Christianity is a religion of mercy and forgiveness. The great truth that Christianity captures is the fact that, despite our rebelliousness against God, despite the fact that we are owed absolutely nothing, God gives us his grace anyway. We believe that there is no bound to God’s mercy, and at least in theory, there is no sin that God could not forgive. There is nothing that could keep us out of God’s love.
As I continue to grow in faith, working out my own salvation daily and training to help others in theirs, I have found otherwise, at least in practice. While God’s mercy may abound, the Church’s understanding and ability to express it does not, and we are left with one seemingly unforgivable sin.
Which one, you ask? Some point to Mark 3:29, and say that blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. I’m not entirely sure what that would mean, but am sure that even the worst blasphemies are balanced with one’s faith at the time (“how could they even know what they’re saying?”) and can be forgiven. Others point to truly heinous crimes against humanity, e.g. genocide, or affronts to the most vulnerable, e.g. abortion, as sins that cannot be forgiven. Surely these are terrible sins, but with God’s boundless mercy in mind and the presentation of a truly contrite heart, the Church has a way for truly remorseful sinners who looking for a way back to God to repent and be readmitted into full communion. Sexual abuse must be what I’m getting at, then, right? Still no. Even in the case of priests and religious who have be defrocked and removed from active ministry–serious punishments for a serious sin–God’s mercy still allows that these men and women receive grace, and the Church has a way for them to be readmitted into full communion.
In each of these cases, blaspheming the Holy Spirit, abortion, genocide, and sexual abuse, there is a process by which one can be readmitted to the Eucharistic table and receive the sacraments of the Church. For some divorced and remarried Catholics, though, this process does not exist, and many people find themselves permanently unable to take part in the full life of the Church. For many, remarriage after divorce, at least in practice, is an unforgivable sin.
Maybe some theological background would be helpful hear. In the Catholic Church, marriage is not a simply civil contract between consenting parties, it is covenant before God. Like the covenants of the Bible, marriage is transformative, meaning that the relationship is different in nature than it was before, and indissoluble, meaning that its character is permanently established. Prior to being married, the bond between the couple is based on their will and love for one another; after being married, the bond, now sacramental and covenantal in nature, is based on God’s will and love for the couple. To turn away from this in divorce, or to break this covenant by trying to enter into it again with another person, is obviously problematic.
But the fact of the matter is, regardless of theology, people in the Catholic Church get divorced at the same rate as any other religious affiliation. And while divorce in itself is not sinful and does not remove one from the life of the Church, getting remarried without a declaration of nullity (showing that the sacramental bond never took place because of lack of consent or deceit on behalf of one of the parties) is a serious problem. How can one be in full communion if they break a covenant made before God and try to enter into another one? The Church “welcomes” these people, but does not allow them to fully participate in the life of the Church, i.e. they may not receive Eucharist at mass.
And on the one hand, it makes sense. Marriage is not taken seriously by many, and in many cases, is broken because of “irreconcilable differences” or because the couple doesn’t have the same love it used to. This is seriously upsetting, showing that the couple never quite understood what they were entering into when they made a solemn oath before God. To willfully and even casually jump from one marriage to another does remove one, to some extent, from the body of Christ.
On the other hand, to what extent is this selfish and even sinful act determinative of the rest of someone’s life? You will not find many people in the Church saying that divorce and remarriage is a good thing, but the situation many people face is one without a way out. What solution do we have for people who admit to this sin? Right now, the only solution is an annulment.
But let’s say there is a couple that gets married when they’re 24. They are both well-informed Catholics who know what they are getting involved with and enter into the covenant validly. Five years into marriage, though, they have a low point, let their tempers get the best of them, and say and do things that cannot be reconciled at the time. Without much prayer or consult, they rush into divorce, and choose not to speak again, moving on to other relationships. Looking back on that situation ten years later, one or both of them may see the error of their ways. They may see how selfish they were and how quickly they removed God from their lives. They are truly contrite, and wish that they had not acted thus. But now they are 39, far-removed from one another, and are both in, healthy civil marriages, raising children and teaching them the Catholic faith. What can they do? An annulment is not possible: the marriage was valid and they know it. Getting back together is not possible: they are too far removed, and now have children and lives with other people. They are stuck in a situation without a solution, removed from the body of Christ with no way back in.
This is not an unusual case. This is becoming commonplace in our churches.
When I think about the incredibly high number of people that are in this exact situation, and lament over the droves of people each year that leave the Catholic Church for another Christian denomination, I am reminded of the situation that Jesus faces in each of the Gospels. Weighed down by the heavy burdens of the Pharisaical law, entire groups of people find themselves outside of ritual worship with no way in. The shepherds who witness the Nativity in Luke would not have been allowed in the Temple; the woman suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years in Matthew would have been an outcast in society; the centurion who gives the final and most prophetic pronunciation of Jesus’ identity in Mark was unwelcome in the community; the woman at the well in John, a perfect example for this discussion, was rejected not only by the Jews but her own people. In each of these cases, and really, in almost every single case in the Gospels, Jesus forgives the sins of those unable to enter, reestablishes them within the worshipping community, and tells them to sin no more. He does not criticize the law, nor does he say what they had done wasn’t bad. He simply shows mercy and removes the impediment that keeps them from worshipping him fully with the rest of the faithful.
Isn’t that, ultimately, what we wish of all people? That no one wishing to enter, showing contrite heart and willing spirit, be denied entry into the life of the Church. For blasphemy, genocide, abortion, and sexual abuse, terribly heinous acts that are entirely against God’s will and pull our human family apart, there is no impediment for the Church to grant absolution if the right conditions are met. For divorced and remarried Catholics, the solution is not quite as clear.
So what is it that we do? How do we act as Jesus did, revealing the unbound mercy of God in our world? Some say that we should just stop putting so much emphasis on the whole issue, accept that divorce is natural, and allow it without consequence. Others hold firm to the theology, and, taking the stance of the penitentials of the first millennium of the Church, believe that people should simply understand the gravity of their error and live ascetically for the rest of their lives. For me, neither of these solutions are sufficient because neither capture the redemptive love and transformative grace that Jesus showed in his life.
The great truth of our religion, the “Good News” as it were, is that God humbled Godself, even died upon the cross, to give grace to even the least-deserving. The message of the Gospel is not one of excluding all but the perfect, but rather inclusion of the most imperfect. If we believe that salvation is from our Lord, and that the grace he gives is freely given to unmerited sinners, then we must believe that there is no sin that God cannot overcome. It is with great hope and anticipation, then, that I follow the current Synod on the Family, and pray that we may find a way to serve and welcome those who feel that they are unforgivable… Just like Jesus did.
“And I will give to thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven. And whatsoever thou shalt bind upon earth, it shall be bound also in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose upon earth, it shall be loosed also in heaven.” (Matthew 16:19 Douay-Rheims Bible)
In my humble opinion, there should be a process where the Church can loose what has been bound. For people with legitimate marriages, the annulment process does not work.
Brother Christopher (Franciscan)