By Edward Cuddy
Since Pope Francis entered the Vatican, he has promoted the Catholic Church’s social justice doctrine worldwide. But less known has been his effort to bring divorced/remarried Catholics into full reconciliation with the church, without changing the church’s doctrine.
The problem has been Jesus’ words (Matthew, 5:32): “Anyone who divorces his wife – except for sexual immorality – makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
By the 1970s, the church expanded the circumstances for annulments, even though the people thought their marriages were real.
A Gallup survey in 1992 showed that almost 75 percent of American Catholics believed that divorced/remarried people should be able to receive communion. Even Pope John Paul II, in February 1998, recognized the anguish for people whose “marriages had become shipwrecked through no fault of their own and … have formed new unions which they wish to have be blessed” by the church.
God bless those priests and bishops who stretched the annulments, creating a supportive climate for Francis to promote a full reconciliation with the church for the divorced/remarried – but not without a struggle.
The battle took place during the Synod of Bishops last October when conservative bishops opposed the changes against progressives fighting to modify the doctrine. The pope reminded his bishops that “the church’s first duty is not to hand down condemnations … but to proclaim God’s mercy.”
At the end of the day, a large majority of bishops presented a solution, relying on the church’s “internal forum” – the person’s conscience. Indeed, Vatican II (1963-65) argued that the faithful “ought carefully to attend” to the church’s teachings (the “external forum”); but in the final analysis, the people are “bound in conscience” without “compulsion; they are to be guided by their own judgment.”
But the church’s “external forum” is important – that marriage is permanent and indissoluble. Several studies have shown the devastating impacts on children after divorce, such as emotional, physical and financial effects. Moreover, psychologist E. Mavis Hetherington, a specialist on family issues, found that “a large majority of individuals in unhappy marriages, who hang in there … their marriages are very happy a few years later. For the most part … those divorced and remarried were not happier than those who stuck with their marriages.”
For good reason, theologian Charles Curran insists that the church “must work to strengthen Christian marriage in our culture but at the same time recognize the need for divorce in certain circumstances.”
Edward Cuddy is a professor emeritus at Daemen College.