When the Church of Rome Forgave Second Marriages
During the first centuries the divorced and remarried were pardoned of their sins and given communion, but later this practice was abandoned in the West. Today Pope Francis has brought it back onto the field, while the dueling goes on among the cardinals
by Sandro Magister
ROME, January 31, 2014 • In the middle of February the cardinals and bishops of the council of the secretariat of the synod will meet to evaluate the responses to the questionnaire distributed all over the world in October.
The synod has as its theme “the pastoral challenges of the family” and will be held in Rome from October 5-19. Among the thirty-nine questions of the questionnaire, five concern divorced Catholics who have gone on to a second marriage and the impossibility of their receiving the sacraments of the Eucharist and reconciliation.
The discussion on this point is very heated, and the pressure to admit the divorced and remarried to communion is very strong in public opinion, with the support of prominent bishops and cardinals.
In the Catholic Church today, in fact, the only way for the divorced and remarried to be admitted to Eucharistic communion is the verification of the nullity of the previous marriage celebrated in church.
Nullity can be attributed to numerous causes, and the ecclesiastical tribunals are generally understanding in resolving even difficult marriage cases by this means.
But it is impossible for the ecclesiastical tribunals to address the great number of marriages suspected of invalidity. According to Pope Francis – who cited his predecessor as archbishop of Buenos Aries in this regard – null marriages could be as many as “half” of those celebrated in church, because they are celebrated “without maturity, without realizing that it is for life, for social convenience.”
Most of these invalid marriages are not even subjected to the judgment of the ecclesiastical tribunals. Not only that. Ecclesiastical tribunals exist and function only in some countries, while large regions of Africa, Asia, and Latin America itself go without them. In some areas of recent evangelization monogamous and indissoluble marriage has not yet been accepted by Catholic common opinion, in a persistent context of unstable or polygamous unions.
Against this backdrop, is there a way around the impossibility of resolving by judicial means the great number of transitions to a second marriage?
Joseph Ratzinger, both as cardinal and as pope, had repeatedly brought up the hypothesis of allowing access to communion for the divorced and remarried “who have come to a well-founded conviction of conscience concerning the nullity of their first marriage but are unable to prove this nullity by the judicial route.”
Benedict XVI warned that this “is a highly complex problem and ought to be studied further.”
Meanwhile, however, it has become a widespread practice for the divorced and remarried to receive communion by their own initiative. This is tolerated by priests and bishops and here and there is even encouraged an officialized, as in the German diocese of Freibourg. With the risk of leaving everything to the conscience of the individual and of increasing the distance between the lofty and demanding vision of marriage as it appears in the Gospels and the life practiced by many of the faithful.
As the synod on the family draws near, Pope Francis has made room for an encounter between positions that are different if not opposed, contributing himself to generating the expectation of “openness.”
On the one hand, he ordered the publication in seven languages in the October 23 issue of “L’Osservatore Romano” of a note from the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Gerhard L. Müller, very rigorous in reaffirming the indissoluble “sanctity” of Christian marriage and in rejecting “an adaptation to the spirit of the times” such as the granting of communion to the divorced and remarried simply on the basis of their decision in conscience.
On the other hand the pope has allowed bishops and cardinals – even those resoundingly in his confidence, like Reinhard Marx and Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga – to speak out publicly against Müller and in favor of lifting the ban on communion.
The proponents of the change, when they make their position explicit, ultimately rely on the conviction of the individual conscience.
But is conscience the only means of solving the problem of the divorced and remarried?
According to what happened during the first centuries of Christianity, it is not. Back then there was another solution.
Attention to how the Church of the first centuries addressed the question of the divorced and remarried has been called back recently by a priest of Genoa, Giovanni Cereti, a scholar of patristics and ecumenism as well as being for more than thirty years an assistant of the movement of conjugal spirituality of the Equipes Notre-Dame.
A few months ago Cereti republished a scholarly study he published for the first time in 1977 and then again in 1998, entitled: “Divorce, new marriages, and penance in the primitive Church.”
The centerpiece of this study – replete with references to the Fathers of the Church at grips with the problem of second marriages – is canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea of 325, the first of the great ecumenical councils of the Church, the authority of which has always been recognized by all Christians.
Canon 8 of the Council of Nicaea says:
“As for those who call themselves pure, if they should wish to enter the catholic Church, this holy and great council establishes [. . .] before all else that they should declare openly, in writing, that they accept and follow the teachings of the catholic Church: and that is that they will enter into communion both with those who have gone on to second marriages and with those who have lapsed in the persecutions, for whom the time and circumstances of penance have been established, so as to follow in everything the decisions of the catholic and apostolic Church.”
The “pure” to whom the canon refers are the Novatianists, the rigorists of the time, intransigent to the point of definitive rupture both with remarried adulterers and with those who had apostatized to save their lives, even if afterward they had repented, been subjected to penance, and been absolved of their sin.
In demanding of the Novatianists, in order to be readmitted into the Church, that they “enter into communion” with these categories of persons, the Council of Nicaea was therefore reiterating the power of the Church to forgive any sin whatsoever and to receive into full communion again even the “digami,” meaning remarried adulterers and apostates.
Since then, two tendencies with regard to the divorced and remarried have coexisted in Christianity, one more rigorist and one more inclined to forgiveness. During the second millennium, the former came to hold sway in the Church of Rome. But before that there was room for the practice of forgiveness in the West as well.
The newly created cardinal Müller, in his note in “L’Osservatore Romano,” writes that “in patristic times, divorced members of the faithful who had civilly remarried could not even be readmitted to the sacraments after a period of penance.” But immediately after that he recognizes that “from time to time pastoral solutions were sought for very rare borderline cases.”
Ratzinger adhered more closely to the historical reality, in a text from 1998 republished on November 30, 2011 in multiple languages in “L’Osservatore Romano,” which sums up as follows the status of the question according to the most recent studies:
“It is claimed that the current magisterium relies on only one strand of the patristic tradition, and not on the whole legacy of the ancient Church. Although the Fathers clearly held fast to the doctrinal principle of the indissolubility of marriage, some of them tolerated a certain flexibility on the pastoral level with regard to difficult individual cases. On this basis Eastern Churches separated from Rome later developed alongside the principle of akribia , fidelity to revealed truth, that of oikonomia , benevolent leniency in difficult situations. Without renouncing the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage, in some cases they permit a second and even a third marriage, which is distinct, however, from the sacramental first marriage and is marked by a penitential character. Some say that this practice has never been explicitly condemned by the Catholic Church. They claim that the 1980 Synod of Bishops proposed to study this tradition thoroughly, in order to allow the mercy of God to be more resplendent.”
Further on, in the same text, Ratzinger points to Saint Leo the Great and other Fathers of the Church as those who “sought pastoral solutions for rare borderline cases” and recognizes that “in the Imperial Church after Constantine a greater flexibility and readiness for compromise in difficult marital situations was sought.”
The ecumenical council of Nicaea was in fact convened by Constantine himself and its canon 8 expressed precisely this orientation.
It must also be specified that in that period those who went on to a second marriage and were readmitted into communion with the Church remained with their new spouses.
Over the following centuries in the West, the penitential period that preceded readmission to the Eucharist, initially brief, was gradually extended until it became permanent, while in the East this did not happen.
It was the ecclesiastical tribunals in the West in the second millennium that addressed and resolved the “borderline cases” of second marriages, verifying the nullity of the previous marriage. But in doing so they eliminated conversion and penance.
Those like Giovanni Cereti who today are calling attention back to the practice of the Church of the first centuries are proposing the return to a penitential system similar to the one adopted at the time, and still maintained in a certain form in the Eastern Churches.
By extending the power of the Church to absolve all sins, even for those who have broken their first marriage and entered into a second union, the way would be opened – they maintain – to “a greater appreciation of the sacrament of reconciliation” and to “a return to the faith by many who today feel excluded from ecclesial communion.”
Perhaps this was what Pope Francis was thinking about when, in the interview on the return flight from Rio de Janeiro on July 28, 2013, he opened and closed “a parenthesis” – his words – on the Orthodox, who “follow the theology of what they call oikonomia, and they give a second chance [of marriage].”
Adding immediately afterward:
“I believe that this problem [of communion for persons in a second marriage] must be studied within the context of the pastoral care of marriage.”
The preparatory document of the synod on the family, with the accompanying questionnaire:
The 1998 text by Joseph Ratzinger republished in “L’Osservatore Romano” of November 30, 2011:
The note of the prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Gerhard L. Müller, published in “L’Osservatore Romano” of October 23, 2013:
> On the indissolubility of marriage and the debate concerning the civilly remarried
In direct conflict with Müller and his note in “L’Osservatore Romano,” Cardinal Óscar Rodríguez Maradiaga, coordinator of the eight cardinals appointed by Pope Francis to advise him in the governance of the Church, said in an interview with the German newspaper “Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger” of January 20:
“I read it. And I thought: ‘Perhaps you are right, but you may be wrong.’ I mean, I understand, he is German and on top of that a professor, a German professor of theology. His mentality conceives only of right and wrong. That’s it. But I respond: ‘My brother, the world is not that way. You should also be a bit flexible in listening to other points of view. This way you end up saying only stop right there, here is the line and it’s not to be crossed.’ But I think that he will get there too. At the moment he is only at the beginning, and he listens quite a bit to his closest collaborators.”
And again, with reference to the variety of situations in the field of the family and relationships between the sexes:
“They are situations that call for responses suited to today’s world. Of course, it is not enough to say: well, for all this there is doctrine. That’s true, and it will remain so, but the pastoral challenge requires responses in step with the times. Responses that can no longer be founded on authoritarianism and moralism.”
It must be noted that Benedict XVI as well was “a German professor of theology” on a par with Müller, the target of Rodríguez Maradiaga’s ridicule.
The complete text of the interview:
In the illustration, Lucas Cranach the Elder, “Christ and the woman caught in adultery,” 1532, Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest.
English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.