When doctrine crumbles, practice usually catches up in a few decades

We have all become familiar of late with the term dubium (plural dubia). It literally means doubt, but it is really a question seeking clarification on a point of doctrine or practice, and usually addressed to the competent ecclesiastical authority in Rome.

I have a dubium, which I may well send to the correct dicastery in Rome, in hope of an answer. It is this.

If a couple, who are living in a second union – that is to say, one of the parties has been sacramentally married before, divorced, and then married again civilly, with no canonical annulment of the ‘first’ marriage – if this couple, having approached a priest for the necessary accompaniment (as laid down in Amoris Laetitia chapter 8, and as interpreted, for example by the Maltese Bishops’ conference), and having decided that they may in conscience approach the sacrament of Holy Communion, if this couple then ask to have their civil marriage convalidated by their parish priest, what is the parish priest to do?

As with so many dubia, I think we know the answer. The priest cannot possibly convalidate the marriage, because the ‘first’ marriage is still in existence, indeed that ‘first’ marriage is the only marriage. However, this reply will surely only confuse and sadden the couple, who have been told that they may receive Holy Communion and are thus not in a subjective state of sin. They may also feel that their civil union is what they would term a real marriage.

But the question is surely worth asking as it is surely only a matter of time before such requests are made.

Back in 1930, the Lambeth Conference made several resolutions, one of which, Resolution 11, allowed the innocent parties of divorce who had remarried to approach Holy Communion, while at the same time upholding the principle of the indissolubility of marriage. The same resolution also forbids the remarriage of divorced people in Church. Indeed, reading those resolutions from so long ago, most of them strike me as admirable, and they serve as a sad reminder of the way things have changed since then, not only in the Anglican Communion, but in the Catholic Church too, and also in the wider world.

The pressure to marry divorced persons (with their spouse still living) in Church (which any Catholic will hold to be impossible), rejected at Lambeth in 1930, did not go away. Various compromises were made along the way, but today a couple who wish to marry in and Anglican church “second time around” will usually not find it hard to do so. When doctrine crumbles, practice usually catches up in a few decades. Lambeth 1930 is a deeply conservative document, but it contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

So where does this leave my dubium? To be perfectly honest my dubium serves to highlight the inconsistency in Amoris Laetitia (as interpreted by the Maltese bishops). I would add another dubium to the first one. If a couple in a second non-canonical union, who in conscience decide they can receive Holy Communion, then decide to part, does their civil union, which ends in divorce, then have any continuing validity? If one decides that the ‘second’ marriage is the ‘real’ marriage, and that breaks up, does its ‘real’ nature survive divorce? This might be an important question, if it also happens that the spouse of the first marriage should then die, leaving the person free to marry canonically.

I don’t like casuistry at all, but sometimes it makes us contemplate the consequences of our beliefs and practices!