Thursday, 28 January 2016
Marriage as a new reality
So apparently the pope's teaching document on marriage, which is believed to tackle the issue of the readmission to communion of those who have 'remarried' after divorce, is likely to come out on 19 March.
Putting aside any theological detail, let's just imagine I'm a well meaning lay person who wants to live in accordance with what I understand of Catholic teaching on marriage and the natural law. I have no particular axe to grind: I just want to be faithful to my bishops and the pope, and to understand. I wait with an open mind patiently.
(That sounds snarky. It is. But it is also genuinely how I feel about this. I want to understand this issue. I do understand the desire for a new start, a merciful escape from the traps many fall into when they are young and foolish. I do not want to dissent from papal or episcopal teaching, whatever that turns out to be.)
Now, from my point of view, marriage is a new reality. When two people come together in a marriage, there is a new reality which cannot be undone except by death. That seems to me to be at the heart of both what the Church teaches and what I've come to understand from having been married for a long time and having seen other marriages. It's what I tell my children. (If I'm feeling particularly waspish, I might quote John 21:18: Amen, amen I say to thee, when thou wast younger, thou didst gird thyself, and didst walk where thou wouldst. But when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and lead thee whither thou wouldst not. In other words, you will find the marriage making you as much as you make the marriage.)
The present practice of the Church reflects that. The Church does not divorce (ie end a marriage) but declares the absence of one (ie what was thought to be a marriage was not one because of some defect). It does that by way of an investigation: a legal procedure to establish the reality or otherwise of that marriage. But (so I hear) it is rumoured that this will be replaced by a penitential path. Now this is what I don't understand. Penitence is primarily a question of exploring with one person that person's own mind: in crude terms, is that person truly sorry? But the existing legal procedure is about the investigation of a reality which inevitably requires the exploration of many minds and material evidence.
I'm familiar with several broken marriages. In many cases, ask each of the parties, and you'll get a different understanding of what went on. (And in many cases, neither of them will be the same as that of an outsider.) The present legal process, involving several people, acknowledges, however imperfectly, that we are engaged in an investigation of what is the case. A penitential procedure, of whatever form, only investigates one person's viewpoint.
If I were that good willed (but confused) layperson, I would want to know how a penitential path acknowledges about the only thing I'm pretty sure about in this area: that marriage is a reality which exceeds the understanding of each (and indeed both) participants. The reality of a marriage is a very different issue from that of whether or not I regret my behaviour or anything else about that marriage. To confuse the two issues is a category mistake.
So explain. I wait.