Question: I don’t know if I understand a statement in the Catechism, No. 2383, that I came across. It says, “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.” How does that relate to a Medicaid divorce situation? Is the Catechism saying it is OK to divorce to protect inheritance from excessive medical bills of a spouse?
— Julie A. Brennan, location withheld
Answer: The Catechism envisions a situation where one spouse is so abusive or destructive in their behavior that divorce remains the only legal way to protect the other spouse and the children legally and financially. For example, a certain husband may exhibit behaviors that physically endanger the wife and children and is unable or unwilling to get help. A civil divorce may be the best way to settle child custody issues and enforce restraining orders. In another case, one spouse might be involved in highly excessive spending (for example, gambling) that endangers the financial stability of the other spouse and children. Or they might be involved in criminal activities that physically or legally endanger the rest of the family. In such cases, civil divorce can set up a clear legal separation of the parties to protect innocent parties from the unrepented bad behavior of one or the other spouse. If this is the case, as the Catechism states, such divorces can be tolerated and are not a moral offense per se. That one obtains a civil divorce refers only to the civil, legal status of a marriage. The Church would still consider the couple to be in a marriage unless and until a decree of nullity could be granted.
As for applying this limited tolerance of the Church for divorce, the Medicaid scenario you describe would not apply. First, one of the spouses is not engaged in morally repugnant or dangerous behaviors. He or she is ill. The marriage vow envisions a scenario where the marriage commitment must endure for better or worse, richer or poorer, in sickness and in health.
Secondly, divorcing merely to avoid financial problems could well be a form of lying. This would especially be the case if the spouses continued in communal life after the civil divorce. The toleration of civil divorce to protect a spouse from dangerous or criminal misbehavior is a narrow exception by the Church that ought not be easily expanded.
Question: Please describe the difference between canon law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
— Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado
Answer: Broadly stated, the Catechism is a compendium of our beliefs, whereas canon law seeks to order our common lives together in the community of the Church. Canon law sets a kind of framework where policies and procedures, rights and penalties, duties and expectations are described and enumerated. In this way, charity is served since good order makes love easier. Canon law also seeks to establish an internal discipline that keeps us faithful to Christ and effective in the saving mission entrusted to the Church. Thus, while rooted in our biblical and catechetical teachings and doctrines, canon law reflects the Faith and doctrine more than it is a source of them.
Msgr. Charles Pope is the pastor of Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian in Washington, D.C., and writes for the Archdiocese of Washington, D.C., blog at blog.adw.org. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.