Don’t change Catholic teaching on marriage, says remarried Protestant (COMMENTARY)

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Father Ernie Davis blesses the communion during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS file photo by Sally Morrow.

Father Ernie Davis blesses the communion during Catholic mass at St. Therese Little Flower parish in Kansas City, Mo. RNS file photo by Sally Morrow.

(RNS) As a Protestant who is divorced and remarried, I have watched the debate over Communion for civilly remarried Catholics with keen interest.

Since I can always find a church that will affirm my marriage and welcome me to the Lord’s Table, I am sympathetic to Catholics who, if remarried without an annulment, cannot receive the sacrament of Communion.

Naturally, I strongly reject the accusation that sexual intimacy with the love of my life and the mother of my children makes me a mortal sinner, no different than a man who sleeps with prostitutes every night. I am further perplexed by the Catholic Church’s demand that people like me must be celibate, living with their spouse “as brother and sister” if they ever hope to receive Communion worthily.

Today many Catholics, influenced by Orthodox and Protestant thinking, see no harm in remarried people receiving Communion. After all, Pope Francis himself says that the Eucharist “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.”

Yet my advice to Pope Francis is this: Don’t change Catholic teaching on marriage.


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Protestantism’s experience with liberalizing on sex over the past 80 or 100 years has not helped the church very much. The churches’ standing is weaker than ever. Legal and cultural institutions normalized contraception, divorce, and even abortion, usually with Protestant support. Evangelicals are left to wonder whether they led or followed secular thinking. And liberal Protestants have almost nothing distinctive to say about sex or the family at all.

Catholics on both sides of the Communion-for-remarrieds debate should consider the experience of the Anglican Communion. Divorce and remarriage was, after all, the precipitating event that led King Henry VIII away from Rome. As one historian puts it, “Because the Catholic Church enforced this law, schism and subsequent heresy invaded one of her choicest realms when a pope refused to grant a divorce to a licentious English king.”

On some level, the very founding of the Church of England prefigures Protestants’ various departures from historic Christian teaching on marriage and sexuality. Anglicans sustained catholicity for a time, but controversies over sexual ethics have engulfed the Anglican Communion.


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Consider contraception. As late as 1920, the Lambeth Conference, a periodic gathering of Anglican prelates, resolutely denounced contraception. At Lambeth in 1930, it all changed. Rather than admonishing its parishioners who were already using artificial birth control, the church dropped its opposition and ceded the question to conscience. Yet the attitude of lay Anglicans toward the church presaged much of what has unfolded over the decades since: No priest is going to tell me what I can do in my bedroom or doctor’s office.

Today, the Anglican Communion’s unity is in grave peril. Ostensibly united by the Book of Common Prayer, sexually liberalized churches in the West barely coexist with traditionalist churches in the Global South. The conservative Anglican Church of North America is a competing denomination to the Episcopal Church in the United States. Some Episcopal parishes have aligned under the oversight of other bishops in the Anglican Communion, often in Africa.

Historically, Protestant bodies have split along geographical or theological lines. Today, intractable disagreements threaten some denominations with schism and force realignments in many others.


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The Catholic Church should strive to avoid these difficulties. One proposal is that bishops in liberal dioceses could allow a “penitential path” for remarried Catholics to receive Communion. But localizing the issue is not a good solution.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, who heads the worldwide Anglican Communion, faces constant challenges in leading provinces with such widely divergent beliefs and practices concerning marriage, divorce, gender roles, and sexuality.

Though Catholic conservatives chafe at the suggestion, Pope Francis accepts the notion that as many as half of Catholic marriages may be sacramentally invalid (and thus eligible for annulments) due to “defects of intent,” in which the spouse(s) do not understand and assent to the fullness of Church teaching on marriage. Given shallow catechesis and the incalculable confusion sown by the sexual revolution, I think the pope may be right.

Still, the Church cannot honestly decree that every marriage that breaks down was never valid in the first place.

The pontiff has already streamlined the annulment process which, in this country, especially, overwhelmingly favors petitioners. That is enough.

Maybe the best answer for remarried Catholics who cannot obtain an annulment is this: The Episcopal Church welcomes you. The Anglican Communion can bear disagreement over something as fundamental as the nature of marriage.

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

But the Church that Christ founded on Peter should avoid becoming a loose confederacy of warring regional ecclesial jurisdictions.

The Catholic Church should not negotiate away its continuity and universality to look more like Protestant sects. The Vatican has enough difficulty defending and enforcing the teachings it hasn’t backed down on. The last thing Rome needs is a Canterbury problem.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University.)

LM END LUPFER

  • Matthew

    Having the Roman Catholic Church retain its narrow and rigid view of marriage and divorce is not advisable. Simply put, it does not at all go together with the experience with marriage shared by many/most of the faithful and other people in society. It is odd that the author claims to be married/divorced/remarried, yet advocates against his own experience in his life. Very strange.

  • Larry

    There are so many badly made assumptions made in this commentary its tough to unpack them all.

    1. The notion that Protestant belief (all 500+ sects and counting) are consistently divergent from Catholic thinking on the subject of marriage/remarriage. Many conservative/fundamentalist sects are more anti-divorce than Catholicism. Despite the author’s assertions, there is no consistent idea between the literally hundreds of sects

    2. Divorce WAS allowed by the church in the days of Henry VIII, they just didn’t approve his for political reasons. (The Pope being held hostage by Henry’s brother in law being the main one)

    3. The Church’s admonishment of birth control is modern and purely arbitrary. Claiming there is a moral stance behind it other than “we are following church directives” is false.

    3. ” Church that Christ founded on Peter” has been “a confederacy of warring regional ecclesial jurisdictions.” since the late Roman Empire. Too late to worry about it now.

  • Shawnie5

    “Simply put, it does not at all go together with the experience with marriage shared by many/most of the faithful and other people in society.”

    That is exactly what he is saying is insufficient reason to discard historic Catholic doctrine.

    The Catholic Church should condone divorce/remarriage if it can find a rationale for doing so that is consistent with scripture and its catechistical tradition — not in order to fit in with the rest of the world or with Protestants. We have seen that that path leads nowhere fast.

  • Larry

    “The Catholic Church should condone divorce/remarriage if it can find a rationale for doing so that is consistent with scripture and its catechistical tradition”

    Like any position a church wishes to take, all it requires is some form of self-serving interpretation to fit the policy desired. Scriptural interpretation has always been goal oriented. As religious belief and scriptural interpretation is not based on rational discourse and presentation evidence, it always comes down to what people are willing to accept. The dishonesty of fundamentalism is their assumption that there are singular acceptable interpretations that must be considered true by all of a given faith.

    “We have seen that that path leads nowhere fast.”
    Like what?
    People abandoning arbitrary authority given to religious leaders?
    Churches willing to forgo prejudices you hold dear?
    Women as clergy?

  • Shawnie5

    “Scriptural interpretation has always been goal oriented.” I’m afraid I can’t attach much weight to your opinion on this. In order to know whether a given interpretation of scripture is self-serving or not, you’d have to be familiar with scripture first.

  • Adam Rasmussen

    Baffling commentary. The author flatly rejects Catholic teaching, then says it should stay the same. He calls the Catholic church the one founded by Christ, yet is a Protestant. He also misses the point: no bishop has suggested allowing multiple marriages or anything resembling Protestant doctrine. It’s about whether some people in marriages that the church still won’t recognize as such may be able to receive communion under certain circumstances.

  • Bernardo

    A lot of verbiage about a minor issue when Christianity and Catholicism are failing due to their flawed theologies and histories not who and who does not get to eat a wafer of bread or drink a sip of wine.

  • Dennis

    The huge difference here is the perception that the Catholic Faith is just like all the others. The Catholic Church was established by God, all the others were established by men. Men can change men’s rules at will, the Catholic Church does not have that ability. The same applies to the difference between the Holy Eucharist as established by Christ on Holy Thursday, and the communion services in protestant churches. Holy Eucharist is reserved for the Catholic faithful in the state of grace. Protestant communion services are for everyone and are only a symbol of the real thing, they could use beer and pizza instead of bread and wine, it would have the same significance.

  • Tony

    Generally religion leads nowhere truthful quickly, nor at any speed.

  • Shawnie5

    “Like any position a church wishes to take, all it requires is some form of self-serving interpretation to fit the policy desired.”

    I’m afraid I can’tell attach much weight to your opinion on this, or even any at all. In order to discern if any given interpretation is scripture is self-serving or not, one must be thoroughly familiar with said scripture in the first place.

    But this position in divorce dates back to the beginning, when the church first arose out of a pagan culture that was even more accepting of divorce/remarriage and sexual immorality than our secular culture is today. It never “went along with most people’a experience of marriage” nor was it meant to. It was never self-serving but highly inconvenient. If there was no reason to change it then, there is even less reason now.

  • larry

    “The Catholic Church was established by God, all the others were established by men.”

    Every church says so about themselves and about churches other than themselves. They have the same level of evidence to support such claims. None whatsoever.

    “Your mileage may vary” is really the only honest way to describe how much a given church is “established by God”. But honest assessment is not a part of having faith in a given religious belief/sect.

  • Observer

    Larry is correct on his points no. 1, no. 2 regarding history of Henry the VIII and his last point. I can’t address his third point The Roman Church is merely one out growth of many churches most which claim Christ as their founder and identify as catholic through the various creeds. The Roman Chuch’s actions over the last 1000 years has created enormous divisions with splits with the Orthodox to the churches of northern Europe. The term Protestant is almost like saying “other”. It is more respective to name the general communions of each.

  • Richard Rush

    Dennis,

    “The Catholic Church was established by God, all the others were established by men.”

    You neglected to note that God was invented by men.

  • Shawnie5

    No, #2 is not correct. Annulments are not Catholic divorces. A divorce would end a valid sacramental marriage, and has never been permitted. An annulment declares that no valid sacramental marriage ever existed.

  • Larry

    Shawnie, you are falling victim to centuries of revisionism on the part of the Catholic Church to justify its present anti-divorce policy. Post facto reasoning.

    The Church’s objection to Henry dissolving his marriage was not moral, it was political. The Pope being held hostage by the most powerful man in Europe (Charles V, who was Catherine of Aragon’s Nephew not her brother, my mistake there)

    The Church had no problem with dissolving royal marriages before, hence Henry’s reason for making the request in the first place.

  • Larry

    Of course not. That would be admitting that “scripture dump” posts are just self-interested blather. It would be far too honest for fundamentalists to cop to such a thing. Of course nobody “knows scripture” more than a fundamentalist does. At least that is what they say about themselves. 🙂

  • Larry

    Shawnie, you mistake centuries of revisionism and apologia for current policies with how they really acted in the past. The idea of marriage being an insoluable condition was not the norm until about the Middle ages. Eastern Orthodox Church always had provisions for divorce. Your notion of morality here merely means “following directives of a church”. Having nothing to do with actual moral concepts. Entirely self-serving in nature.

    The idea that all of Christianity was united on the subject is laughable fiction. One that can only be borne of a modern fundamentalist’s delusion of unity and conformity of scriptural interpretation (and their willingness to ignore any sect but their own, when inconvenient).

    From about the Roman Empire, until the Protestant Reformation, there was little division between secular culture and the acts of the church. So the idea that the church always set itself apart from the secular is pure modern, anachronistic thinking there.

  • Debbo

    The author bases his article on a false point, that one can recognize churches that do it right based on the particular denomination’s financial and numerical success.

    I’ve not seen anything in the bible about money, huge churches and huge numbers of members. The fact that mainline churches have fewer members is no indication of the accuracy of their theology. It is an indication of their popularity and the amount of fear and exclusivism they inspire.

    (See my next comment.)

  • Debbo

    I count as mainline Christian denominations the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, Presbyterian Church USA, United Church of Christ, United Methodist Church, American Baptist Church, and the Episcopal Church. I’ve undoubtedly left one or more out. At any rate, they are all losing members. I’m pretty sure those churches don’t try to create fear in their members by saying no other church will get them to heaven. I’m just as certain they don’t tell them to avoid anyone who doesn’t toe the same theological line. They are also quite easy to get into and out of.

    Lacking a fearful and exclusive theology demonizing “the other” is a strike against churches in 21st century America. There is very little or nothing ‘cultish’ in the mainline Protestant denominations.

  • Shawnie5

    Probably it WAS political. But it was a “political” decision to not grant an annulment. Not a “political” decision to not grant a divorce. Two entirely different animals.

  • Shawnie5

    “The idea of marriage being indissoluble was not the norm until about the Middle ages.” Um, yeah, precisely. That was about the point when European society became predominantly Christian — at least nominally. But Christianity arose out of ancient Rome, which was fine with divorce — and despite this nearly every one of the early church fathers taught indissolubility of marriage as per Christ’s teaching. From Justin Martyr: “And so those who make second marriages according to human law are sinners in the sight of our Teacher,”

    to Origen: “Just as a woman is an adulteress, even though she seem to be married to a man, while a former husband yet lives, so also the man who seems to marry her who has been divorced does not marry her, but, according to the declaration of our Savior, he commits adultery with her,”

    to Ambrose: “You dismiss your wife…and you suppose it is proper for you to do so because no human law forbids it; but divine law forbids it.”

  • Shawnie5

    “Of course nobody “knows scripture” more than a fundamentalist does. At least that is what they say about themselves.”

    You’re always welcome–indeed, encouraged– to rebut from scripture. Yet you and your kind seem to decamp hurriedly when invited to do so. Which says loudly and clearly that you have no idea what any of it is about but whatever it is, you protest. Fine. Your protest (not that anyone cares) is noted.

  • Larry

    Excuses abound, but it still makes your assertions untrue.

    By the Middle Ages (lets just say 11th Century onward), Europe was entirely Christianized. Yet dissolution of marriage was still permitted by church doctrines. You also ignore the fact that divorce was part of the Orthodox Church. They are Christian too 🙂 The Catholic Church still had little problem dissolving royal marriages, especially for reasons Henry VIII used. They only claimed to object to Henry’s divorce on moral grounds long long after the fact. The Vatican being reluctant to admit to being coerced into the decision.

    All that being said, the author makes some Ridiculous assumptions about what is common to all Christian sects to push what is really a very narrow and sectarian minded view.

  • Shawnie5

    The Orthodox church is not the Catholic church. The Catholic church in the west has taught the indissolubility of marriage since Christianity’s beginning. And it has never dissolved marriages but has declared putative marriages to be null and void from inception. It’s a distinction that has lent itself to a good deal of chicanery, to be sure, but the church has never disavowed its theological postion on marriage.

    Yet you have overlooked the point of my comment: How exactly was the Catholic church’s teaching on divorce “self-serving” when it arose in the midst of a rampant pagan divorce culture and presented terrific difficulty to the fledgling church trying to exist within that culture? And why should it be abandoned now for inconvenience when it was not abandoned then for even greater inconvenience?

  • Larry

    Claiming divorce culture was purely pagan and ignoring the Orthodox Church’s stance on it is just spouting apologia.

    Pretending divorce (a marriage dissolved) was really some kind of annulment (a marriage which should never have existed) was entirely post-facto and self-serving. In practice, annulment pronouncements were used as a form of divorce.Like many things of the Catholic Church, people went around dogma which did not function well in practice. Usually with clerical approval. Which was precisely what Henry VIII was looking for and various monarchs before him had done.

  • Shawnie5

    “Claiming divorce culture was purely pagan…” That is not what I claimed. I said pagan culture was fine with divorce. It was even more comfortable with it than our secular culture is today.

    “… ignoring the Orthodox Church’s stance…”

    We are talking about the ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH here, Larry. That is what the article is about. Remember?

    I know it’s hard, but see if you can refocus yourself. I repeat, in what way was the early church’s teaching of indissolubility of marriage “self-serving” when the most convenient thing to do in a culture of rampant divorce would have been to eschew it altogether?

    And, what reason is there today for condoning it that was not present to an even greater degree 2000 years ago?

  • Ed

    Actually, Larry and I, and others, have rebutted your crazy scripture here frequently. You are just still in denial. Note that. Note also that your “god” should not need scripture to communicate.

  • Ed

    No. You claimed it was pagan.