The Joy of Love makes clear that “special discernment is indispensable for the pastoral care of those who are separated, divorced or abandoned.” This care entails supporting reconciliation in marriages whenever possible and just, but also in recognizing that there are all too many situations of abuse, selfishness and egregious immaturity where divorce is necessary for the protection of a spouse or of children. The Church is called to make more effective pastoral programs of caring, sensitive support available for those undergoing divorce. Special tenderness is prescribed for those who have been unjustly abandoned. Priests and parishes should make every effort to heal the wounds of divorced men and women through the sacraments, catechesis and social outreach. In particular, the Church is called to minister to children who have experienced the divorce of their parents, by bringing sensitivity, faith and hope.
Catholics who are divorced but have not remarried should clearly understand that the existence of a divorce does not preclude them in any way from full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist.
But what of Catholics who have remarried civilly after a divorce?
The Joy of Love powerfully asserts that the Church’s pastoral care for those in second marriages must “allow them not only to realize that they belong to the Church as the body of Christ, but also to know that they can have a joyful and fruitful experience in it …. Such persons need to feel not as excommunicated members of the Church, but instead as living members, able to live and grow in the Church and experience her as a mother who welcomes them always, who takes care of them with affection and encourages them along the path of life and the Gospel.”
A central pathway for the Church in providing such pastoral care lies in the ministry of the marriage tribunals in each diocese. Many times, one or both parties to a marriage do not have the intention or capacity to live out the commitments to permanence, fidelity, an openness to children and forming a community of life and love which are essential for entering into a valid Catholic marriage. In such cases, the Church can make a formal declaration that the marriage was never a valid Catholic marriage; this is popularly called an annulment. As a result of the efforts which the Church has taken to simplify procedural elements of the annulment process after the first synod on marriage in 2014, the number of annulment cases in the Diocese of San Diego has doubled. In addition, the diocese has eliminated all fees for annulments in order to remove any possible financial obstacles for Catholics in San Diego and Imperial counties. The granting of an annulment is the optimal step for Catholics who have been divorced and remarried, since it provides an official Church declaration that an individual is free to marry in the Church.
But many Catholics who have been divorced and remarried conclude for a variety of legitimate reasons -- many of them arising out of caring concern for the effects that an annulment process might have on the feelings of adult children or former spouses -- that they cannot initiate the annulment process. What is their status in the Church?
The Joy of Love emphasizes that no abstract rule can embody the many complexities of the circumstances, intentions, levels of understanding and maturity which originally surrounded the action of a man or woman in entering their first marriage, or which surround the new moral obligations to a spouse or children which have already been produced by a second marriage. Thus, Pope Francis rejects the validity of any blanket assertion that “all those in any [second marriage without benefit of annulment] are living in a state of mortal sin and deprived of sanctifying grace.”
This does not mean that there is not a deep level of contradiction in the life of Catholics who are divorced and remarried, as the Lord Himself noted in the Gospel of Matthew. But Pope Francis explains that, even in the face of substantial contradictions between the Gospel and the existential life of a disciple, the inexorable logic of divine grace seeks ever more progressive reintegration into the full life of the Church. The Joy of Love says: “There are two ways of thinking which recur throughout the Church’s history: casting off and reinstating. The Church’s way, from the time of the Council of Jerusalem, has always been the way of Jesus, the way of mercy and reinstatement.” Pope Francis, following the suggestion of the synod, locates this way of mercy and reinstatement in the discerning conscience of the believer.
Catholic theology and law have long located a role for the discernment of conscience on the question of participation in the life of the Church and the reception of the Eucharist. But the sole question for discernment in this tradition of “the internal forum of conscience” revolved around whether one of the essential elements of the Catholic understanding of marriage had been missing at the time of the first marriage.
Pope Francis widens the focus for this internal reflection of conscience for a Catholic who is divorced and remarried by underscoring that the central question for conscience is “What is my situation before God?” In conversation with a priest, the believer with humility, discretion, and love for the Church and its teachings seeks to reflect upon their level of responsibility for the failure of the first marriage, their care and love for the children of that marriage, the moral obligations which have arisen in their new marriage, and possible harm which their returning to the sacraments might have by undermining the indissolubility of marriage. It is important to underscore that the role of the priest is one of accompaniment, meant to inform the conscience of the discerner on principles of Catholic faith. The priest is not to make decisions for the believer, for as Pope Francis emphasizes in The Joy of Love, the Church is “called to form consciences, not replace them.”
Catholics participating authentically in this discernment of conscience should keep in mind both the permanence of marriage and the teaching of the Church that “the Eucharist is not a prize for the perfect, but medicine and nourishment for the weak.” Most importantly, this discernment must always place at the very center the question “What is God asking of me now?”
Many Catholics engaging in this process of discernment will conclude that God is calling them to return to full participation in the life of the Church and the Eucharist. Many others will conclude that they should wait, or that their return would hurt others.
In pointing to the pathway of conscience for the divorced and remarried, Pope Francis is not enlisting an element of the Christian moral life which is exceptional. For the realm of conscience is precisely where the Christian disciple is called to discern every important moral decision that he or she makes. Rules have an essential role in the life of the believer in conveying the wisdom and grace of the Church and providing a firm check on rationalization. But it is in the act of conscience, well-formed and profoundly considered, that the believer is most Christlike in carrying out his moral mission in the world.
Questions for Deliberation at the Synod:
1) What are the elements necessary for a robust program of pastoral and spiritual support for those undergoing divorce, both during the process and afterward?
2) How can the diocese make the annulment process, especially the newly revised process, more accessible for our people?
3) How should we bring an understanding of the internal forum and conscience to our people, not only regarding the topic of participation for those who are divorced and remarried, but for all Catholics in their moral and spiritual lives?