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More confusion about sacramentality, and then some

September 29, 2014

The redoubtable Sr. Mary Ann Walsh, rsm, late of the USCCB, has, I am sorry to say, published in America a muddled overview of options for divorced-and-remarried Catholics. Let’s try to sort some of it out.

First—and I don’t mind repeating this till my dying day—annulments are about the validity of marriage, not about sacramentality. Walsh muffs this crucial distinction at least five times in her essay.

There are millions of presumptively valid marriages out there (untold numbers of which were entered into with the Church’s express or implied authorization) that are not sacramental. Sacramentality is a consequence of the parties’ baptismal status—not about capacity for, consent to, or observance of ‘form’ in, marrying. Annulments look only into the latter three points for only they impact the validity of marriage. The distinction between validity and sacramentality in marriage is vital not only for clear thinking about the annulment process or pastoral preparation for marriage but also for the Church’s wider social defense of marriage as a natural institution (a defense that collapses if the Church is restricted to defending only in-house religious ceremonies). Anyone who repeatedly confuses validity and sacramentality of marriage cannot usefully opine about the annulment process.

Second, Walsh’s comments on “internal forum” fall purely on her recurring-but-mistaken restriction of that process to those whose marriages might have been “sacramental”, but her comments about, say, (what canon lawyers view as) “morally uncitable” respondents evidence no awareness on her part that tribunals have dealt with this and many other issues for decades. Yet again, we see advice on complex issues of law and justice being casually offered by those with little or no real experience working within the Church’s legal system and thus, with little or no sense of what is, and often what is not, actually involved in the issues they see.

Third, and perhaps most shockingly, Walsh advocates what is (alleged to be) the Orthodox Church’s approach to divorce and remarriage (basically, allowing divorcees to go through low-profile subsequent weddings and then to live as married) as if that approach were remotely compatible with Catholic teaching on marriage and sexual morality—let alone in accord with Christ’s own words on about those who divorce spouses and marry others! How the quiet ceremony envisioned by Walsh rehabilitates what the Catechism of the Catholic Church describes as “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384) completely escapes me.

I need hardly say it, but, of course non-canonists may, and some of them should, make suggestions for reform of the annulment process, for pastoral outreach to those in irregulars unions, and for the care of Catholics and other Christians in valid if non-sacramental marriages. But such suggestions need to show real understanding of the many issues that most pastors and canonists take for granted in such matters. Lest we spend so much time reinventing the wheel.

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