Possibility of Changing Church Teaching on Divorce Raised at Council

The possibility of changing the Church’s stand on divorce was discussed at the meeting of the U.S. bishops’ ecumenical council press panel here after the topic was brought up in council debate.

Earlier in the day Archbishop Elie Zoghbi, Melkite-rite patriarchal vicar for Egypt, had called for a reconsideration of the Church’s ban on divorce and remarriage in cases of abandonment and mental illness. To back up his appeal he cited the centuries-old practice of allowing divorce in the Eastern churches — both Orthodox and once even the Catholic — and the writings of the Fathers of the Church, both Eastern and Western.

Can the Church, he asked, demand “heroic virtue” of spouses left to face a life of solitude unless the Church intervenes?

At the press panel experts on the Eastern Churches, canon law and Scripture suggested possible avenues of approach for a further review of the Church’s position.

Although the Church’s common teaching states that a marriage validly performed and consummated between two baptized parties cannot be nullified, a guest panelist, Msgr. John Quinn, canon law expert from Chicago, suggested that a study could be made of the word “consummation.” Though the Church has been interpreting this in the physical order, he said, “only 10% of marriage relations are in the physical order — 90% are on the psychological level.” He suggested a study to determine whether marriages not “consummated in the psychological order” could not be dissolved.

A panel member, Father Francis J. Connell, C.SS.R., agreed with the possibility of such a study, but said that even if its conclusion were favorable, the Church’s principle would remain intact: “Consummated sacramental marriage — one between two baptized persons of no matter what religion — cannot be nullified,” Father Connell is a former dean of the school of sacred theology at the Catholic University of America.

Another area of study is suggested by history, according to a guest panelist, Father John Long, S.J., of New York, expert on Eastern Churches of the Vatican’s Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. He noted that in the Byzantine Orthodox Church the only possibilities of divorce are adultery and death.

Some, he said, have interpreted the word “death” in the sense of “moral death — that is, long separation, uncertainty as to whether the other party is still alive, incurable disease, even exile to Siberia among the Russians. These were the practices to which Archbishop Zoghbi referred.”

He said the archbishop had in mind this custom going back at least to the sixth century and mentioned specifically in the code of Emperor Justinian. The Byzantines have always accepted this, he said, though Byzantine-rite Catholics are now bound by 1949 legislation against it.

Father Long said the practice can be traced up to the 11th century at least, even when Orthodox and Catholic Eastern-rite Churches were united.

Another instance, he noted, was the practice of the Coptic Church, at least between the sixth and eighth centuries, of allowing divorced and remarried persons to return to the sacraments, “the Church refusing to pronounce on the validity of a second marriage.”

He said he considered it particularly significant that during the attempts to heal the schism in the Eastern Church at the Council of Florence (1438-43), “the Orthodox practice of allowing divorce was not even brought up as a stumbling block to unity.”

Another historical precedent was cited by panel member Father Robert Trisco, professor of Church history at Catholic University of America. He said that permission for divorce in case of adultery is to be found in the writings of several of the early Church Fathers of the East, and some even in the Western Church. And in the early Middle Ages the “Penitential of Theodore,” Church legislation set down by the Archbishop of Canterbury and followed extensively throughout Britain and northern Europe, allowed divorce and remarriage in the case of a woman’s being carried off by a warring tribe.

Another panelist said that “if the Church is going to conduct a meaningful dialogue with the Orthodox, it must reconsider its interpretation of Scripture regarding divorce.” Father Francis J. McCool, professor at Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Institute, continued:

“Our teaching is based on the Gospel of Mark — the oldest of the Gospels on which the others are based. But in Matthew [19, 19], though the condemnation of divorce is clear, there seems to be an exception made in the case of ‘adultery’ or ‘unfaithfulness,’ depending on the translation. Many think that Matthew’s words were meant to be a softening of the doctrine apparently contained in Mark.”

The state of Scripture study is such, Father McCool said, “as to leave this question open in dialogue with the Orthodox.”

Father Connell said the Church believes it has the power to break marriages which are not sacramental, and to make decisions — when it is a question of sacramental marriage — whether a real bond has been contracted. Aside from these cases, “the common teaching” of the Church since the Council of Trent (1545-63) at least, has been that marriage is indissoluble.

Another panelist, Msgr. George W. Shea, rector of Immaculate Conception Seminary in Darlington, N.J., said that although the wording of Trent was roundabout, the conclusion from it is certain. “Though reason may be deficient, doctrine is certain,” he stated.

(The Council of Trent’s original wording was: “If anyone says divorce may be allowed in cases of adultery, let him be anathema.” A canon law expert and syndicated columnist, Msgr. John D. Conway of Davenport, Iowa, told the N.C.W.C. News Service: “But the Fathers of Trent deliberately changed the wording to avoid conflict with Orthodox as much as possible. Their final version was: ‘If anyone says the Catholic Church is in error in holding’ its doctrine on the subject let him be anathema.’ This must certainly be considered a softening of the original statement,” he said, “and might indicate that Trent was not as absolutely certain as some would claim.”)

Msgr. Mark J. Hurley, vice chancellor of the San Francisco archdiocese, said that even regarding cases over which the Church claims to have authority in allowing remarriage, “there has been a tremendous loosening in the last few years.” He cited the recent greater facility in obtaining decrees of nullity in cases involving mental illness, or dissolutions of non-sacramental marriage bonds.

Many members of the world press attending the panel session, one of the liveliest since the council began, expressed astonishment at the openness and honesty of the panelists in reviewing the Church’s struggle with the divorce problem. Some told the N.C.W.C. News Service that they had no idea such reappraisals were taking place within the Church. Others said it was the first time they had ever realized the Catholic stand on divorce was not “just an intractable doctrine thrown out by the Church and supported in spite of the agonizing problems it causes,” but a real difficulty for the Church itself.

As Father John J. King, O.M.I., superior of the Oblate’s Rome house of studies, said: ‘The Church is not imposing a doctrine, but recognizing its inability to pass beyond the limits of the doctrine given by Christ. In such cases as this, where the doctrine demands heroic virtue of the faithful, the Church has the further pastoral obligation to make very certain that such heroic virtue is in fact demanded.”

Father John P. Donnelly
NCWC News Rome correspondent

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