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Commentary » International

A call for compassion on marriage and the Eucharist

Divorce does not exclude one from God's mercy

A call for compassion on marriage and the Eucharist
Fr. Michael Kelly, Bangkok International

April 11, 2014

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I'm all for balance in debates. To get the real picture in any contest or dispute, all voices have to be heard. It's basic to everything from scientific experiments to the rule of law, along with all manner of decisions we make at a practical level every day.

And all that a debate that fails to proceed on the basis of evidence and argument does is produce a dialogue of the deaf – living in parallel universes, the contestants never have to listen, engage and learn.

There's a bit of this happening in the debate occurring between cardinals over the subject of the Extraordinary Synod in October. The hard end of the subject of the Synod on the Family is and will be the pastoral care of divorced and remarried Catholics, and their sharing in the Eucharist.

Let's not underestimate how significant an issue this is to the Church. In my 30 years of experience as a priest, there is no other issue that serves to alienate Catholics more quickly and completely from life in the Church than a failed marriage. Besides the sadness of the failure, divorcees feel unclean and unwelcome in the Church, as if they have committed an unforgiveable sin.

No one, unless they are sadomasochists, enters a marriage for it to fail. Yet a negative judgment on the failure is mostly the face that Church officials show the divorced – they are outsiders who are not welcome at the table of the Lord unless they go through a cleansing process (annulment) that is narrow and slow. Many give up on it because of the obstacles it puts in their way.

Several cardinals with predominantly academic and/or legal training and backgrounds (Cardinals Burke, Mueller and Cafarra) have been critical of the suggestions made by German Cardinal Walter Kasper about variations on the treatment of Catholics who have divorced and remarried.

Marriage in the Church has the misfortune of having to endure a minimalist definition of what it takes to be married as a Catholic. Following the legalistic interpretation of the operation and effect of a mysterious sacrament of grace by Tertullian in the third century, Catholicism to this day labors under a simplistic notion of what makes a marriage – "Ratum et Consummatum" or going through the Catholic rite and consummating the relationship by making love.

And regrettably, when the Church comes to view marriage, it does so through the legal optic and so reduces the complexity and mystery of an evolving human relationship to some simple legal boxes to tick.

Thank God that the experience of marriage and family among Catholics will be integral to the considerations of those attending the synod. The worldwide consultation process – awkward and disorganized as it became – will provide vital data upon which insights, policies and responses can be based.

Invoking the law on the subject is all you need to do to show how far away those doing it are from pastoral experience or an appreciation of how unsatisfactory current approaches are.

Appeals will be made to the Church's sapping society of a vital support to the maintenance and flourishing of a social institution. I've never understood these appeals as anything more than a reflection of the personal and perhaps marital insecurity of those making them.

It is not the Church's place to be legislating for the terms of sacramental marriage in civil terms for societies where Catholic beliefs cannot be presumed.

This is especially the case in Asia where Catholics, with only a couple of exceptions (Timor-Leste and the Philippines), are small minorities. Even where a substantial number of people in a national population are Catholics, many places in the world got over that imposition with the separation of Church and state.

Moreover, such assertions are just simply uninformed in asserting that the Church doesn’t recognize divorce - it has since St. Paul, who allowed divorced non-Christians to marry Christians in the first generations of the Church.

I grew up in a family where my parents were divorced when I was 15 years old. I know from the inside what failure in relationships feels like for people and the social and ecclesial ostracism it brings.

The divorced – and multiple pastoral experiences have vindicated this perception of mine – see themselves to be, and under current practices actually are, excommunicated for something from which they draw life and especially need at times of crisis, disappointment and exclusion from the orbit of family and friends.

Divorce is a lamentable failure for a couple, one that they don't wish on themselves and in which many participate. It's not a sin that excludes them from God’s mercy. Nor should it exclude them from life in the Church. If it does, the Church is guilty of something Jesus is on record as loathing: Pharisaism.

Fr Michael Kelly SJ is the executive director of

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