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Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: The Danger of Weakening Catholic Marriage

The Meeting of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at Hampton Court by Daniel Maclise (1806-1870)
Let women be subject to their husbands, as to the Lord: Because the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ is the head of the church. He is the saviour of his body. Therefore as the church is subject to Christ, so also let the wives be to their husbands in all things. Husbands, love your wives, as Christ also loved the church, and delivered himself up for it: That he might sanctify it, cleansing it by the laver of water in the word of life…. So also ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife, loveth himself. For no man ever hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, as also Christ doth the church: Because we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife, and they shall be two in one flesh. This is a great sacrament; but I speak in Christ and in the church.
— Ephesians 5

Just as in a complex symphony the overwhelmed ear may focus on a single instrument, or section, in order to keep up with the central melody, so in the current ruckus in the Church about the upcoming Synod for the Family (October 5-17), it may be more prudent to select only one or two voices on the topic. As things stand, the noise-to-signal ratio is quite high, and showing no signs of decline. In this instance I shall focus on remarks made by Bishop Thomas J. Tobin in a September 21 diocesan letter. I believe that Bp. Tobin is very much in step with the current papal vision for the Church, seeking new evangelistic possibilities for a new age, ever seeking to interpret the Gospel afresh in the light of the modern world. As Pope Francis enjoined in the lengthy L’Osservatore interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro last year:

“The people of God want pastors, not clergy acting like bureaucrats or government officials. The bishops, particularly, must be able to support the movements of God among their people with patience, so that no one is left behind. But they must also be able to accompany the flock that has a flair for finding new paths. … Instead of being just a church that welcomes and receives by keeping the doors open, let us try also to be a church that finds new roads, that is able to step outside itself and go to those who do not attend Mass, to those who have quit or are indifferent. The ones who quit sometimes do it for reasons that, if properly understood and assessed, can lead to a return. But that takes audacity and courage. … God has revealed himself as history, not as a compendium of abstract truths. I am afraid of laboratories because in the laboratory you take the problems and then you bring them home to tame them, to paint them artificially, out of their context. You cannot bring home the frontier, but you have to live on the border and be audacious.”

With this audacious vision firmly in mind, let us now turn to Bp. Tobin’s pastoral remarks. As I read him, Bp. Tobin is presenting a three-part argument: first, in terms of biblical theology; second, in light of historical changes; and third, in the hope of practical canon-law reforms. I will address the historical argument first, and the biblical argument last. Bp. Tobin writes (with my comments bracketed in red):

“The challenge for the Church … is how to maintain and proclaim the irrefutable teaching of our Lord Jesus that marriage entails a sacred and permanent bond between husband and wife, while also providing spiritual care for those Catholics [of any social rank] who have fallen short of the ideal. …

In my personal reflection on this dilemma, I turn to the incident in the Gospels in which Jesus and His followers were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath and because they were hungry, began to pick and eat the grain, a clear violation of an important Mosaic Law. The offense was roundly condemned by the religious experts, the Pharisees. But in response, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:23-28)

In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, our Lord clearly placed it in a “pastoral context,” exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment [and of the throne].

Could we not take a similar approach to marriage law today? Could we not say, by way of analogy, that “matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?” Although [!] the teaching of Christ and His Church about the permanence of marriage is clear and undeniable, the lived reality [!] is that many individuals, [such as Henry VIII] for a variety of reasons perhaps – personal, catechetical or cultural [or even royal] – are [and were] ill-equipped to fulfill the lofty demands of the law….

What’s the solution to this dilemma?

Well, for starters, can we at least think about simplifying the annulment process so that it’s more akin to the current practice of receiving various dispensations for marriage, handled completely at the local level with the oversight of the Diocesan Bishop? Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?

“In lieu of this formal court-like process, which some participants [such as Henry VIII] have found intimidating, can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage[s] (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive Holy Communion?”

Or, as Mel Brooks quipped, “It’s good to be the king.”

All kidding aside, I hope the first problem is evident: there’s nothing new under the sun. Despite the appearance of a fresh debate taking place in the Church, the desire to soften, evade, reinterpret, and generally modernize — based on concrete needs for a new world — the Church’s position against so-called ‘remarriage’ is nothing new. Just ask King Henry VIII.

Liberalism has generally entailed the democratization of what in the past were royal privileges. Henry VIII’s Church-shaking gambit has now become a norm in the Church. While the debate is not really new, it is not going away. The October Synod is looming. Doubts fill the air. The secular media are champing at the bit with the audacity of hope and change. No one is immune from this environment. Can we imagine that good-hearted Catholic husbands and wives are not being tossed about by the resurgent idea that, perhaps — God only knows — perhaps an annulment would be more merciful — for the children, each other, the in-laws — than persevering through the highs and lows of that indissoluble old thing called Holy Matrimony? Perhaps now is a new era, an age of reappraisal and relief, the demons whisper (while the media hold the mic). Perhaps now the Church has finally learned to reward us for our weakness instead of calling us to such an outdated cross? The storm is raging at a thousand dinner tables and in a million hearts, and yet does not Our Lord speak from the very midst of the storm, calming our hearts and quelling the waves that would inundate the Barque through its proudly opened windows on the world?

Yes! Yes, Our Blessed Lord does speak to us in our marriages! He is a loving God and He is not silent. His Word abides and is an ever-fresh source of wisdom and encouragement, even when novel shortcuts seem most tempting. Given this assurance, how do we, as committed Catholics, keep our heads amidst the tempest of debate?

First of all, despite Bp. Tobin’s sensitivity to our new historical moment, not a few Catholics wonder what new historical data there could be to spark a genuinely fresh debate. It was only sixteen years ago that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, as head of the CDF, addressed “objections to the Church’s teaching on reception of communion by divorced and remarried members of faithful,” a text which was either fantastically prescient of the current debate — based on the usual, longstanding objections to the Church’s perennial teaching — or, ironically enough, the very foil against which Cardinal Walter Kasper has crafted his own controversial, reformist position, a position to which Pope Francis gave prominence and unqualified praise at the consistory of cardinals in February. Indeed, a perusal of the 1998 document reveals how cyclical the path of truth can sometimes feel.

1. Some maintain that several passages of the New Testament suggest that the words of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage allow for a flexible application and cannot be classified in a strictly legal sense.

The CDF document does not specifically address the passage in Mark to which Bp. Tobin refers, but it does provide a larger biblical framework for answering all such Bible-based objections, as I will show when I discuss the passage itself.

2. Others object that the patristic tradition leaves room for a more varied praxis, which would be more equitable in difficult situations; furthermore, the Catholic Church could learn from the principle of “economy” employed by Eastern Churches separated from Rome.

Cdl. Kasper made the same point, and has been refuted by competent Catholic and formerly Orthodox critics.

3. Many propose to allow exceptions to the Church’s norm on the basis of the traditional principles of epikeia and aequitas canonica. … Certain marriage cases, it is said, cannot be handled in the external forum. Some claim that the Church should not simply rely on juridical norms, but on the contrary ought to respect and tolerate the conscience of the individual. …

As the CDF document explains, however:

[The proposed pastoral exceptions] exist in the sphere of human and purely ecclesiastical norms of great significance, but cannot be applied to those norms over which the Church has no discretionary authority. The indissoluble nature of marriage is one of these norms which goes back to Christ Himself and is thus identified as a norm of divine law. … Since marriage has a fundamental public ecclesial character and the axiom applies that nemo iudex in propria causa (no one is judge in his own case), marital cases must be resolved in the external forum.

Moving along:

4. Some accuse the current Magisterium of reversing the doctrinal development of the Council and of substituting a pre-conciliar view of marriage. … However, it is inappropriate to set up a contradiction between the personalist and juridical views of marriage. The Council did not break with the traditional concept of marriage, but on the contrary developed it further.

(In other words, say hello to my little friend: the Hermeneutic of Continuity!)


(Continued on next page)

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