Thursday, March 20, 2003

I was teaching a clas on Catholic morality recently and we were speaking about divorce, annulments and remarriage. The Catholic position is that marriage is sacramental and cannot be dissolved sacramentally. However, my focus was that divorce is not a bad thing necessarily, in fact there are times when divorce is necessary and encouraged, for instance, if there is a real threat of foreseeable harm. We then began to talk about the issue of divorcing and re-marrying.

Divorce is a civil state recognized by the Church, but it is not sacramental. What that means is that there can be a civil dissolution of the marriage, however, in the eyes of the Church, there is still a sacramental marriage. Divorce only affects the civil status and not the sacramental status of a marriage. The Church's position is that post-divorce remarriage is adultery unless a marriage is annulled, basically saying that the marriage did not "take" in the first place because of unseen prior impediments, for example, the man had threatend the woman with death if she did not marry him, or one of them had absolutely no intention of having ever having children but lied about that intent, or one was still previously married, etc. Unless a marriage is annulled one cannot remary.

However, this creates horrendous pastoral situations. Very often people who care deeply about the sacramental life of the Church have this divorce situation thrust on them by no fault or choice of theirs: an unfaithful spouse eventually leaves and marries someone else, intiating and executing a divorce, examples like these could be multiplied. In these cases there is no basis for annullments because there were no impediments to marriage prior to the marriage and so you have situations were people are left holding the bag. Often the one who leaves and initiates the divorce does not care to deeply about the sacramental life of the Church. This then is a pastoral nightmare because many of these divorcee victims who love the Church and who, over time, want to get married have to do so outside of the Catholic church. In the past this often meant and end to their relationship with the Catholic Church because they could not participate in the sacramental life of the Church, no communion or confession.

In the past decade the Vatican and the Bishops have mounted a major campaign to bring back these people into the Church community because it is the pastoral thing to do. Further, there is an emphasis now on the fact that pastors should encourage such people who remarry to remain in the Church and raise their children as Catholics. A great move in my opinion. However, there is such resistance to this by many Catholics because these people are considered as lepers of sorts. They are adulterers and have no place in the community. But I ask, if the Church community is not open to these people, then to whom should they turn? This is precisely what the Church is here for. It is the sick who need a doctor not the healthy.

Part of the problem here is an ill-defined understanding of Church, for most of us it is still a membership organization. You are part of it as long as you maintain the rules, but if you break them then you are out. The other defficiency in understanding, this is my extremely personal opinion, is that there is a mistaken notion that the point of the Church community is the sacraments. So we tend to see ourselves as existing for the sacraments, thus if we can't or don't participate in communion then we are not fully participating in the Church. I think this turns the Church's mission on its head.

The sacraments are not the mission of the Church but are there to help Christians attain their mission. Besides, they are not the sole, even though they are the primary, paths of attaining grace to fulfill the mission, which is to build a holy community to be friends with God (and holiness is not defined in reference to Church standing or laws but in reference to one's love, faith and hope in God). I've had people ask, "if we can't partake of holy communion, then what is the point of coming to Church?" The point of the Church is to take care of the poor and oppressed and keep one's self holy and pure from sin, James 1:26,27. The Eucharist is for that purpose, to give you grace to do precisely that. The sacraments are intend as vehicles of grace and grace is for the purpose of attaining holiness and holiness has little to do with you standing with the Church.

Parishes have to become welcoming places for people who don't necessarily fit in, because these are the people Christ wants. One of the messages of the Gospels is that those who were in right standing with the religious establishment missed the boat but the outcasts got the treasures. This is a message that is too important to ignore. We need to bring divorcess back into the communities and also be open to those who are not neceesarily like "us."


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