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A question of conscience

Couples exchange vows at a wedding ceremony in the US (CNS)

Here is something you may have missed. Tucked away in the current print edition of the Tablet, dated April 11 2015, on page 28, is a brief report of certain remarks made in a television interview by Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna about the Synod on the family.

The Cardinal said, and I transcribe:

I expect a clear word on the responsibility of the conscience. For me that is the decisive message. The responsibility of the individual conscience – a mature conscience that is respected by the Church. The first question when a relationship broke down was not what the Church did but what the people concerned did. God’s mercy first of all consists in looking at the concrete situation and I first pass the ball to the individual conscience. I will never question a person’s decision of conscience even if he or she has remarried.

It would be very interesting to track down the television interview and find out what exactly the Cardinal said in the original German. His interview might have been a long one. But this snippet is interesting.

Let us consider the fundamental question that is raised by admitting anyone who is divorced and remarried to Holy Communion – the question of the first marriage – as raised in an interview by the great theologian Cardinal Caffarra:

Those who suggest this hypothetical situation have so far not answered one very simple question: what about the first ratified and consummated marriage? If the Church admits [such people] to the Eucharist, she must however render a judgment about the legitimacy of the second union. That is only logical. But then — as I asked — what about the first marriage? … The popes have always taught that … the Pope has no authority over [ie. cannot dispense from] a ratified and consummated marriage. The proposed solution leads one to think that the first marriage remains, but there is also a second form of life together that the Church legitimises. Therefore there is such a thing as extramarital human sexuality that the Church considers legitimate. But that negates the central pillar of the Church’s teaching on sexuality. At that point someone might wonder: then why not approve cohabitation? Or relations between homosexuals? The fundamental question is therefore simple: what about the first marriage? But no one answers it. John Paul II said in 2000 in an address to the Roman Rota that ‘It is quite clear then that the non-extension of the Roman Pontiff’s power to ratified and consummated sacramental marriages is taught by the Church’s Magisterium as a doctrine to be held definitively, even if it has not been solemnly declared by a defining act.’ This is a technical formula… meaning that on this subject discussion among theologians and doubt among the faithful are no longer permissible….

It seems to me that Schoenborn is offering a solution to the question raised by Caffarra. In effect, someone could be admitted to Holy Communion after getting divorced and remarried, if they were to avow that they in conscience believed that their first marriage was in fact null, and their second union a true marriage, despite the lack of any canonical process.

Before jumping to conclusions, remember this. The canonical process recognises a marriage as never having taken place, as null; it does not ‘create’ nullity, it discovers it and declares it. In certain circumstances, it is impossible to embark on a canonical process for technical reasons (usually the non-co-operation of the other party) but such marriages may in fact be null. In such circumstances, if one were in conscience convinced that one’s first marriage were null (and would be found so by a tribunal if that were possible) and that one’s second marriage were a true marriage, despite its lack of canonical form, which cannot be provided because the first marriage cannot be declared null, would one not be able in conscience to go to Holy Communion?

I know critics will say that this effectively internalises the annulment process, and gives each man and woman the right to do his or her own annulment. Others will say that this is the old “internal forum” argument advanced by the German bishops some years ago, and rejected back then. The key thing to remember is that Cardinal Schoenborn is talking of an informed conscience acting, presumably after deliberation and prayer, which is not the same as a free for all.

The difficulty this runs into, of course, is that marriage is a public act, not a private one. It is something that belongs in the public forum, not the internal one. Still, a question remains: what are we going to do about all those who could perhaps have grounds for annulment, but who cannot approach the tribunal? There are such cases. I have come across them.