In every age, the Church deals with issues and pastoral situations so murky that a solution to a member’s situation may seem impossible. In the modern age, very few Catholics understand the importance of the Church’s precepts. These precepts bind each member of the Church to certain obligations in order to direct the lives of the faithful to the Church’s good. Since these obligations are given to the faithful by the Church, the Church may dispense the faithful of these precepts for a legitimate reason. The Church cannot, however, dispense the faithful from God’s law. A pastor may dispense one or more of his parishioners from Sunday Mass, but he cannot dispense them from keeping the Sabbath day holy. Another precept requires the faithful to marry according to the laws of the Church. The bishop can dispense a Catholic so he or she may marry an unbaptized person. He cannot, however, dispense a man so that he can marry a man, for the definition of marriage is laid down by God, not the Church.
What happens, then, when someone returns to the Church after a long time and has lived a period of his or her life without a regard for these precepts, especially the precept concerning marriage laws?
Let us imagine that a man returns to the Church and his wife enters the RCIA process. We will imagine their names as James and Kelly. James and Kelly have two sons, one 4 years old and the other 6 years old. Throughout the RCIA process, the pastor discovers that James was married in the Church to his high school sweetheart, Rachel, but they divorced legally four years later. James and Kelly, married by the state when James was not practicing his faith, are so intent on being faithful Catholics that James diligently follows the pastor’s direction in requesting a declaration of nullity for his first marriage. For whatever reason, the Church cannot find sufficient grounds to declare the previous marriage null and void. In the eyes of the Church, James is still married to Rachel; moreover, this means that James and Kelly are not sacramentally married. James and Kelly are devastated, but do not want to give up on conversion. What will they do? Justice demands that they can no longer share a common life together: they must separate.
Enter Pope Saint John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981). In paragraph 84, John Paul II speaks directly to this situation:
“However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage. Reconciliation in the sacrament of Penance which would open the way to the Eucharist, can only be granted to those who, repenting of having broken the sign of the Covenant and of fidelity to Christ, are sincerely ready to undertake a way of life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage. This means, in practice, that when, for serious reasons, such as for example the children’s upbringing, a man and a woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate, they ‘take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.’”
John Paul II balances here the demands of justice along with the path of mercy. In view of the fact that James and Kelly are not married sacramentally, justice obligates them to separate. They cannot live as if they were married. However, justice also demands that the children are raised by a father and a mother known to them. And so, in view of the good of the children, mercy can dispense the obligation to separate. John Paul II reemphasizes the Church’s practice: in justice, couples who are not married must live separate. Mercy does not condone the parents’ actions or give them freedom to share in the marital act, but it does recognize the good of the children. Mercy is employed in order to relax some obligation due to justice, not permit the perpetuation of sin.
Is this situation to be practiced with all divorced and remarried couples? No, of course not. The Church continues to reaffirm that justice demands separation. What is morally necessary, then, for a pastor to help arrange this situation? First, there must be children involved. Secondly, the couple must be formed to understand the grave importance of remaining continent, and this must be undertaken freely for the love of Christ, the dignity of marriage, and the salvation of the children. They must understand that this path of mercy for the sake of the children is not a free pass for them to engage in the marital act. They must live in separate rooms, observe the norms of chastity, and do nothing that would intentionally arouse the other, the end of which is the marital act. Thirdly, they must be committed to an intense daily prayer and a frequent reception of the sacraments to sustain them in this sacrifice. Along with this, they must allow the Church to accompany them through the direction of their parish priest. They must be honest and transparent about their struggles and temptations. Lastly, their situation must remain as much as possible a secret to prevent scandal. In James’ and Kelly’s case, the only people who know about their situation is them, the parish priest, the annulment contact at the parish, and possibly the RCIA director. Their sacrificial love is hidden from the eyes of the parish. They live a secret sort of penance.
Situations like those I have outlined were only hypothetical to me until the Family Synods began in 2014. In seminary, we read Familiaris Consortio and spoke at length about different situations and how to handle them. When certain heterodox prelates, however, began speaking publicly about readmitting to Communion divorced people who have remarried, these hypothetical cases quickly presented themselves as a concrete reality. Different couples revealed their situations to me, stating that they had lived apart chastely but in the same house for 3, 10, even 20+ years in order to provide for their children. While sadness can creep into their relationships when they think of what they have sacrificed, the grace of that sacrifice in their children almost immediately eliminates that sorrow. While the pleasure of the marital act is good, they recognize that a voluntary sacrifice of that good is redemptive. One couple’s child spoke to me in my office and said that she had known for a little over a year about the sacrifice her parents make every day for her. She smiled and said, “Because of their purity, they understand modesty and chastity in such a clear way that they can teach me well. I don’t need to look it up in my Catechism. They are a living catechism.”
Why did these couples come forward to their parish priest? They wanted to give me encouragement to preach what some might consider a hard truth. They asked me to stand up for the dignity and indissolubility of marriage and to let others know that it can be done according to the moral law. Every time someone said, “Don’t punish the divorced and remarried anymore; let them all come back to Communion,” they felt that someone was devaluing the sacrifices they daily make in faith and hope. Because of the private nature of their sacrifice, they were unable to speak up for themselves, so they were asking the Church to stand up for them and preach true mercy, not a false mercy that accepts and condones sin, or tells people that the teachings of Our Lord are too difficult.
Mercy requires deep sacrifice and a complete love of Christ, but, as these couples have proven, all things are possible with God.
Fr. Noah Carter is a priest of the Diocese of Charlotte, NC. He completed his undergraduate seminary training at the Pontifical College Josephinum in Columbus, OH, with a B.A. in Philosophy. He earned his S.T.B. at the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross in Rome and is pursuing a S.T.L. in Liturgical Theology at the same university. He currently serves as a parish priest and high school chaplain in the Diocese of Charlotte.