‘Amoris Laetitia’ IV: Christian marriage and divorce

This is the fourth in a series of six articles by Archbishop Cordileone on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” (the Joy of Love).

Pope Francis in “Amoris Laetitia,” as well as in both of the recent Synods on the Family, discussed at length a difficult reality of modern life: divorce and remarriage. Since Catholics frequently have misunderstandings about Church teaching on these issues, I think it important to address them here, to the extent that this brief format will allow.

Pope Francis notes that “Christ’s teaching on marriage is inserted in a dispute about divorce,” contrasting God’s design for marriage with our fallen nature. In keeping with our Lord’s teaching, a consummated sacramental marriage is indissoluble “by any human power” (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 2382). Consequently, civil divorce has no bearing on the consideration of the bond of marriage itself; a couple who has obtained a civil divorce is still presumed to be validly married.

However, the Church recognizes that there may be situations in which it is justifiable for a couple to no longer live together, and so civil divorce is not necessarily in and of itself a sin. Thus, one who is divorced but lives in a way that respects the bond of marriage to which they are bound is not prevented from receiving the sacraments, including the Eucharist.

If either divorced party wishes to again seek marriage in the Church, they may petition the tribunal of their diocese for an investigation and judgment as to whether their marriage – presumed to be valid and therefore “until death” – was in fact a valid marriage. Since it is the couple’s exchange of consent (vows) that puts the bond of marriage into place, the investigation seeks to determine if any of the elements necessary for the consent to be valid were missing when the couple exchanged vows: if both bride and groom had the right intentions (as discussed previously – fidelity, permanence, and openness to new life), if they had sufficient psychological capacity to understand and fulfill the essential obligations of marriage, if they had sufficient freedom and knowledge, and so forth.

If any such necessary element is determined to be missing, the tribunal will issue a declaration of nullity (sometimes called an annulment) recognizing that the marriage was invalid for that reason. In this case, both parties are then free to marry (provided that the circumstance that made the previous marriage invalid no longer applies).

Pope Francis has spoken strongly about the need for the process for the declaration of nullity of marriage to be streamlined and more readily accessible to the faithful, and to this end he has recently legislated reforms to the process. Having been myself involved in tribunal ministry earlier in my life as a priest I know what a great amount of work this entails, which is hidden to the vast majority of our people. I wish, then, to express my gratitude to our very competent and dedicated Tribunal staff here in the Archdiocese of San Francisco, who work hard to keep our Tribunal readily available to those who seek its services. Anyone in such a situation should speak to their pastor about initiating a process to engage the services of our Tribunal.

Pope Francis states emphatically that Christians who are “divorced and civilly remarried need to be more fully integrated into Christian communities” (AL, n. 299). Indeed, in his reform of the process for the declaration of nullity of marriage he instituted the “pre-judicial” phase of the process, which is designed not only to assist the one seeking to initiate the process with the necessary initial canonical assistance, but also to place this within the context of the broader special pastoral care they need at this point in their life (Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, “The way of proceeding in cases regarding the declaration of the nullity of a marriage”).

May all those in this difficult situation know the embrace, welcome and support of the Christian community so that, together, the Spirit may guide us “toward the entire truth (cf. Jn 16:13), until he leads us fully into the mystery of Christ and enables us to see all things as he does” (AL, n. 3).

This column was published on September October 6, 2016 in Catholic San Francisco.