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

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.

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