It is very clear that a large number of Catholics, particularly in the US, have divorced and then ‘re-married.’ I use the inverted commas, as if their previous spouse is still alive, and unless their previous marriage has been declared null, they are still married, and not actually free to contract a new marriage.
Civil divorce is permitted, in extremis, by the Church in order to safeguard certain rights when a marriage is in severe problems. It does not, however, end the marriage in the eyes of the Church.
Clearly, someone in this position, divorced and ‘re-married’ is in a difficult position. On the Deacon’s Bench blog, there are many sad tales of people who feel excluded as they cannot receive Holy Communion, despite being in loving, stable relationships; and further that they have only failed to get an annulment because the process is long, arduous and uncertain. In their own consciences, they are clear that their first marriage was not valid.
They are now seeking a relaxation in the Church’s discipline so that they can be readmitted to Holy Communion.
It is all very sad: but the maxim hard cases make bad law could well apply here.
Let us consider a few things:
Firstly, marriage is currently under severe attack; the Church has a duty to defend the indissolubility of the sacrament robustly, for the good of all, and following the clear mandate of Our Lord.
Secondly, the Church must make a strong assumption in favour of the validity of a marriage, as a default position: any other position is clearly disastrous, leaving people wondering about the validity of their marriage, and thus weakening all marriages.
Thirdly, many people who have been in disastrous marriages have soldiered on, either remaining with a dreadful spouse, or if they have had to move out, honouring their marriage vows by living a celibate life: we owe them a huge amount of respect.
Fourthly, if the divorced and ‘re-married’ are so desperate to receive Our Lord, all they have to do (and it is a big ‘all’) is come to confession, with a real purpose of amendment. But that of course is the sticking point. What they want is to continue their illicit relationship and be told that it is all right to do so. But it is not all right. It is all wrong. It may be a heavy cross to bear, but if their original spouse is still alive, and that marriage has not been declared null, they are living in adultery. The solution is to stop living in adultery. If there are children of the newer relationship, they may need to share a house for the sake of the children: but they may not share a bed. They ignore this truth at their peril, quite literally. If 'exclusion' from Holy Communion makes them confront this reality, it could be their salvation.
As I say, that is a heavy cross; but that is what they meant when they made their original vows, and promised, in the sight of God and the Church, that they would stay faithful for better or for worse.
I do have more sympathy for them than may appear from this post. I believe that the recent praxis of the Church may well have contributed to the problem by granting too many annulments too easily, creating a sense of entitlement to nullity in some quarters.
Reading the comments on the Deacon’s Bench blog, it is also clear that teaching has been woefully deficient, with people imagining they can get an annulment, for example, on grounds of a spouse’s adultery. Sorry, but no: that’s part of the ‘worse’ you signed up for... And that's one of the reasons why leaving it to individuals' consciences (the so-called internal forum) is not the right solution. We may be too ignorant, and are almost certainly too biased, to be judges of our own case in this regard.
But my real concern is that these hard cases - and some really are hard - are being used by the enemies of marriage, and above all by The Enemy, to launch another attack on this sacrament, which is at the heart of civilisation.
Pray for all who find themselves in such a situation, that the love of Christ and His healing may reach them, and they can be fully reconciled to Him and His Church - on His terms.