What is at stake in this Synod? The number one question is the admission to Holy Communion of those living in what the church has always been careful to call “second unions”. This of course is the presented question, but not the real question. The real question is identified by Cardinal Caffarra: when someone in a second union is admitted to Communion, what then is implied about the status of that second union, and also about the status of the first union? If we say that Henry (for example) is truly married to Anne Boleyn, must we not then say that he was never married to Catherine of Aragon? For surely what we cannot say is that he was truly married to Catherine at one time, and then truly married to Anne at a subsequent time? That would be to say that he had been truly married consecutively to two women while the first was still alive. At the time this was considered, but only to be dismissed: all agreed that there was the wife, and there was the concubine, but there were never two wives. The only question that divided Protestant from Catholic, Imperialist from non-Imperialist, was the tricky question of who was the wife and who the concubine.
The Church ‘supports’, if that is the word, the claims of the first union, the true marriage, against the claims of the second union, which is no marriage. And the riposte usually given to that by those who want change is to point out that the Church upholds a union that no longer exists in reality, at the expense of one that does exist, because the Church teaches manet vinculum, the bond remains. The spouses have parted, they are no longer living together, but they are still bound to each other.
But the Church teaches this because Jesus taught it. The Church also teaches it recognises marriage consummatum ac ratum (consummated and ratified) as a bond that is of its very nature lifelong. The Church recognises indissolubility, it does not create it, and it has no power to set it aside.
So, it seems clear to me that to admit those living in a second union to Communion is tantamount to recognising the first union as dissolved, that is to say, admitting divorce – something the Church has never done. And if we say a first marriage can be dissolved, then why can’t any marriage be dissolved, and indeed should we not then regard the marriage bond as contingent not absolute?
Some people have spoken with seeming admiration of the Greek way of dealing with things. The book of the five Cardinals, Remaining in the Truth of Christ, dismisses the Greek way, though discreetly (see pages 93-128). In the Orthodox world you can get divorced and remarried twice without undergoing a true canonical process, as we would understand it. A divorce certificate from a civil court is enough to dissolve a religious marriage. There are Orthodox bishops who insist that marriage is indissoluble, but in practice it is dissoluble – twice. Indeed, a Greek friend said to me: “When is your church going to wake up to the modern world and allow divorce?”
No one at the Extraordinary Synod last year said “Let us introduce divorce”, and no one will say it at the Synod this October, but the admission to Holy Communion of those who are living in second unions is tantamount to the recognition of divorce and that a marriage consummatum ac ratum, which has the presumption of validity, can be set aside without a canonical process of annulment.
If we were to allow divorce through the back door, eventually we would allow it through the front door too, as the example of other Churches shows us all too clearly. Would this honestly be such a catastrophe? The Jews after all have a liberal divorce law, but very strong family life as well. But it is my belief that, yes, it would be a catastrophe. It would be an abandonment of witness to the truth and a surrender to the world, and it would undermine every sacramental marriage on the planet. It would nullify a hundred years of effort to eradicate polygamy from Christian communities in Africa. Moreover, it would make it impossible for me to say to engaged couples, as I always do – “You do realise, don’t you, that you only get one shot at marriage?”
It would specifically represent an abandonment of the words of our Lord, to whit:
The Pharisees approached and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him. He said to them in reply, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.’ But Jesus told them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother (and be joined to his wife), and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.’ In the house the disciples again questioned him about this. 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.’ Mark 10: 2-12.
Here Jesus very daringly corrects Moses, and says something no one expects. These are his ipsissima verba. (There is a long argument about that, but no one has ever seriously disputed that Jesus said and meant these words. Space forbids me going into the Matthaean exception clause, the correct interpretation of which makes no difference to this argument.)
It is vital that we are faithful to Scripture – all of it – not just the bits we like. We need to bear witness to the world about the inerrancy of Scripture, its inspired nature, and the way the Church holds consistently to it. We need too to show our evangelical brethren that we are just as evangelical than they are, which is vital for ecumenical progress.