlessly wondered whether we were on the cusp of revamping Humanae Vitae. 

In both instances, though, the kerfuffle was unwarranted. As a practical matter, engaging even in prophylactic sex when one partner knows he has AIDS is a game of Russian Roulette. Although the condom’s actual success rate at preventing transmission of the HIV virus is a matter of some dispute, we know that it isn’t 100%. User error alone would cause some failure, and failure could cause death. The good of sexual intimacy in conjugal life does not justify such a risk, even if you could see your way past the contraceptive effect. So it was, and is, a non-issue.

Likewise the use of condoms in sex acts that are inherently infecund—such as in the pope’s example of a male (homosexual) prostitute. Remember that the problem with condoms isn’t the little piece of latex: The Church teaches, rather, that contraception is immoral when it is used intentionally to prevent procreation (see Humanae Vitae 14). This teaching does not anticipate the use of contraceptive devices in unnatural sexual acts that have no chance of being procreative anyway.

The media got both stories wrong not just because they live and die by sensationalistic headlines, but because they are fundamentally ignorant of Church teaching.

Which they have recently demonstrated again, in the buzz these last few weeks surrounding Cardinal Walter Kasper’s musings about the reconciliation of divorced and remarried Catholics, the German bishops’ reported plan for same, and the upcoming Synod on the Family, which will hash out the matter.

Catholic teaching, taking seriously Christ’s words in Matthew 19:4-9, is that the marital union is indissoluble. If, after entering into a valid marriage, a Catholic gets divorced and then marries another (either in a civil ceremony or another religious ceremony), he puts himself in a state that bars him from receiving the Eucharist.

Those who weren't practicing anyway couldn't care less, of course. Others, though, want to preserve their faith life: some going to church regularly but refraining from the Eucharist, others approaching the altar illicitly and contorting their consciences to justify it. Still others drift away from the Church for a while but then come back, contrite, hungry for the Body of Christ. They’re willing to go to great lengths to reconcile with the Church, but in many of these cases, the second (attempted) marriage has resulted in children, practical duties, and personal bonds than can’t simply be undone or ignored.

What can these people do?

Cardinal Kasper offered some suggestions; nothing super-specific, but his points basically break down like this:

• We must preserve Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.

• We can’t solve the problem just by increasing the number of annulments.

• Maybe we can solve the problem by giving individual pastors the option of guiding divorced and remarried Catholics through an appropriate period of penance, after which time they would be re-admitted to full communion with the Church.

Now, if it’s possible for a Catholic teaching to draw more ire from the secular media than the ban on contraception, it’s the “hard line” on divorce and remarriage. It seems so heartless. Any whisper of change, then, is a big story for them—especially since Card. Kasper claims to have the implicit support of Pope Francis. But is Card. Kasper’s suggestion truly a sign that a big change is brewing in the Church’s teaching on marriage?

Well, there’s a problem.

Just as contraception’s core issue isn’t the condom or the pill, the core issue with divorce and remarriage isn’t the certificate from City Hall. It isn’t the “failure” of the first marriage or a “betrayal” of Catholicism by seeking a second marriage in another church. Rather, it’s the ongoing adulterous condition that the second, attempted marriage has created. Presuming a normal conjugal life—man and woman doing what husbands and wives usually do—you have a situation that is irreconcilable.

To put it plainly: If I’m still married to my “first” wife but having sexual relations with my “second” wife, I’m committing adultery. No matter how much contrition I express, no matter how much pastoral counselling I get, persisting in this adulterous practice disqualifies me from communion.

The traditional remedy, in circumstances where the attempted marriage has created obligations that can’t be erased, is for the man and woman to commit to living as “brother and sister.” They could continue living together, but must drop the illusion that they are married. That includes, chiefly, practicing continence permanently—or, at least until such time as (if the previous marriage is later annulled) their union is canonically validated.

Cardinal Kasper does not mention this practice, so presumably his solution would allow persons in attempted marriages to continue having sexual relations with one another. Since this would require a radical change in either a) Church teaching on the morality of adultery or b) Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage, we must conclude that it is an impossibility. The Catholic Church, protected by the Holy Spirit from error in its teachings on faith and morals, cannot teach one thing about the sacraments or morality for 2,000 years and then teach the opposite.

The media don’t understand this, though Card. Kasper surely does. That’s why his remarks can only have been meant, and can only be taken, as a sort of thought experiment. When it comes to pastoral care of the divorced and remarried, the Church is restrained by many hard truths. How can we show such people the maximum love and support without transgressing those truths? That’s the story here. Stay tuned for the synod in October.

Todd Aglialoro is the director of publishing for Catholic Answers Press. He studied theology at Franciscan University, the University of Fribourg, and the International Theological Institute. A New York native, Todd now lives in the San Diego area with his wife, seven children, and one small bird.

Comments by Members

#1  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

"In 2009 and again in 2010, Pope Benedict XVI made remarks about the use of condoms that got the ladies and gentlemen of the secular media worked up into a rich lather."

The way you espouse ideas is utterly distasteful and obnoxious. This will be the last time I click a link of yours, as your posts are consistently off-putting in tone. I wish you were not on this site; I would hope for better representatives of my faith on here.

March 20, 2014 at 1:11 pm PST
#2  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

Oh come on Peter don't be so sensitive. This is my favorite part of the article.....

"The media don’t understand this, though Card. Kasper surely does. That’s why his remarks can only have been meant, and can only be taken, as a sort of thought experiment."

Really?!? Do you even know who Cardinal Kasper is? We need to educate those around us on the Crises! This generation has no idea what's even happening in front of them. Walter Kasper is a well known heretic (praised and promoted continuously be the last few popes) and his words on marriage and divorce are really quite tame compared to what we have on record. This is no "thought experiment" friends... This is vintage Kasper.

March 20, 2014 at 1:25 pm PST
#3  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Kenneth: I am acquainted with Cardinal Kasper's track record. I thought it best, though, to err on the side of charity. His remarks open up a spectrum of possible interpretations; I chose to give him the most generous one.

March 20, 2014 at 2:44 pm PST
#4  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas


It's always charitable to err on charity! What does pessimism accomplish anyways eh? I think that it is entirely plausible that this ends nasty... But we will see. Here's to hoping that yall are right! The real question is.... If divorced and remarried couples are allowed to take communion will Catholic Answers apologists defend the decision or finally offer up some fair and deserving criticism?

March 20, 2014 at 6:30 pm PST
#5  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado


March 21, 2014 at 1:45 am PST
#6  Karl Keating - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Peter Laffin:

You get worked up into a rich lather because Todd writes about the secular media getting "worked up into a rich lather." You find his innocuous phrasing "utterly distasteful and obnoxious." You find it "off-putting in tone."

Have you thought of switching to decaffeinated coffee?

March 21, 2014 at 9:40 am PST
#7  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Peter, your second comment has been deleted for your own sake. Please refrain from personal attacks in the comments section of this blog.

March 21, 2014 at 10:04 am PST
#8  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Kenneth: The outcome is hard to predict, so our response to it is even harder to predict. We shall see!

March 21, 2014 at 10:05 am PST
#9  Dan Redle - Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio

I thought you did an excellent job of being both charitable and faithful to the Truth Todd. We need to pray for the Synod that Catholic teaching is reaffirmed. Thankfully there are many bishops and Cardinals who are faithful.

March 21, 2014 at 1:19 pm PST
#10  Alexa Wilson - Spring, Texas

The Church should be careful not to treat the Eucharist as a reward for the righteous. Jesus didn't withhold communion from Judas, maybe because Jesus knew he needed it the most. God doesn't want remarried people to dissolve their remarried families - that would make the Church a destructive force bent on the letter of the law and not the heart of the law. God also doesn't want people kept away from him - only God can judge the heart. We need to have compassion for people who have made grave mistakes but cannot change the consequences of their actions without causing more devastation to others. Marriage is what the Church teaches it is, but God's mercy is greater.

March 21, 2014 at 7:24 pm PST
#11  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado


You sound like a true Christ person. I wish I had presented my thoughts as you did. Thank you.

March 21, 2014 at 10:25 pm PST
#12  Peter Laffin - Boulder, Colorado

Jesus spent his life fighting the theologically correct--those who professed that God cared more about you following the law than the content of your heart. I'm happy to stand on Christ's side here.

March 21, 2014 at 10:57 pm PST
#13  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Alexa: Thanks for your comment.

Indeed, the whole question here (as mentioned in my post, which I hope you read) is what to do about people in attempted marriages who can't, for practical purposes, simply separate from their "spouse" -- much less return to their first, true spouse.

Here the Church has what appear to be competing interests, both stemming from commands given by Jesus: its duty to teach the truth, including moral truth, and to be a faithful steward of the sacraments; and its duty to show mercy and care to sinners -- which is to say, all of us.

It seems to me that for the Church to try to serve one interest at the expense of the other would be for it to fail in the mission Jesus gave it. Truth without love is Pharisaism; love without truth isn't really love but a kind of therapeutic affirmation.

And so however the Church tackles this seeming dilemma, it must do it in a way that doesn't compromise -- on either truth OR love. That means, in the first place, that it can't pretend marriage isn't marriage or that adultery isn't adultery. (Frankly, that would be neither truthful NOR loving in my opinion.) Jesus showed mercy to the woman caught in adultery -- then told her plainly not to do it anymore.

Likewise, it can't pretend that receiving the Eucharist is a casual thing. You're right that Communion is not a "reward for the righteous," but that's not the way the Church sees it. The Eucharist is a pure gift from Christ, something that no amount of human righteousness can earn as a "reward." He entrusted this gift to the administration of his Church, with the directive that those who receive it *prepare* themselves (1 Cor. 11:29; cf Matt. 22:11-13).

Can the Church say, against everything that Christ instituted it to be, that marriage isn't what Jesus said it was, that adultery is not a great sin, or that those in a state of serious sin can receive the Eucharist, no problem? The universe would have to implode first. Or else we'd have to throw out everything we thought we believed about Jesus. (I'd rather choose the imploding-universe option, myself.)

The other side of the coin is pastoral care of persons in this situation. For the Church to turn up its nose and say, "Let us leave these wretched sinners in their misery" would be gross disobedience to Jesus' command -- and example -- of mercy.

And so the Church must seek a balance: staying faithful to *everything* Christ taught, rather than just one or the other part.

Only I don't think it's really a balance. Any parent knows sometimes that love and truth, gentleness and discipline, are *intertwined.* Aren't the trials and sufferings that God permits us to undergo an example of that? And so I suspect that the seeming hard-heartedness of withholding the Eucharist to those in a state of serious sin (while generously extending to them every realistic pastoral option for reconciliation) is also a representation of God's love.

March 22, 2014 at 9:44 am PST
#14  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

Todd and Alexa,

I decided to leave me Lutheran (LCMS) church and convert to Roman Catholicism two years ago. I have still not received my first communion. My wife had been married previously and at the time we decided to convert we had already been married and had multiple children (three beautiful boys). The grounds for her annulment are very strong (or so we have been told) but if we are denied annulment what then? Would the Church be "unjust"or "unloving" or "keeping us from Christ" by protecting the institution that Christ Himself established? That would be an insane assertion. The Church would not be "keeping us from Christ" but we would be (if we continued living in our current situation) keeping ourselves from His love and mercy. When Jesus said that we must be prepared to give up everything and follow Him was He being "unfair" and "legalistic"? Is purgatory an offense on human dignity? Is hell also really "unfair"? The "problem" of divorce and remarriage is really the "problem" of silent apostasy. If the Church denies my wifes petition for annulment we are prepared to live as "brother and sister" and take vows of celibacy if need be to join communion. If others are not willing to make that sacrifice (which is a hard and terrible sacrifice to make) that is not a "problem" for the Church to cater to but a "problem" for the sinner and his or her non repentant and selfish heart

March 22, 2014 at 11:38 am PST
#15  Thomas Jones - Baltimore, Ohio

Great post.. I have been watching what Cardinals Burke and O’Malley have been stating, and they seem to echo precisely what you have stated above...
Oddly enough I just watched Cardinal Burke a few mintues ago here..

March 22, 2014 at 7:19 pm PST
#16  Alexa Wilson - Spring, Texas

The Church cannot change its teaching on morality or the sacraments. However, the Church's understanding on how to administer a decree of nullity has evolved over the centuries (St. Ignatius of Antioch in the 2nd century, the Popes of the 12th century, to the current modifications in the 20th century). The cultural ignorance of what marriage is and what it entails has exploded over the last 60 years. This secularization of marriage has lead an unprecedented number of converts and reverts led astray in their marital histories. It is not unorthodox for the Church to restructure the logistics and mode of being granted a decree of nullity, in a time of history such as this. Jesus draws souls to the Church through the Eucharist, but the current bureaucratic system of ecclesiastical tribunals has become a stumbling block for so many. Kenneth has a reverent and beautiful understanding of the current process, but many others do not for a variety of reasons and strongholds. God meets us where we are, and the Church mimics that love, which is why some organic changes in this area are called for. It is to be expected that the Church will be granting exponentially more decrees of nullity in a time when the majority of marriages are built on sand and not rock. The Church must adapt it's systematic procedures to adjust to this unparalleled need of God's children.

March 23, 2014 at 12:13 pm PST
#17  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Alexa, a couple of things:

1. Even though Card. Kasper, in his remarks, briefly referred to the German bishops' idea of streamlining the annulment process (by moving it from the tribunal to pastors), he also specifically said that easier annulments are NOT the answer. So that solution was outside the scope of my blog post.

2. Since you brought it up, it should be noted that in Western countries at least, annulments are fairly easy to get. They take a little time, effort, and cost, but this seems to me fitting, given the seriousness of what's at stake. In light of the high probability of successfully getting an annulment, I question how much of a stumbling block the process is -- or should be.

I have people in my family who got divorced, wanted to remarry, briefly looked at the annulment process and decided it was too much bother, and went elsewhere. The problem in those instances was lack of faith and lack of perseverance, not the annulment process -- which they didn't even try.

3. The first concern of the Church should be the integrity of the bond -- the strong presumption of validity in any given marriage. Otherwise all married couples would get trapped in a kind of cloud of unknowing: "Are we REALLY married, or not? Sure feels like we are. But if some pastor can rubber-stamp a decree of nullity for anybody, maybe we're really not..." It would be chaos -- something like the Donatist heresy, which held that the personal faithfulness of a priest was a prerequisite for the valid exercise of his priestly faculties.

That problem, plus the Church's understandable unwillingness to facilitate de facto adultery, are arguments for retaining (or, in places where tribunals have become very lax, re-claiming) an annulment process that begins with a strong presumption of validity. To overcome that presumption requires thoroughness and care -- which isn't cheap or fast.

March 23, 2014 at 2:39 pm PST
#18  Alexa Wilson - Spring, Texas

Thank you Todd for your responses. I appreciate your insights and you have helped me better understand the issues at hand.

March 23, 2014 at 4:48 pm PST
#19  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas

As someone who is going through the process I might be able to offer a suggestion or two. Perhaps, rather than "streamline" annulments it might be possible to assume the couple is innocent until proven guilty rather than the current system of guilty until proven innocent. Allow me to explain. I think one possible way to remove the "stumbling block" of annulments might be to allow couples to participate in the life and sacraments of the Church AFTER beginning the annulment process and only if a local priest has decided that their case is a strong one. The couple could enjoy full communion with the Church as long as the tribunal never declares that they have been previously married. I understand that the Church "assumes" a marriage to be valid until proven otherwise.... but why make that assumption if basically 100% of converts are granted their annulments? What a waste of time. There are people who have been "married" 3 or 4 times that would presumably be looking at a a 4+ year wait just to investigate civil unions that might all obviously be invalid. There is no need for that kind of delay. There may NOT BE TIME for that kind of delay if the person in question is elderly or sick. Just a thought....

March 23, 2014 at 6:39 pm PST
#20  Todd Aglialoro - El Cajon, California - Catholic Answers Blogger

Kenneth: First of all, I feel for your situation, and I admire your faith and integrity. Furthermore, I think you have put your finger on the problem with easy annulments -- they do come awfully close to creating a "presumption of invalidity."

But I don't see how the cure can be more of the disease. Indeed, if it were left to couples to decide if they were *really* married unless a tribunal ruled otherwise, well, you can see the logical consequences: you'd have chaos.

In his remarks to the cardinals, Card. Kasper actually came dangerously close to endorsing this position, in a roundabout way, by wondering aloud whether the presumption of validity "is not often a legal fiction." The implication being that many couples, through some defect of knowledge, are not entering valid unions. It's a subject I think I'll address in a future blog post.

March 24, 2014 at 9:38 am PST
#21  kenneth winsmann - katy, Texas


My suggested solution was more along the lines of allowing a local priest/ canon lawyer decide if the case was strong (not each individual couple) and then allowing the couple a kind of "hall pass" only after all the paperwork had been filed and the couple in question had been evaluated as having a strong case for annulment. In this way the Church might be able lower the hurdles for potential converts and still maintain the integrity of marriage. If a couple is denied annulment their "hall-pass" would be revoked and they would be outside full communion with the Church until they could reconcile their situation in some fashion. (either returning to their sacramental marriage or else living as brother and sister in their adulterous one)

March 24, 2014 at 10:39 am PST
#22  Patrick Boulay - Minneapolis, Minnesota

Very interesting discussion. What has confused me the most was the case of my now deceased father. He was always faithful and was stunned when my mother sought and received a divorce. He urged her to consider counseling, not to give up, to keep trying. There was nothing he could do. The divorce was not his choice and he was not able to change it. He later remarried a wonderful woman and were together the next 36 years. I can understand being denied communion if you are the one ending a marriage, but it hardly seem right for the victim of a decision that he fought against. He finally sought an annulment, but his original marriage was in 1949 and no witness were left alive except the bride and groom, and she would not cooperate and the annulment was dropped by the archdiocese. His parish priest gave him permission (I think) to receive communion. It seems that punishment should be earned and one should be deserving. This was thrust upon him.

March 30, 2014 at 9:23 am PST

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