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Looking at the Catholic Church these days, one is reminded of those old World War II newsreels of cities reduced to rubble by bombs and artillery shells. There is not an institution that has not suffered damage from ill-conceived reforms enacted after the Second Vatican Council in the name of modernization. Yet, this damage has been self-inflicted. The Church has been hit by misdirected “friendly fire”.
Amid the wreckage, certain casualties stand out, the liturgy being most recognizable. The demise of the religious orders and the contraction of the Catholic school system they sustained are also prominent features in the vista of desolation. But often overlooked, yet of incalculable importance, is the decimation of marriage and family life.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s in what was later to be described disparagingly as “the Catholic ghetto”, divorce was unknown. It surrounded us in the dominant Protestant culture of the country, but it never penetrated the defenses of our Faith, which held the marriage vow to be more than a contract between a man and woman: it was an inviolable promise made to God. Marriage was a sacrament.
Church annulments occurred, but they were so rare as to be removed from the common experience of Catholics. Not one of our neighbors, to my knowledge, had had a marriage annulled. It would have been talked about, as the only divorce in the neighborhood was a source of scandal and a topic of conversation, evoking a great deal of headshaking and disapproval, along with pity for the children of the legally dissolved marriage.
Before Vatican II, there were fewer than 300 annulments per year granted in the United States, which had a population of more than 50 million Catholics. It may not have been strictly true, but it was generally understood that an annulment required, at the least, that a marriage had not been consummated.
Church annulments in the U.S. now average more the 50,000 per year. What has changed? Two things: the attitude toward marriage and the criteria for annulments.
Pope Benedict XVI had decried what, in an admittedly odd but sadly apt phrase, he has called the secularization of the Church. What the phrase implies is that an essentially religious institution has adopted the mores of an essentially irreligious culture. This accommodation to secularism is plainly evident in what has come to be cynically termed Catholic divorce, i.e. Church annulments.
On Jan. 29, the Pope took a stand against “Catholic divorce”. In an address to the Roman Rota, the Church’s highest court, the Holy Father confronted the secularization of the marriage tribunals and called easy access to annulments an offense against justice and charity.
Pope Benedict noted that the world tends to contrast justice and charity, as though the two virtues were opposed instead of complementary. He warned that charity, unhinged from justice, becomes sentimentalism, and love becomes an empty shell. “This is the risk of love in a culture without truth.”
In a phrase that makes a Catholic want to stand up and cheer, the Holy Father said: “…the Church’s juridical activity has as its goal the salvation of souls.”
There it is: Catholic doctrine in its essence: the first law of the Church — salvation of souls. This is a broadside aimed, not just at the over-accommodating marriage tribunals, but at the secular mindset that has been transforming Catholic culture from within and without these past five decades.
The Holy Father acknowledged that marriage tribunals have come to feel a tremendous pressure to meet the expectations of the couple seeking to have their union dissolved. But rather than succumb to the immediately pressing wish of the couple to separate, Pope Benedict said the tribunals should do all in their power to prevent annulments and heal marriages.
The Holy Father also acknowledges what has become a motive force in the granting of easy annulments: the readmission to the sacraments of Catholics who have divorced and remarried. The Pope said that while he sympathizes with the desire to receive the sacraments, and the wish of some tribunals to facilitate this desire, the Church must not do so at the cost of condoning immoral unions, thus “causing people to live in objective contrast with the truth of their own individual state.”
We don’t know yet what effect the Holy Father’s instruction will have on the actual work of the diocesan tribunals. We hope and pray that those charged with safeguarding Catholic marriages will take heed of the Pope’s words and direct their judgments accordingly.
But we have reason to be encouraged. After a long, largely unanswered assault on the Church by secularism, we have a Pope who is fighting back. Thank you, Holy Father. Our prayers and hopes are with you.