Russian Wedding by Chagall 

Synod at the Crossroads, on Second Marriages

The pressure of the opinion surveys.

The lesson of history.

The Church’s dilemma: conform to modernity, or remain firm on “what God has joined together let no man put asunder”?

by Sandro Magister

ROME, February 7, 2014 – The German-speaking area has been the quickest both in responding to the questionnaire released by the Vatican [TO THE BISHOPS OF THE WORLD] in view of the synod on the family [NEXT OCTOBER]  and in making the responses public.

The Swiss bishops have gone even further, and have composed an even more detailed questionnaire which they entrusted to the socio-pastoral institute of San Gallo, which has collected about 25,000 responses, mostly through the internet and from citizens of the German-speaking cantons.

They released the results on February 3. And the next day the bishops of Germany did the same.

In both cases, emphasizing the avalanche of “yes” responses on one of the crucial points: communion for the divorced and remarried and the recognition of their second marriages by the Church.

Not only that. In presenting the results of the survey, the bishops of both countries have called for “a new  approach concerning Catholic sexual morality,” given that “the faithful no longer understand the arguments of the Church on these issues.” [THE FAULT LIES NOT WITH THE FAITHFUL BUT WITH THE HIERARCHY AND THE CLERGY]

The opinion that is gaining ground even among bishops and cardinals is that the classical family, indissoluble, with father and mother and children, is tending to disappear. Even among Catholics “there are the separated, the extended families,  many are raising children without a partner, there is the phenomenon of surrogate motherhood, there are marriages without children, one must not forget the unions between persons of the same sex,” as was enumerated by Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga – the coordinator of the eight cardinal “advisors” of Francis –  in his pyrotechnic interview with “Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger” of January 20,  giving voice to  many who think as he does in the matter and associate the pope himself with this thinking.

The old family no longer exists. All is new. And therefore the Church as well must give new responses “in step with the times,” responses that “can no longer be founded on authoritarianism and moralism,” as Maradiaga dismissively stated.


But is it really true that today’s is an unprecedented situation that the Church finds itself facing for the first time?

Not at all. When the Church began its journey through history, in the Roman civilization of the first centuries, it found itself at grips with relationships between the sexes and generations no less multiform than the current ones, and with  models of family certainly not in keeping with the indissoluble one preached by Jesus.

To the Christians of the time, the Church was proposing a model of marriage that was not “old,” but very new and highly demanding.

And in proposing this revolutionary innovation, it had to make its laborious way through a thicket of situations that in point of fact contradicted it and could even  lead to the practical application, at certain times and in certain places, to the “exception” recognized by some in the enigmatic words of Jesus in Matthew 19:9: “Whoever repudiates his wife, except in case of ‘porneia,’ and marries another, commits adultery.”

It therefore comes as no surprise that in those first centuries traces can be found, in the writings of the Fathers of the Church and in the canons of the councils, of a practice of forgiveness for those who had gone on to a second marriage after separating from the first spouse, with readmission to the Eucharist after a more or less lengthy penitential period.

Among the scholars who have upheld the existence of this practice are Giovanni Cereti – whose ideas were echoed at the 1980 synod of bishops on the family –  and illustrious patrologists like Charles Munier, Pierre Nautin, and Joseph Moingt, not to mention the American John T. Noonan,  a prominent jurist and specialist on the canonical doctrine and practice of marriage in history.

Other scholars have instead contested the  soundness of this thesis. The most combative critic is Henri Crouzel, a famous Jesuit and patrologist. And the Jesuit and patrologist Gilles Pelland, a Canadian, also maintains that it is a steep challenge to document that during the first centuries forgiveness was actually granted and communion given to those who had separated and were living in second marriages.

A study by Pelland dedicated precisely to this question was included by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith in a book “On pastoral care for the divorced and remarried” published by Libreria Editrice Vaticana in 1998  and recently reprinted with an introduction by Joseph Ratzinger, the prefect of the congregation at the time:

> The pastoral approach to marriage must be founded on truth

This introduction by Ratzinger, republished in “L’Osservatore Romano” of November 30, 2011, is of great objectivity in enunciating the problem posed by the studies cited:

“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.”

Immediately afterward, Ratzinger continues:

“The study by Fr. Pelland  shows the direction in which the answer to these questions must be sought.”

In effect, Pelland denies that the presumed “exception” of Matthew 19:9 was applied during the first centuries. And he interprets in a very different way the texts of the Fathers and councils that Cereti  brings forward in support of a practice of pardon for the divorced and remarried. But here and there he makes it known that both the arguments in favor and those against can be falsified. And he  reports that in at least one case –  that of a prisoner of war who was missing for a long time and returned to find his wife remarried – even a pope like St. Leo the Great “went much farther than the Church would accept to do today.”

Moreover, Pelland notes that in the penitential books of the early Middle Ages “a liberal jurisprudence was applied in many circumstances” to the divorced and remarried, with evident traces in the canonical laws collected in the decree of Gratian.

It was with Pope Gregory VII, in the 11th century, that the West began to combat this practice in a systematic way.

The Council of Trent, in the 16th century, thus found a long-standing matrimonial discipline that was absolutely contrary to second marriages, which however in the meantime had entered into use in the Eastern Churches.

Some of the bishops at Trent, including Cardinal Del Monte, the papal legate, proposed interpreting Matthew 19:9 and some patristic texts as an authorization for second marriages. Their thesis was rejected. In any case, the Tridentine council avoided condemning the Greek practice as heretical.

At Vatican Council II there was at least one bishop, the Melkite Elias Zoghby, archbishop of Baalbek,  who reopened the question. And another bishop tried to do so at the 1980 synod on the family. In both cases without success.


So what lesson can be gathered from history with regard to communion for the divorced and remarried?

In the introduction to the book cited above, Ratzinger does not deny that there were times and places in which second marriages were admitted in the West as well.

But he sees in the events of history a precise line of development. A sort of return to the origins.

 The origins –  he writes –  are the unmistakable words of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage. They are words “over which the Church has no power” and that clearly exclude divorce and new marriages.

For this reason, “in the Church at the time of the Fathers the divorced and remarried faithful were never officially admitted to holy communion  after a time of penance.” It is also true, however –  Ratzinger recognizes –  that the Church “did not always rigorously revoke concessions in this matter in individual countries.” And it is true that “individual Fathers, for example Leo the Great, sought ‘pastoral’  solutions for rare borderline cases.”

In the West, this “greater flexibility and readiness for compromise on difficult  marital situations” was extended and prolonged until the 11th century, especially “in the Gallic and Germanic sphere.”

In the East, this tendency was even more pronounced and widespread and “an ever more liberal practice” has asserted itself down to our own day.

Starting in the 11th century in the West, however, “the original conception of the Fathers was recovered thanks to the Gregorian reform.”

And this return to the origins “found sanction at the Council of Trent and was again proposed as the teaching of the Church at Vatican Council II.”


This, naturally, is the lesson that Ratzinger gathers from history, as do those who follow in his footsteps like the current prefect of the congregation for the doctrine of the faith, Gerhard L. Müller:

> The Power of Grace

And it is also the stance of the official magisterium of the Church, whose last organic document on this matter is the letter on communion for the divorced and remarried addressed to the bishops by the congregation for the doctrine of the faith in 1994, with the approval and at the behest of Pope John Paul II:

> “The International Year of the Family…”

Others however, like Giovanni Cereti and other scholars,  are calling for the Church today to rediscover the willingness it once had  to pardon the sin and readmit to communion the divorced and remarried, after a penitential passage. Extending to the West a practice  similar to that in effect in the Eastern Churches.

Pope Francis appeared to open the way in this direction when, during 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 “give a second chance of marriage.”

It remains to be seen if at the upcoming synod the Church of Rome will dare to abandon the stance it has taken until now, and if, in the event that it decides to change, it will want to become the protagonist behind the decision and the highly difficult implementation of a canonical practice of penance, forgiveness, and communion for the divorced and remarried that at the same time will not contradict the words in the New Testament on marriage.

Or if what will prevail instead will be the sentiment of mercy that is now found for the most part in public opinion but also among the hierarchy: that of a reckless go-ahead for individual initiative, with “ad libitum” access to communion and with the conscience of the individual being the only one to lay down he law.


For more detailed information on the practice of the church in the first centuries:

> When the Church of Rome Forgave Second Marriages (31.1.2014)


One illuminating and unconventional voice is that of Stanislaw Grygiel, professor of philosophical anthropology at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Rome, a former advisor and friend of the Polish Pope, interviewed by Matteo Matzuzzi in “Il Foglio” of February 5:

> Contro la Chiesa opinionista


The preparatory document of the synod on the family, with the accompanying questionnaire:

> “Pastoral challenges….”

In the illustration, Marc Chagall, “Russian wedding”, 1909, E. G. Bührle collection, Zurich.


English translation by Matthew Sherry, Ballwin, Missouri, U.S.A.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas


  1. Peppy Forshaw says:

    What about living together as brother and sister?

    Sent from my iPad

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