Taken from the Catholic Universe 27 October 2013
There has been a lot of speculation that divorced and remarried Catholics may be allowed to receive Communion following Pope Francis’ remarks on the flight back from World Youth Day in Rio in July, when he said that a synod would need to explore the ‘somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage’, including the thorny issue of divorced Catholics.
Speaking from the perspective of someone who has had a former attempted marriage declared invalid by the Catholic church, I have to confess to having mixed feelings on the issue.
The subjects of annulments is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented facets of the Catholic faith and many’s the time I’ve rolled my eyes heavenwards on hearing the hoary old cliche that annulments are the equivalent of Catholic divorce or involve a secretive process which is only available to for the rich and well-connected.
A Catholic annulment is not a dissolving of a marriage, rather the statement that while civil legalities may have occurred between a couple, something was missing that enabled the relationship to be considered a marriage in the spiritual sense of the word and that no sacrament ever existed.
It’s a very difficult teaching for many to swallow and can seem rooted in sophistry, how can someone who observed all the legal formalities of marriage, who went through a wedding ceremony, later claim that they were not in reality, married? One can see why many might consider annulments a convenient piece of clever rule-bending, as they are subject to a strict code of canon law, couched in legal and theological language which is not easily understandable.
The reason why the annulment process remains shrouded in mystery is because not many of us make recourse to it, the subject only raises its head when a Catholic embarks upon a subsequent relationship and wishes to remarry. Personally I found the procedure incredibly healing, far from being an exercise in rubber-stamping or greasing the palms of officials, faced with the truth about the Catholic teaching on marriage, I was able to go through a process of self-examination which helped me to lay the past to rest, experience personal growth and finally move on.
It was not an easy time, I had to face up to my own faults and failings in terms of how I had approached the relationship, there was certainly an element of penitence, not least because as a Catholic I had married outside of the church without permission, ignoring and disregarding her teaching on marriage, but this only served to strengthen my resolve in terms of ensuring that were I to marry in the future, not only would it be sacramental, but that any potential spouse would share my understanding upon the nature of a Catholic marriage, that it is permanent, exclusive and open to life. In addition they would also need to support me in the practice of the Catholic faith.
It is therefore extremely annoying to hear that annulments are either far too complicated to obtain or being dished out indiscriminately to those who know how to bend the system, according to whom you listen to. I entered into the process in good faith, throwing myself on the mercy and judgement of the Church who acted pastorally, compassionately and above all, fairly.
The Church cannot change her teaching on the dissolubility of marriage, she cannot re-write Scripture and this is why Archbishop Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith has this week sought to dampen down the expectation that the rules on remarried Catholics receiving communion will be altered. Furthermore the German diocese of Freiburg in Germany which issued new guidelines making it easier for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion has been instructed not to implement them.
This seems right and just on the one hand, but on the other it can seem lacking in justice and compassion for those who have been left in impossible situations. Is it really the right thing to expect a spouse to remain permanently bound to another, who has left them for another partner? Why should someone be forced to make a choice between finding another lifelong partner, someone who could in many instances act as a supplemental parental figure for their children giving them much needed stability and security, and their relationship with God?
The adage hard cases make bad law comes to mind, divorce may be becoming far more commonplace, however that does not mean that the Church should sanction or encourage it or relax her rules regarding annulments. The permanence of marriage needs to be upheld for the good of individuals and society as a whole.
But where does that leave those in heartbreaking and complex situations? Pope Francis’ announcement of a more pastoral approach is certainly welcome, those who are unable to receive communion need to know that they are still loved and welcomed by the Church and not excluded. Hopefully some pastoral solutions can be sought whether that be through extending the practice of annulments whilst keeping their rigorousness intact or some other unforeseen remedy. The Eastern Orthodox Church allows for remarriage in the spirit of penitence, in which the formerly married partner stays away from communion for a short period of time, but Archbishop Muller seems to have ruled this out for now.
Prevention is better than cure however, so rather than going with the spirit of the age in terms of attitudes to marriage, the Church needs more than ever to reinforce and explain the importance of the sacrament. There is no way of avoiding all marital break-ups but armed with a full understanding of the commitment and responsibilities of marriage as well as the circumstances that constitute validity, we stand a much better chance of not needing to be rescued from messes of our own making.