Saturday, February 08, 2014

Can the Church reform its marriage laws?

2011 07 26_0709

This weekend the untiring Mgr Basil Loftus (The Catholic Times, 9th Feb 2014) is making some perfectly innocuous remarks of Pope Francis in his address to the Roman Rota into a call for some kind of revolution. I don't think the judges of the Roman Rota will be too shocked to hear that justice has to be 'adapted to the needs of the concrete reality', and I certainly don't think the needs of the concrete reality are for annulments on dubious grounds. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI made it abundantly clear, in fact, that the opposite is the case. The culture of easy divorce and poor marriage preparation is a concrete reality calling for great vigilance in protecting the sanctity of marriage, when the matter comes before Catholic Marriage Tribunals.

Watch out: Mercy at work.
Is Loftus engaging in a scholarly joke, when he quotes St Bernard talking about God's Mercy? (No.) This is the same St Bernard who preached the First Crusade with such vigour, and introduced the burning of heretics at the stake. Now that's a kind of Mercy I can understand.

Joking aside, there is a problem here which often arises in ethics: the contrast between identifiable (potential) victims and non-identifiable ones. We can all think of people who would, personally, welcome a relaxation of the Church's laws. People who are divorced and remarried, who might like to be told that they can receive Communion. People who are divorced, who might like to be told they can marry again in church. These people suffer for the Church's discipline: there is no denying it. The people who would suffer from a relaxation are not so easy to identify. They are the spouses who would be abandoned, because not even a Catholic husband or wife any longer really regards marriage as inviolable. It is the children whose parents would separate, for the same reason. Lives shattered, children abandoned: we have seen these consequences with the Divorce Reform Act in the UK; do we really want to take the Church further down this road? The people who might be victims should the last vestiges of respect for marriage be loosened, because the last institution (beside the Mormons) on the planet which takes marriage seriously, has decided to throw in the towel, these victims of course will never write in to the papers on appear in a TV interview, because we don't know who they are going to be. Does this mean we can ignore them? Does that mean that protecting them doesn't count as a work of Mercy?

To sacrifice people we don't know, people we can't readily identify, for the sake of people we do know, people we've met and who have campaigns in the papers and get wheeled out to talk on the radio, without bothering even to consider how many there might be of each: this is not Mercy, it is self-indulgence. It is an indulgence of our sentimental feelings towards our chums, or to those who have made a favourable impression on us, which is merciless to those we don't know, people who are voiceless, not just, like the unborn, because they are too young, but because we won't know who they are going to be until it is too late. It is because they are unidentifiable, and therefore can't defend themselves as a group in advance, that they need our special protection.

But here is another question. What exactly do people like Basil Loftus want to see happen? What does he imagine can be changed, to make things 'easier', more 'Merciful'?

I am going to explore this in a couple of posts: first, the 'Orthodox option', and secondly, the 'relaxation of discipline' option.

Just for the record, Loftus once again displays his contempt for his superiors by attacking Archbishop Müller.

"The Mercy of the Lord is, then, my merit." Try telling that to Archbishop Müller. For him it does not seem to be true that because of God's Mercy, "where sin abounds, grace abounded all the more", certainly not within the confines of an invalid marriage... Is it not Müller who misses the mark?

This is the same Archbishop Müller whose appointment filled Loftus with such joy. Oh yes: back on the 8 July 2012, he gave his assessment of where the Archbishop's critics were going wrong. ‘Quite simply, he [Archbishop Müller] is profoundly scholarly and spiritual, and they [his critics] are not.’

This kind of misapprehension of a person's character might even be grounds for an annulment. But if Loftus can be wrong about this, what can we rely on?
2011 07 26_0710


  1. No, because they are based on the Natural Law.

  2. Anonymous5:34 pm

    My wife and I are divorcing after 12 years of marriage. I was in the military, and it was at the beginning of the war. We married in front of a justice of the peace because every priest I spoke to said he required six-months' pre-Cana counseling first. At the time, there was no telling where I would be in two-weeks' time, much less six months. The bright side of this, I suppose, is that the Church says that we were never married in any sense but civilly, so I am free to re-marry and receive Communion tomorrow if I choose.
    This is not Natural Law, and I think this is one area in which the Church should consider changing its discipline, that is, the requirement of canonical form for marriage.

    1. True - this is ecclesiastical law, not natural law. But while there is a debate about this, I don't see the requirement of form as exactly onerous. You could have had your marriage con-validated at any time. It is quick, easy, and cheap. What's the problem?

    2. Where both are baptised, the sacrament is required for validity.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. Msgr Loftus’ remark, as you report it, I do read the Catholic Times, is pure Secularism, that is the adapting of religious belief to ever-changing preferences of society.

    In considering God’s mercy we must hope it will be directed at the vast majority of Catholics who remain loyal and married, in spite of inevitable difficulties.

    As for the red herring of receipt of Holy Communion by the divorced and remarried who continue in a state of Mortal Sin, let’s not kid ourselves, this has little to do with receiving Our Lord and so much to do with receiving social acceptance of their irregular and sinful life style.

  4. Anonymous5:15 am

    Dr. Shaw, you are right that the requirement for canonical from is not exactly onerous – a priest and two witness present at the exchange of vows. It was less onerous in our case since I wasn't a practicing Catholic at the time I married and my fiancee was non-Catholic, unbaptized even (I know, I know, but that issue never even came up since no priest I talked to would get past the part about refusing to dispense with the six months of pre-Cana) but she wanted to get married in the Church. She had even found a priest who was willing to marry us, or, I should say, witness our marriage. She was in another state, however, and leave had been cancelled for me due to the war, so she flew out to me and we got married at the local courthouse.
    Was it a happy marriage? Happy enough, but not terrifically so. I did return to the Church last year, and I've got to say it was in large part due to the reforms of Pope Benedict. (Sadly, he resigned the very next day.)
    My wife and I began the process of con-validation, but at some point we had an argument, not an uncommon happening with us. But it did occur to me at one point in the argument, "I've had it. She doesn't seem too eager to go through with the con-validation, priests tell me we're not married in any meaningful sense, a canon lawyer has told me as much, even my confessor, when I asked him about the vows and promises I had made, dismissed the very discussion of it since our marriage ceremony was a sham due to the lack of the presence of a priest. I've had it." So I walked. A man (Catholic, non-practicing) and a woman exchange vows intending to live together for life, open to new life, never once contracepting, and I walked. As I was free to. I have been assured the sin lay in remaining in the marriage ("so-called"). As for working to fix the marriage, again, there was no marriage to fix. To tell the truth, I do even myself find it a little scandalous. This Catholic get-out-of-jail-free card may be in some ways similar to the effects of the Divorce Reform Act you mention. I know I'm not the only one out there.
    I'm sorry to have gone on so long about this (I could go longer) and the shorter answer to your question 'Why not con-validation?' is 'temperament and circumstances'. I do want to assure you that I in no way support relaxing the Church's discipline regarding remarriage and Communion. I would say I'm opposed to that relaxation if my opposition was worth anything in the matter, but it's not. I think it is simply inconceivable that the Church will or even can change that discipline, so I'm not going to get worked up about it. But I do think that there are some areas in the strictly Ecclesiastical discipline of marriage that it may be worthwhile to consider changing if there is anything going to be changed.
    [Re-reading this, I want to make it clear that I am not in any way blaming the Church for my failed marriage. I can't do that, because for 12 years I was never married at all.]

  5. What you describe is a tragedy. I am very sorry.

    What I would say is that the demand for a six-month wait at the start is a problem. It looks very much - in circumstances such as yours - as refusing to give you the sacraments. You had a right to marry, so this is wrong. There should have been some flexibility there.

    That seems to me more pertinent a problem than the requirement of form.

    1. Anonymous4:48 am

      Thank you, Dr. Shaw, that is very kind of you and a good point as well, of course. I do have some hope that will all work out for the best in the end, and I promise to stop hijacking this post from here on out. But if I could ask you and your readers to pray for my wife, who was planning to take instruction in the Faith (we were told that she would have to wait six months for the next RCIA class to start, though [and, yes, I do realize how passive/aggressive I can be]), if you could say a prayer for her, I couldn't thank you enough.

  6. When it's your whole future life, till death do you part, that's at stake, a six-month wait would not be unreasonable. In the days when a minor had to get the parents' consent for marriage, many people waited a long time. Back in those days (which I am old enough to remember - yes I am out of the Ark ...!) there used to be a saying: "Hard cases make bad law."

    I'm sure all of us can think of such cases among people we know and we must support them all we can; they need it. They also need us to remain faithful to the Church and her teaching and to encourage them to do the same because in the end this vale of tears is not the only world we will know, there is better to come.

  7. Anonymous4:39 am

    Well, we did date for two years, and not to put too much stress on the strength of the following cases in which canonical form may be validly dispensed with, I'd just like to point out that there does seem to me to be an implication, however slight, that requiring people to wait more than a month for a priest is just too long. Hard cases do make bad law, and I have tried for some time to imagine the hard case in which a couple would urgently need to validly, sacramentally marry because death is imminent. So far, I have been unsuccessful.

    Can. 1116 §1. If a person competent to assist according to the norm of law cannot be present or approached without grave inconvenience, those who intend to enter into a true marriage can contract it validly and licitly before witnesses only:

    1/ in danger of death;

    2/ outside the danger of death provided that it is prudently foreseen that the situation will continue for a month.

    1. In danger of death: people do want to marry if they are dying. It gives the fiancée rights to visit, look after, and inherit. And if she's pregnant ... C.S.Lewis married a dying woman.

  8. The obstacles placed to the sacraments in the USA are getting ridiculous. I understand the concern to weed out the insincere but in fact they don't succeed. A shorter and more traditional preparation would be far better.

  9. Excellent Posting...many of your conclusions mirror those I have written. It doesn't take a theologian to understand that any substantive relaxation in the Church's discipline will effectively spell the death knell for Catholic Sacramental marriages. Let's pray the Holy Spirit guides this Synod, and not the Holy Cult of Emotions, for that is all this is in its purest, ugliest form: an emotional push-button issue that has its genus in an emotional decision made to salve one spouses emotions, who now regret their emotional decision and wants everyone else to change to fit their own emotional need to become emotionally re-attached to Our Lord - all the while remaining attached to their emotionally- obstinate behavior. Besides, it's Church teaching that the Passions must be ruled by Reason...or is that up for re-evaluation also, now??

    1. Anonymous9:45 am