Notice

A Question of Rights

Divorce, Remarriage, & a Church of Compassion

By James E. Biechler

"I don't see how ARCC can consider itself a Catholic organization. The Catholic Church has always been completely opposed to divorce and remarriage, yet your organization's charter claims that a Catholic has the right not only to get out of a marriage that has broken down but to enter a new marriage. Do you really think the church could ever agree to such a radical position?"

--T. A. D., Franklin, WI

Your question does not give us a clue as to whether you think it might be more in keeping with Jesus's gospel message of the love and forgiveness of God were the church to modify its position and embrace those whose marriages have failed. "Divorce is a very great evil, Nora," says Bogart playing the hard-hitting editor in "Deadline, U.S.A." No thinking person regards divorce as anything but a serious misfortune, both for the spouses and for their children. When ARCC adopted Article 30 of its charter it was not thinking that divorce was anything but a personal and social disaster. This, New Testament scholars agree, was the position of Jesus and it has always been the position of the church.

You are not quite correct, however, in your implication that the church has always taken an absolutist position on the indissolubility of marriage. The church dissolves hundreds of valid marriages every year. This is not the same as the thousands of declarations of nullity which Catholic tribunals around the world issue every year. Many people do not distinguish between the declaration of a church court that two people were, in fact, never validly married, despite external appearances, because one or both were incapable of marital consent or responsibilities, and the dissolution of a true marriage by papal or episcopal authority. It is erroneous to assert that true and valid marriage has always been regarded as indissoluble by the church. Over the centuries the church has made into juridical statute what the New Testament saw as a pastoral and prophetic witness to the Jewish and Roman world. The church has made a New Testament ideal into an unbreakable law. No imagination is required to grasp the magnitude of the suffering this has caused pious God-fearing people over the years.

The problem we face, and this is the problem which ARCC's charter addresses, is the need to uphold the ideal of "two in one flesh" which is the image of the unity of Christ and his church, and the reality and complexity of human decision and fallibility. No institution in the world has stood for a marriage ideal as lofty as that of the Catholic Church. Your question suggests that you, too, hold to that ideal and are proud to associate yourself with its institutional preservation. But what are we to do when, despite our best efforts our Christian friends and even our own children find themselves in destructive relationships? Are they to be henceforth condemned to social isolation, to lives without intimacy, to deprivation of the Eucharist? Is the schizophrenic alienation of their children to be made even worse by the church's rejection of their parents? Is it not true to our experience, that remarriage after divorce has often resulted in loving and supportive relationships for spouses and children? Can the church not be an instrument of God's peace in healing the hearts broken by marital anguish? Reread the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman in John's gospel, chapter 4. Although Jesus does not show any approval of the woman's multiple marriages, neither does he suggest that she is outside the pale of salvation. His pastoral solicitude embraces her and her community.

Given the church's long concern for the institution of marriage it should be no great problem for it to open its arms to those who, despite their best intentions and earnest hopes, find themselves in irretrievably broken marriages. A pastoral declaration to this effect, after a period of marital assistance or counseling, would assure the community that everything possible has been done to salvage the relationship. The call to peace and freedom, which is the gospel of Jesus Christ, would permit the reconstruction of lives broken by failed relationships. After all, the contemporary experience of serious and commited Catholics in this matter is precisely their acknowledgement that mistakes were made, these are regretted, they are forgiven by friends, family and God, and broken lives must be reconstructed. For most people, living the very best life possible means living in loving intimacy with another person, it means a community of life and mutual relationship. "It is not good for human beings to be alone," says Genesis.

A modification of church policy on the matter of divorce and remarriage would undoubtedly require careful explanation by the church's pastors. Far from being a cause of scandal or disbelief, a pastoral rather than a juridical approach to broken marriages should be a source of joy and relief to millions of people, many actually alienated from the church by a policy they cannot understand, a policy which seems to many to be excessively rigid and legalistic. A change in the church's official approach would simply be a return to an earlier policy.

We all agree that the ideal is one marriage "till death do us part." It is a beautiful ideal, it is realized with gratitude by millions of Christians, it needs constant theological support by the church's teachers and pastors. But when the ideal, though ardently struggled for, is not attained, should we not open our hearts and our arms with the lavish forgiveness and acceptance which Jesus taught us to show toward one another? If we did this without being judgmental and without an air of superiority perhaps we would find Christians always more ready to forgive one another and there would be fewer broken marriages and divorces in the world.


Dr. Biechler, an emeritus professor of religion, is a member of ARCC's board of directors. He also holds a licentiate in canon law and is a longtime member of the Canon Law Society of America.

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