Recently I’ve been seeing various things sent around in preparation for this year’s ordinary Synod of Bishops, at which event the continuation of the discussion on topics of marriage and family is planned. Many of the things I’m seeing are petitions and letters begging the Holy Father not to change Church teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. Which is not even on the table, actually--there are no plans whatsoever, from anything I’ve heard or read from any reliable source, to tinker with ancient Church teachings or settled doctrines at this or any synod.
What is possible (though it has yet to happen in any way at all) is that the pope and the bishops with him might agree that there could be better pastoral ways of handing the many situations of divorced and (civilly) remarried Catholics than to continue to use a one-size-fits-all annulment process that made sense in a world (not so long ago, alas) where even the secular world agreed that marriage was intended to be a sacred and binding union between a man and a woman that was supposed to be lifelong and ordered toward the good of the natural family, both the begetting of children and the raising of them in enduring and stable homes. In the world we have today where most civil marriage or civil partnership laws philosophically presuppose that marriage is a the legal recognition of a temporary adult sex partnership based solely on the feelings of happiness and satisfaction each partner experiences, and dissolvable at any time either partner no longer feels happy or satisfied (without any reference to children or the stability of their homes whatsoever), it makes a certain amount of sense for the Church to consider whether the presumption of a validity based on the natural human elements of marriage (regardless of considerations of the sacramental element) can no longer be made for the vast majority of marriages taking place outside the Church’s own auspices.
These are complicated questions, and they are made more complicated by the unevenness of the pastoral reality on the ground in many countries; in some countries, even a “no-brainer” annulment of a first “marriage” between a baptized Catholic who never set foot in a Church after his Confirmation (and precious few times before it) and his Wiccan girlfriend conducted on a beach by a New Age priestess reading from her “Book O’ Wedding Platitudes” and concluding with the words, “I now pronounce you soul-mates!” or something can take hundreds of dollars and many years to complete, while in other countries such an annulment takes little time or money at all (as it shouldn’t--there’s more lacking there than mere dispensation paperwork, to put it lightly).
I am not worried that the Church is suddenly going to declare that every person who is divorced and remarried outside the Church can just ignore that first marriage and do whatever they want, because the Church isn’t like that. The thing I do find worrisome--and not in a sense of wondering what the synod might do about it--is the worse scandal: the scandal of Catholic divorce.
To be clear, when I use the term “Catholic divorce” I don’t mean any baptized Catholic person who has ever divorced, or any Catholic person who divorced and was granted an annulment and went on to marry in the Church, or anything like that. What I mean is the scandal of people who are solid, orthodox Catholics, who went through marriage preparation correcting the instructor’s occasional lapses into heresy, who made firm promises to avoid the evils of contraception, who had beautiful Catholic weddings and lovely Catholic baptisms for their babies and who were pillars of their parish churches--and who still ended up divorcing, often bitterly, often with an injured and innocent spouse on one side and a definitely guilty and reckless one on the other. The case of Bud and Bai Macfarlane has always seemed to me to be a model of this sort of situation, where a seemingly happy Catholic family is destroyed when one spouse decides to lob the “divorce” bomb into the midst of it all.
I have a feeling that when many people start worrying about the divorced and remarried being admitted to Communion en masse, this is the sort of situation they’re thinking about--because I know few adult Catholics who have never encountered this sort of situation in their own or extended families or among friends or acquaintances. The idea that people who know what marriage is, understand its earthly and heavenly significance, and who ought of all people to be committed and dedicated to building it up, “Till death do us part,” are instead actively seeking to destroy their own marriages is shocking and terrible. Adultery is often involved, as are the whole host of usual problems (but, as I hope is clear, I’m not speaking of situations where an innocent person has to separate from his or her spouse due to abuse, including criminal behavior--such situations are obviously evil on the part of the abuser, but in those cases the spouse who leaves usually has little choice, and is trying to protect himself or herself and the children, which the Church fully supports and encourages). At the root of most such divorces is an almost incomprehensible selfishness (especially when children are involved).
The Church, through the synods, is working to call back to the fold people who don’t have to remain separate from it, people whose first marriages were clearly invalid for excellent reasons and who may believe erroneously that none of that matters. If I have any particular hope for the ultimate results of the Church’s present focus on marriage and family, it is that the scandal of validly married, active Catholics destroying their own families for no good reason at all is firmly and solidly addressed.