Have you ever heard a person say the Catholic Church and her rules are antiquated and need to be updated or changed to meet the demands of a modern society? This is a very popular debate and one that is receiving renewed attention recently. Last October, Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, appointed by the pope to draw up reform proposals strongly encouraged Archbishop Gerhard Mueller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), to “loosen up” the rules regarding Catholics who are divorced and remarried without an annulment. Archbishop Mueller firmly rejected the suggestion that divorced and remarried Catholics should be reinstated as full members of the Church.
This probably leaves many Catholics feeling confused, angry and left out. But it’s important to understand what is really going on here. Here are a few points I hope will bring clarification:
1. What does the Church have against divorced Catholics who just want to get married again?
Although the current debate is about allowing those who are divorced and remarried outside the Church to receive the Eucharist, the Church doesn’t single out this group as unique when it comes to being properly disposed to receive the Eucharist. To receive the real presence of the body and blood of Jesus, a person must be in the state of grace. This applies to all members of the Church, and does not descriminate based upon one’s state in life; single, married, divorced, widowed or religious. So the married or single person who is not in the state of grace is equally subject to the same authority.
2. Why do I have to have an annulment? Why can’t I just get remarried?
First, let’s use a different term for the word “annulment” because I believe this word is causing some of the confusion. Let’s use the more defining term, “decree of nullity.” A decree of nullity is just that – a decree, or piece of paper issued by a Catholic Tribunal declaring a petitioner who has gone through the annulment process is free to marry. That piece of paper is what people typically refer to as an “annulment.”
Second, the Church and the moral parameters she sets for us are there to protect us, keep us spiritually safe and help us live a happy life. The annulment process is a part of these moral parameters. The Church knows not every couple who approaches the altar will create a sacramental/valid (if a marriage takes place between a baptized man and a baptized woman, it is referred to as a “sacramental” bond, otherwise, it is referred to as a “valid” bond), but the Church assumes all marriages are valid until proven otherwise. So, the annulment process is the tool the Church uses to determine whether or not a valid/sacramental marriage took place on the day of the wedding.
If someone who is divorced and remarried hasn’t given the Church the opportunity to determine whether or not she has a sacramental/valid marriage bond with their ex-spouse, her previous marriage is assumed to be valid and she is not free to marry someone else. If she isn’t free to marry but does anyway, she must refrain from receiving the sacrament of the Eucharist.
3. How does the Church have the authority to decide whether or not a marriage is valid?
The Catholic Church upholds all the teachings of Christ, from whom she gets her authority. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches us about divorce and it’s consequences:
And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery; and he who marries a divorced woman, commits adultery (Mt 19: 9).
Jesus uses two important words in this passage; “unchastity” and “adultery.” The original Greek translation uses the words “pornea” (unchastity) and “moichea” (adultery). Why did He use these two words instead of just “adultery?” Because adultery is committed by spouses, and unchastity by people who are not married. So, how can a wife commit unchastity? If the marriage is unlawful, or invalid (having the appearance of being married but not having a valid bond). This is why a tribunal looks at the dating, engagement and marriage periods of the relationship and takes great care in getting as many details as possible so an informed and appropriate decision can be made.
Catholics who get divorced are urged to make use of the annulment process precisely with the intention of helping them avoid further heartache and problems down the road. If you find yourself in this position, I encourage you to at least speak to a priest about your situation and find a way to be reunited fully with the Church. As long as you’re alive and willing, there is a solution to the problem.
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