Failed marriages are a fact of modern life, yet the suffering that accompanies every divorce is compounded for Roman Catholics. Because the sacrament of matrimony, according to church doctrine, establishes a bond that is indissoluble, Catholics who have divorced and remarried are forbidden to receive communion at Mass.
That stricture has become, for many, a demeaning symbol of exclusion; it has driven many others away from the church. But the promise of Catholic reform under Pope Francis is so far-reaching that the church is poised to rethink its view of divorce — a view that has defined Catholicism for 500 years.
In modern times, church leaders, especially in the United States, have worked around the Vatican's punitive doctrine by stretching the bounds of the annulment process, extending to average people what once was available mostly to royals. By searching out "impediments" that, after the fact, kept prior marriages from being "valid," Catholics in subsequent marriages are restored to good standing, and welcomed at the communion rail. By declaring the earlier marriage null and void — it never happened — the principle of indissolubility is upheld.
Never mind that this usually involves gross insult to former spouses, distortions of marital history, and the de-legitimation of children. Annulment is divorce Catholic-style. However mercifully intended, the annulment process is corrupt and corrupting. It points to the drastic need for reform.
Many parishes now welcome "Divorced Catholics" groups, which offer mutual support, while quietly pressing for fuller church acceptance of divorced and remarried people. But priests and bishops have decried the policy, too. In 1993, some German bishops proposed that "the general rule" should take into account the "concrete circumstances" of twice-married couples, perhaps leaving room for a pastoral decision to readmit them to communion. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, then the Vatican's doctrinal head, slapped the suggestion down. And that was that.
Then, this October, the German diocese of Freiburg issued guidelines for admitting the divorced and remarried to communion. The first marriage might be deemed as irrevocably failed, the second marriage as having been entered into seriously and with full commitment, and so on. Again, the Vatican doctrinal head said a strong no, and ordered the diocese to stop issuing the guidelines.
This time, the German bishops pushed back. Stuttgart Bishop Gebhard Fuerts said last month that the German bishops as a whole would take up the subject in a meeting next March. Munich Cardinal Reinhard Marx said that the bishops "cannot end the discussion." Indeed, he said it would proceed "on a broad scale."
Normally, the Vatican doctrinal office can be assumed to be speaking for the pope. But Cardinal Marx is one of Pope Francis' Council of Eight — the pope's hand-chosen, intimate advisers, who are specially tasked with keeping Rome connected with the lived experience of the faithful. Francis, while affirming the annulment procedure, has said that the church's handling of the question of divorce and remarriage must be taken up at the synod — a representative meeting of bishops — that will take place next year. When asked about the divorced and remarried, Francis said, "This is a time of mercy."
The synod bishops will surely affirm the principle that marriage is for life. But they will be looking for a way of doing so without ignoring the realities of people's lives.
For centuries, Roman Catholicism has defined itself against Protestants and the Orthodox by the absolute prohibition of divorce. (History buffs will recall that St. Thomas More, lord chancellor under Henry VIII, accepted beheading rather than approve his king's second marriage.) Even more problematic, Jesus explicitly condemned divorce ("What God has joined together, let no one separate." Matthew 19:6).
The church has already relativized the Lord's commandment indirectly, by stretching the bounds of annulment. To do so directly, the church must adjust the way it reads scripture — accepting that while Jesus spoke in one cultural context, we live in another. So if the church does reform its practice on divorce, other questions will follow — and may be less difficult. That Jesus chose only males for his apostles, for instance, would not necessarily mean women are ineligible for priesthood now.
Principles are at stake in these debates, but last month, in his "apostolic exhortation," Francis upheld the most basic one: "The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life," he said, "is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness . . . The church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems."
James Carroll writes regularly for the Globe.