Divorce and Remarriage: The Pastoral Approach

In response to my last post, DJ AMDG has suggested that, while perhaps doctrinally sound, it lacks any pastoral sense. Fair enough. I’m not a pastor, and the last post was more to explain what the appropriate doctrine was, not how to apply it to an individual’s case. But he’s right that that’s important. Specifically, he says:

The church has a responsibility to not only establish doctrine for the discipleship (and safety) of those within, but it must also provide for reconciliation and a path to wholeness for those who have sinned.

So here are the ways I see the Church fullfilling that responsibility. To be clear: if you divorce, you have a responsibility not to remarry. But let’s say that you do divorce and remarry. At some point, you realize that this is sinful, and you want to do something about it. What should you do?

  1. First and foremost, go to confession. If you’re truly sorry for your sins, God grants you absolution through the person of the priest. Support for this comes from John 20:21-23, where Jesus commissions the Apostles to forgive sins with the power He bestows upon them. If you make a good confession, you’re a clean slate. You’re completely cleansed.
  2. This leaves, of course, the problem that you have someone you’re married to in the eyes of God, that you’re not married to in the eyes of the state (your “ex-spouse”); and someone you’re not married to in the eyes of God, who you are married to in the eyes of the state (your current “spouse”). How should you react to this? It depends in large part on the situation: are there kids? What do the “spouse” and “ex” think about all of this? And so on. So the next step is to talk to a reliable and orthodox priest who has some experience handling such cases.
  3. At the minimum, stop sleeping with your new “spouse” — that’s adultery. On the other hand, if your “spouse” is fine living as brother/sister with you to raise children, this is an often pursued solution. It should be made clear, so as to avoid the appearance of evil, that the relationship is not a sexual or marital one, but a way to create a stable and loving environment for children (particularly if the children are the offspring of you and your “spouse” instead of your “ex”).
  4. There may be extreme measures taken: for example, remarrying and recommitting to your initial (and valid) spouse.
  5. On the other hand, it may be that your initial marriage was never valid in the eyes of God. A canon lawyer can examine the case, and advise you. It may be that you were insufficiently aware at the time you married exactly what it was that you signed up for. Be careful and honest about pursuing this option: if you genuinely believe that your initial marriage was invalidly contracted, go forward; but don’t abuse it. If a tribunal finds that the marriage was not valid at the time it was contracted, it is declared null. (The tribunal isn’t, and can’t be, infallible, because it’s hard to know exactly what people are thinking — they look to expressions of internal desire, but these things can be a bit hairy; However, we believe that as long as the spuoses pursued the annulment in good faith, God will respect the declaration). Cases warranting annulment include things like forced marriage, invalid (i.e., incestual) marriage, and some other strangely specific cases. For example, the Code of Canon Law says that if you kill either your spouse or your love interest’s spouse for the purposes of marrying him/her, you legally cannot. As in, you two can never validly marry in the eyes of God or the Church. But if you kill him/her for some other reason, it’s presumably not barred? (Perhaps you kill him in a barroom brawl, and feel so guilty, you marry his widow). There are a few overarching “you weren’t aware what marrying meant at the time” provisions, and a lot of interesting nuanced rules.*

I should add also that the Church does not prohibit civil divorce, although it believes (rightly, I think almost anyone would admit) that it’s an overused recourse which should be saved for extreme situations. Nevertheless, it may be that due to abuse of either you or your children, substance abuse or other addiction, or some other destructive and disruptive behavior, that the best thing you can do is to file for civil divorce. Fair enough. But in that case, you don’t get to remarry. You live celibately.

This is increasingly viewed as harsh, but it’s pretty well in keeping with the general way that the Church understands those who are called to celibacy, particularly, since here, the celibacy is conditional: if your spouse genuinely reformed their life, it might (depending heavily upon the circumstances, odds of recidivism, nature of previous wrongs, etc.) warrant civilly re-marrying them, at which point the conjugal life could resume.

Anyways, like I said, the Church has pastors, and I’m not one of them, even by disposition. But hopefully, this helps anyone trying to divine the solution to their individualized set of problems.

*At first brush, this may seem absurd. Why so many rules? That’s easy enough – there’s lots of gray area throughout history. Women sold by their fathers into marriage: are they married in the eyes of God? What about those who marry under threat of death by the spouse? What about those who marry because of mistaken identity — i.e., the very thing that happened to Jacob in Genesis 29:25? What about those who marry for a specific non-romantic reason (i.e., to solidify a peace treaty, or for land, or for money)? What about those who marry for such a non-romantic reason, and then find out the other spouse was lying (i.e., never intended peace, or has no land or money)? When you get into the thick of it, the motivations of those seeking marriage are often less than ideal, and it’s important to set clear standards as to when what they’re seeking just plain old isn’t marriage.

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