The Big Questions: Challenges to the Family Today
The Big Questions: Challenges to the Family Today

The Big Questions: Challenges to the Family Today

Fr Nicky Welsh FAITH MAGAZINE Spetember-October 2014

So what are the big challenges to family life in contemporary society? In a wide-ranging Thursday morning presentaiton, Father Nicky Welsh highlighted many areas for concern and hope. In this excerpt, he deals with the delicate issue of pastoral care for divorced and remarried Catholics.

There are many good and happy marriages, thanks be to God, but what are we supposed to do when things go badly wrong? It is important to notice that what Jesus forbids is divorce and remarriage. There may be circumstances in which separation is the only option, in order to protect oneself or one’s children. The Church does not condemn those victims of violence or abuse to a life of misery in such a household. Separation in these circumstances is often necessary and sensible. If separation becomes permanent, seeking a legal divorce might be necessary in order to sort out things like property, financial issues, access to children etc. The Church does not forbid civil divorce and this doesn’t mean that someone who has undergone a civil divorce may not receive Holy Communion.

However, obtaining a civil divorce does not mean that someone is free to marry again. Divorce does not dissolve a valid marriage between baptised Christians. Only the death of one of the partners breaks that bond. So where does that leave Catholics who are divorced and remarried? Are they excommunicated? The answer to that is, “no”. Excommunication is a very solemn, dramatic and, fortunately, rare event that publicly cuts someone off from the Church completely. It is not the same thing as not being able to receive Holy Communion. Anyone who is aware that they have committed a grave sin should not receive Holy Communion until they have confessed that sin, done penance and made a sincere effort to change their life. But if the situation that holds someone back from Holy Communion is not a one-off event that we can repent of and change, but an ongoing reality or semi-permanent situation, then it may prevent them from receiving Holy Communion for a long time. Being divorced and remarried is one such situation.

“The truth is often difficult, but its difficulty doesn’t make it any less true. Because it is true, we have to try our best to live it.”

But this does not mean that someone is such a situation should stop coming to Mass. Even if we cannot receive Holy Communion for whatever reason, we should always go to Mass on Sunday. We don’t have to go to Holy Communion every time we go to Mass. God does not turn his back on us even if we turn away from him, and we should never give up trying to put things right if we have got something wrong. We all know that life can be complicated, especially when it comes to marriage and families; certain situations may not be simple to sort out. In many cases it may not be realistic or desirable to walk away from a second marriage, even those which are not valid sacramentally. There are often obligations to new children, for example. However, the Church still encourages us in this state to pray and to take part in the life of the Church and the other sacraments as far as possible.

There are, however, some positive steps we can take to put things right, even though these may not be easy. Jesus said plainly that remarrying after divorce is the same as adultery. He says: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery against her. And if a woman divorces her husband and marries another she is guilty of adultery too.”1 And also, “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another is guilty of adultery, and the man who marries a woman divorced by her husband commits adultery.”2 The solution for a couple who are in a stable non-sacramental marriage is to live without sexual intercourse, whilst loving and caring for each other in every other way. Living this way is naturally a private decision and something to be made known to a priest in confession. If a couple are sincere in trying to keep to such a decision – even if they fail on occasion and go to confession when they do – then the way is open for them to receive Holy Communion. This calls in to play the virtue of chastity – to which everyone in all states of life is called to. Christ teaches that chastity is possible, even in difficult cases because God’s grace is more powerful than sin.3 Chastity, remember, is a fruit of grace, not a penance or a deprivation. To claim that those who have entered into a second, non-sacramental marriage cannot live chastely is to despair at the virtue of chastity and at God’s grace.

There are other ways that it may be possible to put things right too. Marriages break down for many reasons, but it could be that there was something wrong from the outset. If this were the case, it may be that the vows made at the wedding were never valid in the first place. We should remember that, in marriage, the ministers of the sacrament are the spouses, not the priest. In, for example, confession, the priest is the minister of the sacrament: it is the priest who ministers God’s forgiveness. In marriage, the priest doesn’t marry the couple but, rather, they marry each other. They are the ministers of the sacrament. The priest is merely the Church’s witness to the sacrament taking place. If it is later discovered that the spouses were never in a position to be the minister because of some impediment, because they were unable to give consent, then they would have been unable to confer the sacrament, and the sacrament would be invalid. There are a few impediments, like age and relation, which are obvious. But, if it can be proved that one of the spouses was psychologically immature or mentally incapable to make the vows, the vows could be deemed invalid. Also, if it can be proved that one of the parties never intended to have children, which is one of the ends of marriage, this could also nullify the vows. If the vows are null and void, if consent could not be given, the marriage never existed.

If a marriage is not valid from the start, it cannot bind people to stay together for life, because it is not a sacrament. Couples can ask the Church to look at their situation to judge whether the original marriage was actually valid. If, after careful investigation, the “marriage” is judged not to have been valid, the the first “marriage” is officially “annulled” by a decree of the Church courts. An annulment is not a Catholic divorce but is, rather, a declaration that no marriage ever existed in the first place.

The Church has the authority to do this because Jesus said to his apostles, “Whatever you bind on earth will be considered bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be considered loosed in heaven.”4 Even so, the Church cannot go against the explicit and solemn teaching of Our Lord that, “what God has joined together, no man can separate.”5 However, we noted at the start of the talk, in the same passage from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus does make an exception in the case of porneia, which is the word used in the Greek of the New Testament. What is this exception? What does porneia mean?

Many versions of the Bible translate the word into English as “fornication”, “unchastity”, or “adultery”, making it seem as though Jesus is allowing divorce whenever there is unfaithfulness by one or another partner. But the Gospel does not use the ordinary Greek word for adultery, moicheia, but rather it uses this porneia. Porneia is often translated as “prostitution”, but it refers to prostitution in a very wide sense, i.e. every kind of illegitimate sexual union. Its use in this Gospel passage shows that if a man and a woman are in fact married, the bond is inseparable, but if they entered into marriage illegitimately, i.e. not that they entered an illegitimate union with a third party, but that if their own sexual union was illegitimate because of impediments (such as age, relation or bigamy etc.), then their marriage was never lawful, never a valid marriage, and that they are, therefore, free to enter into a new valid marriage. What Our Lord in this Gospel is telling us in the language and categories of the time, and what the Church has developed and applied in practice, is that the only exception to the life-long bond of marriage is where there is in fact no legally binding covenant to begin with.

There is currently a lot of pressure from the secular world – media and politicians – as well of from those quite high up in the Church, such as bishops and cardinals, for the Synod on Marriage and the Family, which will take place in Rome in October, to change the basic teaching of Christ by allowing Holy Communion for the divorced and remarried. Even if a synod of bishops voted for it, it cannot and will not happen. Why? Well, we have seen quite clearly what Jesus teaches about divorce and remarriage: He forbids it. That teaching of Jesus has been preserved by the Church for these past 2000 years. This teaching of Jesus Christ, and all Christ’s teachings, difficult though they may be, are true not for certain times in history but are true for all time. This teaching cannot change because the truth does not change. The truth is often difficult, but its difficulty doesn’t make it any less true. Because it is true, we have to try our best to live it. Those who divorce and remarry enter into a state of sin – not an occasion of sin which can be confessed and forgiven – but a state of life which is at odds with the Church’s teaching. The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity, the sacrament in which the Body of Christ, the Church, partakes as an expression of our unity in faith. Those who are divorced and remarried live outside of this expression of faith and, as such, painful though it is, are unable to receive Holy Communion.

What we have to always remember is that those who find themselves in “irregular situations”, as they are called, those who have entered into a second, non-sacramental marriage, should be treated with the care, respect and compassion that Our Lord showed to those in similar situations. We remember that when Our Lord met the woman at the well in Samaria he knew that she had been married five times and that the man she was living with was not her husband.6 Still, he welcomed her kindly and spent time with her, explaining the Good News whilst never compromising on the truth about marriage and about her life, leading her gently but firmly to a deeper understanding and eventually to conversion. This should be our pastoral model for dealing with those who are divorced and remarried, and their understanding and conversion should be our hope.

Father Nicky Welsh is a newly ordained priest of the Archdiocese of St. Andrews & Edinburgh.


1Mk 10:11-12.

2Lk 16:18.

3Cfr. Rom. 5:20, ‘However much sin increased, grace was always greater’.

4Mt 18:18.

5Mt 19:6.

6Jn 4:4-26.

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