Divorce, Remarriage, and Moral Tragedy

In a recent post I offered a few critical remarks on some things that Cardinal Kaspar said in an interview with Commonweal.  Cardinal Kaspar favors some effort to reform the Church’s refusal to admit the divorced and remarried to communion, at least in some cases.

One of my points was that I think the cardinal is confusing the possibility of forgiveness for sins with the possibility of repairing all the damage done by our sins.  Since God is merciful, he argues, there must be a path to forgiveness, even for the divorced and remarried.  Hence his desire to find a way to repair the divorced and remarried person’s relationship with the Church.  Of course, the strict person might respond that there is a path to such an outcome: the divorced and remarried person, who is living in sin according to the Church’s teaching, needs to repent and get out of the sinful relationship.  But Cardinal Kaspar suggests that this is unrealistic and too rigorous.  After all, he says, the divorced and remarried person might not be able to get out of the new relationship without doing harm to others, like the new spouse and any children that might have resulted from the relationship.  So there must be a path for the person to find forgiveness and get back into communion with the Church.

Again, I would say that this line of thinking overlooks the difference between finding forgiveness, which of course God is willing and eager to dispense, and being able to fix all the things we have made wrong through our sins, which does not often happen.  Let me try to illustrate my point by way of an example.

Bowline knot

Say a twenty year old man marries a woman and has two children with her, and that the marriage was in the first place a real and valid one.  It is perfectly possible that such a man could undergo a deterioration in his character– it happens all the time, given the presence of sin in our lives–and end up deciding he is in love with someone else, leaving his wife and children, and marrying the new woman in his life, at the age of twenty six.  Then he might well have children by her, too.  He is now in a new relationship in which new people–a new woman, new children–are now dependent on him.

It may be possible for such a man to be forgiven.  I should say it is certainly possible for such a man to be forgiven.  But it is impossible for him really to fix the situation he has created by his misconduct.  He has created a kind of moral tragedy in which it is impossible for him to do his duty by everybody concerned, or in which it is impossible for him to do the right thing without harming others who are, really, innocent bystanders.  One problem with the approach Cardinal Kaspar seems to want is that it would create the appearance that this situation has been fixed when in fact it has not.

Indeed, there is a kind of contradiction in Cardinal Kaspar’s argument.  He claims that you can’t ask a person in the situation like the one above to quit the new relationship, since that would involve doing harm to the other people in the new relationship.  That may be true.  But it is equally true that continuing in the new relationship does an ongoing harm to the people in the earlier relationship or the previous family–the first wife and her children.  By staying with the new wife and children, the man in my example in not going back to his first wife and children.  The injury that supposedly prevents him from obeying the Church’s teaching is also the injury that he is doing by refusing to obey the Church’s teaching.

Among other problems, doing something like what Cardinal Kaspar suggests would simply encourage more people to get divorced and remarried by obscuring the damage they would be doing and creating the false impression that it could somehow be adequately repaired in this life.


Categories:Culture Marriage

  • George Marshall

    Holloway: But it is impossible for him really to fix the situation he has created by his misconduct.

    That is correct. He cannot seek an annulment because Mr. Holloway has said that the first marriage was real and valid. There was no abuse or danger. He simply does not love the first wife and does love the second in the situation Mr. Holloway describes. So, he has to hurt someone. Since he is married to the first wife, he must say to his second family, “I’m sorry. I love all of you, but I must leave this marriage and go back to my true marriage.” To the first wife, he must say, “I don’t really love you, but to get right with God, I am forced to come back to you.” So to get right with the Church, he must harm the second family. And, the first wife is obligated to take him back because he’s her husband? I’m sorry, but it does not seem to me that being required to commit a second sin [hurting the new spouse and children], is the way to resolve this issue. We are then left with a new family that is told that God wants them to be abandoned, a first wife who may no longer want her “husband” back and a husband to two women who is forced to be with someone he does not love.

  • Mark

    George, I’m with Mr. Holloway on this one. You cite cases where the relationship has gone sour for one reason or another. In extreme cases I understand the Church counsels separation to protect, or to make life bearable. This is far different from divorcing and then moving on to a new family.

    Regardless of the universe you want to inhabit the rules of our faith, especially those surrounding one of our sacraments, should not be softened.

  • Elizabeth

    There is the possibility of annulment of the first marriage, but NO the Church must NOT compromise any more than it already does. I have to seek annulment, living celebate etc. Etc. Because I’m willing to do whatever it takes to restore my friendship with my Creator. (I married an abusive alcoholic sociopath at 19.) Tragic as these situations are, the Church already does provide the means for salvage of our souls. Band aid solutions will not save our souls

    • ML

      Great response and a beautiful attitude to have. May God bless you.

  • George R. Rivera, Jr.

    Interesting perspectives, all – yet some are overlooked. There are marriages that, for whatever reason, one changes enough that the other is victimized. This could be through alcohol, drugs, or simply a fundamental underlying character change or ossification. A partner finds that the other has become someone they did not marry.

    At that point, the spouse has a choice – to remain in a marriage that has gone from a support and partnership against the vulgarities of life to that of being just one more problem. It appears that in Carson’s Worldview, the choice is Hell in a relationship to be endured stoically or Hell outside of the Church. I suppose if Carson feels that remaining in a marriage where one partner is obliviously happy at the expense of the other, this is a penance opportunity such as the Saints faced with imprisonment, torture and martyrdom. Your reward is in Heaven! Rejoice in your suffering!

    Carson brings to mind the Gun Control Advocate who has never been unarmed and looked down the barrel of a gun. Academic theory on life and the Real Deal often do not mix. Rigidity of this type was the root cause of the Schism with Orthodoxy and later the Protestant revolt. Carson is critical of the cardinal insomuch as “ . . . the cardinal is confusing the possibility of forgiveness for sins with the possibility of repairing all the damage done by our sins.” An interesting view by Carson, especially in the light of the fact that the author misuses the very definition of “repair” when involved with sin and forgiveness. A man steals a car. He is sorry he did so, asks forgiveness for the theft of the owner, and receives it from that owner. Has the theft never occurred on the granting of forgiveness? No. The car was still stolen.

    In the Carson Worldview, take an abusive alcoholic who beats the spouse. The children look on, and see this as a legitimate patterning for their lives. Carson would see the damage continue to the ultimate conclusion of the ruination of everyone’s lives involved generationally including the abusive spouse (although that person would never see a problem in the first place, let alone acknowledge one and seek help . . . it was all going his or her way) rather than escape. This is an extreme example, and admittedly so – yet the Rigidity of Carson’s Dogma has no other recourse.

    There is the Theory of Things which rule Carson’s view, and there is the Reality of Things that impact Cardinal Kaspar’s view. I think I know which universe I would much rather want to inhabit.

    • Harry Smith

      One has to wonder what kind of world Carson actually lives in. We all make errors. We all have done things we wish we hadn’t. None of us are “perfect.” The best we can do is learn from our bad actions and move forward. It’s extremely important to do what we can to rectify the effects of our bad actions. To error is human. To rectify is godly. Carson’s approach seems to imply that because we can’t go backwards and “un-create” our bad action that there is no recourse and that we will forever be hell bound. Nothing could be further from the truth. By the way, suffering over a bad action we’ve done solves nothing and resolves nothing. All suffering does is take the joy out of living. Skip the suffering and move forward.

      • Antonio A. Badilla

        Harry, is it Carson’s approach or is it Christ’s approach? “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” Mark 10: 11. Why is it that the messenger is always attacked because we don’t like the message?

        • Harry Smith

          It’s interesting that your reply uses only the man divorcing the woman and I believe the bible does the same. Is it different if the woman divorces the husband? I assume not. Your words imply a male dominated world, which of course it is and was in the time of Jesus. In any case, I don’t know what your response has to do with my entry that you’re referring to. I was referencing Carson’s fear and resulting suffering over the fact that he and no one else is perfect. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes. If we never made mistakes we wouldn’t learn to be better people.

          • Antonio A. Badilla

            Harry, are you saying tht God is wrong, unfair, and simply does not understand our age? As a matter of fact, the passage aplies to both MEN and women. I defended Carson because you attacked him insted of attacking Christ, who is the One who gave us the teaching you so disliked, in the first place.

    • Caro

      Actually, you are wrong. One has the possibility of leaving a marriage if lives are in danger such as your description above. AND, more over this issue over divorce is for those who get married and then find themselves cheating or no “longer wanting” to be married. It’s not suppose to be an easy way out unless like I said, a life is in danger within that relationship.

    • Antonio A. Badilla

      George, “I think I know which universe I would much rather want to inhabit.” I would rather inhabit this universe, “Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” Mark, 10:11 I don’t know of anyone who thinks it is O.K. to receive Holy Communion in the state of adultery.



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