Divorced and Remarried Catholics – We’ve Got to Do Something!

Bishop Thomas J. Tobin - Without a Doubt

In October a number of bishops from around the world will meet with Pope Francis in Rome to discuss the “Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.” A similar meeting in October of 2015 will follow-up on the same topic.

Although the discussion of the pastoral care of the family will be very comprehensive, and probably won’t produce any immediate change in Church law, a lot of the speculation is fixed on whether or not the Church will alter its approach to Catholics who are divorced and civilly remarried and thus not permitted to receive Holy Communion.

Public interest in the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried gained traction with a major address given to the College of Cardinals by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a presentation that floated various approaches to this situation. Kasper’s trial balloons were quickly shot down by other prominent prelates. Later, however, the Cardinal suggested that Church leaders must “leave behind narrow-minded legalistic considerations and a non-Christian strictness which burdens people with unbearable weight.”

Pope Francis has lamented the fact that so much attention is being paid to this singular issue. But, truth be told, at least some of the responsibility for the intense debate rests with Pope Francis himself and the enigmatic comments he’s made.

For example, during an interview last summer, the Holy Father said that the Synod would explore a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the care of the divorced and remarried. He added that the Church law governing annulments also “has to be reviewed, because tribunals are not sufficient for this.” These tantalizing tidbits, in addition to the Pope’s declaration that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak,” (Evangelii Gaudium, #47) have generated heightened expectations, and understandably so.

The challenge for the Church, of course, is how to maintain and proclaim the irrefutable teaching of our Lord Jesus that marriage entails a sacred and permanent bond between husband and wife, while also providing spiritual care for those Catholics who have fallen short of the ideal. The numbers of such Catholics are staggering; most Catholic families, I suspect, have experienced these situations.

In my personal reflection on this dilemma, I turn to the incident in the Gospels in which Jesus and His followers were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath and because they were hungry, began to pick and eat the grain, a clear violation of an important Mosaic Law. The offense was roundly condemned by the religious experts, the Pharisees. But in response, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:23-28)

In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, our Lord clearly placed it in a “pastoral context,” exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment.

Could we not take a similar approach to marriage law today? Could we not say, by way of analogy, that “matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?” Although the teaching of Christ and His Church about the permanence of marriage is clear and undeniable, the lived reality is that many individuals, for a variety of reasons perhaps — personal, catechetical or cultural — are ill-equipped to fulfill the lofty demands of the law.

I understand completely the arguments against taking a more “pastoral approach” to this topic, primarily that to do so would betray the sacred teaching of Christ we are obliged to uphold. I know that even within the current discipline, divorced and remarried Catholics, though barred from Holy Communion, are still valued members of the Church and that there are many ways for them to participate in ecclesial life. And I believe in the value of “spiritual communion” as a truly worthwhile devotional practice for those unable to receive the sacrament.

But at the same time, the Church has taught the pre-eminent value of receiving the Holy Eucharist, and I keep hearing the words of Jesus about the Eucharist, words that are just as valid and important as His words about marriage: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you.” (Jn 6:53)

I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have “dropped-out” of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist. And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion.

What’s the solution to this dilemma?

Well, for starters, can we at least think about simplifying the annulment process so that it’s more akin to the current practice of receiving various dispensations for marriage, handled completely at the local level with the oversight of the Diocesan Bishop? Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?

In lieu of this formal court-like process, which some participants have found intimidating, can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive Holy Communion? And don’t we already offer Holy Communion to other individuals whose relationship with the Church is impaired, such as Orthodox Christians?

Whatever the outcome of the deliberations, it is important that any “pastoral approach” to divorced and remarried Catholics be adopted by the Universal Church and not attempted at the level of national, diocesan or parish churches. To impose local solutions to this widespread problem would be completely dishonest and misleading, causing only confusion and division.

I don’t know what the answer is, I really don’t. There are many other Church leaders, including our Pope and bishops and theologians, who are a whole lot smarter and holier than I am, wrestling with this issue. We should pray fervently that the Holy Spirit will guide their discernment.

Nevertheless, my forty-one years as a priest and nearly twenty-two as a bishop have convinced me that the status quo is unacceptable. For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic Family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!