The Moderation Conversation: Talking About Divorce en Route to a Wedding

This is the fifth installment of “The Moderation Conversation,” an RM feature in which Matt and Chris meet for a live chat and completely rewrite the subsequent transcript so as to appear significantly more eloquent than they actually are. This exchange, which deals with the ongoing intra-Catholic debate about divorce and remarriage, was recorded several months ago. RM is publishing it now to mark this week’s start of the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops in Vatican City. (This is almost certainly a lie conceived by Matt and Chris to make their procrastination seem intentional.)

The Great Divorce Debate

Matt: Okay! So, we are here in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York.

Chris: And, as people are wont to do in the parking lot of a Panera in upstate New York, we are going to talk about divorce.

M: … as we are on our way to a wedding. [Laughs]

Specifically we wanted to talk about the debate going on within the Catholic Church about readmitting divorced and remarried Catholics to the sacrament of Communion. There’s been a lot of discussion about this in light of the fact that Pope Francis has called an assembly of the world’s bishops known as the General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, for this October and October 2015, to discuss challenges to the family in the modern world. But the issue that’s gotten the most attention in the secular media and in the Catholic press has been this subject of Communion for the divorced and remarried. So maybe you want to give a little more context for the controversy?

C: Sure, yeah. A lot of the debate has revolved around comments made by the German Cardinal Walter Kasper about divorced and remarried Catholics. Kasper expressed support for a new sort of process that would allow them to receive Communion after a period of repentance for the failure of their first marriage. In an interview he gave with Commonweal magazine he discussed ways this could be accomplished, but a number of different bishops and others within the Church voiced dissatisfaction with his reasoning.

One of the things Kasper articulated to Commonweal is the idea that people are always entitled to an opportunity for forgiveness. Not all marriages are necessarily going to work out, and there should be a policy in place where people who are contrite about the failure of their first marriage can be readmitted to Communion and can fully reconcile with the Church.

M: Right. The Church has no problem admitting people who are divorced to Communion. The issue is divorce and remarriage, because the Church sees marriage as a permanent institution and it maintains that to enter into a second marriage is therefore to –

C: Commit adultery.

M: Yes. But while the Church doesn’t recognize divorce, it does recognize the concept of an annulment, which a lot of people see as a kind of “Catholic divorce.” The idea behind an annulment is that the Church declares that a marriage was, for whatever reason, never validly established in the first place.

Something Kasper brought up in the interview that I thought was a pretty significant bombshell was that he mentioned a conversation he had with Pope Francis, wherein Francis supposedly said that he believes roughly half of all Catholic marriages are not valid, either because people don’t really understand the significance of what they’re promising and therefore can’t really enter into a legitimate marriage, or because there were social pressures for them to get married and it wasn’t truly a free decision on their part. I thought that was an astonishingly high number and I think a lot of other observers did as well.

C: Yeah. Michael Brendan Dougherty and Ross Douthat both expressed extreme skepticism at that.

M: Mhm. John Allen [formerly of the National Catholic Reporter and now a Vatican correspondent for the Boston Globe and Crux] has said that he believes the most likely outcome of the Synod will be that it becomes easier to get annulments. I believe right now the question of whether to grant an annulment is decided by a diocesan tribunal, but the decision can be appealed all the way to Rome. Allen thinks that the Synod will sidestep the question of whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to take Communion and will settle for streamlining the annulment process.

C: So I guess the question that arises from this is, if we’re creating a broader standard for what warrants an annulment, then at what point is an annulment effectively a divorce? At what point do the two basically converge?

M: Hmm.

C: Did Allen specify what kinds of new things might be considered grounds for an annulment?

M: I’m not sure it’s so much that he thinks that new grounds will be entertained. I think it’s just that he believes the “burden of proof,” so to speak, will be lightened. Maybe a less thorough investigation will be required to determine whether the marriage was invalid. The number of appeals that are possible will be cut down. I don’t think it’s so much changing the definition of an annulment as it is just changing the bureaucracy that people need to go through to obtain annulments.

C: Right. But if you do go that route, if you do make it easier to obtain annulments, it doesn’t really leave a distinct impression of why divorce is unacceptable.

M: So I have to agree with Douthat and Dougherty on the point here about half of marriages being invalid. Their argument is that number is way too high. I think that this whole debate about what percentage of marriages are invalid is a side issue. It’s being raised as a way for the reform-minded side of the debate to accomplish something without having to face the real question head-on. Namely, whether the Church should formally recognize the possibility of second marriages.

C: I’m inclined to agree with the pope that the number could be quite high. Maybe not 50%, but certainly substantial if you account for people who didn’t realize what they were doing when they got married. Wouldn’t surprise me if it were much higher than people might expect.

That being said I don’t really see how this contributes to the debate at all, except to give ammunition, like you point out, to people who would be more inclined to say, “Look, marriage is not as hard and fast a thing as it might be portrayed by traditionalists, so therefore more lax standards for divorce or annulments are warranted.” Seems like a peripheral anecdote.

M: Right. And what makes this such a difficult issue both within the Church and outside of the Church is that there’s a tension between the norm that you want to uphold, the message you want to broadcast about what marriage is and what people should be aspiring to when they get married, and the reality that a lot of marriages do fail.

And so on the one hand, it seems very retrograde or cruel to deny people the possibility of second marriages, but on the other hand, if second marriages or remarriage in general comes to be seen as less of an exception to a rule and more as just a universal possibility, then in some sense that undermines the norm that you’re trying to inculcate. How you strike that balance, I think that’s a really tough question.


Second Chances

C: I’d like to get your opinions on a couple of pieces that ran in the August issue of First Things. Rusty Reno and Robert Spaemann both wrote columns about divorce and remarriage, and these two pieces, especially the Spaemann one, they strike me as tone deaf in a lot of ways.

M: Okay.

C: Their arguments are very idealistic. They support an aspirational vision of marriage as something that transcends temporary disagreements or romantic love, anything like that that might fade over time. The problem is that it also comes across as somewhat cruel when factoring in the myriad problems that actual couples encounter in the course of marriage, some of which may render the union unsalvageable. Reno and Spaemann seem not to acknowledge that the realities of marriage can be quite tough, and there are circumstances where people become less compatible over time.

Did you have any opinions on either of those articles?

M: Well, to get back to Kasper’s proposal for a minute, he notes that in a lot of situations where people are divorced or remarried and they have children from their second marriage, the Church essentially asks them, if they want to receive Communion, to walk away from that second marriage. But what Kasper says is that in these situations there basically is no way out of them that doesn’t cause some kind of harm. To walk away from the second marriage, especially if there are children, involves the breakup of another family.

And so, you know, there are competing obligations here – the obligation that the Church says the person has to their former spouse, and the obligation to the person that they’re living with now. In his mind, there’s no way to reconcile those two things without some kind of hurt being caused. So he says that in these situations the Church should be trying to lead people to a place where they’re striving toward the ideal even if they can’t actually reach it.

Now, as for Reno’s piece in First Things: he says that what seems like a very minor change on divorce and remarriage is likely to be interpreted by those outside of the Church as a capitulation with far-reaching consequences. If the remarried, why not the cohabiting? Again, this is what I was saying earlier about norms and rules versus exceptions. It seems to me that we have to find a way to admit for exceptions without allowing the exceptions to totally undermine the rule. But Reno’s position is that allowing any exceptions by definition undermines the rule.

C: Mhm.

M: Which I’m not so sure is the case, but he has a point: divorce is widely considered acceptable these days, and when the law first started to permit no-fault divorce, it was a positive development in the short run for people who were trapped in very abusive relationships or other situations they clearly needed to extricate themselves from. But it is equally the case that now, when divorce is seen as an option that’s always there in the background, there are marriages that are perhaps struggling but that might not get the help they need because it’s easier to just end it.

C: True. I mean, you could definitely make the case for broader support systems both within and outside of the Church to help try to reconcile couples that might be on the rocks.

M: David Blankenhorn’s Institute for American Values, which we’ve written a little bit about before, supports this legislation called the Second Chances Act. The idea is to offer more publicly funded support for marriage counseling and to impose waiting periods for people seeking divorces, during which time the state can try to provide assistance for them to work it out. They cite some research showing that for a fairly significant fraction of couples looking to divorce, at least one person generally thinks there’s some chance the relationship could be saved. Blankenhorn and his crew believe that offering people divorce as a first resort rather than a last resort is maybe not ideal in those situations.

C: I think it’s important to remember that in these proposals that Kasper and Blankenhorn are throwing out there –

M: And just to be clear, they’re very different proposals. One is set in the context of civil society and the other has to do with an internal Catholic debate.

C: I know, but the commonality between them is that divorce should not be advocated as a first solution. It shouldn’t be the go-to measure.

M: And Kasper actually – he’s clear about the fact that he agrees with the Church that divorce is technically not even possible. Marriage isn’t dissolvable and, formally speaking, second marriages aren’t official marriages.

C: [Groans] I’m increasingly frustrated by this line of reasoning. While the official stance might be that divorces are unacceptable, some of the Church’s practices and actions support that some sort of separation is possible. Take the annulment process – it’s technically not a divorce, but it gets to the same kind of themes. You’re walking away from this marriage and it’s being declared null and void. It seems like both divorces and annulments cut against Jesus’ vision of marriage as a bond that cannot be severed.

M: I think the fact that divorce is officially not permitted probably in a lot of cases does lead to the concept of an annulment being stretched farther than it should and being used as a kind of Catholic divorce. And I think that in turn undermines the credibility of the Church. When people see the divergence between the Church’s official teachings and the way that they’re applied… I understand the Church is trying to hold the line, in some sense, but when you hold the line so well that you fail to respond to the situation on the ground, you weaken yourself.


Those Crazy Cousins from the East

M: Let’s talk about the Eastern Orthodox position on divorce and remarriage. The Orthodox Church has been separated from the Catholic Church for about a thousand years, but one of the interesting things about the Orthodox is that they do allow remarriages after divorce. And this is based on their idea that marriages are indissoluble only in the sense that it’s immoral for two people who are married to say, “we’re not going to be married anymore.” But divorces are possible. It is possible for marriages to die, for marriages to fail irretrievably.

And so the Orthodox interpretation of the New Testament passages where Jesus says “what God has joined let man not put apart” is not so much that a marriage is somehow metaphysically indissoluble, but rather that Jesus is issuing a moral command. It’s like saying, “let man not kill other men.” Right? Like, everybody agrees that it is literally possible, it is physically possible for a man to kill other men. It’s just not morally acceptable to do that.

C: Do you think this type of interpretation might gain some traction in the upcoming Synod?

M: I don’t know a lot about the historical situation that led to the Orthodox adopting this position while the Catholic Church rejected it, so I think it would be an enormous leap for the Catholic Church to embrace this view at the Synod. And that’s why I tend to agree with John Allen that if there are any substantive changes made, they’re probably going to be peripheral changes, they’re going to be modifications to the annulment process, rather than an actual grappling with the core question of whether divorce is possible.

I mean, the fact that even Walter Kasper, who is considered one of the most liberal participants in this debate, notionally agrees that marriage is indissoluble would seem to rule out any deeper change in the Church’s position on this.

C: It seems like that’s a logical way to look at marriage because it acknowledges the reality that marriage is not easy. One of the interesting things about the passage on divorce in the Gospel of Matthew is that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is something that’s extraordinarily difficult. The disciples say that if marriage is this difficult, “it is better not to marry.”

M: Mhm.

C: It’s not something that comes off as a light commitment.

M: But I think defenders of the traditional position would say that Jesus acknowledges that marriage is difficult but then he still doesn’t allow divorce. And so we shouldn’t take the fact of marital strife as evidence in favor of divorce.

C: No, that’s fair. But at a certain point you could say that there is a level of strife that indicates that the union simply no longer exists.

M: One of the more interesting things about that passage is the apparent exception that Jesus builds into it. He says that divorce is unacceptable except in cases of adultery. From what I’ve read on this issue, the Catholic response to that is basically that this is a mistranslation, that the phrases there are a poor expression for what was actually trying to be conveyed. And that by choosing those words, modern translators have put an interpretation onto that that it shouldn’t really have.

But a lot of Protestant denominations accept divorce, even aside from the Eastern Orthodox. So there are Christians who interpret that as a more straightforward exception, that it is actually what it sounds to modern ears like it is.

C: Mhm.

M: I recently came across the following question in an online forum: “If Jesus made an exception for divorce in cases of adultery, why doesn’t the Church?” And the response is, “The word ‘adultery’ is not what Jesus said, although many Bible translations use this word. If Jesus meant to say ‘adultery’ he would have used the word moicheia, but instead he used the would porneia, meaning ‘illicit’ or ‘invalid’, and so the Church” –

C: Oh, that’s interesting.

M: I think the Catholic Church is interpreting this to mean that “divorce” is possible in cases where the marriage was not valid in the first place. In other words, this is Jesus talking about annulments. I don’t know enough about Ancient Greek to know how that should actually be read.

C: [Laughs] You’re forgiven.

I guess a little bit more of an inflammatory take on this would be: is it possible that Jesus’ explicit condemnation of divorce is something that’s no longer particularly relevant today? Is that something that, while the spirit of it might be true, the absolutism is no longer really helpful?

M: Why do you say that?

C: It seems like, in a lot of cases it could be more beneficial for couples to separate. You know, people do grow and change over time. Perhaps an absolutist interpretation lacks an appropriate level of nuance to be acutely relevant today.

M: One thing to throw into the mix here is that I’ve heard the argument made, not necessarily from people with any particular opinion on this question, that Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, given the historical circumstances at the time, was actually a very liberating statement. For a man to divorce his wife during a time when men held all the wealth was essentially for a man to leave a woman with nothing. And so, for Jesus to prohibit divorce was a way of standing up for the rights of women, to keep them from being just wantonly abandoned by their husbands.

In the modern context, obviously there are a lot of cases where divorce does have that result, but there are many more cases where it doesn’t, because both partners are similarly situated economically and could live independently if they had to.


Francis Goes Big… Maybe

M: It came out a while ago that Pope Francis met with the Patriarch of Constantinople (one of the leading clerics of the Eastern Orthodox Church) when he traveled to the Holy Land, and it was reported that they talked about having an ecumenical gathering in 2025, I believe, to celebrate the seventeen-hundredth anniversary of the Council of Nicaea.

There were varying reports about whether this was just a small-scale remembrance of that historical event, or whether Francis is actually thinking about calling an ecumenical gathering on the order of the Second Vatican Council, a large-scale meeting of the world’s bishops that would try to deal with fundamental questions of doctrine, and try to bridge some of the differences between the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church. And I wonder if this whole movement for doing something about changing the way that the Catholic Church deals with divorced and remarried people is a step toward making a good-faith offering to the Eastern Orthodox and showing, you know, we’re really interested in reuniting with you.

C: That would be… that’s super optimistic. I kind of hope that’s the case, but based on some of the documents released in advance of the Synod, it seems like not much will change. So, as far as a peace offering for 2025, if you will… I kind of doubt it.

M: Yeah, Michael Peppard had this really great piece at Commonweal after that came out about how it’s been thought that Francis might call a Third Vatican Council, but for Francis, Vatican III is not big enough! He wants a Nicaea III.

C: [Laughs]

So any key takeaways from all this? I don’t know if you’re optimistic that the Synod will do something that’s enough. I’m a little pessimistic myself.

M: Right. Like I said, I think this debate about divorce also raises some questions about society at large. My view tends to be that the Church is perhaps too strict in dealing with this issue, whereas the larger culture is perhaps too lax. And I’d like to think that each could learn from the other. Maybe there can be a kind of dialectical relationship between Church and society on this issue.

I also think it’s helpful to think about debates within the Church as being less between “liberals” and “conservatives” and more between those who believe in hard and fast rules and those who would rather render judgments on an ad hoc basis.

C: Mhm.

M: The people who want to uphold the traditional position in this debate are people who believe very strongly in the value of rules and in the value of not making too many (or even any) exceptions to those rules. And then those on Walter Kasper’s side – maybe even on Francis’ side! – are the people who say that things are not black and white, that you always have to take into account individual circumstances.

C: Yeah. Regarding the Church and society, I had written several months back about considering the Church as an “institutional ethical consultant.”

M: What do you mean by that?

C: To imagine it as a body that could proffer advice to non-members, to proffer advice in a secular format that still retains the spirit of Church teachings. And, to apply that to this issue, I would think it’d be really positive if the Church were able to show the benefits of a Catholic understanding of commitment and marriage to the wider society.

M: Mhm.

C: To really emphasize, instead of just why you should not get divorced or why it’s wrong for you to get divorced, why marriages in the Catholic mode are worth pursuing. That could be in the form of a broader program for people who are about to get married, or just programs along the way during the course of a marriage to say, this is what is a realistic expectation for this relationship. To share wisdom and show the value of being in a committed, devoted relationship.

And on that note, we’re going up to –

M: We are going to a wedding. So let’s think happy thoughts!


One thought on “The Moderation Conversation: Talking About Divorce en Route to a Wedding

  1. Interesting dialogue. Kept my interest despite the length.

    The point that seems to be missed, or maybe passed over too lightly, is that it’s not divorce which is forbidden, but divorce and remarriage.

    There is nothing preventing divorced people from receiving communion.

    The Church is not saying, “There’s no excuse for divorce! I don’t want to hear about your marriage not working out, you crybaby!”

    The problem is when someone not only divorces his spouse, but then purports to *marry another* — and THEN complains about not being able to receive communion.

    I mean it’s fine if your marriage doesn’t work out. We’re all human, I get that. But say your marriage doesn’t work out, and then you go and get married again, OUTSIDE the Church (since you can’t do it inside). At that point, you’ve already made the decision to throw Church teaching out the window, so where do you get off complaining that you can’t receive communion now? What on earth did you expect?

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