The Civil Marriage Debate and the New Evangelization

September 10, 2014

Many are aware of the debate about the possibility of admitting Catholics to Holy Communion who have been civilly divorced and remarried while the spouse from a valid marriage is still living.  Most Catholics assumed this question was finally settled by Pope St. John Paul II.  However, Pope Francis has reopened the discussion and while he has not explicitly indicated his intentions, simply having reopened the question one might reasonably surmise that he does not believe the question to be settled.

Since Pope Francis first reprised this question on his flight from Rio de Janeiro for World Youth Day, there has been much theological discussion by those in favor of such a change and by those opposed.  Those in favor point to the great need in present circumstances to more deeply manifest God's love and mercy.  They point to the great anguish of some who find themselves in a seemingly insurmountable quandary in which they have a new family and have lately come to realize the need to reconcile with the Church but cannot do so because of these new obligations.  It is indeed heart rending.  There is not a pastor or RCIA coordinator who would not like, if it were possible, a way to reconcile people in such a difficult situation (though to be candid, in the United States this situation is uncommon due to our approach to annulments).  Nevertheless, these situations are increasing even if they still affect a relative few. 

Those opposed point to the unchanging teaching of the Church, to its common foundation in Canon Law, Sacramental theology and moral theology; and especially to Jesus' teaching itself in which He explicitly rejected Moses' self-initiative in allowing divorce and remarriage.  Jesus responded to the Pharisees question about divorce, that Moses himself had made this concession, but that it did not reflect the divine order (see Mt 19:3-9).  This pericope is very important because it is a foundational text for a new means of expressing the faith that is gaining prominence and can bear much fruit, as we at MAI have found in practice, for the phases of the kerygma and catechesis, an approach sometimes referred to as the Nuptial Mystery.

A recent article, republished in part on Sandro Magister's English page, is in favor of such a change.  This article is very instructive.  It makes the assertion that those who are opposed to such a change take a "closed-system" mentality; a mentality the author says is not shared by Pope Francis or Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.  The author, Fr. Paul-Anthony McGavin, says such theologians look at the question from a constrained perspective.  One such approach he sees widespread among those against such a change is a deontic means of thinking, that is one that reduces the faith to one of obligations and duties.  In response to a recent article in the Journal Nova et Vetera showing the mistakes of those who think a change is possible,  McGavin says the contributors to the article reflect another "closed-system" fallacy which he calls a noetic sacramental or moral theology.  What he means by this is a theology reduced simply to restating facts that God has revealed but which go no further, assuming that there is no more to be done than to give intellectual assent to a superficial reading of the facts.  

Fr. McGavin believes that there is room for change if one avoids such "closed-system" approaches.  Here we cannot go into a detailed discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the article but to say that it highlights the dire need for a much more vigorous effort in presenting a more integral and compelling articulation of the faith, a new means of expression (for more on this, see our tutorial article on new means of expression). This approach needs to reveal how the various elements of the faith coalesce into a beautiful and fascinating mosaic that continually brings the listener back to two main points: God's offer to each man of a radical relationship of intimacy with Him and what man must do in order to respond affirmatively to the divine invitation.

We mentioned the Nuptial Mystery above.  This approach is one which fills these demands quite fully and as we said earlier, has in actual practice demonstrated the positive fruits of such an approach.  For his theology of the body catecheses, Pope St. John Paul II used the Matthew 16 pericope mentioned earlier and linked it to St. Paul's Great Mystery from his Ephesians 5 discourse, one in which Paul shows that Christian marriage is a theological analogy to the nuptial relationship that Jesus Christ has with His Church. All theological analogies have a similarity but an even greater difference.  For the analogy of the Great Mystery, the Nuptial Mystery convincingly demonstrates that if irrevocability of the nuptial communion is not a similarity in this analogy then the entire analogy collapses and, it would not be too much to say, so does the foundation for the Sacramental system and by extension, the faith.  

The Nuptial Mystery is not a deontic or noetic approach, it does not reflect a "closed-system" mentality.  Ironically, it would take a deontic or noetic mentality to try to justify the integrity of the faith if one denies sacramental marriage's irrevocability.   The Nuptial Mystery has the ability to present every element of the faith in an integral unity that shows God's dynamic encounter with man, Who offers him the ability to cooperate in his own transformation from his fallen solitude into a life of communion, love, and joy, both now and into eternity (for an sketch of such an approach, consult David H. Delaney, "The Nuptial Mystery, the Sacrament of Marriage and John Paul II's Man and Woman He Created Them," Antiphon Vol. 18, No. 1 (2014):69-105).

Pastoral practice must arise from the truth or it is not an act of love (for more on this idea, see our tutorial article on the subject).  Any pastoral practice, however well intentioned, that does not conform to the truth will most certainly bring with it spiritual damage to those it is intended to help. 

The Nuptial Mystery has the great potential to invigorate the New Evangelization.  The many attempts to justify Holy Communion for civilly remarried Catholics shows how much a more integral and compelling expression of the faith is needed.  Let us pray that the Holy Spirit guides the upcoming Synod on the Family and the Holy Father in coming to a renewed pastoral approach to this problem, if there be one, that is both merciful and just.

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