Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Abstaining from Sexual Relations Until Receiving an Annulment (Catholic Teaching)

By Dave Armstrong (1-22-08)

A first marriage is considered valid and legitimate by the Church until such time as a declaration of nullity is given (because of the doctrine that marriage between two baptized Christians is indissoluble). Therefore, it would follow that a Catholic who was married before (in the "civil" sense of a marriage contract) and then divorced and remarried, would have to abstain from sexual relations until it was determined that this previous situation was invalid, and never was a marriage. This would be the case at least for Catholics, bound to Church rules. For those who are non-Catholic Christians, or unbaptized altogether, other stipulations may apply.

The person who has been married before and seeks to be married according to the rules of the Catholic Church, needs not only an annulment of the previous marriage but also a convalidation of his current putative or ostensible marriage (i.e., official approval and -- if necessary -- sacramentalization, by the norms of the same Catholic authority).

I just read that teachings like this are accepted by about 20% of Catholics. So these are not popular teachings. Anything that limits sexual expression is always unpopular. I didn't make the rules. All I'm doing is presenting them to the best of my knowledge. The Catechism alludes to these sorts of situations:
1650 Today there are numerous Catholics in many countries who have recourse to civil divorce and contract new civil unions. In fidelity to the words of Jesus Christ - "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" the Church maintains that a new union cannot be recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God's law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities. Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.
Pope Benedict XVI is a bit more specific:
Finally, where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God's law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist, taking care to observe the Church's established and approved practice in this regard. This path, if it is to be possible and fruitful, must be supported by pastors and by adequate ecclesial initiatives, nor can it ever involve the blessing of these relations, lest confusion arise among the faithful concerning the value of marriage.

(Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis, 22 February 2007; section 29)
Other magisterial documents assert similarly:

Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church Concerning the Reception of Holy Communion By the Divorced and Remarried Members of the Faithful

(Congregation For the Doctrine of the Faith, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger [Pope Benedict XVI], Prefect, 14 September 1994)

Familiaris Consortio (On the Christian Family in the Modern World), Pope John Paul II, 22 November 1981: see sections 78-84
Prominent catechist and apologist Fr. Peter Stravinskas, in The Catholic Answer Book 2, by, concurs:
The proper procedure while you wait, then, is to abstain from sexual relations until the case is completed. That failing, both you and your intended husband must refrain from receiving Holy Communion since he is presumed to be still validly married.

(pp. 66-67)

People say this is difficult or impossible to do. Sure, it is extremely difficult. Everyone knows that. But it's by no means impossible, because God tells us in Holy Scripture (through St. Paul) that "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." Grace is what makes the difference. It can't be much more difficult than abstaining before marriage. It's not, I don't think, any more difficult to abstain as a married couple for a time than to do so as an engaged couple (which I consider probably the toughest thing I ever did in my life). People abstain during illness or prolonged periods of separation due to military commitments and so forth. So I don't buy this notion that it is impossible and that the Church is terrible for requiring (or suggesting, as the case may be) such a commitment.

It's simply a matter of being sure whether a valid marriage is present. The Church is not trying to punish people, but rather, to help them avoid sin and peril to their soul, which is a loving act (one of the most loving acts of all, in fact. This is no trifling matter, as it could possibly endanger one's eternal soul.

All sorts of difficult situations arise because of human choices and human sin of one sort or another. It is quite understandable how a person in this scenario would feel about this, but part of the responsibility of the Church is to uphold what she feels is the extraordinary dignity of marriage, which is indissoluble. This might seem to be unfair, but much of life is that way, and our past choices inevitably affect the course of our lives and sometimes cause pain and suffering that seem to us to be out of proportion and unfair (and in a very real sense it is so).

Non-Christians despise any form of Christianity because all they see is rules and regulations. The Church provides means to get through these trying times. It is a tough process sometimes, but couples going through it can be comforted in knowing that they are doing the right thing.
I think the notion of annulment (which is also present in the civil law of many nations, by the way) is the only thing that allows mercy in "hard cases" and also accepts the strict New Testament teaching on divorce. 

* * * * *

Sometimes one party is willing to go through the annulment process (whichever party was in a previous marriage) but the other isn't (say, neither party has ever been a Catholic). The previous ostensible "marriage" involved may be an excellent "candidate" for an annulment, if the parties involved were willing to go through that process. Those things can't be forced. In other words, in reality, perhaps there was never a marriage before (not knowing all the facts of the matter, one can only speculate). The Church declares such things, but it doesn't create the reality. It is what it is. If the marriage never took place, according to a Catholic definition of marriage, it didn't, whether or not it was declared to be so. But the Church declaration gives it a definite, objective status. This is how true Church authority functions. For those outside of the Church obviously it can't function as it should, and so we must discuss hypotheticals and probabilities.

But to equate "legal marriage" with a moral living situation is too broad, because all Christians have to honestly deal with Jesus' statements:

Matthew 19:9: “And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another, commits adultery.”

(Catholics interpret "unchastity" here as meaning what is actually no marriage, and a state or fornication: a situation that would be declared null)

Mark 10:11-12 And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."

One can be "legally married" but it doesn't necessarily follow that no sin can be occurring simply because it is legal, and that is because Christian morality goes beyond what is legal (just like abortion is legal but not moral).

If something is a grave sin, it is (objectively), regardless of the good faith of the people involved. They may not have known at the time, but once they find out (the subjective element), then they are responsible to act accordingly.

In many instances of Protestant marriages abstinence may not be morally required; but certainly there are cases where this has to occur, because of not only Catholic teaching, but plain biblical and historic Christian teaching. Otherwise, we would have an absurd state of affairs whereby there would never be cases of adultery provided the parties involved were legally married. That is a sort of "legal positivism" that is antithetical to the Christian faith.

If abstinence is not required by the facts of the matter, it certainly would be a bad thing to try to practice it. The problem is that if an ostensible, legal "marriage" is not a true, sacramental "marriage", then speaking of the "marriage bond" would be irrelevant, because it isn't there in the first place. And if it isn't there, then it is indeed an ongoing state of fornication or adultery, as the case may be.

The Catholic Church teaches that marriages between two baptized Christians are indissoluble. If one party had never been baptized, and/or his wife or her husband was never Catholic, and not willing to go along with Catholic requirements, and was married before, then we have a legal marriage that could very well be regarded as such by the Church (were the spouse willing to get an annulment), though imperfectly in some sense, due to the factors involved.

I'm no expert on all the intricacies of these complex matters, but I'm responsible for conveying Church teaching and making sure that misunderstandings don't arise concerning it. Nor am I in any position to declare definitively about the status of a (legal) marriage, but Catholic teachers should always avoid speaking in overly broad terms that might leave a wrong impression of the strictness of the very high Catholic view of sacramental marriage, lest people be misled at all. The Church holds this view in order to protect married couples, not to torment them.

God holds anyone who teaches about the faith accountable (James 3:1). I take that extremely seriously, even in my capacity as an "unofficial" lay apologist.

No comments: