Pope Francis has made several public statements on divorce since being elected to the Catholic Church’s highest office and his comments are creating quite a stir. Instead of the usual punitive tone, he’s forgiving and understanding and compassionate. He isn’t the first to speak generously on the topic but since he is the most powerful, he can’t be quietly ignored.
It is welcome news! Unfortunately, it comes after centuries of what can only be described as psychological abuse.
The long standing Catholic teaching on divorce is any divorced person whose been remarried cannot take communion in the Catholic Church. That is a scary thought if you happen to believe what Catholics teach about heaven, hell and purgatory.
But since the Pope has spoken, Catholic leaders are debating whether or not divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to take communion. It is definitely a positive turn of events but the clerics get no credit for thinking logically or forwardly or compassionately.
The debate was inevitable. Circumstances forced it. Logic was not a factor.
In this case Reality gets the credit.
Barna data suggests the number of divorced Catholics is perilously close to 30%. Georgetown University’s Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate estimates the number of USA Catholics who have been divorced and remarried without annulment is 4.5 million. That doesn’t include divorced folks who haven’t remarried.
You don’t have to be very clever to realize you can’t treat such a large number of congregants like unwanted infections and expect widespread peace. That’s a lot of squeak to ignore.
Of course, if the ramifications were clear it wouldn’t be so bad, but when it comes to communion and divorce, confusion reigns.
A few divorced individuals can take communion. The squeaky clean ones. The ones whose marriages were worse than an inquisition in the middle ages. But these can only partake if they’ve never been remarried, or in the unhappy event they have remarried, they must agree to remain celibate even though married or get the first marriage annulled.
All other divorced individuals know they can’t take communion. That part is clear. What they can’t be sure of is whether or not getting to heaven at the end of their journey is possible. Some say it is. Others aren’t so encouraging. No one seems to be certain.
To be fair, Catholics tend to be hazy about anyone getting to heaven. The best any Catholic can do is aim for Purgatory and hope the stay is short.
Don’t misunderstand. I’m not suggesting Catholics won’t go to heaven, at least some of them anyway, but they tend to be uncertain about the idea and candle makers love it!
I’ll talk further about the relevance of communion shortly but that’s not the only issue. The angst is made worse by the complexity of all the other divorce regulations.
A good example are the rules governing Church Membership for the divorced. We know they are treated differently but a look into Cannon Law reveals just how big the difference is. The following conditions on divorced membership illustrate the tangle.
- A divorced person can be a member as long as they never marry a second time before their ex spouse dies.
Just thinking out loud here, but I imagine that could be a motive for murder. If membership is conditioned on not marrying person B before person A dies, and the divorced party is particularly anxious for companionship, easy. Find a way to off person A.
This ruling can also be a motive for living together or just playing around. Unlike a second marriage, adultery/fornication can be absolved through confession.
Apparently this idea isn’t too far fetched. The Daily Mail reports that even though Catholics represent only 10% of the UK population, they represent 21.5% of the 600,000 members of an extra-marital dating site, IllicitEncounters.com.
- A divorced person can be a member as long as they have not been divorced twice.
The first marriage, according to Catholic Law, can’t be dissolved, so any future marriages only make things worse. Divorcing twice or more means no membership, no communion, no nothing.
- In the cases of multiple marriages, a person can be a member if all but one of the marriages can be annulled.
In other words, if you’ve been divorced multiple times, but authorities discover that all but one of the marriages could be annulled – after the fact, of course – no worries, you’re in. That is, once you’ve processed the annulments.
Annulment, by the way, is nothing more than Catholic divorce. It is a drawn out, complicated, sometimes expensive and humbling process. Just the idea of it generates the stress No Fault was intended to avoid.
Keep in mind, though, that once you are legitimately classified as an acceptably divorced person, you’re still tainted. Worse, all unacceptably divorced Catholics cannot take communion.
Why does that matter?
Taking communion is more than a nice habit, according to Catholic teaching. Without communion the best you can hope for is a longer stay in purgatory than your communion-taking Catholic peers. That’s the best you can expect and from what I understand purgatory can be agonizingly painful.
But a few Catholic teachers imply that without communion you will have no hope of getting to heaven. Fr. John Hardon, a respected Jesuit Priest, taught that communion, like baptism, is required to get to heaven.
If that is true, then all communion-disallowed Catholics are attending church, giving offerings and confessing for nothing.
Admittedly, there is debate on the issue and the remonstrations are rife with inference – the discussion gets a bit complicated – but here is the question: Why would any divorced person tolerate equivocation on such an important issue?
This brings me to the point of this post – sorry for the delay.
It has been a long time coming but finally divorced Catholics are having their day in court. The Vatican court, that is. We don’t know what the outcome will be but hopefully the divorced will gain a better standing.
For all those who think the discussion is moot, think again. Catholic ideas about marriage, divorce and remarriage have dominated religious thinking for centuries. Evangelicals are not immune to their persuasions and have unwittingly added weight to their arguments.
Some disallow divorce and remarriage just as vehemently as Catholics or maybe more so.
Even the debate over who can or can not participate in the Lord’s Supper (communion, Eucharist or whatever), a popular argument among evangelicals, is a spin off of Catholic influence.
Just to be clear, Catholics aren’t attempting to rewrite Vatican Law. It’s very difficult to unseat entrenched traditional thought, especially once it’s been canonized, but the discussions are happening.
The focus is more on interpretations and applications of the law, making it a little more agreeable with modern society and palatable to good sense. Streamlining the annulment process is an example, which would make it easier for wayward Catholics to obtain top tier status. If it happens, even that would be a miracle!
Bravo to Pope Francis for forcing the issue.