Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Teaching of the Catholic Church on Divorce

Among Catholics, one of the most sensitive and often-avoided topics is the stinging reality of divorce and its consequences. While there must be a pastoral response to assist those parties who seek counseling when their failed marriage ends in divorce, one must never compromise the truth of Christ’s teachings for the sake of the pastoral response. The words and teachings of Jesus Christ on divorce are clear, and it is the responsibility of the Church and its pastors to safeguard, proclaim, and defend them. Let us, therefore, turn our attention to the words of Christ Himself recorded in the Gospel of Matthew:

“And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, ‘Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?’ He answered, ‘Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one”? So they are no longer two but one. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.’ They said to him, ‘Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?’ He said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery.’"[1]

These words sound like a great judgment upon a civilization such as ours, where there is one divorce for every two marriages and many consequent re-marriages after such divorces. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, in his radio series “Life Is Worth Living,” eloquently shows how this teaching is not just for Catholics and other Christians. Divorces, he says, go against everything man and woman were created to be.

“They are, indeed, especially wrong for Catholics,” he said. “But they are a violation of the law of God, the Natural Law of God, for everyone, whether he be Tibetan or Moslem, or a so-called Christian. Original Sin and the Deluge did not block out the divinely established order of man and woman. Conjugal love conquered both the deluge and Original Sin and survived both.”

In our article on the theology of the sacrament of marriage, we saw how humanity is part of both a natural order and a supernatural order. Because marriage is a union made by God, it is unbreakable. The Church teaches that the man and woman, who commit the rest of their lives to each other, truly become one. This is the way God intended marriage, and it is important to remember that marriage was instituted by God, not by man. When reflecting on divorce, you must ask yourself whose rules you are playing by when you agree to marry. “Certainly there are judges who will grant divorces, but how does God look upon them?” Archbishop Sheen says. “After the divorce, they are not two separate individuals as they are before the marriage. They are fragments of a joint personality, like a babe who has been cut in two. That is the way God looks upon any divorce, regardless of who the person be.”

One of the great tragedies in our modern culture is that the family is under attack from all sides. Countless movies, television shows and song lyrics depict single-parent families or do not include the parents at all. Commitment is replaced by a distorted notion of love where it is seen as OK to leave a relationship if it’s “not working out.” After all, they say, you only live once and you deserve to be happy. But the true fallout is rarely shown. Despite the reason for any divorce, the impact is almost always traumatic on all parties involved, especially children. In his concluding catechetical talk on the theology of the body on April 8, 1981, Pope John Paul II did not hesitate to use the phrase “plague of divorce” to emphasize the gravity of such an attack on the dignity of marriage.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church Defines Divorce

Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other until death. Sacramental marriage is the sign of the covenant of salvation, to which divorce does incredible injury. Contracting a new union, even if it is recognized by civil law, adds to the gravity of the rupture: the remarried spouse is then in a situation of public and permanent adultery. If a husband, separated from his wife, becomes involved with another woman, he is an adulterer because he makes that woman commit adultery; and the woman who lives with him is an adulteress, because she has drawn another's husband to herself.[2]

Furthermore, the Catechism states that divorce is immoral because “it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.”[3]

But do we really believe that? Do we believe instead that the Church is “out of touch” with relationships and needs to “get with it?” The mentality of civil society challenges the divinely revealed truth that a valid marriage is an indissoluble union between a man and a woman. The Church responds by saying: “The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble. He abrogates the accommodations that had slipped into the old Law. Between the baptized, ‘a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death.’”[4]

Innocent Parties

The Church is also fully aware that there are innocent parties who may be “the victim” of divorce by their spouse. Such spouses are unjustly abandoned and suffer the consequences of a civil divorce and the spiritual and psychological consequences accompanying a failed marriage. Many are concerned in their consciences whether their divorces which have been forced unjustly upon them constitute a gravely sinful act. The Church responds:

“…This spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.”[5]

All Decisions Have Consequences

All decisions have consequences, and divorce is no exception. Divorce is not wrong for Catholics only, but Catholics who are divorced have deeper spiritual consequences surpassing the civil responsibilities following civil divorce. It is critical for all who have undergone a civil divorce to understand that the Church still recognizes the validity of a marriage, even if it is a dissolved union at the civil level; for marriage is first and foremost a physical and spiritual union of a man and a woman. The words of Jesus Christ, echoed in the teachings of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, remain unambiguous:

“Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ—‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery’[6]--the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.[7]

“The remarriage of persons divorced from a living, lawful spouse contravenes the plan and law of God as taught by Christ. They are not separated from the Church, but they cannot receive Eucharistic communion. They will lead Christian lives especially by educating their children in the faith .”[8]

The Church teaches that the separation of spouses while maintaining the marriage bond can be legitimate in certain cases. The Catechism states: “If civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.”[9]

Showing Sensitivity to the Divorced

In The Catechism of the Catholic Church (n.1651), the Church stresses that the community of the faithful should exercise a sensitivity to the divorced through works of charity.

Toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner, priests and the whole community must manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptized persons:

They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace.[10]

Recommended Readings

Pope Pius XI, Encyclical Letter Casti Cannubi: “On Chastity in Marriage,” December 31, 1930.

Gaudium et Spes: “Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” Vatican Council II,
December 7, 1865.

John Paul II, “The Theology of the Body: Human Love in the Divine Plan,” Pauline Books & Media, 1997.

John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio: “The Role of the Christian Family in the Modern World,”
November 22, 1981.

John Paul II, Ecclesial Pronouncement by Pope John Paul II “Letter to Families from Pope John Paul II”,

February 2, 1994.

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