The Catholic Church is the only major institution that still teaches the truth about marriage: that it is an indissoluble, lifelong union between one man and one woman, open to the transmission of life. And one of the consequences of this truth is that divorced persons who have remarried while their spouse is alive may not receive Holy Communion. This is grounded in the clear words of Jesus Christ, 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.”
This has also been part of the Tradition of the Church since the early centuries of Christianity, with St. Augustine writing that “it is unlawful for one who leaves her husband, even when she has been put away, to be married to another, as long as her husband lives” and St. Jerome writing that “A husband may be an adulterer or a sodomite, he may be stained with every crime and may have been left by his wife because of his sins; yet he is still her husband and, so long as he lives, she may not marry another.” The pertinence of this teaching to the present age is clear. We now know how damaging divorce is for children, even for the adult children of parents who undergo divorce. And we also know that the Church’s teaching remains efficacious: Catholics, at least in the United States, divorce at a lower rate than non-Catholics.
Yet, despite this, the Church has seen extensive debate over the past year over Cardinal Kasper’s proposal to admit remarried divorcees to Holy Communion. Kasper’s proposal has won widespread support among self-professed “progressives,” and it is not hard to see why: if the Church can overturn a teaching that is grounded in the clear words of Jesus Christ and in clear apostolic Tradition, there is no teaching of the Church that cannot be changed to suit the demands of this age, or of any age to come.
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Ignatius Press’ book Remaining in the Truth of Christ: Marriage and Communion in the Catholic Church is a valuable and timely defense of the truth about marriage. Contributors to the book include the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Gerhard Muller, as well as Cardinal Walter Brandmuller, Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, Cardinal Velasio De Paolis, and Cardinal Raymond Burke, plus the book’s editor, Robert Dodaro, O.S.A., Patristics scholar John Rist, biblical scholar Paul Mankowski, S.J., and Archbishop Cyril Vasil, S.J., an expert on the Eastern Church. The book’s perspective is clear. As Fr. Dodaro explains in his excellent introduction, “The authors of this volume jointly contend that the New Testament presents Christ as unambiguously prohibiting divorce and remarriage on the basis of God’s original plan for marriage set out at Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 … civil marriage following divorce involves a form of adultery, and it makes reception of the Eucharist morally impossible (1 Cor 11:28), unless the couple practice sexual continence. These are not a series of rules made up by the Church; they constitute divine law, and the Church cannot change them.”
Although each of the essays contained in the book is well worth reading, the contributions of the two Jesuits are particularly worthwhile. Fr. Mankowski offers a thorough examination of all the biblical texts in which Jesus’ teaching on marriage is set forth, including St. Paul’s prohibition of divorce in 1 Corinthians 7:10-11, a prohibition that Paul emphasizes comes from the Lord, not from him. In considering Mark 10: 2-12, Mankowski notes that “In contrast to a sentimentalism common in our own day that views openness to divorce as a manifestation of charity, Jesus distances himself from the ostensible ground of the concession [to divorce found in Mosaic law] (“your hardness of heart”) and proceeds to place himself in the paradoxical position of a new lawgiver vindicating the original and divinely ordained union of man and wife.” Indeed, Jesus “is stating as emphatically as possible that the oneness of husband and wife is divine will and not a human contrivance.”
To those who contend that Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is too hard to live up to, Mankowski reminds us of the help that Jesus promised to those who would follow Him: “Under the old dispensation it may have required heroic moral and physical courage, as well as a love of godliness, to remain true in practice and conviction to God’s creative will in the matter of nuptial fidelity—but under the new covenant, even ho mikrotetos, the least in the Kingdom, will be given the strength to stay faithful, and to do greater things besides.” Contrast this to Cardinal Kasper’s statement, made in one of the many interviews he has given on this subject, that those who live together as brother and sister following divorce and remarriage, out of obedience to the Lord, are engaged in a “heroic act, and heroism’s not for the average Christian.” One wonders what the early Christians would have thought of Kasper’s statement. As John Rist notes, those early Christians “stood out … for a strictness on sexual matters of which they boasted—even when they failed to live up to their own ideals,” and many of them, perhaps not coincidentally, also chose martyrdom rather than burn a little incense to Caesar.
Archbishop Vasil provides a thorough examination of Eastern Orthodox teaching on divorce, looking at how the individual Orthodox Churches deal with divorce and remarriage, examining the many grounds for divorce recognized by those Churches, and looking at how those Churches handle decrees of divorce issued by civil courts. Since Kasper has sought to justify his proposal by appealing to Eastern Orthodox practice, this essay is of critical importance. The picture Vasil paints is not pretty: “A look at these approaches to marriage questions in some Orthodox Churches leads us to conclude that, in concrete practice, the Orthodox Churches either endorse civil divorce or recognize them more or less overtly.” Elsewhere, it is even worse: “Many Orthodox Churches do little more than simply ratify the divorce sentence issued by the civil court.” This easy acceptance of divorce in the Orthodox world has caused concern even for some Orthodox writers. Vasil cites Alvian Smirensky, who, in analyzing the decrees of the Synod of Moscow in 1918, “indicates that unfortunately … only fifteen lines are dedicated to the question of indissolubility, while seven subsequent pages describe the ways in which it is possible to dissolve the indissoluble bond.” This is the end of the path on which Cardinal Kasper is asking us to begin walking.
The truth about marriage was one of the truths that the Catholic missionaries carried with them wherever they went. Cardinal Brandmuller’s essay focuses in large part on Frankish king Lothair II, who sought to divorce his wife for infertility and marry his mistress, with whom he already had a son. In doing this, Lothair was acting in accord with the inherited customs of the Franks, and “[t]he dispute became so fierce that at one point a Frankish army even invaded Rome and threatened the Pope.” The Pope refused to submit, and both Lothair and his mistress were excommunicated by Pope Nicholas I. The end result was that the Christian understanding of marriage became the accepted view in Lothair’s kingdom: “Everything about the episode shows that a process had begun by which the Christian understanding of marriage gradually was to prevail over received, pre-Christian forms and norms of marriage among those peoples who had now been converted to Christianity.” Thanks to the influence of the Catholic Church, divorce became impossible in most of Europe for most of history.
Once the Christian view of marriage was established, the Church tenaciously resisted attempts to legitimize divorce. As Cardinal Muller notes in his essay, “there is evidence that groups of Orthodox Christians on becoming Catholic had to subscribe to an express acknowledgment of the impossibility of second or third marriages.” More famously, “The schism of a ‘Church of England’ … came about not because of doctrinal differences, but because the Pope, out of obedience to the sayings of Jesus, could not accommodate the demands of King Henry VIII for the dissolution of his marriage.” In our own time, the Church has unsuccessfully opposed the legalization of divorce in Ireland, Italy, and Malta, and successfully resisted the legalization of divorce in the Philippines. It is hard to see how Cardinal Kasper’s proposal can be accepted without repudiating this long history of the Church’s defense of marriage, a defense that, as Cardinal Brandmuller writes, “is witnessed not least by those saints who suffered martyrdom for it following the example of Saint John the Baptist,” including Saint John Fisher, Saint Thomas More, and the London Carthusians butchered by Henry VIII.
Acceptance of Kasper’s proposal would mean more than the repudiation of the Church’s history. It would also entail the repudiation of Her sacramental theology and moral teaching. As Cardinal Caffarra notes, the Church understands the marital bond to be “the work of Christ in the Church and … thus unassailable, whether by the spouses themselves or by any or every civil or ecclesiastical authority.” Such an understanding cannot be reconciled with Kasper’s proposal. Moreover, “If the Church were to admit the divorced and civilly remarried to the Eucharist, by that very fact she would recognize the moral legitimacy of living more coniugali with a person who is not the true spouse,” thus indicating that non-marital sex was licit. The acceptance of Kasper’s proposal would also “persuade … any attentive person of the idea that, at its heart, there exists no marriage that is absolutely indissoluble, that the ‘forever’ to which every true love cannot but aspire is an illusion.” Finally, arguments supporting Kasper’s proposal, as Cardinal De Paolis notes, tend to appeal to “a situational ethic,” or a belief that the end justifies the means, or to proportionalism, or to the notion that there are no intrinsically evil acts, all ways of thinking about morality that the Church has repeatedly disavowed, most recently in John Paul II’s Veritatis Splendor.
As Archbishop Vasil notes in his essay, “Faith in supernatural principles is now more than ever subject to humiliation.” The acceptance of Cardinal Kasper’s proposal would further that humiliation. In a video interview with the Catholic News Service in October 2014, Kasper rejected calling remarriage after divorce “adultery”—the language used by Jesus Christ—because those in second marriages would be “insulted” and “offended.” (Scripture tells us Herodias felt offended when John the Baptist told her that her marriage to Herod was not lawful, but Scripture also tells us that “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist.”) Kasper stressed the many “positive elements” found in such second marriages, including in the “sexual relationship.”
He even said that remarriage after divorce is a manifestation of “the mercy of God,” turning Christ’s words in Luke 16:18, Mark 10:2-12, and Matthew 19:3-9 on their head. So far, Kasper seems to draw the line at two marriages, but there is no logical reason for not seeing third, fourth, and fifth marriages as also manifesting “the mercy of God,” since those in third, fourth, and fifth marriages would no doubt affirm that there are “positive elements” in those marriages. No person in a difficult marriage watching that interview would conclude that there is any reason why he should not divorce, and no divorced person watching that interview would conclude that there is any reason why he should not remarry. Thus, under Kasper’s proposal, the Church would go from treating Christ’s prohibitions of divorce and of remarriage after divorce as being normative to treating them as being superfluous.
There is another way, as the authors of this book eloquently remind us. I will give the last word to Archbishop Vasil, whose essay concludes with the perfect rejoinder to Kasper: “All this brings us to consider whether ‘hardness of heart’ is a convincing argument to muddle the clearness of the teaching of the gospel on the indissolubility of Christian marriage. But as a response to the many questions and doubts, and to the many temptations to find a ‘short cut’ or to ‘lower the bar’ for the existential leap that one makes in the great ‘contest’ of married life—in all this confusion among so many contrasting and distracting voices, still today resound the words of the Lord: ‘What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder’ (Mark 10:9), and the final consideration of Saint Paul: ‘This is a great mystery…’ (Eph 5:32).”
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Wedding Procession” was painted by Guillaume Seignac in 1904.