Response to Bishop Vesco: a failed marriage is still indissoluble; reconciliation for those in second unions

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Msgr. Jean-Paul Vesco, Bishop of Oran in Algeria, in a text published by the weekly magazine La Vie (English translation)has said:

“I firmly believe that it is theologically possible to assert the indissolubility of real conjugal love and the uniqueness of sacramental marriage, and at the same time the possibility of pardon in the event that lifelong marriage – one of life’s most beautiful but perilous adventures – fails.”

He argues for this possibility in an interview accompanying the text, suggesting that it is an “impossible” decision for those in a second union to separate and/or cease to have sexual relations. He claims that any moral offence connected with the second marriage is an “instantaneous” rather than a “continuing” offence, of a kind that might exclude repentance and reception of the Eucharist.

There are central issues at stake here: the indissolubility of marriage; the human success or failure of marriage once established; the rightness or wrongness of sex outside marriage and the feasibility of those in a second marriage separating and/or ceasing to have intercourse.

Indissolubility

The roots of the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage go very deep.

“Whoever shall put away his wife and marry another, commits adultery against her. And if the wife shall put away her husband, and be married to another, she commits adultery.”

(Mark 10.11-12; Matthew 19.9; Luke 16.18). See also 1 Corinthians 7.10-11. Christ restores the original indissolubility of marriage as ordained by God from Creation and grounded in human nature (Matthew 19.4-6 and 19.8).

Christ’s words about marriage “in the beginning” make it clear that even according to natural law, marriage is, in a very real sense (if not the uniquely strong sense of sacramental marriage) indissoluble: something affirmed by the teaching of Pope Pius IX who condemned in his Syllabus the proposition,

“According to the natural law, the bond of marriage is not indissoluble, and in certain cases divorce in the strict sense can be sanctioned by civil authority.” (67).

The Church Fathers and Popes down the ages are unfailing in their defence of the indissolubility of marriage, even under the greatest pressure from critics of the Church’s position. Pope Leo the Great, in the mid 5th century, had to deal with the problem of spouses who were captured by invaders, ‘missing presumed killed’ for many years, but who then returned. The Pope does not compromise: the first marriage cannot be dissolved. (see note 1 below)

The Council of Trent’s decree on indissolubility is unambiguous about this (an unambiguousness unaffected by attempts made by some advocates of dissolubility to make much of Trent’s avoidance of direct confrontation with the remarriages of Greek Christians under Latin bishops in Venetian territories. See note 2 below).

Marital success versus marital indissolubility

Indissolubility, and particularly the absolute indissolubility of sacramental marriage, has nothing to do with the success or failure of the marriage, which is something that emerges after the marriage is brought into being as an objective entity. A marriage may sadly fail, and any fault the spouses have in that failure (sometimes there may be little fault on either side) has nothing whatever to do with whether the marriage genuinely came into existence as a sacramental reality – in which case it persists until death. To slide, as Bishop Vesco appears to slide, from talk of the indissolubility of marriage to “the indissolubility of any genuine relationship of love” is too easy a step, since by definition if no such “genuine relationship of love” remains there will be (in the Bishop’s terms) nothing to dissolve. This is very far from a Christian view of marriage, and very close to standard secular and indeed anti-Christian views.

Possibility of those in second unions separating and/or ceasing to have sexual relations

What are we to make of Bishop Vesco’s reference to “the definitive situation that the indissolubility of their love has created”? Is the Bishop denying that some couples, wishing to reconcile themselves with God and with the Church, do decide either to separate, or to cease having sexual relations? This is not an “impossible decision” or “impossible separation”, as Bishop Vesco says, but a reality for many couples down the ages, and for not a few today. Couples who make this decision arguably love each other no less, but rather more, for their refusal to express their love in unrealistic ways which inevitably betray the real, persisting bond of the original marriage (something that may be very much felt by a spouse and/or children from that marriage). The “impossible decision” is not impossible at all, as the experience of many ordinary Christians demonstrates. The love may persist, albeit in radically altered form, but the new union is not indissoluble, and never has been.

The “continuing offence” in the case of the divorced and remarried couple is the choice to engage in sexual relations, which is not a “one-off” offence made at the time of the exchange of vows. Bishop Vesco underestimates the possibility of regularising a relationship through an explicit renunciation of sex by the couple. Couples may be more capable of abstinence, given a strong reason, than the clergy sometimes realise. They abstain for all sorts of reasons, and the likelihood of this working on the aggregate with couples who really want to reunite with the Church are probably much greater than those facing teenagers required by their faith to avoid extramarital sex or masturbation. In all cases, sacramental confession is available as a remedy. God’s grace in helping people to transform their lives even in the most trying personal situations must never be seen as “impossible”. To downgrade marriage and with it the importance of the Eucharist is ultimately to deny people what they have a right to expect from the Church: a Mother who affirms their human dignity, their irreplaceability, and the nobility of their sacramental calling, while also supplying the means to realise it.

See the related press release by Voice of the Family: Pro-family coalition condemns bizarre Synod proposal by Algerian bishop

Notes:

(1) C. L. Feltoe, ed., The Letters and Sermons of Leo the Great (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, vol. 12; 1999 reprint), letter CLIX, paras ii-v, pp. 102-3.

(2) History is being misused by advocates of dissolubility. An article published in Civiltà Cattolica by Giancarlo Pani, S.J. makes much of the Council of Trent’s avoidance at the instance of Venice of direct confrontation with the remarriages of Greek Christians under Latin bishops in Venetian territories. Trent’s decree on marriage is unambiguous enough about indissolubility and the clear intention behind the revised wording is to avoid starting a battle with Greeks under Venice at the same time as the life and death struggle with Lutheranism was going on. Priests and other Catholics and sensible people generally avoid explicit denunciation and confrontation when they know that it will do more harm than good. For subsequent decisions about the Greek practice of second marriages see the following: Benedictus XIV, const. Etsi pastoralis, 26 May, 1742), Codicis Iuris Canonici Fontes, ed. P. Gasparri, i (Rome, 1947), p. 749: “Bishops (Ordinarii Locorum) should in no way permit or suffer the marriages between Greek couples to be dissolved (dirimi) or for divorces to take place with respect to the marriage bond (vinculum – i.e. as opposed to legal separation).”

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