Divorce and remarriage looms large in one of the greatest Catholic novels of the last century. The narrator of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Charles Ryder, is in love with Julia Flyte, and the two plan to cement their happiness by marrying once their respective divorces are finalized. Julia begins to have doubts when her brother Bridey refers to her and Charles “living in sin,” and she admits to Charles the accuracy of Bridey’s phrase: “‘Living in sin’; not just doing wrong, as I did when I went to America; doing wrong, knowing it is wrong, stopping doing it, forgetting. That’s not what they mean. That’s not Bridey’s pennyworth. He means just what it says in black and white.”
Julia overcomes these doubts, but calls off the marriage after she witnesses her father, long estranged from the Church, accept absolution on his deathbed. When Charles asks what she will do, Julia replies:
Just go on—alone. How can I tell what I shall do? You know the whole of me. You know I’m not one for a life of mourning. I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself off from his mercy. That is what it would mean; starting a life with you, without him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw today that there was one thing unforgivable—like things in the schoolroom, so bad they were unpunishable, that only mummy could deal with—the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s. Why should I be allowed to understand that, and not you, Charles? It may be because of mummy, nanny, Cordelia, Sebastian—perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt—keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, he won’t quite despair of me in the end.
Julia Flyte is, of course, a fictional character. But her attitude is thoroughly Christian. As St. John Paul II wrote in Familiaris Consortio: “The situation is similar for people who have undergone divorce, but, being well aware that the valid marriage bond is indissoluble, refrain from becoming involved in a new union and devote themselves solely to carrying out their family duties and the responsibilities of Christian life. In such cases their example of fidelity and Christian consistency takes on particular value as a witness before the world and the Church. Here it is even more necessary for the Church to offer continual love and assistance, without there being any obstacle to admission to the sacraments.”
The message being sent to the real life Julia Flytes by Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to admit remarried divorcees to Holy Communion without an annulment of their prior marriage is precisely the opposite. Rather than being praised as exemplars of “fidelity and Christian consistency,” divorced people who make the often great effort to live by Church teaching are being told that their sacrifice was needless. They should have done what they wanted and ignored what the Church taught. English priest Fr. Ray Blake recently highlighted a poignant example of this on his blog, where he recounted the case of “a man … who for over two decades has been living heroically in a ‘brother/sister’ relationship with an equally heroic woman whose first marriage broke down after ten years…. The man having read the text of the Cardinal’s speech asked, ‘Father, have we wasted the last 22 years?’ He said that he now felt his faith was undermined, that the struggle he and his ‘wife’ had engaged in was by the Cardinal’s teaching meaningless and vainglorious…. There are many men and women in this situation, the sacrifices they have made have been truly heroic, for me they are signs of grace and often heroic virtue, now it seems that they might well have wasted their lives, this is another of the signs that is being given.”
In Waugh’s novel, Julia Flyte is able to resist the temptation to set up a “rival good to God’s” because she knows that Christ will give her the grace she needs, a grace given in abundance through the Blessed Sacrament. She may not have the support of Charles Ryder, but she does have the support of Christ. This attitude demonstrates a clear belief in the power of the sacraments. Cardinal Kasper’s proposal undermines that belief, since it suggests that the sacramental love of Christ is no substitute for the human love of a divorced spouse.
Of course there are hard cases. There have always been hard cases. But in the many centuries when the Gospel informed the law, divorce was impossible in the West, or nearly so. The result was not widespread misery, but durable marriages that produced children who themselves entered into durable marriages. Lifelong marriage is not some ethereal ideal; it was the lived reality of the great majority of people in the West for most of history. The prevalence of divorce in today’s West is not the result of marriage becoming harder, but the result of divorce being made far easier. In the past, when people encountered problems in their marriages, they knew they had to find a way to work through them. Now, they think they can do what they want instead. Cardinal Kasper’s proposal seems to put an imprimatur on this way of thinking. It essentially accepts a Western world with 40 percent or so of marriages ending in divorce as a reality that cannot be changed, even though the Christians who emerged from the catacombs managed to change a Roman world where divorce was free and easy into a Christian world where marriages were expected to be permanent and generally were.
As many have pointed out, Cardinal Kasper’s proposal simply ignores the central theological problem that has prevented the Church from allowing remarriage after divorce for centuries. After all, it was Jesus Christ, not some unfeeling Vatican bureaucrat, who said, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and the one who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.” And it was St. Paul, not some rigid Scholastic theologian lost in his abstractions, who taught, “Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily will have to answer for the body and blood of the Lord.” What Kasper proposes is letting divorced and remarried people receive Communion by expressing contrition for the failure of their first marriage. Kasper says nothing about expressing contrition for the second marriage, which Jesus taught was adulterous. If the only sin were divorce, the Church never would have barred remarried divorcees from Communion, because past sins can be forgiven in the confessional. It is ongoing sin, what Julia Flyte termed “living in sin,” that cannot be forgiven.
In addition to begging the question, Kasper’s proposal threatens to undermine the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, as pointed out by Cardinal Caffara of Bologna:
If the Church admits [them] to the Eucharist, she must anyway grant a judgment of legitimacy to the second union. That is logical. But now—as I asked—what to make of the first matrimony? The second, it is said, cannot be a true second matrimony, considering that bigamy goes against the word of the Lord. What about the first one? Is it dissolved? But the Popes have always taught that the power of the Pope does not reach that point: the Pope has no power over a marriage that is ratum et consummatum. The proposed solution leads us to think that the first matrimony remains, but that there is also a second kind of cohabitation that the Church legitimizes. It is, therefore, an extramarital exercise of human sexuality that the Church legitimizes. But with this, the foundational pillar of the Church’s doctrine on sexuality is negated. At this point, one could ask: so why are not free [extramarital or premarital] unions approved? And why not relations between homosexuals?
The acceptance of divorce and remarriage in Eastern Orthodoxy that Cardinal Kasper appeals to is not grounded in the Gospel or in the Fathers, but in the continuing influence of Roman law. As patristics scholar John Rist noted in a widely quoted article, “with Justinian an encroaching Caesaropapism engenders in the East a contorting of earlier evidence in favour of a more relaxed approach.” Indeed, the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America notes that “The close relationship between the church and state which existed in Byzantium had a profound impact on the formulation of marital practice and the possibility of remarriage in the Eastern Church. This is particularly the case with regard to the legislative contributions of the Emperor Justinian’s codex of law issued in 535 A.D. Justinian’s marriage legislation affirmed that marriage was dissoluble for a number of specific reasons.”
Cardinal Kasper’s proposal does more than denigrate the sacrifices of those who have struggled to remain faithful to Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage and the impossibility of remarriage after divorce. By signaling the Church’s acceptance of divorce, Kasper’s proposal would create more divorces, just as liberal “reforms” of civil divorce laws created more divorces. We now know how damaging divorce is for children, even adult children. We also know that changing Church practice would increase divorce because, as the invaluable 1964 blog affiliated with the Center for Advanced Research in the Apostolate noted in September 2013, American Catholics still have a lower divorce rate than other groups. Belonging to the only Church that does not allow divorce still discourages divorce, despite the paucity of sermons on the indissolubility of marriage in recent decades. If Church teaching in this area were watered down, we could certainly expect the Catholic divorce rate to catch up to the general divorce rate, and then remain at that same high rate for the foreseeable future, with all the disastrous consequences this implies for the children whose parents divorce and for society as a whole.
There are many ironies at work here. The impetus for Cardinal Kasper’s proposal comes largely from the Church in Germany, which is far readier to admit to Communion remarried divorcees than German Catholics who refuse to pay the Church tax that keeps the German Church rich and gives it an influence out of proportion to its size. Given the Church’s understandable solicitude for the poor, it is striking that the greatest support for the Church’s teaching on marriage comes from poor countries and the greatest clamor for change is found in rich ones. And a proposal put forth to help the Church catch up to the modern world will likely result in greater indifference to what the Church teaches. After all, if remarried divorcees were right to ignore the words of Jesus and St. Paul and of innumerable Popes, many will wonder why anyone should listen to the Church instead of his own will, especially in those areas where what the Church is proposing seems less grounded in scripture and tradition than is the Church’s teaching on marriage.
A respectable argument can be made that the corrupting influence of the modern world has so degraded the popular understanding of marriage that there are more marriages that may properly be annulled today than in the past. But if this is indeed the case, what is needed is a clear and unambiguous reaffirmation of the Church’s teaching on marriage, so that the divorce revolution can be resisted and eventually undone. What is not needed is succumbing to the perennial temptation of choosing a rival good to God’s.