Will there ever be Catholic divorce? Church officials go to great lengths to avoid using such a phrase. But the discussion about the divorced and remarried that is expected to be a significant theme at the extraordinary synod in Rome next October is often understood this way at the popular level.
The problem, of course, is that the Church does not allow divorce. It does not allow divorce because of the blunt words of Christ: “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate” (Mk 10:9). As understood in Church law, this has meant that if one is divorced and then remarried outside the Church, one may not receive the Eucharist or absolution except in rare circumstances such as “living as brother and sister.”
Yet the Church has allowed declarations of nullity: that is, it allows a process of review to determine if there were any impediments at the time one first married that would make the sacramental marriage itself null. One example might be a prenuptial agreement, which suggests some mental reservation that a marriage is likely to end in divorce.
The problems are many for the Church. One of them, as stated boldly by German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a foremost proponent of change in this area, is that perhaps half of all marriages in the Church are not valid because of a deficient understanding of the Church’s teaching and what is expected of the couple.
The second problem is that the annulment process seems to be poorly understood. Many Catholics still think of it as divorce. But if a spouse has an affair after a marriage is validly entered into, such a betrayal in and of itself is no grounds for a declaration of nullity even if grounds for civil divorce.
Third is the unevenness of application. Only 15 percent of divorced Catholics even bother to apply for a declaration of nullity, and they are often likely to find very different conditions — including length of the process, cost and thoroughness — depending on their diocese.
As we Catholics prepare for the synod, it would be helpful not to fixate solely on a quick fix to the one problem of the divorced and remarried and instead do two things.
First: we should reflect on how the Catholic doctrine of marriage can be better understood, particularly within the broader context of Church teaching on sexuality, marriage and the family.
Second, we should ask that the synod fathers address some of the extraordinary stressors that are contributing to the weakened condition of the Catholic family.
• Cohabitation and the growing numbers who do not bother to get married.
• The pressures of the sandwich generation: husbands and wives who must take care of both parents and children at the same time, often at great psychic and even physical cost.
• The fiscal pressures that so often force spouses to make tremendous sacrifices for family in terms of work. Sometimes this means that both spouses must work, even if they would prefer that one stay home. Other times it means a lack of dependable care for their children when financial necessity demands that both work.
While the family may be the first school of the Faith, so often parents themselves are unprepared for this role, and Catholic schools and parishes are struggling to provide such assistance. How do we both strengthen the family spiritually and pass on the Faith to the next generation?
It would be a missed opportunity if this synod becomes popularly understood as only about the dissolution of marriage. How to strengthen marriage and the family is the great need of our time.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.