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.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of CatholicVote.org


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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