Changing Marriage Discipline Will Change Doctrine

Recent headlines in the mainstream media suggest that the Catholic Church is close to making major doctrinal changes on divorce and remarriage.  The Huffington Post has suggested that the Church will “open the door” to changes in doctrine on divorce.  And, Time magazine predicted that the Pope has “signaled a new openness” to allowing access to the sacraments to those Catholics who have been divorced remarried, or are currently cohabiting.

The celebration may be misguided. While Pope Francis has indeed presided over wedding ceremonies in which the couples had lived together before marriage, his participation in the sacrament of marriage for these couples does not signal a change in what the Church believes about permanency of the marriage those couples entered into. Instead, Pope Francis showed how the mercy of God can bind up broken relationships into a lasting bond patterned on Christ’s love for the Church.

It is likewise with the Synod.  The Synod’s preparatory document, the Instrumentum Laboris, asks whether the Church should emend its discipline to better serve the new evangelization of contemporary culture—not whether it should change its doctrine to accommodate it. Among the questions it raises are whether the process for granting an annulment should be made easier (IL 98-102), and whether the Church should permit Catholics who have obtained a civil divorce and remarriage, but who are still married to their original spouse in the eyes of the Church, to receive communion (IL 97). Many in the Church—including the editors of America Magazine—are saying, that there is no harm in changing what we do in these matters, since this change can be done without changing what we believe. But others, such as the canonist Ed Peters, are questioning whether such a clear distinction between discipline and doctrine is possible.

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The annulment process could be changed without changing what Catholics believe about marriage. An annulment is a juridic process in which a Church tribunal declares that two people who had a wedding never actually married each other because something went wrong—one of them was forced into it, didn’t realize what he/she was doing, was already married, etc. Changing that juridic process would not change the fact that, if the tribunal finds that the couple did marry each other, Catholic teaching prohibits them from divorcing each other and marrying someone else.

Permitting a Catholic who has obtained a civil divorce and remarried to receive Communion without an annulment of their prior marriage is trickier. Presently, the Church presumes that every marriage is valid until proven otherwise (Code of Canon Law, Canon 1060). Divorced and remarried Catholics are therefore presumed to be living in a repeated state of adultery, since they are engaged in a sexual relationship with someone other than their actual spouse. Since adultery is a grave sin, and since people who receive Communion in a state of grave sin commit the sin of sacrilege, the Church teaches that divorced and remarried Catholics should not present themselves for Communion (Canon 916) and should be refused Communion if they do (Canon 915), unless they have previously been absolved of their adultery through the Sacrament of Reconciliation. But that absolution can’t happen unless they propose to amend their lives by ceasing their adulterous relationship (Canon 987).

In order for the Church to change its discipline to allow Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, one of three things would have to happen:

  • The Church would have to stop presuming that marriages are valid until proven otherwise (Canon 1060).
  • The Church would have to stop teaching that people in a state of grave sin shouldn’t receive the Eucharist (Canons 915-16).
  • The Church would have to stop teaching that Sacramental absolution requires the resolution to stop sinning and amend one’s life (Canon 987).

If all of this were really just discipline, any or all of it could be changed. The difficulty is that a lot of this discipline expresses doctrine:

  • The fact that people who are in a state of grave sin can’t receive the Eucharist comes from Scripture (1 Corinthians 11:27-29). It was taught at the Council of Trent (Decree on the Eucharist, Chapter 7), and is reiterated in the Catechism (CCC 1385).
  • The fact that people who are in a state of grave sin can’t be absolved without proposing to stop sinning and amend their lives also comes from Scripture (John 8:11). It was taught at the Council of Trent (Decree on Penance, Chapter 4), and is reiterated in the Catechism (CCC 1451).

That leaves us with the presumption that marriages are valid unless proven otherwise.

Most of the suggestions about permitting Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics presume that a majority of marriage are invalid until proven otherwise. On this assumption, there is no reason to presume that divorced and remarried Catholics are living in a state of repeated adultery, because their first marriage probably wasn’t valid. That being the case, they can be admitted to Communion without changing Church doctrine about sin and Communion.

There’s a problem with this line of reasoning. If the basis of permitting Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics is that their first marriage was probably invalid, why should the Church presume that their second (or third, or fourth) marriage is valid? A presumption against the validity of marriage has to apply to all marriages equally. And whatever other implications may follow from this conclusion, it would mean that most married/remarried couples should not present themselves for Communion, and should be refused Communion if they do, because most married/remarried couples aren’t actually married. That, of course, is ridiculous. But it shows that you cannot change Church discipline about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics without considering its inevitable effect on doctrine.

That is not necessarily a bad thing. Perhaps it is a sign that something has gone awry. Consider the fact that marriage is the only Sacrament in which lay people exercise an ordinary Sacramental ministry—priests don’t marry people; people marry people. In the Western tradition, priests witness what lay people do when they get married, but the spouses themselves confer marriage on each other (CCC 1623). If we presume that most spouses are incapable of entering into a valid marriage, then are we not guilty of despairing that God will send enough laborers into the vineyard to meet the needs of the Church in the New Evangelization? It would be like presuming that most priests and bishops were so incapable of knowing what they were doing when they conferred the other Sacraments that you would never know whether your children were baptized, your sins were absolved, or whether the center of Mass was bread or Jesus. Most lay Catholics wouldn’t dare entertain such thoughts about their pastors or about the Sacraments, and would be quick to admit that a person who did was struggling in the depths of doubt and despair.

If we trust God to provide faithful ministers of all the other Sacraments, why then would we doubt that he would send faithful ministers of the Sacrament of Marriage? Faithful Catholics trust in the mercy of God too much to ever believe that he would permit such a thing to happen. And so, while the annulment process might become expedited, it is unlikely that we will see major changes to Church discipline coming out of the Synod any more than we will see major changes to Church doctrine.


  • Jacob W. Wood

    Jacob W. Wood is an Assistant Professor of Theology and a Faculty Associate of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned his Master’s in theology from St. Andrews University and his Ph.D. from The Catholic University of America.

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