Monday, July 31, 2006

Have Your Marriage and Make It Two

There has been a lot of talk in recent decades about the issue of divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church—since there are so many—and the possibility of their being allowed to receive Holy Communion. The Church has always held to the essential indissolubility of marriage, and hence a civil divorce and remarriage means that the second “marriage” is no marriage at all, but an adulterous relationship. Jesus’ teaching on the matter confirms this (Mt. 5:31-32 and 19:9; Mk. 10:11-12; Lk. 16:18). Matthew’s version of Jesus’ teaching admits an exception to the absolute ban on divorce and remarriage, but it is one whose meaning is obscure. The exception is “for porneia,” which literally means “fornication,” but is sometimes interpreted to mean marriage with someone too closely blood-related, which would render it invalid. No one knows if that is the original intention, but the Church has held to the teaching: “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mk. 10:9 and parallels). The issue of annulments is a sticky one, and the Church grants too many, though the Pope is trying to stop abuses, but I don't intend to deal with that here.

I read recently that some Italian moral theologians are trying to come up with a way for divorced and remarried Catholics to be admitted to Holy Communion. I assume their pastoral concerns are genuine, but their solution accords neither with Catholic teaching nor even simple logic. They try to explain it all in great detail, with various qualifications and caveats, but what it comes down to is the following. A married couple divorces. One of the spouses remarries and perhaps has children with the new spouse. The remarried spouse rethinks his past, realizes it was wrong to divorce, but has since bonded with his new wife and loves her, and has emotional, financial, and family responsibilities that he feels unable or unwilling to renounce. To be re-admitted to Holy Communion (say these theologians), he must acknowledge that his first marriage was the only sacramental one, repent of his divorce and do some appropriate penance, perhaps on an ongoing basis, yet even though realizing that his new marriage is not the “real” one, he can continue the relationship and he can still go on having sexual relations with his new “wife” and in good conscience present himself for Holy Communion! Oh yes, he must also be available to help raise the kids from his first marriage. They neglect to mention whether or not it is permissible on occasion to have sex with the original spouse, since that is the only valid marriage, and the sacramental bond still exists (see how messy it can easily become?).

Does something seem wrong with this picture? Aside from not being in accord with Catholic teaching, and the general confusion, there’s a fundamental dishonesty that is being advanced here. The simple fact that the first marriage was sacramental, i.e., blessed and approved and graced by God, and the second is not, should make it clear about eligibility for the further blessing of sacramental Communion. But what do they mean by “repenting” of the divorce? To repent means to change—not spouses, but behavior! It is disingenuous (to say the least) simply to say: “Hey, I’m really sorry about that divorce. Now can I get married again?” And what kind of “penance” can he or she do that will have any meaning at all, since penance is supposed to help you live the life to which your repentance has returned you? If you fully intend to continue living and having sexual relations with one who is not, in the eyes of God, your spouse, the terms repentance and penance become meaningless.

It is a shame that there are so many divorces today, but perhaps the Church has been complicit in that as well. There should be a long and careful preparation for marriage, for it is meant to last a lifetime, and everyone had better know just what a lifetime commitment entails. Maybe there should be a kind of “novitiate,” a mandatory 3-year courtship and preparation period, like monks have a novitiate before they profess their vows. Marriage vows are no less binding. If the Church insists on upholding her teaching, as she should, then she should not admit anyone to marriage who does not manifest the psychological and spiritual maturity by which they can understand and live their commitment.

It is impossible here to cover all the issues of canon law that apply to various types of situations for which the solution is not always the same—though the Church’s teaching must always be upheld and practiced. It’s not my intention in this reflection to engage in canonical or theological casuistry, but to point out an underlying problem. To make such a change in the Church’s consistent and millennial teaching is not only a serious break with Tradition (which would inevitably lead to demands for even more changes until there’s little content left to her teaching)—it also indicates a weakening in her essential mission of the sanctification of souls.

Vatican II, for all its opening of windows a little too wide to the spirit of the world, in this case paradoxically closes them by its universal call to holiness. Sanctity is not the province only of priests and monks and mystics, but it is the life’s work of everyone. That means that heroic virtue is not only someone else’s calling but yours and mine. This may in some cases translate into working long and hard to save a difficult marriage or, having failed after noble efforts and choosing to separate for the protection of one’s life or integrity, remaining single and carrying that particular cross with the Lord. “No temptation [the word also means “test” or “trial”] has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1Cor. 10:13).

The Church does not fulfill her mission if she accommodates herself to the increasing degeneration of the morals of her members. She must, of course, meet them where they are, but not for the sake of adapting her teachings to their inability (or unwillingness) to live the Gospel. The mission of the Church is to call them out of sin and lukewarmess into fervor and holiness. Jesus didn’t associate with prostitutes and publicans as an approval of their behavior, or to get some ideas as to how He might modify his teachings to make life easier for them. No, He went down to them to call them to repentance, and to save them from their sins! The Church likewise does no service to her people by adapting her teachings to the changing mores of a secular and often morally heedless society. She is to show them “a still more excellent way” (1Cor. 12:31), that is, the unchanging and holy commandments of Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life.

The suggestions of those theologians are not surprising. They’re going for the jackpot now, because they have seen the Church back down on other things. Is it too hard to fast? OK, no fasting anymore (except for a negligible minimum). Too many holy days of obligation, on which you have to make the supreme effort to go to church? OK, we’ll get rid of most of them. And the few that are left we’ll try to transfer to the nearest Sunday, so as to increase your convenience still more. Want to sleep late on Sunday or go to the beach or the games? OK, we’ll have Mass on Saturday evening so the Lord’s day can just be for your recreation. Now they’re trying to get the Church to say: Unhappy as a divorcee? OK, you can get married again, and make sure you come to Communion on Saturday evening. Other moral (immoral?) theologians are pushing for Church acceptance of pre-marital sex (only in certain cases, of course, until that’s approved; then they’ll add more), Church acceptance of homosexual activity (try to be faithful to one partner, though; but if you can’t, well, we understand), etc. The Church cannot keep accommodating and still remain the Church of Jesus Christ.

An unexpected and disappointing fruit of Vatican II’s universal call to holiness is that along with the call came (in practice) a rejection of the very mentality and means that are supposed to lead to holiness. All are called to holiness, but what we’ve seen is a falling away from penance, from zeal for the glory of God and the salvation of souls, a weakened spirit of endurance and fidelity, lack of eagerness for prayer, sacramental confession, living the Gospel, and of reverence for the Holy Eucharist and all the things of God. It won’t work. That call to holiness has to have its practical applications. In the context of unfortunate marital situations, the answer isn’t one more ecclesiastical accommodation, but fidelity to the truth, even unto the Cross. For that is what Christianity is about. We’re not supposed to have paradise on earth; this is a time of testing, of proving our love for the Lord in good times or bad, when it’s easy or hard to put his word into practice. Sacrifice is an essential and inescapable part of Christian life. The saints and martyrs knew this, and they didn’t seek exceptions, loopholes, or changes in Church teaching. They only wanted to spend their lives serving the Lord, come what may—for they knew what He promised, and they believed it!

This life is only a short prelude to our true and eternal life. As Christians we should accept the Cross and let it bear fruit in our lives. If we live only with temporal and earthly hopes, desires, and perspectives, then the hardships of life will seem overwhelming and we will rage against them. But if we set our hearts on things of Heaven, as Scripture says, we will live life on a different level, acquiring a taste for spiritual blessings—and realizing that the best is yet to come.