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

5. Many argue that the position of the Church on the question of divorced and remarried faithful is overly legalistic and not pastoral. … They claim that the human person of today is no longer able to understand such language, that Jesus would have had an open ear for the needs of people, particularly for those on the margins of society.

A read through of these 16-year-old objections — especially number 5 — seem eerily predictive of some of the more noteworthy “considerations” coming out of the consistory and the tone heading into the synod. A revised concept of “mercy” is being wielded like a cudgel against the very indissolubility of marriage and the responsibility of the spouses. And it appears that this “pastoral” bulldozer has been under construction for quite some time.

In the age of Twitter, it may seem reactionary to cite a CDF document as old as 1998, but doing so reminds us, even amidst this latest squall, that Our Lord has spoken clearly and persistently through His Church–yet, are we listening? Are we prepared to admit that a hankering for new solutions may just be a resistance to old realities? Do we trust the entire scope of the Church’s wisdom, or have we succumbed to the age of immediacy and pragmatism? As Chesterton wrote in “Why I Am a Catholic” (1926):

Nine out of ten of what we call new ideas are simply old mistakes. The Catholic Church has for one of her chief duties that of preventing people from making those old mistakes; from making them over and over again forever, as people always do if they are left to themselves. … The Catholic Church carries a sort of map of the mind which looks like the map of a maze, but which is in fact a guide to the maze. It has been compiled from knowledge which, even considered as human knowledge, is quite without any human parallel. … The result is a map in which all the blind alleys and bad roads are clearly marked, all the ways that have been shown to be worthless by the best of all evidence: the evidence of those who have gone down them.

Where there is doubt on an issue, the Church grants her sons and daughters perfect freedom to explore new options and solutions (2 Corinthians 3:17). Yet, in obedience to her Lord, where He has spoken — and, moreover, where the Church has trod before and mapped out the dead ends — she exhorts her members to embrace the easy burden of the cross called truth, for the truth shall make us free (John 8:32).


The second weakness in Bp. Tobin’s argument occurs towards the end of the quotation, where he floats the idea of a few concrete canonical adjustments. To revisit:

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 [NB: a rehash of objection 4 cited in the CDF document above], which some participants 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?”

Not long after Tobin published his letter, Ed Peters (an actual canon lawyer!) wrote a brief response in which he put the bishop’s suggestions in their proper context:

(1) [P]ersonal interviews are not required under canon law, but they are offered as a help to advance petitions that would otherwise surely fail for lack of clarity in written answers; (2) “hefty fees” are not charged … which makes annulment fees optional and, even if collected, cover only one-sixth of that tribunal’s expenses; (3) testimony from witnesses is not required, but most petitions will fail for lack of evidence without them; (4) psychological exams are not required by canon law; and (5) automatic appeals are required by Rome, and I for one would welcome Tobin’s weighing in against them, as have many canon lawyers over the decades.

Once again, if canonical nuts and bolts is what the struggle for matrimonial liberation is really after, it is much ado about very little. Even a “hardliner” like Cdl. Burke has made clear in a recent interview that reworking the canonical mechanics is not a serious obstacle.

“I wouldn’t be at all opposed to any changes,” he said, “except that a certain amount of complexity is required by the complexity of a claim that a marriage is null. And you cannot simply deal with these kinds of questions by some kind of easy and light-hearted process. … The marriage nullity process is the fruit of centuries of development, and by various expert canonists, one of the great ones being Pope Benedict XIV…. For us now simply to say we don’t need that anymore is the height of pride and therefore foolishness.”

Certainly Chesterton would agree.

Significantly, this month Pope Francis established a commission to discuss a canonical streamlining of the annulment process, which might lead you to wonder: If the canonical reform of the annulment process is being handled by a commission, what is left for the synod to do — or rather, to leave alone? Only time will tell, but, as Peters demonstrates, modest canonical adjustments are nothing new, and therefore one wonders why they are garnering so much attention.

A clue may come in the way Bp. Tobin introduced his ideas about canonical reform: “for starters.” If the desired canonical simplifications are achieved, what else could be in sight? It’s hard to see how anything beyond tweaking the canonical apparatus–that is to say, anything that encroaches on the traditional teaching guarding the reality and dignity of marriage–seems like a fool’s errand.

Nevertheless we are in good hands; the Holy Spirit would not have allowed the election of Pope Francis for no good reason, and the Synod is sure to include all the right pastoral voices. To cite Cdl. Burke once more, the Synod on the Family can be a good thing, “as long as it’s firmly grounded in the Church’s doctrine and discipline regarding marriage. But it cannot simply be a kind of sentimental or personal approach that doesn’t respect the objective reality of marriage.’”

Finally, I come to the biblical question mark Bp. Tobin places over the head of the “traditional” position on communion for divorced Catholics living as remarried. Recall Tobin’s exegesis of Mark 2:23ff:

… 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.” … [W]hile 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. … Could we not say, by way of analogy, that “matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?”

 Seems reasonable enough. And at first glance, there seems to be traditional support for Tobin’s exegesis. As the Venerable Bede (ca. 700 AD) explains in the Catena Aurea of St. Thomas Aquinas:

For greater is the care to be taken of the health and life of a man, than the keeping of the Sabbath. Therefore the Sabbath was ordered to be observed in such a way, that, if there were a [necessity], he should not be guilty, who broke the Sabbath-day….

Likewise, as Haydock’s Catholic Bible Commentary (1859) says of Mark 2:28:

The maker of the law may abrogate or dispense with it when and where, for just cause, it seemeth good to him: thus the Church can dispense with, change, or abrogate, for just reasons, the discipline of the Church founded upon Church authority. This we prove also from the action of David, (v. 26, supra) which the Scripture notices without blaming it, because the observance of the law, prescribed for the utility of man, must yield to the necessities of man.

And again, as recently as a few years ago, in the Ignatius Catholic New Testament Dr. Scott Hahn echoes this reading by explaining that “God designed the Sabbath to benefit his people, not to burden them (CCC 2172-73).”

Given the above, what could possibly be wrong with Bp. Tobin’s biblical argument in favor of lower barriers to communion for divorced Catholics living as remarried?

First of all, the Sabbath was not instituted by Our Lord as a sacrament, that is, as a perpetual and sure source of divine grace in His Body, the Church. The Sabbath properly belongs to the Decalogue, which, as we know, has been transformed and perfected by its relationship to Christ the King as the Lawgiver. [In fact, it retains its importance by having been baptized as Sunday worship, participation in which is a fundamental obligation for all Catholics. Thus, the Church has always practiced pastoral realism of the kind endorsed by Bp. Tobin, since even the failure to keep “the new Sabbath” (i.e. failing to assist at the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass on Sunday) can be forgiven for pastoral exigencies.

An idea which seems to be at play in Bp. Tobin’s remarks, is the commonly invoked maxim that while “[God] himself is not bound by his sacraments,” we are (CCC 1257). However, precisely because we are bound by the sacraments, we are bound to honor the nature and obligations of the sacrament of Holy Matrimony in a way that does not hold for any precepts of the Church. Because the sacraments are God’s supreme gifts to us, they are supremely given, and thus beyond any well-meaning human attempts to help God appear more merciful in the eyes of the world. As the above-referenced CDF document from 1998 explained, it is simply beyond the Church’s capacity to relativize the conditions of true matrimony based on human needs, however pastoral the intent may be.

Second, whereas Christ put the Sabbath in its place, so to speak, by emphasizing the “pastoral needs” of His disciples, when He taught on matrimony, He actually removed a long-standing pastoral accommodation. To cite the 1998 CDF document again:

Jesus clearly identifies the Old Testament practice of divorce as a consequence of the hardness of the human heart. He refers – over and above the law – to the beginning of creation, to the will of the Creator, and summarizes his teaching with the words: “Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate,” (Mk. 10:9). With the coming of the Redeemer, marriage is therefore restored to its original form intended at creation and is wrested away from human arbitrariness….

Thus, far from supporting a novel, pastoral compromise, Our Lord’s teaching actually militates against Tobin’s case, and, in turn, against what is probably the position of a large portion of the bishops involved in the upcoming Synod. This is why, to cite Cdl. Burke a final time, “It’s very important at this time … to show the splendor of the truth of the Church’s teaching about marriage, which is foundational, obviously, for society, and for the Church itself.”

Foundational, indeed.

Recall the opening words from the book of Ephesians: “[Marriage] is a great sacrament [or ‘mystery’]; but I speak in Christ and in the church.” Are you feeling wobbly in your own marriage, or leery of the hyperactive pastoralism emanating from Rome and elsewhere? Take heart. The Lord inhabits all His Sacraments in a singular way, and therefore inhabits the mystery that is your own marriage. We live in a time of confusion, but, as I hope I have shown, at least we have no reason to be confused about the Catholic truth concerning the divinely-blessed perpetuity of a husband and wife loving each other as Christ and His Bride love each other. Catholic families in our day are facing no fundamentally new challenges that Catholic families in every age have not endured, and therefore Catholic families in our day are not facing a baffled silence or indifference from the Church. The Lord has always been with His Church, and is with us even now amidst the storm. Are we with Him? Make a special effort to show that you are by cleaving that much more closely to the spouse He has given you, or, for the unmarried, praying that much more fervently for the light of Christ the King to shine in all families.

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