In Part 1 I explained that the Catholic Church’s difficult position on divorce comes from Jesus himself, who told us that divorcing your wife and marrying a new one was equivalent to adultery.
What about Annulments?
Let’s imagine that a man claimed he had never been validly Ordained a priest or validly Confirmed. He would have to make the case that something important was missing. For example, the Bishop who came to do the Confirmation was an impostor who had never actually been ordained a Bishop. If that were the case, his Confirmation would be considered invalid and then have to be repeated. So the Catholic Church has applied this same logic to marriage. An annulment makes the case that something vital was missing in the first relationship such that it was not a valid marriage. Both are free to marry because the first marriage, though legal, was not a valid sacrament.
The annulment concept makes sense in some rather extreme cases. If you are marrying someone who is already married (bigamy), marrying someone who is totally lying to you about everything (deception), or forced into marriage against your will (force or fear), you shouldn’t have to stay. It would be foolish for a man to threaten and force a young woman to marry him, then claim that she has to stay because Jesus said marriage is forever. This is the kind of “unlawful marriage” Matthew seems to be talking about.
The annulment approach worked when marriage failure was rare and unusual (even 100 years ago). Nowadays, all the other Christian churches have changed their position to accept divorce. The state has made it quick and easy to get divorced (in fact, a marriage is easier to back out of than any business contract). Given the marriage climate, people can wind up in situations that are an awkward legal limbo from a church law perspective. Many people have been hurt by divorce, and then hurt again when they have to choose between receiving Communion and being in a new and healthier relationship. It is hard for people to feel loved, welcomed, and accepted when an otherwise healthy and happy relationship is treated like “adultery.” Speaking as a pastor today, I can say that our current approach is very difficult for both clergy and laity alike. What should we do about it?
Faithful and Merciful
Many argue that the Church should “change the rules.” But the Catholic Church doesn’t work like other churches. They get together and vote: “Should we accept contraception?… Should we allow divorce?… How about homosexuality?… All in favor?” For the Catholic Church, doctrine is never up for a vote. We believe that the truths that Jesus spoke were valid for all time, and not just for a couple millennia. The Bishops are not free to change what Jesus taught because it doesn’t seem to “work” today. The words Jesus spoke didn’t “work” for his listeners either.
However, the Church also develops over time. Over time, the Church’s understanding of every aspect of faith has grown and developed. Yet she must always remain faithfully the Bride of Christ. Much like a child is still the same person in middle age and old age, so the Church believes that she must hold fast to Jesus’ teachings and yet grow in wisdom and understanding of them. This is the work of the Holy Spirit to guide the church, and it is our job to stay faithful. The question for the Church is not, “Do we want to accept divorce?” It doesn’t really matter what we want. The real question She must ask is this: “Is our current use of annulments and approach to divorce-and-remarriage what Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ really intended when he spoke those words from scripture?”
God is Always Faithful
Did you notice the marriage language above? The Bible refers often to God as a husband whose wife (the people of Israel) has been unfaithful to Him (Jeremiah 3, Hosea 2) . God then takes his Bride back, despite her infidelities. The love between Christ and His Church is like a husband loving his wife (see Ephesians 5:21-33). God invented love and God never gives up on us. Marriage is meant to be a visible image of the invisible reality of God’s love. We should be faithful because God is faithful. The good news is, even when we are not faithful, God remains faithful. No matter what you have done, and no matter your current marriage situation, God still loves you more than you can imagine. God still wants a relationship with you, and he can heal any wound and overcome any barrier. This is the Good News.
Happily Ever After
The Catholic Church is not alone in disliking divorce. The Church, in fact, is speaking for every human heart. No one likes divorce. Couples come to me asking to get married in the Catholic Church. They will go elsewhere when they find we have rules on music and that we require some marriage prep classes. But no one has ever got up and walked out of my office when I told them divorce wasn’t an option for Catholics. They were glad to hear it. Maybe 20 years later they won’t be so excited. We hate divorce, but we accept it because we don’t see a better answer to really bad (and even dangerous) situations. We would all love to live in a world where every married couple lived “happily ever after.” That world is coming, and the “happily ever after” is what Jesus offers his Bride. But until then, we must struggle to be faithful the One who is always faithful, and to love one another as He has loved us, especially those most in need of love. How can the Church remain faithful to her Bridegroom while still being an image of His love to those who struggle and stray? The Holy Spirit knows, and we pray that speaks to and through our Bishops.
Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)