In this Sunday’s Gospel we are presented with the
essential elements of Christ’s teaching on marriage. He
stresses that this unique union is a sign of the Kingdom of
God and therefore is an eternal sacrament which cannot
be broken by divorce.
This is one of the most difficult of the teachings of Christ and is a question that all the Christian Churches have had to wrestle with over the centuries. The Protestant Churches have in recent years accommodated themselves to the reality of divorce and they have mostly accepted the possibility of divorced members remarrying in Church.
The Orthodox Churches have approached this question in a slightly different way. If there is an irretrievable breakdown in marriage the Orthodox will permit a second marriage in Church but this has a penitential character and is not generally regarded as a full sacramental marriage, however the parties are permitted to receive Holy Communion.
The only problem with this is that some people come back even for a third marriage, the second one also having broken down.
In the Catholic Church, however, we take quite a different approach and try to remain as faithful as we can to the teaching of Christ. In the case of a permanent breakdown of marriage what we do is examine that marriage to see if all the essential elements of the Sacrament of Matrimony were present.
If one of these essential conditions is found to be lacking then that marriage is declared null, meaning that it was never a true marriage in the eyes of God and the parties are then free to contract a new sacramental marriage.
Some of the conditions that need to be met to ensure that a marriage is truly valid are the following. It must be the completely free choice of the couple, which means that neither can be coerced into the marriage under pressure from a parent or anyone else. There must also be true consent and both parties must be sufficiently mature and able to freely give that consent.
There must be no deception involved; so for example if one party concealed alcoholism or drug addiction this would not meet the conditions for a valid marriage. The marriage also must take place in a Church before a priest with all the necessary permissions having been obtained beforehand.
The parties must also be free to marry, so if one partner has already been married then the new marriage can be declared null. There are other requirements such as consummation, openness to children and several more.
When an annulment is applied for the marriage in question is examined by a Church Tribunal which takes evidence and studies the matter very closely. If it is satisfied that one of the essential elements of marriage is missing it will issue a Decree of Nullity and the parties will be able to enter into a new marriage should they so wish.
You will have heard through the media that Pope Francis has recently relaxed the rules for the granting of annulments. It is true that he has made some changes but these are more procedural in nature and do not affect any of the reasons why an annulment might be granted.
The first change is that there is no automatic appeal. In the past once an annulment was granted it had to be automatically appealed to the Tribunal of a neighboring Diocese for confirmation of the judgement and this necessarily lengthened the process. This is no longer the case and once an annulment is granted it takes effect immediately without any appeal.
Another change is that of the appropriate Tribunal to hear the case. This was formerly the one in the Diocese where the marriage took place but now it is the Diocese where the petitioner lives.
This will help us greatly here in London where people from many different countries are living. It is no longer necessary to have the marriage examined by the Tribunal in one’s homeland but instead the whole thing can be dealt with here by our own Diocese.
One other small change is that where no proper tribunal has been set up the Bishop himself can shorten things by hearing the case or assign this duty to a qualified priest. This is something which will help those living in developing countries but is not very relevant for our situation.
What the Catholic Church is attempting to do therefore is to see whether the first marriage was a true one in the eyes of God. If not, then the marriage can be annulled and the parties are free to marry again. This is our way of remaining faithful to the demands of Christ while coping with the reality of marriage breakdown in the modern world.
Of course, after examination a number of these broken marriages might be judged to have been truly valid. This would leave those involved no further forward and they may end up in a new marriage not recognized by the Church and therefore barred from receiving Holy Communion.
While this is regrettable it should not mean any definitive separation from the Church but simply reflect the unfortunate consequences resulting from the breakdown of a marriage. In these circumstances the person involved should not receive Holy Communion but they should still come to mass and at the time of Communion come for a blessing.
There is also something called Spiritual Communion which might help us here. When we are prevented from receiving Holy Communion for whatever reason we can during mass still pray to God saying to him that we are sorry for all our sins and that although we are unable to receive Holy Communion we desire to be completely united to God and offer him our whole heart and soul. This act of Spiritual Communion can be very consoling.
Those who find themselves in irregular marriages or in other difficult situations which may lead them to feel separated from the Church should realize that while they may feel cut off and may actually be prevented from going to Holy Communion they should understand that they are still a full member of the Church and deeply loved by God.
God loves us very deeply whatever our situation. When we have made mistakes in life God does not love us any less but actually he loves and treasures us all the more. If we have this deep realization in our hearts we will, despite all our difficulties, understand that we are deeply cherished children of God.
Digest of Articles from Catholics Blogs and Websites
October 4, 2015
Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time:
The Sacrament of Matrimony
Recently, I attended a meeting about Catholic marriage that began by noting that over the last seven years there has been a significant decline in Catholic marriages, almost by 25%. Since the Catholic population keeps growing, it is obvious that either many people are not aware of the obligation to get married in the Catholic Church or the concept of a Catholic marriage does not carry significant meaning in their lives. With the continual attack on marriage and the family by our society, and in light of the readings for this Sunday, I thought that this would be a good time to consider this sacrament.
Twenty-seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mark 10: 2–16
Some Pharisees, wanting to involve Jesus in current controversies about divorce, ask him whether it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. Jesus replies that only because of the hardness of the human heart, Moses permitted a husband to write a bill of divorce and dismiss his wife. At the beginning, however, God created humans, male and female, to be joined together as one in marriage. Jesus says that what God has joined together, a man cannot separate by writing a bill of divorce. And if he attempts to do so and marries another woman after dismissing his wife, he commits adultery.