Divorce is more common in my extended family than in society at large. My childhood home was a broken home. This experience fostered within me attentiveness to both the often-difficult circumstances faced by couples today and the Church’s teaching related to marriage and divorce.
Over the last few months divorce, remarriage, and reception of the Eucharist have been in the news, which provides a good opportunity to clarify the Church’s teaching about divorce.
Jesus’ familiar words in Matthew 19:6 are a fitting starting point. Our Lord says of marriage: “What God has joined together, let no man put asunder.” A valid marriage, united through the consent of spouses will perdure “until death do us part.”
Unfortunately, lifelong marriage seems to be a “pipe dream” in our society that frequently defines marriage as whatever you want it to be for as long as you want it to be. Divorce is seen by many as an accessible escape hatch to avoid both the minor and major difficulties of marriage. Pius XI recognized this in Casti Connubii when he emphasized good will, cooperation, fidelity, and peace within marriage are “weakened by the presence of a facility for divorce.”
In light of Jesus’ words and our cultural milieu I highlight five essential teachings for remedying the dominant divorce culture and its problematic consequences.
Firstly, civil divorce is not the only option for troubled marriages. The Church permits, in certain circumstances, a physical separation of a husband and wife who remain married but need to remove themselves from a toxic or dangerous situation. Separation, John Paul II emphasized, should be a “last resort” following the “breakdown of valid marriages.” Though challenging, this option allows for time, space, healing, and reconciliation. It honors the marital bond while avoiding divorce.
Secondly, opting for divorce has serious moral ramifications. Divorce is, the Catechism teaches, “a grave offense against the natural law” and against the dignity of marriage. “Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society … its contagious effect … makes it truly a plague on society.” While divorce should be avoided at all reasonable costs, sometimes divorce is thrust upon an innocent spouse. Such a spouse is an “innocent victim” and not guilty: “There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage.” When freely chosen, however, divorce is immoral.
Thirdly, when a couple, who has validly married in the Church, separates or divorces it is essential to remember that civil law does not actually end their valid marriage. Fidelity to their marriage vows is a must. Such couples, John Paul taught, should be “aware that the valid marriage bond is indissoluble” and “refrain from becoming involved in a new union.” Only upon receipt of a declaration of nullity or if the previous spouse dies can one pursue involvement in a new union.
Fourthly, those who are divorced and are not in a new union may receive the Eucharist. Over the years I have heard numerous stories of men and women depriving themselves of the Eucharist because of divorce alone—a tragic misunderstanding. John Paul stressed that such a person should not face “any obstacle to admission to the sacraments.” (This is also true for those who receive a declaration of nullity.) If all grave sins have been forgiven in the Sacrament of Penance and if the person has not “attempted a second marriage,” a divorced Catholic may receive the Eucharist.
Finally, separated spouses, and those who are civilly divorced, especially those who have had divorce forced upon them, are owed service and love from the Church. St. John Paul II recognized the difficulty of these situations. He therefore called the Church to offer solidarity, understanding, and support so that a separated spouse might be strengthened to live in fidelity to his or her vows, to forgive, and to harbor the hope of possibly returning to live as spouses in a faithful marriage.
The consequences resulting from the civil divorce of so many validly married Catholics are truly troubling and often tragic. We cannot become comfortable with the culture of divorce that so impacts society and, we must make every effort to foster a culture of marriage in our own marriages, our homes, the Church, and society at large. It is our obligation and privilege to stand up for the permanence of marriage and to walk alongside those who suffer from troubled marriages, civil divorce, and its consequences.
Both John Paul II and Pope Francis have emphasized the need for pastoral care that remains sensitive to the challenges and circumstances of spouses while being equally committed to the truth that marriage is “until death do us part.” Commitment and attentiveness to these five teachings of the Church, along with a deep appreciation for marriage itself, is necessary for remedying the culture of divorce that permeates society and successfully fostering a culture that honors marriage.
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Pastoral Recreation” celebrating family leisure was painted by William-Adolphe Bouguereau in 1868.