Moving toward mercy


What should be done about Catholics who married in the Church, divorced and entered another marriage in a civil ceremony, but want to remain in the Church? Many do not go through the Church’s annulment process for a variety of reasons. It seems too intrusive, too arduous, brings up old wounds and/or guilt and costs money.
Some don’t understand how a marriage that they saw as properly carried out in every way — except in whatever led to its eventual dissolution — can be considered invalid: so annulment looks like no more than a Church divorce. Why go through that along with a civil divorce, which is quicker and doesn’t require facing fault in a communal way?
The “internal forum” of sacramental confession was proposed for some situations several years ago, but not accepted as a general solution to the problem. Marriage is a public event and ongoing reality. Its life can’t be reduced to private, personal experience. Some kind of public, or community, forum is required because the life of the community is affected in a fundamental way.
Still, there are too many divorced and remarried Catholics for the Church to ignore. Fortunately, there is now serious interest in finding new openings for them to feel at home around the Eucharistic table. A world synod of bishops will consider this issue along with others related to marriage and family life. It will begin meetings at the Vatican this October. Part of its preparation was a survey last fall of opinion from bishops of the world, some of whom also surveyed the attitudes of lay people.
Most recently, a discussion among cardinals at a meeting in Rome last month was led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, a retired German cardinal and theologian who has encouraged a view of God as source of mercy. In a long address to that meeting he spoke of the need to offer “a life raft” to those civilly remarried Catholics who seriously want to retain their faith and membership in the Church.
There can’t be a general solution that appears to ignore or contradict the words of Jesus in the Gospel, he said. This would be “a superficial understanding of mercy at a discount price.” Sacramental marriage is still an indissoluble union meant to mirror the unfailing love of God.
But the Cardinal Kasper speech dropped several hints that the internal forum might, after all, be an acceptable path to reconciliation. He noted that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had said in 1994 that divorced and remarried people can make an act of spiritual communion, and asked, “why, then can (they) not also receive sacramental Communion?”
He also asked whether questions about a first marriage needed to be asked through a legal process such as diocesan tribunals, and wondered “if other more pastoral and spiritual procedures could be possible. As an alternative, one might think that the bishop could entrust this task to a priest.”
The cardinal asked for “discretion, spiritual discernment, sagacity and pastoral wisdom” from priests. “This discretion is not an easy compromise between the extremes of rigorism and laxity, but, as is every virtue, a perfection between these extremes.”
He made it clear that the sacrament of reconciliation should have a role in anything the Church does with the divorced and remarried, but he seemed to also be asking both priests and laity to see and structure this sacrament in the light of mercy rather than strict judgment: more like the Gospel story of the welcoming father and less like a judge holding the scales of justice and interested primarily in confession.
If this was a beginning for the synod’s way of looking at marriage and the struggles of Catholic people to carry it out today, Cardinal Kasper struck a note of hope.
Frank Wessling

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