Roman Catholics don’t believe in divorce. But they do allow for annulments. These involve ecclesiastical tribunals that rule that a valid marriage never existed in the first place. If it was determined that a couple was too young and didn’t know what they were doing or that they didn’t understand the Catholic theology of marriage, their marriage could be declared invalid. Despite receiving the sacrament of marriage in their wedding, despite living together for decades, despite having children and raising them to adulthood, they weren’t really married, thus ratifying their civil divorce and allowing them to marry someone else.
Catholics who do get a divorce and remarry without an annulment (which is a very expensive and time-consuming process) incur automatic excommunication, meaning that they are not allowed to receive Holy Communion. This affects lots of people, as you can imagine, and cuts seriously into church attendance. So the church is reconsidering its practice, trying to find a way to allow remarried people to take Communion.
A leader of that effort is the retired German archbishop Cardinal Walter Kasper, who, in the course of an interview in Commonweal Magazine, dropped this bombshell that, strangely, has drawn little attention: “I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid.”
I’ve spoken to the pope himself about this, and he said he believes that 50 percent of marriages are not valid. Marriage is a sacrament. A sacrament presupposes faith. And if the couple only want a bourgeois ceremony in a church because it’s more beautiful, more romantic, than a civil ceremony, you have to ask whether there was faith, and whether they really accepted all the conditions of a valid sacramental marriage—that is, unity, exclusivity, and also indissolubility.
Half of all people who think they are married aren’t really married? In context, it would appear that the pope was referring to the marriages of Catholics–though by the standards referred to, it would appear that no non-Catholics can be married–but think about this. My wife and I were arguably too young and didn’t know what we were doing, so, if we were Catholic, are we not married, even though we are now old and knowledgeable?
Imagine a Catholic couple who just celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. If they married back then for “bourgeois” reasons–they wanted to be respectable; all of their friends were doing it; a church wedding is “romantic”–their marriage, if the Cardinal is correct, is invalid. So they have been living in sin for 50 years. Their children are technically illegitimate. In the Catholic accounting system that numbers every sin, they have committed countless acts of fornication. One would hope that when they die, the couple could expiate their sins by a few thousand years in the fires of Purgatory, but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that, in terms of Roman Catholic soteriology, dying with so many mortal sins unconfessed without due penitence would land them both in Hell.
Note too how Lutherans actually have a higher view of the Sacraments than Catholics. Cardinal Kasper says that “a sacrament presupposes faith,” so that if a couple didn’t have faith in the sense of a full understanding of the Catholic theology of marriage, the sacrament wasn’t efficacious. Whereas Lutherans believe that a Sacrament creates faith. For Lutherans, marriage is not a Sacrament but a Vocation, but the external word (“I now pronounce you husband and wife”; “What God has joined together let not man put asunder”) leaves no doubt that a marriage has, in fact, been entered into. Also, to the point at issue, whereas Catholics believe you have to be, in effect, sinless in order to receive the Sacraments, Lutherans believe that the Sacraments are for sinners and that they convey Christ’s forgiveness of sins.
Test your marriage by measuring your wedding day by the grounds for annulment in the Catholic Church.
HT: Ross Douthat