Is Marital Indissolubility Only an Ideal?

One way that dissidents (including various episcopal conferences that had been derelict in teaching Catholic marital morality in the immediate periods before and after Humanae vitae) sought to dilute the clear Magisterial teaching the encyclical provided them was to reduce its vision of married sexual life to an “aspirational norm.” In other words, the idea that fruitfulness was an essential part of the conjugal act was reduced from a binding principle—it is sinful to contracept—to a lofty goal—we should strive to be open to life. Paul VI taught clearly that “each and every marital act must of necessity retain its intrinsic relationship to the procreation of human life” (HV, 11). The clear meaning of that text is to create a binding moral norm, but many theologians and some episcopal conferences (often by indirection, by what was not said) turned it into an aspiration: we should aim for that but, of course, life being what it is, your aim might be bad and your reaching the goal far off.

Such half-compromises have not been infrequent in the area of marriage and sex. Read the writings of dissident American theologians like Charles Curran et al. from forty years ago. They paid lip service then to the “value” of openness to life or the “value” of the man-woman relationship, while at the same being quite willing to be sometimes closed to life or tolerant of homosexual acts. Read their successors today, and even the lip service is absent, the values lost.

I recall the sorry history of compromising our way out of sexual morality in light of what I deem a dangerously ambiguous outcome, as regards marital indissolubility, at the recently concluded Synod. Granted, the final document that the bishops produced was framed in such a way that everybody can see what he wants in the text, and some have even maintained this was a studied ambiguity to give Pope Francis wiggle room in the usual post-synod papal exhortation. With all due respect, however, the last thing the Church needs today—especially in the area of sexual and marital morality, is deliberate ambiguity.

We all know that various Western Europeans and Western European episcopal conferences, preeminently Walter Kasper and the Germans, have been agitating for some change in ecclesiastical discipline regarding the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics to Holy Communion. What appears to have emerged from the Synod is a recommendation to judge each case individually, possibly through some sort of “internal forum” solution.

There are those who maintain that the principle of marital indissolubility—that a validly contracted and consummated sacramental marriage cannot be dissolved save by death—is the “ideal” or the “goal,” and can even remain so on the level of dogmatic teaching. In the “real” world, however, the “pastoral application” of that dogmatic teaching may take various forms including, apparently, a kind of Confessional “wink and tell” conclusion that this particular person may be convinced that—ecclesiastical discipline notwithstanding—“his” (or “her”) situation is such as to justify their receiving the Eucharist.

In the end, such an approach reduces marital indissolubility to some “ideal,” an aspiration to which we might tend, but certainly nothing that has any binding force in “real” life. Our “ideals” can be put on the shelf, to be occasionally consulted if some politically incorrect voice challenges our theology as heretical or our praxis as at least heterodox, to give us cover that we “accept” the doctrine of marital indissolubility.

But marital indissolubility as an amorphous “ideal” for “somebody” in some “ideal” situation is far removed from the “real” demands of “real” life for “me.” Such a notion of indissolubility, in the end, becomes a vacuous shell: pretty on the outside, but devoid of any real content for real life.

Likewise, the Synod has potentially reopened the door for the schizophrenic divorce between theology and “pastoral practice” that was often in vogue in the 1970s, especially in the immediate aftermath of Vatican II, when numerous ecclesiastical principles were watered down to the point of dilution when faced with “practical application.” Far from being good pastoral praxis or in any way “merciful,” this rupture between teaching and practice served to confuse the faithful, giving them the idea that binding moral norms were but “goals” they should try for but might fail to attain. This is far removed from genuine pastoral practice, which recognizes that people may fail, but they need to recognize in that failing a moral fault to be overcome with God’s grace, not an excuse to be rationalized away by not having lived up to an “ideal.” Mercy must always be tethered to truth; otherwise, the outcome has relation to neither.

Such an approach also is grossly inconsistent with the vision of Vatican II, which reminded the Church that the call to holiness is universal. Every Catholic—including married ones—is called to holiness, to be “perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt 5:48). An ethic that reduces key principles pertinent to a specific sphere of life (e.g., fruitfulness and indissolubility in the area of the essential characteristics of true Christian married love) to aspirational ideals will hardly encourage the faithful to aim for holiness. It will, on the contrary, encourage a Pharisaical legalism that is content with paying lip service to principles while salving one’s conscience for not “aspiring” to them. This is not good pastoral praxis; this is excuse-making.

The post-1968 disaster in Catholic sexual ethics flows in no small part from a failure to teach the encyclical as expressing principles binding in conscience on the Catholic faithful. What happened in various places was, instead, a Catholic version of the Anglican 1931 Lambeth Conference: a theoretical admission that contraception was wrong while an acceptance of “pastoral practice” that said some people (at first, only multi-child married couples facing serious health issues) were excepted from the principle. As we know, the exception quickly ate up the rule on the Protestant side; on the Catholic side, it has fostered a bewildering “don’t ask, don’t tell” mentality that acts as if somehow sexual intercourse is exempt from moral evaluation.

One hopes that the same fate is not brewing for Catholic principle of marital indissolubility. After all, the Church was once willing to lose half of Europe over a king’s inability to be faithful to his wife, whom he blamed for his own X chromosomes. One also hopes that, fifty years after the great blessing of Vatican II, we do not retrench on its promise by reducing the call to perfection to an “aspiration.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey.

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