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  • John Thavis

Déjà vu on divorced and remarried Catholics?

Archbishop Gerhard MüllerToday’s Osservatore Romano featured a lengthy article reaffirming the church’s ban on sacraments for divorced and remarried Catholics.

Written by Archbishop Gerhard Muller, head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the article reads like a pre-emptive strike on new efforts to promote pastoral flexibility on the issue.

Given that Pope Francis has himself spoken of the need to take a new look at the situation of divorced and remarried, and has convened a Synod of Bishops for 2014 to discuss this and other issues, it’s legitimate to wonder where the church is really headed: substantial change or another dead-end debate.

The archbishop makes several important points:

— He underlines that, in his view, this is not simply a pastoral question but a doctrinal issue that involves the church’s theological understanding of the sacrament of marriage. He states categorically that the Orthodox practice of allowing second or third marriages under certain circumstances “cannot be reconciled with God’s will” – which is interesting, considering that Pope Francis himself has referred to the Orthodox practice without explicitly repudiating or endorsing it.

— Muller pointedly rejects the argument that the individual conscience can be the final arbiter on whether a divorced and civilly remarried Catholic can receive Communion. Again, there seems to be a contrast in tone with Pope Francis’ own recent remarks on the duty to follow one’s conscience.

— In what appears to be a remarkably direct response to Pope Francis’ call for “mercy” as the framework for dealing with divorced and remarried Catholics, Archbishop Muller says that “an objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive.”

Here is the more complete passage of the article:

A further case for the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments is argued in terms of mercy. Given that Jesus himself showed solidarity with the suffering and poured out his merciful love upon them, mercy is said to be a distinctive quality of true discipleship. This is correct, but it misses the mark when adopted as an argument in the field of sacramental theology. The entire sacramental economy is a work of divine mercy and it cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same. An objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive. The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man. Jesus encountered the adulteress with great compassion, but he said to her “Go and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfill them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father.

In short, Archbishop Muller leaves little or no room for pastoral flexibility on re-admitting divorced Catholics to the sacraments of confession and Communion. He backs up his arguments with teachings of recent popes and with the doctrinal congregation’s own instruction on this question in 1994.

The one area where Muller offers an opening is in suggesting that “marriages nowadays are probably invalid more often than they were previously” because Catholic couples don’t really understand the sacrament or the indissoluble nature of marriage. In other words, get an annulment.

“If remarried divorcees are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage tribunals,” he writes.

Pope Francis spoke about the same issue in July, saying that many people marry without realizing that it’s a life-long commitment. Francis, however, added that the legal problem of matrimonial nullity needs to be reviewed, because “ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this.”

All of this may sound like déjà vu to anyone who’s been around the Vatican in recent decades.

I remember that in the 1990s, bishops attending Vatican-sponsored synods suggested more flexibility on reception of sacraments by Catholics in irregular unions. They were supported by some theologians, who argued for a review of scriptural and traditional reasons for the ban on sacramental participation.

In 1999, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, head of the doctrinal congregation, responded in a lengthy essay, strongly defending the church’s rules. His arguments were similar to those put forward today by Archbishop Muller. The essential content of the marriage norms, Cardinal Ratzinger said, “cannot be watered down for supposed pastoral reasons, because they transmit revealed truth.”

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