Share your spiritual testimony

Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller
Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith


Testimony to the power of grace


The discussion about the problem of believers entering into a new civil union after a divorce is not new. It has always been led by the Church with great seriousness and with the intention of helping the people affected. Because marriage is a sacrament that goes down particularly deeply into the personal, social and historical realities of a person. Due to the increasing number of those affected in countries of ancient Christian tradition, it is a pastoral problem of great importance. Today believers seriously ask themselves: Can the church not admit divorced believers who have been remarried to the sacraments under certain conditions? Are your hands forever tied on this matter? Have the theologians really exposed all of the implications and consequences in this regard?

These questions must be discussed in accordance with Catholic teaching on marriage. Responsible pastoral care presupposes a theology that “fully submits itself to the revelation of God with understanding and will and willingly agrees to his revelation” (Second Vatican Council, Constitution Dei Verbum, No. 5). In order to make the authentic teaching of the church understandable, we must start from the word of God, which is contained in the Holy Scriptures, interpreted in church tradition and interpreted in a binding manner by the Magisterium.


The testimony of the Holy Scriptures

It is not without problems to bring our question straight into the Old Testament, because marriage was not yet considered a sacrament at that time. The word of God in the old covenant is important to us insofar as Jesus stands in this tradition and argues from it. In the Decalogue there is the commandment “You shall not commit adultery!” (Ex 20:14), but elsewhere a divorce is seen as possible. According to Deut. 24: 1-4, Moses determines that a man can issue his wife with a certificate of divorce and release her from his house if she is no longer pleased with him. Subsequently, the husband and wife can enter into a new marriage. In addition to the admission of divorce, there is also a certain unease in the Old Testament about this practice. Like the ideal of monogamy, the ideal of indissolubility is contained in the comparison made by the prophets between Yahweh's covenant with Israel and the marriage covenant. The prophet Malachi expresses this clearly: "Do not act unfaithful to the woman of your youth ... with whom you have made a covenant" (Mal 2: 14-15).

Above all, controversies with the Pharisees prompted Jesus to grapple with the subject. He explicitly distanced himself from the Old Testament divorce practice, which Moses permitted because people were “so hard-hearted”, and referred to the original will of God: “In the beginning of creation ... God made them male and female. Therefore the man will forsake his father and mother, and the two will be one flesh. But what God has united, man must not separate ”(Mk 10,5-9; cf. Mt 19,4-9; Lk 16,18). The Catholic Church has always referred to these words of Jesus on the indissolubility of marriage in teaching and practice. The bond that internally connects the two spouses is created by God himself. It denotes a reality that comes from God and is therefore no longer at the disposal of people.

Today some exegetes think that these words of the Lord were already used with a certain flexibility in apostolic times: namely by porneia/ Fornication (cf. Mt 5,32; 19,9) and in the case of separation between a Christian and a non-Christian partner (cf. 1 Cor 7: 12-15). The fornication clauses were of course controversial in exegesis from the start. Many believe that these are not exceptions to the indissolubility of marriage, but rather invalid marital relationships. In any case, the church cannot base its teaching and practice on controversial exegetical hypotheses. She must adhere to the clear teaching of Christ.

Paul proclaims the prohibition of divorce as an express will of Christ: "It is not I who command the married, but the Lord: The woman should not separate from the husband - but if she separates, she remains unmarried or reconciles with the husband -, and the man must not cast out the woman ”(1 Cor 7: 10-11). At the same time, on the basis of his own authority, he allows a non-Christian to separate from his partner who has become Christian. In this case the Christian is “not bound” to remain unmarried (1 Cor 7: 12-16). On the basis of this passage, the Church recognized that only marriage between a baptized man and a baptized woman is a sacrament in the true sense and that unconditional indissolubility applies only to this. The marriage of the unbaptized is ordered to be indissoluble, but it can under certain circumstances - because of a higher good - be dissolved (Privilegium Paulinum). So this is not an exception to the Lord's word. The indissolubility of sacramental marriage, marriage in the space of the Christ mystery, is preserved.

Of great importance for the biblical foundation of the sacramental understanding of marriage is the letter to the Ephesians, in which it says: “Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Ephesians 5:25). And a little further the apostle writes: “Therefore the man will leave his father and mother and be bound to his wife, and the two will be one flesh. This is a deep secret; I refer to Christ and the Church ”(Ephesians 5: 31-32). Christian marriage is an effective sign of the covenant between Christ and the Church. Because it signifies and communicates the grace of this covenant, marriage between the baptized is a sacrament.


The testimony of ecclesiastical tradition

The Fathers of the Church and the Councils then provide important evidence for the development of the ecclesiastical position. The biblical instructions are binding on the fathers. They reject state divorce laws as incompatible with Jesus' requirement. The Church of the Fathers has rejected divorce and remarriage out of obedience to the gospel. The Fathers' testimony is clear on this matter.

In the fathers' days divorced believers who remarried civilly were not officially admitted to the sacraments even after a period of penance. Some paternal texts indicate that abuses were not always rigorously rejected and that pastoral solutions were sought every now and then for very rare borderline cases.

In some areas there were later major compromises, mainly due to the increasing interdependence of state and church. In the east this development continued and led, especially after the separation from the Cathedra Petri, to an increasingly liberal practice. Today there are a variety of reasons for divorce in the Orthodox Churches, mostly with reference to the Oikonomia, the pastoral forbearance in difficult individual cases, are justified, and open the way to a second and third marriage with a penitential character. This practice is incompatible with the will of God, as it is clearly expressed in Jesus' words about the indissolubility of marriage. However, it poses an ecumenical problem that should not be underestimated.

In the West, the Gregorian Reform counteracted the tendencies towards liberalization and restored the original conception of Scripture and the Fathers. The Catholic Church has defended the absolute indissolubility of marriage even at the cost of great sacrifice and suffering. The schism of a "Church of England" replaced by the Successor of Peter did not take place because of doctrinal differences, but because the Pope could not comply with the urging of the bloodthirsty King Henry VIII to dissolve his marriage out of obedience to the word of Jesus.

The Council of Trent confirmed the doctrine of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage and declared that it corresponds to the doctrine of the Gospel (cf. DH 1807). It is sometimes claimed that the Church actually tolerated the oriental practice. But that is not the case. The canonists kept speaking of an abusive practice. And there is testimony that groups of Orthodox Christians who became Catholics had to sign a creed with an explicit reference to the impossibility of second and third marriages.

The Second Vatican Council has in the pastoral constitution Gaudium et spes presented a theologically and spiritually profound teaching on marriage on the "Church in the world of today". It clearly holds on to the indissolubility of marriage. Marriage is understood as a comprehensive body-spiritual life and love community of man and woman who give and accept each other as persons. The personal free act of mutual yes-word establishes an institution that is fixed according to divine order, which is geared to the welfare of the spouses and offspring and is no longer subject to human arbitrariness: “This intimate union as a mutual gift of two people as well the welfare of the children require the unconditional loyalty of the spouses and require their indissoluble unity ”(n. 48). Through the sacrament, God gives spouses a special grace: “Just as God once met his people through the covenant of love and loyalty, so now the redeemer of men and the bridegroom of the church meet the Christian spouse through the sacrament of marriage. He continues to stay with them so that the spouses love one another with mutual devotion and constant fidelity, just as he himself loved the Church and gave himself up for her ”(ibid.). Through the sacrament, the indissolubility of marriage contains a new and deeper meaning: it becomes the image of God's constant love for his people and of Christ's irrevocable fidelity to his Church.

Marriage can only be understood and lived as a sacrament in the context of the Christ mystery. When marriage is secularized or viewed as a mere natural reality, access to sacramentality remains hidden. Sacramental marriage belongs to the order of grace; it is included in Christ's final communion of love with his church. Christians are called to live their marriage within the eschatological horizon of the coming of the Kingdom of God in Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh.


The Testimony of the Magisterium in the Present

The basic Apostolic Exhortation to this day Familiaris consortiopublished by John Paul II on November 22, 1981, following the Synod of Bishops on the Christian Family in Today's World, emphatically affirms the Church's dogmatic marriage doctrine. But it also makes efforts pastorally in the concern for the civilly remarried believers who are still bound in a church-valid marriage. The Pope shows a great deal of concern and care. No. 84 “Remarried and divorced” contains the following basic statements: 1. Out of love for the truth, pastors are obliged to “distinguish well between the various situations”. You cannot rate everything and everyone equally. 2. The pastors and the congregations are required to support the affected believers in “caring love”. They too belong to the church, have a right to pastoral care and should take part in the life of the church. 3. Admission to the Eucharist, however, cannot be granted to them. A twofold reason is given for this: a) “Their status and their living conditions are in objective contradiction to that covenant of love between Christ and the Church which the Eucharist makes visible and present”; b) "if such people were admitted to the Eucharist, this would cause error and confusion in the faithful with regard to the teaching of the Church on the indissolubility of marriage". Reconciliation in the sacrament of penance, which opens the way to the reception of the Eucharist, can only be achieved with repentance for what has happened and “readiness for a life that is no longer in contradiction to the indissolubility of marriage”. Specifically, this means: If the new relationship cannot be broken for serious reasons, for example because of the upbringing of the children, the two partners must “undertake to live completely celibate”. 4. The clergy are expressly forbidden for divorced people who are civilly remarried "to perform any liturgical acts" as long as the first sacramental marriage still exists, as a result of internal sacramental-theological and not legalistic compulsion.

The letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on receiving communion for divorced believers who have been remarried, dated September 14, 1994, affirms that the Church's practice on this matter “cannot be modified according to the various situations” (No. 5). It also makes it clear that the believers concerned are not allowed to come to Holy Communion on the basis of their own convictions of conscience: “If they think this is possible, the shepherds and confessors ... have a serious duty to admonish them that such a judgment of conscience is in open opposition to the teaching of the Church ”(No. 6). If there are doubts about the validity of a broken marriage, these must be checked by the competent marriage courts (see No. 9). It remains of fundamental importance “to do with caring love everything that can strengthen believers who find themselves in an irregular marital situation in their love for Christ and for the Church. Only in this way will it be possible for them to fully recognize the message of Christian marriage and to face the hardship of their situation through faith. Pastoral care will have to use all its strengths to make it credible that it is not a question of discrimination, but only of absolute fidelity to the will of Christ, who has given us back and newly entrusted to us the indissolubility of marriage as a gift from the Creator ”(No. 10) .

In the post-synodal apostolic letter Sacramentum caritatis of February 22, 2007, Benedict XVI. brings together and continues the work of the previous Synod of Bishops on the theme of the Eucharist. In No. 29 he speaks of the situation of divorced believers who have been remarried. Also for Benedict XVI. it is a "thorny and complex pastoral problem". He affirmed “the practice of the Church, based on the Holy Scriptures (cf. Mk 10: 2–12), of not admitting divorced people who have been civilly remarried to the sacraments”, but urges pastors to pay “special attention” to those affected: “in the desire that they cultivate a Christian lifestyle as much as possible through participation in Holy Mass, even if without receiving communion, hearing the word of God, Eucharistic adoration, prayer, participation in community life, trusting conversation with a priest or a spiritual leader, devoted charity, works of penance and involvement in the upbringing of children ”. If there are doubts about the validity of the broken marital partnership, these must be carefully examined by the competent marriage courts. Today's mentality is largely opposed to the Christian understanding of marriage, for example with regard to the indissolubility of marriage or openness to children. Because many Christians are influenced by it, marriages are probably more often invalid today than in the past, because there is a lack of the will to marry in the sense of Catholic marriage doctrine and the socialization in the lived space of faith is too little. That is why verifying the validity of the marriage is important and can lead to resolution of problems. Where a marriage nullity cannot be established, absolution and receiving communion presuppose a coexistence “as friends, like brother and sister” according to the established church practice. Blessings from irregular marriage are "to be avoided at all costs ... to avoid confusion among believers about the value of marriage." The Blessing (bene-dictio: Approval from God) a relationship that is contrary to God's will is a contradiction in terms.

In his sermon at the VII World Meeting of Families in Milan on June 3, 2012, Benedict XVI. To speak again about this painful problem: “I would also like to dedicate a word to the faithful who, although sharing the Church's teaching on the family, are marked by painful experiences of failure and separation. You should know that the Pope and the Church support you in your need. I encourage you to stay in touch with your communities and, at the same time, I hope that the dioceses will take appropriate initiatives to welcome you and bring you closer ”.

The last Synod of Bishops on “The new evangelization for the transmission of the Christian faith” (7th - 28th centuries)October 2012) has again dealt with the situation of believers who, after the failure of a conjugal union (not the failure of the marriage, which remains as a sacrament), have entered into a new relationship and live together without a sacramental marriage bond. In the final message, the Synod Fathers addressed the believers concerned with the following words: “We would like to say to all of them that the love of the Lord leaves no one alone, that the Church also loves her and is a welcoming home for all, and that she is members of the Church remain even if they cannot receive the sacramental absolution and the Eucharist. May the Catholic communities be hospitable to all those who live in such a situation and encourage ways of reconciliation ”.


Anthropological and sacramental theological considerations

The doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage often meets with incomprehension in a secularized environment. Where the basic insights of the Christian faith have been lost, a mere conventional affiliation to the church can no longer support important life decisions and no longer offer any support in crises in marital status - as well as in priestly and religious life. Many ask themselves: How can I commit myself to a single woman or a single man for life? Who can tell me how my marriage will be in ten, twenty, thirty, forty years from now? Is a permanent bond with a single person even possible? The many marital communities that are breaking up today increase the skepticism of young people about definitive life choices.

On the other hand, the ideal of fidelity between a man and a woman based on the order of creation has lost none of its fascination, as recent surveys among young people show. Most of them long for a stable, lasting relationship, which also corresponds to the spiritual and moral nature of man. In addition, the anthropological value of indissoluble marriage must be remembered: it deprives the partner of the arbitrariness and tyranny of feelings and moods. It helps them get through personal difficulties and overcome painful experiences. Above all, it protects the children who suffer most from the breakdown of marriages.

Love is more than feeling and instinct. In essence, it is devotion. In conjugal love two people knowingly and willingly say to each other: only you - and you forever. The promise of the bride and groom corresponds to the word of the Lord “What God has united…”: “I accept you as my husband ... I accept you as my wife ... I want to love, respect and honor you as long as I live until death we part. ”The priest blesses the covenant that the bride and groom have made with one another in front of God. Anyone who has doubts as to whether the marriage bond is of ontological quality should be taught by the Word of God: “In the beginning God created man and woman. Therefore the man will leave his father and mother and bind himself to his wife and the two will be one flesh. you are therefore no longer two, but one ”(Mt 19: 4-6).

For Christians it is true that the marriage of the baptized who are incorporated into the body of Christ has a sacramental character and thus represents a supernatural reality. A serious pastoral problem is that some today judge Christian marriage solely on secular and pragmatic criteria. Those who think according to the “spirit of the world” (1 Cor 2:12) cannot understand the sacramentality of marriage. The Church cannot respond to the growing lack of understanding of the sanctity of marriage by pragmatic adaptation to the supposedly inevitable, but only by trusting "the spirit that comes from God, so that we can recognize what has been given to us by God" (1 Cor 2.12). Sacramental marriage is a testimony to the power of grace which transforms man and prepares the whole Church for the holy city, the new Jerusalem, the Church that is broad "like a bride adorned for her husband" ( Rev 21: 2). The gospel of the holiness of marriage is to be proclaimed with prophetic boldness. A tired prophet seeks his salvation in adapting to the zeitgeist, but not the salvation of the world in Jesus Christ. Faithfulness to the promise of marriage is a prophetic sign of the salvation that God gives to the world. “Whoever can grasp it, grasp it!” (Mt 19:12). Through sacramental grace, conjugal love is purified, strengthened, and exalted. "This love, founded on mutual fidelity and sanctified by Christ's sacrament, signifies indissoluble fidelity, which embraces body and soul in happiness and unhappiness and is therefore incompatible with every adultery and every divorce" (Gaudium et spes, No. 49). By virtue of the sacrament of marriage, the spouses share in the final, irrevocable love of God. They can therefore be witnesses of God's faithful love, but must constantly nourish their love through a life of faith and love.

Of course, there are situations - every pastor knows about this - in which the marital get-together becomes practically impossible for serious reasons, for example due to physical or psychological violence. In such cases of hardship, the Church has always allowed the spouses to separate and no longer live together. It must be remembered, however, that the marriage bond of a valid marriage remains upright before God and that the individual partners are not free to enter into a new marriage as long as the spouse is alive. Pastors and Christian communities must work to promote ways of reconciliation in these cases as well or, if this is not possible, to help the people concerned to cope with their difficult situation in faith.


Moral theological notes

Again and again it is suggested that divorced and remarried people should be allowed to decide for themselves in their conscience whether they should attend communion or not. This argument, which is based on a problematic concept of “conscience”, was already rejected in the 1994 letter of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Of course, at every celebration of mass, the faithful must examine their conscience to see whether it is possible to receive communion, which is always opposed to a serious sin that has not been confessed. It is your duty to form your conscience and align it with the truth. In doing so, they also listen to the Magisterium of the Church, which helps them “not to stray from the truth about the good of man, but, especially in more difficult questions, to obtain the truth with certainty and to remain in it” (John Paul II ., Encyclical Veritatis splendor, No. 64). If divorced remarried persons are subjectively convinced in their conscience that a previous marriage was invalid, this must be proven objectively by the competent marriage courts. Marriage not only concerns the relationship between two people with God, it is also a reality of the church, a sacrament, the validity of which is decided not by the individual for himself, but by the church into which he is incorporated through faith and baptism. “If the previous marriage of divorced believers who have been remarried was valid, their new union can under no circumstances be considered lawful, therefore receiving the sacraments is not possible for internal reasons. The conscience of the individual is, without exception, bound by this norm ”(Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, Marriage pastoral care must be based on truth: L’Osservatore Romano. Weekly edition in German, December 9, 2011, p. 7).

The doctrine of the epics, according to which a law is generally applicable, but does not always adequately cover concrete human action, cannot be applied here, because the indissolubility of sacramental marriage is a divine norm about which the Church does not Has power of disposal. However, the Church has - on the line of Privilegium Paulinum - the authority to clarify which conditions must be fulfilled in order for an indissoluble marriage in the sense of Jesus to come about. Based on this, she has determined obstacles to marriage, recognized reasons for the nullity of the marriage and developed a detailed litigation procedure.

Another proposal for admitting remarried divorced people to the sacraments makes the case for mercy. Since Jesus showed solidarity with those in need and gave them his compassionate love, mercy was a special sign of true discipleship. This is correct, but falls short as a sacramental-theological argument. For the whole sacramental order is a work of divine mercy and cannot be abolished by appeal to it. Due to the factually incorrect appeal to mercy, there is also the danger of the image of God being trivialized, according to which God can do nothing other than forgive. In addition to mercy, God's holiness and righteousness also belong to the mystery of God. If one withholds these characteristics of God and does not take sin seriously, one ultimately cannot convey his mercy to people. Jesus met the adulteress with great compassion, but also told her: "Go and sin no more from now on" (Jn 8:11). The mercy of God is not a dispensation from the commandments of God and the instructions of the Church. Rather, it gives the power of grace to fulfill it, to rise again after the fall, and to live a perfect life in the image of Heavenly Father.


Pastoral care

Even if divorced and remarried people cannot be admitted to the sacraments due to their inner nature, pastoral efforts are all the more necessary for these believers, whereby they are referred to the revelatory theological and magisterial specifications of the Church. The path shown by the Church is not easy for those affected. But you can know and feel that the Church accompanies you on your way as a community of salvation. By striving to understand Church practice and not attending communion, partners in their own way bear testimony to the indissolubility of marriage.

Of course, concern about divorced remarried people should not be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist. It is about a more comprehensive pastoral care that tries to do justice to the different situations as possible. It is important that there are other ways of communion with God besides sacramental communion. You gain connection to God when you turn to him in faith, hope and love, in repentance and prayer. God can give people his closeness and his salvation in different ways, even if they find themselves in a contradicting life situation. As the more recent documents of the ecclesiastical teaching office consistently underline, the pastors and the Christian communities are called to welcome people in irregular situations openly and warmly, to stand by their side with empathy and help and to let them feel the love of the Good Shepherd. Pastoral care based on truth and love will always find the right ways and forms for this.


(The daily mail, June 15, 2013, No. 72, pp. 6-8).