The Real Dilemma: Indissolubility or Divorce

By Sandro Magister

ROME, October 13, 2014 (Chiesa) -- After the first week of the synod, one thing is clear: the real focus of the discussion is whether or not to admit divorce in Catholic marriage.

At the synod the word divorce is taboo. Nobody says he wants to go there. Everybody is proclaiming at the top of his voice that the doctrine of indissolubility must remain intact.

But when it comes to giving Eucharistic communion to the divorced and remarried it is as if, in their case, the sacred original bond of marriage no longer existed. As the Orthodox Churches already do, the Catholic Church as well would in fact admit second marriages.

This is in fact the trail blazed by the proponents of innovation: not an unrealistic campaign for Catholic divorce, which only a few theologians like Andrea Grillo or Hermann Häring are calling for explicitly, but the proposal for merciful assistance for those who see communion denied them because they have remarried civilly after the civil dissolution of their sacramental marriage.

The proposal is enticing. It is presented as medicine in cases of suffering because of a sacramental “right” denied. It doesn’t matter that those cases are very few in number. They are enough to act as a lever for a change whose effects promise to be enormously greater.

The sociology of religion would have much to say in this regard. Until the middle of the 20th century, in Catholic parishes, the ban on communion for those who were in a position of irregular marriage did not raise any problems, because it remained practically invisible. Even where Mass attendance was high, in fact, very few received communion every Sunday. Frequent communion was only for those who also went to confession frequently. There was evidence of this in the twofold precept that the Church issued for the faithful as a whole: to confess “once a year” and to receive communion “at least during the Easter season.”

Abstention from communion was therefore not a visible stigma of punishment or marginalization. The main motivation that kept most of the faithful from frequent communion was their great respect for the Eucharist, which could be approached only after adequate preparation, and always with fear and trembling.

All of this changed during the years of Vatican Council II and the post-council. In brief, confessions plummeted while communion became a mass phenomenon. Now everyone or almost everyone receives it, always. Because in the meantime the general understanding of the sacrament of the Eucharist has changed. The real presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the consecrated bread and wine has declined to a symbolic presence. Communion has become like the sign of peace, a gesture of friendship, of sharing, of fraternity, “the same old story: everyone else is going, so I’ll go too,” as Pope Benedict XVI said, who tried to restore the authentic sense of the Eucharist by among other things having the faithful kneel and giving the host on the tongue.

In such a context, it was inevitable that the ban on communion would be perceived among the divorced and remarried as the public denial of a “right” of everyone to the sacrament. The protests were and are on the part of a few, because most of the divorced and remarried are far from religious practice, while among the practicing there is no lack of those who understand and respect the discipline of the Church. But within this very narrow spectrum of cases there has emerged, starting in the 1990’s and mainly in a few German-speaking dioceses, a campaign for changing the discipline of the Catholic Church in the area of marriage, which has reached its peak with the pontificate of Pope Francis, with his clear agreement.

The synod’s concentration on the question of the divorced and remarried also risks losing sight of much more macroscopic situations of crisis in Catholic marriage. 

Shortly before the synod, for example, there appeared in Italian bookstores a report on the pastoral activity set up by then-cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio on the outskirts of Buenos Aires:

P. De Robertis, "Le pecore di Bergoglio. Le periferie di Buenos Aires svelano chi è Francesco", Editrice Missionaria Italiana, Bologna, 2014.

From this one learns that most couples, on the order of 80-85 percent, are not married but simply cohabit, while among spouses “the majority of marriages are invalid, because the people marry when they are immature”, but then don’t even try to get a declaration of nullity from the diocesan tribunals.

It is the “curas villeros,” the priests Bergoglio sent to the outskirts, who provide this information and proudly state that they give everyone communion no matter what, “without raising barricades.”

The outskirts of Buenos Aires are not an isolated case in Latin America. And they give evidence not of a success but if anything of an absence or failure of pastoral care for marriage. On other continents Christian marriage is in the grips of challenges no less grave, from polygamy to forced marriages, from “gender” theory to homosexual “marriages.”

In the face of such a challenge this synod and the next will decide if the appropriate response will be that of opening a loophole for divorce or of restoring to indissoluble Catholic marriage all of its alternative and revolutionary power and beauty.

Copyright © Gruppo Editoriale L’Espresso Spa for www.chiesa. Posted with permission.

Further Reading:

The Gospel of the Family in the Secularized West by Cardinal Ruini



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