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October 27, 2015
Column #1,783
Catholic Bishops on Divorce & Cohabitation
By Mike McManus

For the last three weeks and for the second year in a row, the world's leading 270 Catholic bishops and cardinals debated in Rome whether to allow divorced and remarried Catholics, but whose first marriage was not annulled, the right to receive Communion.

Oddly, both liberals and conservatives claimed victory.

One Catholic couple, allowed to address the assembly, called a synod, Natalie and Christian Mignonat, married for 40 years, have assisted French couples who are divorced and remarried. They said that when divorced people have worked hard to forgive their former spouses, "the impossibility to receive the forgiveness of the church is all the more painful and difficult to understand."

They added that "Divorced and remarried Catholics want the same thing that all observant Catholics want. They want to stay in the faith."

Divorced and remarried Catholics are unable to receive Communion, nor to teach religion or be godparents.

Historically, the Catholic Church has viewed marriage as a lifetime commitment. In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus specifically rejects divorce. The Pharisees asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any and every reason?"

"'Haven't you read,' he replied, 'that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, and said, "For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh." So they are no longer two, but one. Therefore, what God has joined together, let man not separate.'"

The Pharisees asked why Moses allowed divorce. Jesus replied, "...because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, and marries another woman commits adultery."

The disciples were shocked: "If this is the situation between a husband and wife, it is better not to marry" (Matt: 19:3-15).

Catholic teaching on this issue simply reaffirms Jesus' clear commands. However, Pope Francis has wanted the church to show mercy, while not changing the doctrine. Thus, two synods have debated whether a divorced and remarried person could receive Communion.

Such a change would have required a two-thirds vote of the bishops. That was not achieved, so the conservatives declared victory. The Wall Street Journal headlined, "Bishops Hand Pope Defeat on His Outreach to Divorced Catholics."

Francis responded in a tough speech complaining about "closed hearts which frequently hide even behind the church's teachings, in order to sit in the chair of Moses and judge, sometimes with superiority and superficiality, difficult cases and wounded families."

On the other hand, liberals also claimed victory.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a German, proposed that the church create a "penitential path" to bring divorced Catholics back into full communion with the church. While that was not approved, divorced and remarried Catholics will have the possibility of fuller participation in the church on a case-by-case basis, after receiving spiritual counseling from priests. The decision about Communion will be left up to the "discernment" of individual priests.

Divorced and civilly remarried Catholics "must not feel excommunicated," and their children must be integrated into the church, the bishops asserted. Their document stated that opening to Catholics in less-than-perfect situation was not a "weakening of the faith," or of the "testimony on the indissolubility of marriage," but was a sign of the church's charity.

This is a very reasonable compromise. Consider this case: Susan married Tom, who after 20 years of marriage, commits adultery with Linda, and divorces Susan to marry Linda. Susan did not want the divorce, which was forced on her. She should be able to receive Communion, even if she marries another man.

However, a priest might deny Communion to Tom, because he destroyed his original marriage and married his lover.

The bishops asked Pope Francis to issue his own document on these issues. He could accept or reject the compromise, and issue an encyclical, a major teaching document in months to come.

The bishops opposed same-sex marriage saying it was not "remotely analogous" to marriage between a man and a woman. I agree.

However, what should the church tell cohabiting couples who live together? The synod asked the church to address these couples in "a constructive manner" with the goal of leading them "towards the fullness of marriage and family."

Here I disagree. My church will not marry cohabiting couples unless they move apart for a season, to objectively consider and then prepare for marriage. Two-thirds of Americans marrying today are cohabiting. Studies report they are more apt to break up - either before or after a wedding.

However, divorced and remarried Catholics have new hope.

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