Photo: Felix Carroll
By Dr. Robert Stackpole, STD (Jun 7, 2013)
Here is a heartbreaking story from one of our readers, a woman named Hannah. It's a story that raises some troubling questions:
I will not go into all the details of what has been going on for the past six months, but I will tell you that a couple of weeks ago, on Divine Mercy Sunday itself, the Lifeteen session was on marriage. They did talk about marriage, but ended by saying that if the marriage didn't work, you can always get and annulment and get it "dissolved." The pastor sat there, listening to every word that was said, and did not object. I went to see him at the sacristy and asked when was he going to teach "indissolubility," and this is what he told me: "Leave!"
I have been in turmoil for the last six months, since I found out that two parishioners had "married" at the residence of a candidate for deacon because she did not have an annulment from her first marriage. I think this is scandalous, and as a result he denied me absolution and told me I was judgmental and conceited.
For some incomprehensible reason, given that I have a very, very difficult marriage, I strongly believe in indissolubility. I believe no one can override Jesus' words, that indissolubility refers to this mortal life of ours here, because we're obviously not going to need it in the afterlife. I believe that "faithfulness, not success" (as a plaque in his office says) applies not only to priests but also to married Catholics. I believe that, if anything, moral standards should be tighter for Catholics than for the rest of the world because to whom much has been given much will be demanded, that married people, too, are supposed to take their cross and not run from it, and that Jesus rewards the effort, not the success. I have collected so many reasons for indissolubility that I could write a book, "In defense of the bad marriage."
I am heartbroken and experiencing a total breakdown of trust in my pastor. He still loves the Eucharist and puts God first, but at a personal level I cannot go talk to him again, because my troubled marriage is my life, like it or not, and I cannot believe him anymore when he tells me he understands. I now receive Communion in the hand because it is more impersonal and take off my glasses during Mass so I don't have to see him. I have stopped cooking for him (about a dozen women take turns cooking for him every few weeks). I tithe, but it will now go elsewhere.
Why did this have to happen on Divine Mercy Sunday?
Well, Hannah, your poignant letter expresses a lot of pain, but a lot of wisdom, too. To begin with, be assured of this: On this matter, your pastor is dead wrong. He is leading his people astray on a fundamental moral principle regarding marriage and the family.
As to why this all had to come to a head on Divine Mercy Sunday, perhaps it happened as a sign that your pastor needs you to pray for God's mercy for him. After all, the Gospel principle you mentioned applies to him as a priest above all others: "Every one to whom much is given, of him much will be required" (Lk 12:48). A priest is given the call to be a steward of the household of God (Lk 12:41-48), a shepherd under the Good Shepherd, whom Christ has appointed to tend and care for a portion of His flock (I Pet 5: 1-4). If he is leading our Lord's sheep into dangerous pastures, and feeding them with unhealthy moral and spiritual food, he will have much to answer for on the Day of Judgment. So, follow St. Paul's counsel, and "overcome evil with good" (Rom 12:21). Why not say the Chaplet of The Divine Mercy for him, that he may receive the grace of repentance, and greater faithfulness to the teachings of Christ and His Church, and perhaps you can say it every Saturday, before you receive the Communion from his hands the next day. Be a channel of Divine Mercy for him, for he surely is in need of it!
As for directing your tithes elsewhere: to some degree, that is certainly a reasonable sanction. Your pastor has no right to present the diocese with a healthy parish "bottom line" each year on his budget if at the same time he is pandering falsehoods to his people. He was commissioned at his ordination to preach and teach the Catholic faith, not to make up His own religion and give His people that instead — much less impose his own religion on his flock by withholding absolution from those who object to it. Thus, you have every right not to subsidize his misuse of his office. On the other hand, remember that even though he may be unfaithful in certain respects, he is still able to consecrate and administer the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ "ex opere operato" (Latin for "by the working of the work," in other words, by performing the sacred Liturgy with the proper form, matter, and intention), and that surely counts for something. I think making a minimal weekly offering to your parish is still the right thing to do as long as you are receiving the Eucharist there, even while the bulk of your tithe is rightly directed elsewhere.
In your letter, Hannah, you gave to our readers a very good summary of the authentic Catholic perspective on the indissolubility of marriage, and you also offered to us all an example of heroism in carrying your own marital cross. Allow me just to "fill in the blanks" for those of our readers who may not be quite as up to speed on this difficult Church teaching as you are.
First of all, you rightly said, "no one can override Jesus' words" — spoken like a true disciple! Nowhere in Scripture does Jesus Christ ever counsel divorce and remarriage. In fact, he repeatedly and expressly forbids it (see Mt 5:32, 19:1-12; Mk 10:1-12). The key passage is in Mt 19:3-9:
And the Pharisees came up to Him and tested Him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" He answered, "Have you not read that He who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, 'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh?' So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together let no man put asunder." They said to Him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?" He said to them, "For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery."
Debate over this passage centers on what Jesus meant by "except for unchastity." The Gospel uses the Greek word here "porneia" to translate what Jesus actually said in His native language, Aramaic, and this word could refer to any kind of sexual sin or sexual unfaithfulness. But it could also have a more restricted sense, referring to a particular type of sexual sin: incestuous marriage among close relatives. The Church has always interpreted Jesus words in this second way, in part because the word "porneia" in the New Testament often refers to invalid, incestuous marriage (see Acts 15:19-20, cf. Lev 18:6-18, and I Cor 5:1), and in part because such forms of marriage were all too common in Jesus' day. So it is entirely understandable that He would not want His hearers to be misled into thinking that such false marriages were indissoluble, too. In fact, we have another way of discerning what Jesus meant by "porneia" here. Stephen Wood explains this method of discernment in his book Christian Fatherhood (p. 152):
There is a simple way for readers who find all these Greek terms confusing to quickly grasp the proper meaning of Matthew 5:32 and 19:9. Ask yourself, "How did the Greek-speaking early Church Fathers understand this passage?" After all, Greek was their mother tongue, and any nuances in these exception clauses would be best understood by a Greek-speaking Church Father.
You will not find a single Greek-speaking early Church Father [prior to the 5th century] ... granting exceptions to Christ's law of indissolubility.
The Holy Spirit, speaking to us through Scripture and Church tradition, therefore, clearly teaches us that marriage is "indissoluble" (in other words, that it cannot be dissolved). Rather, it is a whole life commitment. Jesus established marriage as the highest form of human relationship: a total caring commitment to another person — which necessarily means a whole life commitment — as an image of, and participation in, His own total, life-long commitment to His own bride, the Church (See Mk 2:19, and Eph 5: 21-33).
As you also wrote, Hannah, even while challenging us to undertake this heroic commitment, our Savior also provides for us every help and assistance along the way to live it out. For example, He pours His grace into our hearts in the Sacrament of Holy Matrimony itself, and He invites us to become "one flesh" with Him in the Eucharist throughout our life journey, thereby refreshing our hearts and continually renewing our union together as spouses in His love. As Jesus promised, "I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5). Stephen Wood explains (p.65):
Jesus promises that if we abide in Him, we shall be able to "love one another" as He loved us (Jn 15:12). Apart from Christ, we cannot love our wives as Christ loved us. By abiding in Christ through the Eucharist, we will have superabundant graces available to transform our hearts and renew our marriages.
The Eucharist is the secret to transforming selfishness into love. The Eucharist is where we find [the wedding at] Cana's gallons and gallons of New Covenant graces empowering our hearts to truly love.
The Church understands very well that even with all this divine assistance, marriages can still run into trouble. Almost every diocese, therefore, has access to marital counseling resources for spouses who need to try to work through their difficulties, and of course, our Savior also gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation to help heal the effects of our sins on our relationships. In extreme situations, such as cases of ongoing verbal or physical abuse, the Church recognizes the necessity for a "separation of bed and board," either temporary (until things get "sorted out") or even permanent. But such a separation is not the same thing as a divorce that leaves the spouses free to "remarry."
An "annulment" is a declaration by the Church (usually after an in-depth investigation) that no valid marriage ever really happened in the first place, usually because one or both of those seeking to be married, at the time they took their wedding vows, were for some reason incapable of truly making a free, rational, and lifelong commitment of themselves. Obviously, annulments will be rare in the life of the Church — they are certainly not the Catholic equivalent of a divorce "if things don't work out."
Contrary to popular belief, Jesus and His Church do not forbid divorce and remarriage in order to "punish" people whose marriages have broken down. Where would the "Divine Mercy" be in such a policy? On the contrary, a person with a broken marriage cannot remarry because they are still married to someone else. How could the Church preside over the making of lifelong marriage vows by a divorcee, knowing full well that in the very act of pronouncing those new vows, the divorcee would be breaking his or her lifetime commitment to someone else? That would merely facilitate the creation of an adulterous relationship on the part of those supposedly "remarried" — precisely as Jesus said. No doubt that is not the intention of most of those seeking to be remarried, but it is an inescapable fact of the situation.
Moreover, as you wrote, Hannah, the bottom line is that divorce and remarriage amount to a refusal to carry one's cross with our Savior. Lord knows, a marital cross can be a very heavy cross at times, and our children are sometimes bearing it as well. That is one reason why, while the Church upholds the indissolubility of marriage, she also does not want us to shun those divorced and remarried, or in any way expel them from the Catholic community. They are not permitted to receive the Eucharist until their marital situation is rectified, but they are not "outcasts": They are just people struggling with one of life's heaviest crosses — the heartbreak of a broken and sometimes incurably wounded marriage relationship. We need to continue to reach out in love and truth to those who have taken what they mistakenly perceive to be the road to "happiness." It may indeed be the road to greater temporal ease and contentment, but it is just not the road to sanctity. "Holiness," not "happiness," is the primary thing that life is all about.
Hannah, it takes an act of faith to believe that carrying your cross with Jesus leads to more blessings, both in this life and in the life to come, than running from that cross. But Jesus promised that it does (see Mark 10:29-30). For as He said, "unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit" (Jn 12:24). You and many Catholics like you are carrying that cross now, and you are not alone. You have a heavenly Spouse to whom you are precious indeed and who will enable you to die to yourself by means of your cross, and rise in Him to life everlasting. You are the unsung heroes of the faith. Even now, you are a greater joy to His Heart than you can possibly imagine!
Robert Stackpole, STD, is director of the John Paul II Institute of Divine Mercy. His latest book is Divine Mercy: A Guide from Genesis to Benedict XVI (Marian Press). Got a question? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.