The 6th Sunday of Ordinary Time
(Si 15:15-20, 1Cor 2:6-10, Mt 5:17-37)
I know someone who was married 14 years and then his wife left him for someone else. He’s Catholic and tried to live alone but it was very difficult. He eventually got married outside the Church. He was able to get his previous marriage annulled and his present marriage blessed by a priest. Now they’ve been married 44 years and have grown very close together. It will be hard for the one left behind when the first one dies.
I’m sure you can all think of someone whose first marriage went sour and then ended up in a very happy and fruitful second marriage. The divorce rate is really high these days – over 50%.
We just finished hearing Jesus tell the assembled crowd that you can’t get remarried after a divorce. He said if you do, then you’re committing adultery. That saying came from St. Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount. There are parallels to it in the other two Synoptic Gospels: Mark and Luke. It’s what scholars refer to as a triple tradition. Sayings with a triple tradition are pretty hard to explain away. And as if that were not enough, St. Paul says the same thing in 1Cor 7:11.
Until only fairly recently it has been the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church to interpret that saying pretty literally. There were annulments here and there but they were nowhere as easy as today. One thinks of Henry VIII expecting to get one and then creating the Church of England when he didn’t.
The Church in the modern world is faced with a dilemma. How do you uphold a very clear saying of Jesus with a quadruple tradition and a very long history, and at the same time minister to a huge number of Catholics who are divorced and want to be remarried in the Church? As it stands, if they’re in an irregular marriage, they can still be Catholic but they cannot present themselves for Holy Communion. They’re considered living in sin.
It seems to me that the present practice of passing out annulments readily is the best solution the Church has been able to come up with for the moment to a very difficult situation. It’s sort of a loophole that’s been utilized. A marriage is assumed valid until proven otherwise. But if you can find some fault with the original ceremony or the mindframe of one of the two people, a Church tribunal can declare that sacrament invalid – it never really happened. Once a member of the Catholic Church has that official document he is free to enter into a new marriage.
This solution is not without its problems. Sometimes one of the partners wants an annulment and the other doesn’t. I recall that happening, I think, in the Kennedy family. The husband left the wife for someone else and wanted an annulment.
The former wife did not want the Church to grant an annulment because she still saw them as being married for life. She felt very betrayed and hurt when the Church did grant his request for an annulment. It also creates a rather strange situation for the kids who were born from that first marriage. They were born to two people who weren’t really married to each other? Does that make them illegitimate?
Also, not everyone is lucky enough to find true love on the second try, like the person in my opening example. Is the Church supposed to keep handing out annulments until someone finally feels satisfied with his partner? I guess it’s the job of the tribunal to make that call. But how far can we stretch this?
If I’m not mistaken, since about the 1970s it’s been much easier to get an annulment in the United States than in most other countries. I think Pope Francis has worked to make it easier for all countries to get annulments.
Our present age is experiencing the breakdown of the family unit. The family unit is an invaluable component of a healthy society. When a family is ruptured by a divorce, it leaves its mark on the kids. In all fairness, though, keeping together a bad marriage can also leave the kids scarred. One of the motives for holding the line on divorce and remarriage as long as the Catholic Church did was most likely to try to protect the family unit. Disagreements are bound to arise in any marriage and you can’t just be cashing in your present spouse for another on a whim.
I say the Catholic Church held the line for a long time. Most Protestant churches seem to have no trouble allowing their members to remarry again after divorce, despite the very clear saying of Jesus on the subject. Even the Orthodox Church in the east has had a tradition of allowing divorce and remarriage. The tongue-in-cheek saying is that “it blesses the first marriage, performs the second, tolerates the third, and forbids the fourth.”
I have met people who were mistaken about the Catholic Church’s stance on divorce. They were divorced only but not remarried and not living with anyone. They thought just because they were divorced they couldn’t go to Communion. The Church certainly doesn’t encourage divorce but realizes some situations warrant it. Think of the extreme example of a father sexually abusing his children. If I was that wife I would surely feel it was legitimate to separate. A civil divorce would probably make sense in order to iron out all the legal and financial issues. At that point, she would have the option to either live singly or apply for an annulment.
Is the practice of allowing second and third marriages setting a bad precedent? Is the loophole of invalidating previous marriages just seen as some sort of fancy footwork? Does it make it easier to make other sayings of Jesus irrelevant that we happen to find inconvenient? Will it be a block to build on for something like same-sex wedding ceremonies? It seems to me like Jesus founded his Church to form society – not to have society form his Church.
Anyway, real life can be messy sometimes. Sometimes clear answers are illusive. Three of my siblings are in happy and fruitful marriages that required a divorce and annulment. I’m sure grateful the Church made that available to them. A fourth sibling has remained single after his wife left. I certainly admire him.
Let us pray for all Catholics who are in some sort of irregular marriage or in a physical relationship. May they find a way to get things straightened out and be in full sacramental union with Holy Mother Church.