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Lex Cordis Caritas - The law of the heart is Love

by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

In my previous column in Catholic Times, I wrote about the different attitudes towards marriage that were held by two men in their 80s and a 21-year-old young man. The older gentlemen were both married for over 60 years. The young man wanted nothing to do with marriage. He blamed the divorce of his parents and hearing how married people were cheating on their spouses. He was content to have a girlfriend and two dogs rather than a wife and children. I have been thinking how sad it is that this young man has such a negative view of marriage and family life. I wonder who will be there for him over the years and into his old age. These thoughts prompt me to address the issue of divorce and the negative impact that divorce has on children.

One of the men who is over 80 years old with whom I spoke told me how his parents sat him and his siblings down one day when he was a teenager and asked them which parent they would prefer to live with if they got divorced. He answered that if they did not love each other and their children enough to keep their family together, then he did not want to live with either of them. He said he would go to live with his grandparents instead. His parents were apparently taken aback by his answer, which caused his parents to rethink their plans to get a divorce. They stayed together and worked things out. He said he even saw his parents grow closer to each other over the years as they learned how to work through their difficulties in their relationship.

Divorce is a subject that Jesus spoke about very clearly. When asked if divorce was lawful, Jesus answered, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Mark 10:11-12). Following this teaching of Our Lord, the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. … The Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence” (1650).

Such persons are not excommunicated, and in fact are “encouraged to listen to the Word of God, to attend the Sacrifice of the Mass, to persevere in prayer, to contribute to works of charity and to community efforts for justice, to bring up their children in the Christian faith, to cultivate the spirit and practice of penance and thus implore, day by day, God’s grace” (1651).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church also describes the negative consequences of divorce, saying, “Divorce is a grave offense against the natural law. It claims to break the contract, to which the spouses freely consented, to live with each other till death. Divorce does injury to the covenant of salvation, of which sacramental marriage is the sign. … Divorce is immoral also because it introduces disorder into the family and into society. This disorder brings grave harm to the deserted spouse, to children traumatized by the separation of their parents and often torn between them, and because of its contagious effect which makes it truly a plague on society.” (2384-2385).

Not everyone who is divorced is guilty of a moral offense. “It can happen that one of the spouses is the innocent victim of a divorce decreed by civil law; this spouse therefore has not contravened the moral law. There is a considerable difference between a spouse who has sincerely tried to be faithful to the sacrament of marriage and is unjustly abandoned, and one who through his own grave fault destroys a canonically valid marriage” (2386).

In an age when too many people turn hastily to divorce as a quick fix to their marital problems, not heeding the negative consequences of doing so, we need to recover the understanding of marriage taught by Jesus and subsequently codified in the Church’s Code of Canon Law that, between the baptized, “a ratified and consummated marriage cannot be dissolved by any human power or for any reason other than death” (c. 1141).

May God give us this grace. Amen.