Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Church - Divorce - Compassion

This week’s editorial in The Southern Cross focused on the Church’s teaching regarding divorce.  In particular it focused on the Church’s teaching that individuals who have remarried, without their first marriage being annulled, are no longer able to receive Holy Communion and sacramental absolution.  The editorial is entitled “Barred From Communion”.

As I have come to expect from this newspaper, it seems far more intent on creating controversy than on presenting the Church’s teaching in a manner that will help Catholics to both better understand and also accept the Church’s teaching, which is none other than Christ’s teaching, for their lives. 

The editorial states that the Church’s teaching “presents an enormous pastoral problem for the Church” because the Church needs “to reconcile the dimensions of doctrine with those of compassion”.  To support this opinion it presents two examples.  

The first is of those who are divorced because they were the “victims of physical or emotional abandonment, or even abuse.”  These “young women with children”, argues the editorial, “are faced with a stark choice: to marry again with a view to financial and emotional security, but be divorced from the Body of Christ; or to remain perpetually single, but in union with the sacrament of the Eucharist and absolution.”  The “price of either decision is too high”, contends the editorial, and so these women choose “financial and emotional security” instead of remaining “in union with the sacrament of the Eucharist and absolution”.

The other example which the editorial uses, to make this point about the Church needing to reconcile its doctrine with compassion, is by disingenuously stating that “less honourable individuals, even murderers, may receive Communion”.  This statement is clearly intended to be inflammatory. 

The editorial is just plain wrong about the Church needing to reconcile its doctrine with compassion.  The chosen examples are presented without disclosing fairly, to its readers, the Church’s true teaching in respect of the examples given.  The examples used are therefore clearly intended to malign the Church and certainly not to build up the Church and its members.  Let's consider what the editorial should have disclosed to its readers but conveniently did not.

The Church has always demonstrated that it understands the predicaments that people may sometimes find themselves in after they have married.  The Church has not only shown that it understands, but has also shown its compassion by clearly teaching that: “there are some situations in which living together becomes practically impossible for a variety of reasons.  In such cases the Church permits the physical separation of the couple and their living apart.[1]  

The Church goes even further and teaches that if: “civil divorce remains the only possible way of ensuring certain legal rights, the care of the children, or the protection of inheritance, it can be tolerated and does not constitute a moral offense.[2] 

Provided the persons in these situations do not remarry and are not cohabiting with another person, despite being separated or divorced civilly, they are able to continue receiving both Holy Communion and sacramental absolution.

This is quite obviously not the teaching of an uninvolved, unsympathetic and unloving Church.  It is not a sign of a Church that is oblivious to the realities of life and the predicaments of its members.  It is in touch and in tune, offering practical solutions to the challenges of life and marriage in particular.

The Church is also acutely aware that the indissolubility of marriage can seem a burden too much to bear.  The young women in the example given in the editorial, who are facing many challenges, such as the need for financial and emotional security, are clearly among those who will see the burden as too difficult.  Yet even here the Church is aware of the challenges and makes us aware of the solution.  The editorial would have served these women better if it had reminded them of this message from the Church:

This unequivocal insistence on the indissolubility of the marriage bond may have left some perplexed and could seem to be a demand impossible to realise.  However, Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy - heavier than the Law of Moses.  By coming to restore the original order of creation disturbed by sin, he himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God.  It is by following Christ, renouncing themselves, and taking up their crosses that spouses will be able to "receive" the original meaning of marriage and live it with the help of Christ.  This grace of Christian marriage is a fruit of Christ's cross, the source of all Christian life.[3]

True compassion, which the editorial is so intent on, demands not that we reconcile the Church’s doctrine with people’s particular situations.  True compassion is not about changing the truth to make individuals feel better about their particular circumstances. 

True compassion demands that we are supportive of these individuals in practical ways by helping them in whatever way we are materially able.  It also demands that we encourage these individuals, always reminding them that “Jesus has not placed on spouses a burden impossible to bear, or too heavy” and that Jesus “himself gives the strength and grace to live marriage in the new dimension of the Reign of God”.  True compassion also demands, as with any suffering which any of us may face in life, that we remind others and ourselves that we are required to renounce ourselves and take up the cross, the source of all Christian life.

True compassion however also demands that we have the courage to speak the truth when individuals have made a choice to remarry even though their previous marriage has not been annulled. 

Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions.  In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ - "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery"…  Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists…  Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.[4]

Yet, amazingly, even here the Church does not lose sight of these individuals or lack compassion for them.  The Church demands that we should “toward Christians who live in this situation, and who often keep the faith and desire to bring up their children in a Christian manner... manifest an attentive solicitude, so that they do not consider themselves separated from the Church, in whose life they can and must participate as baptised persons: They should be encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God's grace.[5]

I am sure that you will agree that there simply is no basis for the editorial to claim that the Church needs to reconcile its doctrine with compassion.  The Church is simply unceasing in showing these individuals love and compassion.

I don’t know about you but I get the impression that the real problem is that today we want instant solutions to all of life’s challenges.  We have grown accustomed to a modern world where there is always a quick simple cure, a pill that we can take to make it instantly better.  

I get the impression that we expect the same in our spiritual life.  The cross seems to have lost any meaning.  I think that modern society is repulsed by the shame and hardship of the cross.  We are hoping that, as with modern science, the Church has somehow made progress and has now found a new cure that is as simple as just taking a pill, instead of there being any need for the cross, the source of all Christian life.

This editorial in The Southern Cross reflects precisely this need for an instant easy solution.  Amend Church teaching so that we can make these people feel better about their decision, is really what this editorial would have the Church do.  Catholics know that this is neither reasonable nor possible.


  1. I hope you will be posting this on the Southern Cross website for its readers.

  2. James, I would love to but I don't think they would take kindly to me doing so.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Post your article Mark! Let's see their reaction.

    What I find amazing is the continued arrogance of the Southern Cross.

    It can only be arrogance that keeps questioning a 2000 year old Tradition.

    This is reason enough to refrain from reading or even discussing the rubbish that spews forth.

    I remain particularly opposed to the local bishops' position for failing to correct the editor and for failing to protect the local Catholic people from following heretical views while promoting disunity and dissent within the Catholic ranks. What sort of Shepherds do we have? Can we call them shepherds? This

  5. This is a very serious and pointed question. I only wish that there would be a postive answer from the Bishops.

    Some say that silence is also an answer. Is the silence of the bishops akin to someone being held hostage?