A New Way of Viewing the Question of Communion for Those who are Divorced and Remarried?

Worth a very close look is the proposal of Alberto Bonandi regarding communion for divorced and remarried persons, which Sandro Magister has translated and posted on his website “www.chiesa”. This is really ground breaking stuff, however I don’t feel that it will be the solution we are looking for.

In its favour, it takes seriously the meaning of conversion while at the same time paying much greater attention to the issues of personal responsibility. In the past, there has seemed to be some discrepancy in both areas in the Church’s practice in this area. I am especially interested in the question, but it would also seem to point to a way of dealing with the situation of the divorced and remarried baptised person who converts to the Catholic Church.

Nevertheless, it could be a very difficult to apply Bonandi’s suggestions in practice. How would a pastor deal with a person who at the time he divorced his (her) spouse and entered a new relationship with a new partner actually calculated that the Church would be liable to show lenience towards his actions at some point in the future? How would a pastor deal with a situation in which a person who had been admitted back to communion (under the circumstances Bonandi proposes) left his second relationship for a third relationship? Would such a person be given the benefit of the doubt a second time?

Protestant churches such as the Church of England (as in the case of Prince Charles) and the Lutheran Church of Australia (as in my own case) have for many decades viewed divorce as a sin for which absolution could be granted in such a way as to annul the previous marriage and thus enable them to bless a new relationship as a marriage. This is emphatically not what Bonandi proposes, but his proposal does share some procedural similarities.

In any case, read Bonandi’s proposal for yourself and see what you think.

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12 Responses to A New Way of Viewing the Question of Communion for Those who are Divorced and Remarried?

  1. Marco Vervoorst says:

    The Church of England (as does the Anglican Church of Australia) requires an Annulment by the local Ordinary for remarriagage of persons who are divorced within the church. Confession is only part of the process.

  2. Schütz says:

    Really, Marco? Tell me more about this process. What is the procedure? What are the guidelines? Does this mean that Prince Charles’ marriage to Diana was actually annuled before he married Camilla? Go on, surprise me.

  3. Tony Bartel says:

    Actually, the Anglican Church of Australia has a process for a “dispensation” rather than an annulment. In each case, the dispensation is granted by the local bishop and his conditions vary from diocese to diocese. In most dioceses, confession would not be required, as auricular confession is rarely practiced. The process is not an anullment, as it does not declare that the previous marriage was invalid. Instead it is technically a dispensation to the priest to conduct a marriage which is otherwise prohibited by canon law – that is a marriage of a divorced person whose previous partner is still alive.

    The situation in the C of E is even worse. Although the C of E does not officially marry divorced people and does not grant annullments, it is powerless to stop individual priests remarrying divorced people. Officially, it encourages divorced people to be married in a civil ceremony, and then to have their marriage blessed in church – as in the case of Charles and Camilla. There has been a proposal that the re-marriage of divorcees would be allowed, and that this decision would be made by the parish priest – an even worse solution, but one which would recognise de jure what is already happening de facto.

    Personally, I have much sympathy for the Orthodox Churches which allow a second and even a third marriage for lay people by economia, but with suitable penitential prayers in the service. Interestingly enough, these penitential prayers apply even in the case of widow or widower, as one marriage is seen as embodying the ideal of divine faithfulness. Hence, more than marriage is strictly forbideen for a priest, even if he is a widower.

  4. Schütz says:

    Thank you, Fr Tony. Most enlightening. (For those of you out there who don’t know, Frs Tony and Marco and I all went to Luther Seminary together, although we each of us belong to different ecclesial entities today–none of them Lutheran!).

    Actually, I thought that the reason widower priests were not allowed to remarry was the injunction of St Paul that a presbyter should be the married only once.

    Nevertheless, it is hard to see how a new marriage could be regarded to be validly contracted, let alone blessed, by the Church, when the previous spouse is still living, as part of the definition of marriage is the “for life” bit.

    This is my difficulty with the CofE way of handling things. If you can bless a relationship, that means it is good and acceptable in the sight of God, so why not celebrate it in a Church in the first place rather than a civil marriage? (The whole reason for not blessing gay partnerships is that they cannot be viewed as good and acceptable etc.) After all, what is it that the Church adds to marriage which the state cannot (noting that a civil marriage validly contracted between two baptised never-previously-married persons is still a sacramental marriage)? God’s blessing.

    What I like about Bonandi’s proposal is that it:

    1) does not recognise the new partnership as a new marriage
    2) does not bless the new partnership as if it were regular
    3) maintains the moral responsibility either to the valid spouse or the current partner
    4) takes proper account of the fact of conversion and repentance
    5) takes proper account of the real-life situation.

    But it doesn’t solve everything.

  5. Mike says:

    I don’t really get it. It seems to deal almost solely with the legal/pastoral question of being admitted to the sacraments, without actually stating whether any sex in that new relationship was actually sinful or not. If not, it would need a much deeper moral justification, surely? If so, shouldn’t it be at least expected that the person should be aiming towards continence (while expecting a number of mistakes along the way most likely)?

    Does it mean “your new marriage isn’t exactly strictly “regular” in the life of the Church, and you’ve made some bad mistakes in your past, but now you’re now doing the right thing under the circumstances”?

  6. Peregrinus says:

    I find this fascinating, but at this stage I have a lot more questions than answers.

    One perspective that I think would be valuable is that of Greek Catholics.

    The Eastern and Western traditions have always had a different approach here, and so far as I know it doesn’t seem to have been a great bone of contention between them. In the denunciations and anathemas that got exchanged from time to time, this doesn’t seem to have featured and I have the impression that if other issues could have been resolved, this one wouldn’t have led to the Great Schism. It’s only with the Protestant Reformation that this issue seems to become one of those ‘headliners” which distinguishes the True Catholic from the Perfidious Heretic. I see this as something where the attitudes of both Catholics and Protestants may have been shaped – distorted, even – in reaction to one another, and a look at how this difference was – and is- handled as between East and West might be instructive.

    Eastern Catholics must accept the Western tradition of forbidding divorce and the teachings of Trent on marriage, but at the same time they must be close to, and understanding of, both the theological and pastoral tradition of the East of permitting remarriage after divorce by way of economia.

    How, in practice, is this issue dealt with canonically? Do the Eastern Catholic churches have a “legalistic”, evidence-based, tribunal-based annulment procedure, as in the West? I think this would be quite foreign to their tradition. But, if they don’t have it, how are annulments granted? If they do have it, is it a relatively recent introduction? Can we profitably learn from their earlier approach?

    And, pastorally, how is remarriage handled in the Eastern church? Is the practice different from the West? What is the attitude to admitted the divorced and remarried to the Eucharist? Does practice vary as between Eastern Catholics in Austrlia, the US and other predominantly Latin countries, and Eastern Catholics in their own historic territories?

    Does anyone know?

  7. Schütz says:

    Yes, as you say, Peregrinus, more questions than answers…

    Thanks too to Mike for joining the conversation. I guess the question is a choice between two evils:

    1) continuing to have sexual relations with someone other than one’s valid spouse
    2) breaking the promise and vow which the new partner received in good faith, even though that promise and vow could not be validly offered by the one making it.

    The second issue is very serious. To an outsider it might seem simple, but think on this:

    How would you feel if you married someone with the expectation of a full marital relationship, only to find that they had now gone all holy on you and the expected sex would not be forthcoming? Can you see that there might be argued to be some kind of moral duty to continue these relationships? I think that is what Bonandi is getting at.

  8. Peregrinus says:

    [i]Nevertheless, it could be a very difficult to apply Bonandi’s suggestions in practice. How would a pastor deal with a person who at the time he divorced his (her) spouse and entered a new relationship with a new partner actually calculated that the Church would be liable to show lenience towards his actions at some point in the future? How would a pastor deal with a situation in which a person who had been admitted back to communion (under the circumstances Bonandi proposes) left his second relationship for a third relationship? Would such a person be given the benefit of the doubt a second time?[/i]

    Hasn’t exactly the same objection been raised historically by Protestant critics of sacramental reconciliation?

    The truth is that there [i]is[/i] some danger that a poor (and perhaps sometimes self-serving) understanding can lead to sacramental reconciliation being treated in this way, but that is no reason to repudiate the sacrament.

    I think the same applies here. The starting point is that the Christian [i]needs[/i] the Eucharist. It is essential, not optional. However important it may be to guard against improper reception of the Eucharist, it is much, much more important not to deny it improperly. If the morally correct course of action for our hypothetical returned sheep is to remain committed to his current conjugal relationship, then I suggest it would be wrong to deny the Eucharist to all those in his position on the basis that some of them may be abusing the dispensation, or that some hypothetical others might be encouraged to do so.

    Moreover, if we think the morally correct course of action in the circumstances is to remain committed to his new relationship (because of his obligations to his partner and children), then if we withhold the eucharist unless he makes a commitment to sexual abstinence which in fact he ought not to make, are we not encouraging or requiring him to act immorally?

    The interesting point about Bonandi’s proposal is that, while he maintains that the second relationship is not a marriage and indeed is sinful in its origins, once that sin has be recognised, confessed and reconciled, the continuation of the relationship, including the sexual dimension of the relationship, is not inherently sinful. In these circumstances, Bonandi seems to say, a sexual relationship outside of marriage, while imperfect, sub-optimal, etc, is not intrinsically sinful.

  9. Schütz says:

    I would want to be a little bit careful about saying what you say in your last sentence Peregrinus. I guess the thing is that in some actions there may be dimensions which are sinful, while there are other dimensions which are not. It is the existence of dimensions which are sinful, which makes a sexual relationship outside of marriage, such as that that Bonandi discusses, “imperfect suboptimal etc.” Pastoral response to these actions would require great wisdom.

  10. Peregrinus says:

    Hi David

    I am hesitant, because it looks pretty revolutionary to me. And yet it does seem to be the implication of Bonandi’s argument.

    He posits that the man concerned (let us assume it is a man) is not “morally” a single man, not because of his subsisting but in practice defunct marriage, but because his new partner and their children “depend both practically and emotionally upon him”, and this dependence arises out of an obligation which he himself freely undertook. His partner is asking for “a normal emotional relationship and a healthy exercise of sexuality”.

    Because it he is not morally single, because this relationship is an existing reality out of which moral obligations flow, meeting her needs as best he can is not merely morally permissible, but perhaps even a moral requirement. Even if we only argue that it is morally permissible, does it not follow that it is not sinful? Sin has been committed, certainly, in the betrayal of the former relationship, and in the formation of the current relationship, but that sin has been recognised, repented of, confessed and reconciled.

    Is it now sinful to continue with the sexual dimension of the current relationship? If we say that it is, we are saying that the morally preferable course of action is to end the sexual dimension, but that failing to end it is not so grievously sinful as to warrant withholding of the Eucharist (i.e. it is not mortally sinful).

    But the implication of that argument, is that the morally ideal course is to end the sexual relationship despite the harm that this may do to the woman concerned, to the new relationship overall, and indirectly to the children of that relationship. It would be right to harm his partner and children in that way, the argument runs, if only this man had the interior strength to do so, and admitting him to communion is not a recognition of the valid moral claims of his new relationship, so much as a concession to his own personal weakness.

    For obvious reasons I am uncomortable with that, and it doesn’t seem to me to be the thrust of what Bonandi is saying. Bonandi says that continuing the present relationship is not merely permitted; it is required as a condition of admission to the Eucharist. Admission “naturally requires the fulfillment of his obligations toward the persons involved in the marriage and in the new relationship”. It demands “complete attentiveness to the commitments of the present union, which involve the entire life of persons such as the partner and children”. If this is proposed as a requirement for the Eucharist, how can it be sinful?

  11. Schütz says:

    No, I don’t think that Bonandi is saying that we should scrap altogether the encouragement to such a non-validly partnered couple to abstain from sexual relations. I think he is upholding that this would be the most perfect way. But it would only be “most perfect” where it is willingly accepeted by both parties (perhaps along the lines of 1 Cor 7:5, although there St Paul is talking about validly married couples).

    If the ending of sexual relations “did harm” to the relationship, rather than good, then it could not be counselled. Rather, the man (in this case we are discussing) has to be completely attentive to the committments of the present union.

    If, on the other hand, an ending of sexual intimacy could be embraced by both partners as something good for their relationship with one another and with God, then it should not only be counselled, but embraced as the best option.

    So I think you might be closer to the idea by pointing to the distinction between mortal and venial sin.

    Sex between people who are not validly married is normally a mortal sin, but in this case, perhaps there are reasons to view it as otherwise.

    This is especially possible because
    a. it is judged not to be a serious matter (eg. less serious than adultery);
    b. because there is no intention to act in a way that would break friendship with God (the individual is living as a penitent under Bonandi’s proposal).

    Thus one is not saying that such an act is perfectly holy and unsinful (few human acts are, of course), but that it does not have the character of mortal sin. Which is what I said before, I think.

  12. Peregrinus says:

    I see what you’re saying, I think, but I still have some difficulties.

    You make the point that an abstinent relationship may be the ideal if both parties can commit to it, but Bonandi is discussing a case in which the non-Catholic party cannot and will not commit to an abstinent relationship, and I think we need to explore the moral dimensions of that case. It may not be the ideal, but “not ideal” does not necessarily mean “sinful”.

    You accept that “the man . . . has to be completely attentive to the committments of the present union”. It is a conjugal, sexual union, and “complete commitment” clearly involves fostering the sexual expression of the union.

    I can only read your statement as a moral one (i.e. the man has a moral obligation to be completely attentive etc). But if that is so I cannot see how the sexual expression of the relationship can be immoral. Rather, it seems to be a moral imperative, and I think Bonandi treats it as such.

    And I struggle to see how something can be both inherently and always sinful, and a moral imperative in any circumstances.

    The implication of Bonandi’s argument seems to me that:

    – the ideal is that only a marital relationship should be expressed sexually;

    – talling short of this ideal is ordinarily sinful; but

    – it is not necessarily sinful; there can be some circumstances where it is morally permissible, or even morally required.

    But the implications of this are that extra-marital sex is not inherently sinful (although it is inherently imperfect). And the implications of that are pretty profound.

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