Marriage, Divorce, and God’s Unfailing Love
Today is World Marriage Day, and it follows the promulgation of Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love). Since the document’s publication, almost all of the attention has focused on footnote 351, which deals with the pastoral care of those in “irregular situations,” particularly those who have divorced and entered into a second, civil marriage without an annulment. The footnote, as you may have read elsewhere, is controversial because it leaves open the possibility of admitting to Communion those in irregular situations. Here is the footnote in full:
“In certain cases, this [receiving the Church’s help] can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy’ (Evangelium Gaudium, 44). I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak’ (Ibid., 47).”
Although the bulk of the news lately has been directed at this issue, I tend to agree with Inés San Martín in her apology for lopsided reporting in Crux: “by focusing so much of our coverage on this one point [the footnote controversy], we’ve failed in getting across a much bigger picture of what families struggle with today and what married life is about.” She quotes Pope Francis, who also seems to think that the footnote is obscuring the main thrust of his exhortation.
“For Pope Francis,” she writes, “who penned the document on the family after a three-year process of consultation including two synods of bishops, the footnote is in fact, ‘not the important problem.’ This is what he had to say about it… ‘When I convoked the first synod, the great concern of the majority of the media was communion for the divorced and remarried, and, since I am not a saint, this bothered me, and then made me sad…. do you not realize that that is not the important problem? Don’t you realize that instead the family throughout the world is in crisis? Don’t we realize that the falling birth rate in Europe is enough to make one cry? And the family is the basis of society. Do you not realize that the youth don’t want to marry?… Don’t you realize that the lack of work or the little work (available) means that a mother has to get two jobs and the children grow up alone?… These are the big problems.’”
Jesus understood that marriage needed attention even in his day. “I say to you, whoever divorces his wife -unless the marriage is unlawful – causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” The Church, ever after, has existed in the place of discernment, upholding the indissolubility of marriage while also recognizing the Pauline and Petrine privileges and carefully discerning cases where a sacrament never took place because of impediments. Moreover, when Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well to whom he said, “You have had five husbands and the one you are with now is not your husband,” (John 4:18) he exemplified for us the approach to those whose marriages fail. I can’t imagine a more “irregular situation” than hers! What did Jesus do? He didn’t reject her or absent himself from her. Against any norms to the contrary, he enjoyed the encounter with her and turned it into the occasion for making her an evangelizer of an entire town! (John 4:39-42) This is the same Jesus we believe most firmly to be present in the Eucharist.
Faced with a culture in which marriage is not always valued or entered into, and where marriages fail as often as not, Pope Francis calls us to look beyond the footnote controversy to find ways to strengthen marriages. He is calling for a “new catechumenate,” “helping engaged couples to know and to live the reality of marriage that they intend to celebrate, so they can do so not only validly and lawfully, but also fruitfully.” Also, he is asking for the Christian community to accompany married people on the difficult journey. “Often the young couple are left to themselves,” he said, and asked that we provide “greater proximity and strong spiritual support.” At very least, all of us can pray for those who are dating and for engaged and married couples to welcome God into their relationship/marriage to make it stronger, more vibrant, and resilient against the destructive forces of our culture and our fallen human nature.
Hopefully, parishes can begin or continue and augment such programs. The entire Church and society benefit from healthy marriages. At the same time, we must continue our ministry to those who have suffered the pain of divorce. Marriages that are healthy and succeed are clear sacramental signs of Christ’s love for His Church. Marriages that fail do not fail to be sacramental signs as well. They remind us, as Hosea did, that despite all the brokenness of this world—the sin, the violence, the addiction, the neglect and abandonment—God remains faithful. They remind us just how astounding that is.
Editorial credit: jorisvo / Shutterstock, Inc. for the Woman at the Well