Ethics & Morality

Divorce and remarriage: Catholic crisis, chaos, conspiracy, or just contextual theology?


The fallout from the XIV Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops of the Roman Catholic Church (aka ‘Synod on the Family’) has been considerable. Whatever the reported outcome, we are exhorted to look not to the letter, but the spirit. For some, it represents an existential schismatic crisis of the sort not seen since the Pope of Rome was excommunicated as the Antichrist by the Pope in Avignon (and vice-versa); for others, it has been a shambolic gathering of confusion, if not of total chaos, the fault of which lies solely with the inept Pope Francis whose principal failing seems to be that he’s not the real pope (who abruptly exiled himself to the Castel Gandolfo and is now prayerfully cloistered in the Mater Ecclesiae monastery on Vatican Hill); and for others still it represents a censorious procedure of plots and conspiracy toward a pre-ordained outcome contiguous with the incremental liberalism of the Second Vatican Council: it is the Church waving farewell to Semper Eadem and embracing the spirit of the age; a “liberal cabal” abasing the infallible Magisterium before the spirit of the age, and sacrificing immutable truths on the altar of faddish (post-)modernity. Some Roman Catholics call it heresy; others call it evil – the “smoke of Satan

Whatever it’s all about, it has clearly been very bleak, if not quite traumatic for some who have been caught in the crossfire of the hermeneutic of conspiracy. One lowly cleric has been sacked, mid-ranking bishops left bemused, and lofty cardinals utterly confounded. And all because Pope Francis wanted to show a little mercy and humility toward diverse expressions of ‘family’.

At least that’s how the pro-Francis popular press (secular and religious) reports it. The anti-Francis platoons are up in spiritual arms and denouncing this pope as a bad ‘un. The Barque of Peter gets them from time-to-time, you see, but not usually this bad. At least not since the Borgia dynasty was incestuously poisoning its way to power and inspiring Machiavelli in his guidebook to political nastiness.

It is axiomatic that applied theology progresses doctrine. We’re not talking about changing the nature of the Godhead or mutating the mission of the Church: we are talking about living theology in the messiness of our broken humanity. Of course, the Church of England has divorce as a cornerstone of its foundation: it isn’t ideal, but man can and does put asunder what God has joined together. Pope Francis plainly understands missiological inculturation and the context of the gospel:

..we have also seen that what seems normal for a bishop on one continent, is considered strange and almost scandalous for a bishop from another; what is considered a violation of a right in one society is an evident and inviolable rule in another; what for some is freedom of conscience is for others simply confusion. Cultures are in fact quite diverse, and each general principle needs to be inculturated, if it is to be respected and applied.

And so he exhorts mercy, because values adapt even when truths remain constant. The more Manichæan-minded view this synod as a liberals vs conservatives spat, each vying for their truth to ascend to a degree of provocation, such that no one would be in any doubt that Peter had spoken. And on so many fundamental family issues, it is indeed Semper Eadem. But on Communion for the divorced and remarried it is more nuanced: there has been a slight crack. It is so imperceptible as to satisfy conservatives that the marriage bond may never, as ever, be broken, but yet it is sufficient to let through a chink of subsidiarity light for those bishops who believe that Rome is not the centre of the pastoral universe because they have to carry out marriage and do family ministry on their own continents and in their own cultures.

In cases of divorce and remarriage, the Roman Catholic Church believes that Communion should be denied to both parties in perpetuity: divorcees excommunicate themselves when they put asunder what God joined together. Should they remarry, they are committing adultery. It seems harsh, but, we are told, it is the shepherd’s loving and merciful care of souls which guards against reception of the host in an unworthy manner, and adulterers are simply not worthy.

But who is worthy to eat bread and drink wine? Who judges? How do they judge? How many millions of Roman Catholics participate in the Mass week by week while openly advocating abortion, using contraception, abusing children or bringing their same-sex partners to the priest’s cocktail party? Is the believer not exhorted to examine his or her own heart?

Why do so many Church traditions develop but the matter of divorce and remarriage may not? Is there a fear that Thomas More and John Fisher might have died in vain? It is surely not a break with two millennia of Church doctrine simply to acknowledge the sociological reality that some situations merit discernment and special treatment. England’s king needed a divorce, and so, for the peace and security of the realm, pace Fisher, England’s bishops granted it. Zimbabwe’s President needed Communion, and so, for the peace and security of Christians in his realm, he was served with it.

Some might call it theological heresy or spiritual hypocrisy: it is the diplomatic application of doctrine; ecclesial realpolitik, for we live in the real world. And so, in the earthly institution of marriage, some women are beaten black and blue, some children appallingly abused, and they are all safer when violent fathers are expelled from the family and bullying husbands are divorced. No one denies this. And so the bishops of Rome have agreed that divorcing couples are met with a “pastoral accompaniment”, which involves discerning the merits on a case-by-case basis. It is not ‘traditionalist’ Church doctrine which changes, but Christian praxis demands a merciful response, which some call ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’. It is nothing but compassionate morality.

Church is messy because humanity is factious. But if Church can be messy and humanity factious, why may marriage not be broken? Of course, the biblical ideal remains that marriage is an institution designed by God to form a lifelong relationship between one man and one woman. But does not the meaning and value of relationship go to its very quality and soul? Does a marriage any longer exist when one party has suffered betrayal and grieved inconsolably through no deliberate fault of their own?

Divorce is as a result of sin, and was never part of God’s plan. But not every divorce is sinful, and the Bible doesn’t forbid it in all and every circumstance. Scripture acknowledges divorce, regulates it, and thereby legitimates it. By comparing St Paul’s exception (1Cor 7:10-16) to that permitted by Jesus (Mt 19:9) , there are reasonable, experiential principles of similarity which may be used to legitimate divorce in contemporary society: (i) both destroy the essence of the definition of marriage; (ii) both leave one spouse outside their marriage covenant if reconciliation is spurned; (iii) both recognise that divorce is extremely serious and an admission of defeat in all attempts at reconciliation. These principles leave the door open to divorce as a final step – the best of a set of bad options. Divorce is important as a point of no return, and a last resort (Deut 24:1-4 cf. 1Cor 7:11). Insofar as divorce is a public recognition of failure, it is not an easy solution without consequences. But nor should it ever become a millstone around the neck to drown innocent parties in wave after wave of heartless excommunication.