The Church and Broken Marriages

The Church and Broken Marriages

By Timothy J Buckley CSsR

As a young parish priest in the 1980s, by far the most difficult pastoral situations I encountered were people whose marriages had broken down. Their varied circumstances provided a variety of complications and often I felt helpless in the face of their sadness and frustration.


Annulments were being granted more readily than in previous generations. Some people applied successfully and had their situations ‘regularised’. For many, however, it seemed there was no way forward: either they struggled on, trying to be as faithful as they could to what they believed was required, or else they simply disappeared from the scene.


In the late 1980s I had my own mid-life crisis and was stressed to the point where I needed a break from the parish to recover my own equilibrium. Paradoxically, it proved to be one of the most enriching periods of my life. As I recovered I was able to do some spirituality studies in America. 

I was then asked by the Marriage and Family Life Committee of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales to consider undertaking an in-depth study of the pastoral care (or lack of it) of those suffering from marital breakdown. I did not need a second invitation, and it was agreed that I would do it under the supervision of the Jesuits at London University.

I reported to the bishops’ conference in 1994 and I have it on good authority that Cardinal Basil Hume (the then president of the Catholic Bishop’s Conference) suggested the bishops should have no difficulty in accepting my 24 practical recommendations. He realised, however, the questions raised in my theological analysis might well prompt lively discussion.

Suffice to say, I believe the Catholic Church, in seeking to defend the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage, became entangled in a theological dilemma which left it with little room for manoeuvre when faced with many of the concrete situations that presented themselves in those days and today. Law in any field seeks concrete definitions to provide wise and fair judgements. For the most part, canon law bases its interpretation of the bond of marriage on the medieval scholastic understanding of how Christ acts in the sacraments.

As a result, the sole criterion for sacramental marriage is that both parties must be baptised. This can mean that although there may have been little semblance of any faith commitment on their part, if two Christians marry validly – and for those who are baptised but not Catholics – even in a registry office, then the Church regards them as sacramentally bound for the rest of their lives.

I was told by one of the bishops that when my highlighting of this problem was brought to the attention of the then Prefect of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger, he admitted that the Magisterium (the teaching Church) needed to do some more homework on the subject.

In this article it would be impossible to explore the complexity of the whole subject as exampled by the disputes between Pope Francis and certain senior churchmen and the clash of ideologies that underly the problem.

There are those who believe the Scriptures have clearly defined the Church’s position, and that this has been enshrined in the norms of canon law, which are unalterable. In response, I humbly suggest that such an approach fails to acknowledge that, even within the discipline of canon law, there has been considerable development over the years.

Previously, annulments were a rarity and granted only on the basis of a few strictly established criteria such as lack of true freedom. But since the Second Vatican Council, annulments have been granted more readily, using the recently accepted psychological criteria of lack of due discretion and inability to assume essential obligations of marriage for psychological reasons. This offers the lawyers much greater scope to explore any lack of maturity which may have prevented spouses making a life-long commitment to each other and to God.

While the annulment process has enabled many people to move on into new and more fulfilling relationships, I am convinced that for many others it was not the appropriate forum to try and resolve their problems. For some, the process was too contrived. They were willing to live with the sadness of the breakdown, in spite of all their efforts to make a go of the marriage.

At the same time, and often especially for the sake of the children, they did not wish to be told they were never really married. For others, either their experience of the process, or their fear of the process, caused sufficient stress for them to be convinced that pursuing an annulment would be psychologically and spiritually counter-productive.

I have enormous sympathy for all these people. During my research, it became clear the Church did not have a language in which to communicate with them. Accordingly, they set up their own forums, the most obvious being the Association of Separated and Divorced Catholics.

Over 20 years ago when I was assessing the results of my research, there was overwhelming evidence that the majority of Catholics, including clergy, instinctively realised there was something seriously amiss in our pastoral practice. Now, at last, in the wake of the two synods on Marriage and the Family, initiated by Pope Francis, I sensed that what I considered the sensus fidelium (the common sense among the faithful of what is right and true) was being embraced at the highest level.

It is true Pope Francis is being constantly challenged to clarify some statements in his beautiful Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, but he remains calmly resolute, constantly reminding us of the need for compassion, which is at the very heart of the gospel message.

I believe his insistence that we should stop looking to Rome for all the solutions is also very significant. His understanding of the role of the local bishop seems to me to be akin to the understanding of oikonomia in the Eastern Orthodox Churches. This was an area I explored back in the 1990s, culminating in a remarkable meeting with His Eminence Archbishop Gregorios, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain. He opened my eyes to this wonderful instrument for seeking solutions to seemingly intractable problems. The bishop is the oikonomos, the one in charge of the household, whose role is to keep good order in the community.

When faced with problems, like marriage breakdown, his job is to take the problem before the Lord and prayerfully seek a solution. He asked me: “Is there any problem which is beyond the redeeming love of Jesus Christ?” I could only answer ‘no’. Whereupon he replied: “So what is your problem?”

You could argue this is simplistic, but the key here is that the Orthodox churches are not hamstrung by the theological tradition of the Catholic Church. They also believe in the sanctity and permanence of marriage, but when things go wrong, they do not believe they have to resolve the theological problem of a sacramental bond still in existence, and nor do they believe the Lord would impose the burden of celibacy on those not called to that extraordinary vocation.

They do not isolate Jesus’ teaching on marriage and divorce, which was delivered in the context of a catch question put to him by the Pharisees and their scribes, who themselves were wrangling about the conditions for divorce required by Moses. Rather they take the whole of the gospel and recall how Jesus dealt with all those in difficulties, including the prostitutes and sinners. Remember also Jesus challenged those same guardians of the Judaic Law to cast the first stone at the woman accused of adultery.

Pope Francis has rightly reminded us that Holy Communion “is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” It is true that Pope Saint John Paul II, in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, reiterated the ban on those in so-called irregular unions going to communion. But this did not sit easily with his advice in the same section to make distinctions between those who had deliberately caused the breakdown of a marriage and those who were the victims and may have remarried for a good reason (e.g. the sake of the children).

One of John Paul’s main reasons for restating the former discipline was that the alternative might be the cause of scandal. If this were true in 1981, it certainly did not hold true in the early 1990s when I was collecting and collating material during my research. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the scandal by then was that the Church had not found a language with which to reach out in compassion and understanding to those who felt abandoned as a result of their marriage failure.

Pope Francis seems to be indicating he has come to a similar conclusion and, far from calling him to order, I think we should rejoice in his unwavering determination to call us back to one of the most fundamental of all the gospel values, namely that we reach out to others in compassion: a truth that will set them and us free.

Fr Timothy Buckley, a Redemptorist, has served in wide variety of ministries, including publications, mission preaching and formation. He is currently parish priest of Bishop Eton, Liverpool and St Mary’s, Woolton, UK. This article first appeared in Reality. Reprinted with permission.

You can listen to the first three episodes our new family counseling podcast series of Figuring out Families!

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