For some time now I have desired to write my own reflection on the issue of divorce and remarriage in the Catholic Church. Consider the thoughts that I present here not so much a theological analysis, but rather a personal reflection on what I perceive to be an opposition by many in the Church who seem to be unwilling to bend when it comes to allowing any possibility for the divorced and remarried to be admitted to the sacramental life of the Church.
Allow me to use a real life example that I hope will serve to illuminate this dialogue. Several years ago, thanks to Joe and Maria (not their real names but with their permission to share their story), I began my own journey towards rethinking the Church’s pastoral practice concerning the divorced and remarried. My friendship with Joe and Maria began when I met them one evening at a parish Lenten penance service. Soon after that penance service, Joe and Maria phoned me and asked if I’d be able to meet with them, which I was happy to do.
They shared with me that they were both experiencing a deepening of their faith as well as their desire to learn more about the Catholic Church in which they were raised. It was clear to me that both of them had a deep hunger for a relationship with Jesus and a real desire to grow in a life of prayer. God was clearly at work in their hearts. The problem was they were civilly married. They were both previously married in the Catholic Church.
I affirmed Joe and Maria in their faith and assured them that the Lord was working in their lives. I encouraged them to stay close to the Lord in daily prayer, to attend Mass weekly and to get involved in the life of their parish. I also told them that I’d be happy to assist them in the annulment process. And so I began the annulment process with them, all the while they continued to grow in their spiritual lives and attended Mass regularly. With great respect for the Eucharist, they refrained from receiving Holy Communion.
Over time, I developed a very good friendship with Joe and Maria. I was inspired by their eagerness to learn more about the Faith and their commitment to grow in the spiritual life. It was clear to me that they had a deep love for the Lord, for the Catholic Church, and for one another.
Months passed and first came the good news: Maria’s annulment was granted an affirmative decision. We were all very happy, and we prayed that the same decision would be given for Joe. Unfortunately, that did not happen. Joe’s annulment was granted a negative decision. He decided to appeal the decision and I gladly acted as an advocate for Joe in his appeal, all to no avail. The negative decision regarding Joe’s annulment was upheld. For me, this is when I began to think more deeply about the pastoral practice of the Church with regard to the divorced and remarried. I began to see that not all situations are black and white and that there needs to be a deeper pastoral discernment in particular situations.
During the years of my friendship with Joe and Maria, I have witnessed them become active members of their parish community and grow in their spiritual lives. They’ve spearheaded Bible studies and parish retreats. Maria grew in her devotion to the Divine Mercy and at times would wake at 3 a.m. to pray the chaplet. She wrote beautiful meditations on the life of St. Joseph. Joe decided to leave a business management position in order to study theology so that he could fulfill his desire to serve others. He landed a wonderful job as a lay chaplain in a medical facility. Joe and Maria, from all accounts, would strike anyone as model Catholics. However, there is one problem: according to present pastoral practice, unless Joe and Maria commit to a platonic relationship, living as brother and sister, they are essentially cut off from receiving Holy Communion and sacramental absolution.
For over a decade before I met them, Joe and Maria were living the fullness of civilly married life. They have a beautiful daughter together. Remember, Joe and Maria were beginning a journey back to the Lord and to the Church. In their conscience, then, they believed that their marital intimacy was a gift to be shared with one another rather than an objectively sinful act resulting from an “irregular situation” of being married without the blessing of the Church. In their conscience, they believed that to abstain from marital relations would be unbecoming to their marital life. What’s more, from all that Joe had learned about the annulment process over the years, he became more and more convinced that his first marriage was indeed invalid, just unable to be declared such.
Over the years, I have shared Joe and Maria’s story with many priests and lay people when engaged in discussions about the Church’s pastoral practice concerning those who are divorced and remarried. For me, I believe the Lord put them in my life not only to be my good friends, but to help me think more deeply about this very important issue in the life of the Church.
In his book, The Gaze of Mercy, Father Raniero Cantalamessa, Preacher to the Vatican’s Papal Household since 1980, offers a reflection on those in irregular situations. His words got me thinking once again about Joe and Maria’s situation. Father Cantalamessa writes that to refuse the divorced and remarried Communion “in every case, even when they are repentant and have resolved to follow a path of reintegration into the community, means saying to them that they are in a state of mortal sin, that is, objectively separated from God.” Think about that: from what I have shared about Joe and Maria, are we to believe that they are living in a state of mortal sin, that they are objectively separated from God? Put another way, do we really believe that if Joe and Maria suddenly died in a tragic accident they would be eternally separated from God because Joe did not receive his annulment and they continued to live their conjugal life? Lastly, do we honestly believe that there is no way forward for Joe and Maria, this devout Catholic couple, to be readmitted to receiving Holy Communion and sacramental absolution?
Father Cantalamessa offers another way forward for people like Joe and Maria, and hopefully a way forward for the Church. In the same chapter, Father Cantalamessa offers a correlation between the Pauline privilege and those in irregular situations who have found their way to the Lord Jesus. The Pauline privilege is a canonical term “in which remarriage is allowed for people who become believers if a spouse refuses to follow the other person in that decision.” Cantalamessa then asks a question worthy of deeper reflection, especially for couples like Joe and Maria: “Should we not allow the same thing for a person who has had a true and profound conversion to Christ and then cannot live with the first spouse?”
Joe and Maria both had true and profound conversions. Joe and Maria love the Lord Jesus and they love the Catholic Church. The prior bonds that they had with their former spouses are irretrievable and their current marriage is strong. Their love for one another is deep, real, and, I would argue, holy. But they are fundamentally cut off from the sacramental life of the Church unless they decide to forgo marital intimacy, a decision that, according to their conscience, is opposed to the good of their married life.
Some may argue that the thoughts I’ve presented here contradict the Church’s doctrine of indissolubility. Let me be clear: In no way am I attempting to dispute the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. I am simply posing the question as to whether or not situations such as Joe and Maria’s merit the deeper discernment of the Church, a pastoral discernment of which Pope Francis has spoken. Could the Church not apply something similar to the Pauline privilege to couples who have experienced a profound conversion to Christ but are not presently free to marry in the Church due to a negative annulment decision?
I believe that the annulment process is the ordinary way to proceed in these cases, but if the spouse is granted a negative decision, it seems to me that this is where pastoral discernment needs to happen. Jesus Christ gave to the Church power to bind and to loose. Could it be that the Holy Spirit, through the Petrine ministry of Pope Francis, might be moving the Church to further develop its pastoral practice so that couples in these situations who desire to be readmitted to the sacramental life might be “loosed” to do so?
Father Michael Najim is pastor of St. Pius X Church in Westerly.