by Ladislas Orsy in the Tablet of 11th August 1990

No Way Out? Pastoral care of the divorced and remarried

By Bernard Haring, St Paul publications

Hard cases in matrimonial matters have never been lacking in the Church. Already Paul the Apostle had to face one; it was brought to him by the Corinthians. What should a brother or sister do if an unbelieving marriage partner wants to separate? Paul answered: “Let it be so; in such case the brother or sister is not bound. For God has called us to peace.” He added also: “I say, not the Lord” (cf. 1 Cor. 7:12-16). Out of this tradition the so-called Pauline privilege developed and was in use certainly from the fourth century. It was further amplified from the sixteenth century to the point that today the Church is willing to dissolve any non-sacramental marriage (between a Christian and non-Christian or between two non-Christians) for the spiritual and temporal welfare of a Catholic. The Church is willing also, where there is good reason, to loosen the sacramental bond itself (between two Christians), pro­vided the marriage has not been consummated. Thus, it appears, the Church is in possession of a mysterious power that can reach out and heal, at least in some cases.

A hard case that is brought before the Church today is that divorced and remarried Catholics who, for whatever reason, cannot obtain a declaration of nullity for their first marriage. They may or may not have been innocent in the break­up of the previous union but now they are repentant and longing for the restoration of their full eucharistic communion with the Church. The case becomes more acute (and painful) when there are children born from the second union who are just about to be admitted to their first communion. Could the parents receive the bread of life with them, or must they, as long as they live, remain in the aisles and watch the ceremony?

No one should say the issue is simple. We believe that to marry in Christian terms means to assume an indissoluble commitment. It appears to follow, therefore, that those who are living in a legally invalid marriage are openly, if not defying, at least contradicting our tradition. To admit them to the eucharist would mean to let the teaching of the Lord be weakened.

Yet the issue is not simple from another point of view. The first marriage may be irretrievably lost, and the second one may have brought into existence human values that should not be destroyed — the principal among them being the children born from it. Besides, even if they were at fault, the couple is now contrite, and willing to make reparation. To say that they should live as “brother and sister” does not make much sense precisely because they are not brother and sister, and nature does not tolerate lies easily. Moreover, to permit marital consortium and exclude sexual union shows a poor understanding of what marriage is. Also, the couple may have proved their faith and fidelity to the Church in many ways: in attending the eucharist, in the religious education of their children, in works of charity and by persevering in prayer. Such cases are indeed hard because no matter what happens, some values will suffer.

Ever since the Second Vatican Council theologians have worked intensely to find a way to heal the, genuinely broken-hearted and readmit them to the eucharistic communion. In particular, leading scholars in. Germany articulated the problem, searched for ways out, and proposed a solution. Some of these theologians are well known: Karl Lehmann (formerly professor at Freiburg, now the Bishop of Mainz and president of the German Episcopal Conference), Walter Kasper (formerly professor at Tubingen, now Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart), Joseph Ratzinger (formerly professor at Regensburg, Archbishop of Munich and now cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Ratzinger also sought to find justification in the patristic literature.

These theologians, and Fr Haring with them, turned for a solution to the ancient doctrine of oikonomia, or economy; a living reality in the Eastern Orthodox Churches but little known, still less used, in the Western Church. The doctrine is built on the idea that the bishop is God’s housekeeper, oikonomos, and is invested with the mysterious power of Christ to heal in the Church wounds that no law can cure. Economy must never harm dogma, it can never constitute a legal precedent, no one ever has a right to it, no one other than the bishop can use it. Its legitimacy cannot be deduced from abstract principles in exercising it the bishop intuitively imitates God’s own prodigality. The Westerners often stumble and do not understand it; the Easterners simply point to the power of Christ in the Church and speak of a direct perception of it.

Fr Haring not only understands (if this is the right word) this "economy” but has an affinity with the reality and dynamics of it. Throughout this book he pleads for its application to the case of married and divorced persons; not indiscriminately, to be sure, but when all the right conditions are present. His small book is easy to read; he speaks to the heart. Those who wish for a more critical and historical exposition of the issues should go to the works of the theologians mentioned above. The expositions differ but the conclusions are the same; all make an appeal to a reserve of power to heal. Yet hard cases are never solved easily or instantaneously. John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio of 1982, warns against admitting “to the eucharistic communion those faithful who after divorce entered into a new marriage. In fact, they impede themselves, because their state and their condition of life are objectively opposed to that union of love between Christ and the Church that is signified and made present by the eucharist”. Yet he carefully qualifies this statement: the pastors and the faithful must not regard the divorced and remarried “as separated from the Church because they can, even must, as baptised people in its life ... to be present at the sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to help the charitable works and the undertakings of the community for justice, to instruct their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and the works of penance, to implore thus the grace of God every day”.

Now the faithful must sense instinctively, as theologians can demonstrate intellectually, persevere in such a manner, in so much prayer and so many good works, is not possible without God’s sus­taining grace. Thus the question remains: is there not a way of admitting such graced persons to the eueharistic table — without harming any dogma? Fr Haring’s answer is, yes, if we accept the Orthodox doctrine of economy.To do so would not only give us a powerful instrument to heal the broken­hearted but would also be a giant step in ecumenism. Once the move had been made, we might even discover that by accepting an ancient tradition from the East, we did no more than enter into our rightful inheritance — and that we should have been there with our sister Churches from the East all along the centuries.