I think I am going to flop on this one. I have been writing this blog for a while now and have liked to have the answers to tough questions on a lot of things. I started writing this about the time that I was received into the Catholic Church and when I was also about to begin my Masters in Social Work program. Between the two I at least have some good guesses. When I began this season of writing on the Sermon on The Mount I was hoping to have at least good guesses and on the following hot potato I will approach the heart of it by the grace of God.
“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery” (Matthew 5:31-32).
First I will tell you where I come from on the issue. I have three wonderful kids ages 22,20 and 18 from a first marriage. I also have three kids from my second marriage ages 5,4, and nearly one. In the event that any of my older kids have finally got around to reading my blogs, you may want to skip this because I want the best for your mental and emotional health.
More specifically, I did not want my first marriage to end. She left me for another man though she claimed to be a Christian like me but denied that we had a covenant in the first place. I should mention that my first children were 5,3, and less than a year then. In the first months of separation I was told my my non-denominational pastor that I could be assured that the local churches in the area contacted each other when the first spouse is in the area and there is an attempt at remarriage. That gave me peace that there would be accountability to her to repent and keep our family together. I must admit that I thought it would be great for her to be referred to a Justice Of The Peace rather than the appearance that her doing what seemed to be clearly adultery was okay.
I thought wrong on this since she courted her future husband in her mega church, got pregnant and then married in that order. So there I was after two years of standing for the marriage until about the time she got pregnant and asking God where my justice was.
I may not have found justice as I wanted but in my church I got was seemed to be understanding. The leadership clearly told me based on their and my interpretation of the scriptures that by her unfaithfulness a true covenant was vacated and I was no longer accountable to its condition of lifelong commitment. This was a relief and a comfort to me overall as I spent the next several years as a non-custodial, single dad needing to scrape by with whatever pittance of court approved visitation time I could get. I also received less than mercy from my pastors when I decided to fight for more flexible visitation when I wanted to go to school to better my household such as it was.
But along came Summer. She was a single woman that saw me and loved me warts and all. All that mattered to her and her family was that according to common Protestant teaching I was released from my prior covenant. What was good on my end was that we were mutually able to size each other up both doctrinally and practically as people that meant the words, “I do” in all its commitment. We were married after I had been single for nine years and went on to be married now over eight years. All very simple or so I thought.
Along came 2012 when I was exposed to an entirely different interpretation of divorce and remarriage. After praying for months based on a discernment of that there was something greatly missing in my Christian life and doctrine, I was drawn by the Holy Spirit through the context of a self-imposed rigorous study of the Bible and history to darken the door of a Catholic parish. It was an exciting time as several questions I had over the last several years were clicking into place. I took communion my first visit now knowing yet that I would need to be a Catholic first. Yet when I took it I was keenly aware of angelic presence in the room and mor importantly the power of the Holy Spirit. Little did I know that soon I would hit a doctrine and practice hiccup.
When I met with the director of the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults, the form I had to fill out included prior marriages and if it had been annulled. I naturally declared what I thought was a no brainer, “But my ex-wife committed adultery.” I was informed then that the default assumption of the Catholic Church was that any marriage was presumed a valid covenant and binding until one of the spouses dies or a declaration of nullity— annulment.
I was pretty stressed about this until I shared with the local priest that my ex-wife was a baptized Catholic and I married her without the dispensation of a bishop. He told me I was in luck and that the marriage was not presumed sacramental due to a lack of form. Due to that I was now on the fun loop of a messy roller coaster. I was received into the Catholic Church a few months later and my marriage was re-officiated by that same priest.
But I was left with some lingering questions from that experience as well as some close friend’s experience with some being challenges to Catholics and some to Protestants.
1: So would Catholics tell me in 1997 that my ex-wife leaving me for another man was okay? If she was a practicing Catholic she would have been counseled by a priest to stay in the marriage and pray for unity.
2: For Protestants that think people should be left to their own conscience, what about frivolous divorces? Based on looking at the scriptures, even where it is not comfortable to my sensibilities, the counsel of God is that if you had a valid marriage and divorce then you must remain celibate until death do you part. What about if the spouse leaves you, marries and has kids with someone else? A covenant is a covenant.
3: For Protestants that would kick this to a local church decision, there is a hole in that. A spouse that wants to initiate a divorce could cry out a story that favors cultural sensibilities and is not factual with no standard for any investigation. They can even go church shopping until someone accepts their story that may or may not be factual.
4: What about a Protestant couple that had their marriage blessed in a Protestant church with no ill intentions and were true to the conscience that God gave them. After that, one or both of them wants to be Catholic but a prior marriage does not qualify for annulment. At the same time, a married Baptist pastor is recognized for his ordination and can be a priest if he converts. Why a recognition on the latter’s ordination under Protestant judgment in good conscience but not on the marriage? The different is that the baptist congregation that loses their pastor to the Catholic Church may be mad that he changed, but should and will get over it. But if there was a valid covenant and one violates the faithfulness for it then God does not get over it and likely not the first spouse. They key is consistency.
5: Can the Catholic Church return to what it did on this in the first several centuries of Church history? The penitent brought it to confession and they got a clean slate over a mess that is so nuanced.– This is tempting since we know Jesus is forgiving and knew what he was doing when he founded the sacrament of reconciliation in john 20. But he also said, “Go and sin no more.”
6: Who is to say that an annulment tribunal will always get it right? Can we say any local tribunal is infallible in viewing the validity of a marriage from a spiritual and practical perspective?– On that I am not sure. I have heard of some shiftiness when someone wants a rubber stamp on a questionable annulment petition. But I have seen enough Christians make up their own minds about what they “feel” is right about divorce and remarriage and often.
7: Would things in The Church fall apart if there was more flexibility? Going back to my reference about the first centuries of Church history, they did not fall apart despite much more flexibility in this issue.— Even if it could be argued that it was permissible, is it beneficial? The point is erring on the safe side that “the marriage bed is kept holy by all” (Hebrews 13:4).
So there you have it. There are struggles. I also have hopes due to the fresh perspectives that Pope Francis has expressed on other subjects. Perhaps a more efficient annulment process without it becoming a rubber stamp. Some Vatican insiders say he will hold to traditional practice, others say no. I just pray that there is wisdom and discernment that finds a way to balance concerns about holiness with concerns about mercy for the broken. For God’s sake, let’s not be the army that shoots its wounded but also not be one who creates the wounding in obedience to the “Gospel of Nice”.