FROM THE WORLD ON FIRE BLOG: Marriage, Divorce, and Communion: An Interview with Cardinal Thomas Collins
we approach the upcoming Synod on the Family, which will be held at the
Vatican this October, discussion has swirled about the Church's
teachings on marriage. Many people are seeking clarity about these
teachings while others wonder which, if any, are open to change. Today,
Brandon Vogt interviews Cardinal Thomas Collins, the Archbishop of
Toronto, who sheds light on many of these pressing questions.
Brandon Vogt: Much
of the current discussion about divorce, remarriage, and communion is
clouded by confusion. What does the Church actually teach on these
issues and why?
Cardinal Thomas Collins: The Catholic Church simply
teaches what Jesus teaches: marriage is an unbreakable covenant between a
man and a woman, faithful in love and open to the gift of life.
Divorce and remarriage is not allowed when it is a matter of a valid,
sacramental, and consummated marriage.
When Jesus was preaching in Galilee, divorce and remarriage was accepted
in society. The law of Moses allowed for it (Deuteronomy 24:1-4). The
teaching of Jesus that divorce and remarriage is not allowed was
revolutionary. It was even an indication of his claim to divinity, for
only God has the authority to over-rule the law of Moses. Jesus went
back to creation itself for the foundation of the unbreakable bond of
marriage between a man and a woman: "Have you not read that from the
beginning the Creator 'made them male and female' and said, '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" (Matthew 19: 1-12). In light of current controversies, it
is also helpful to note that Jesus also asserts plainly something that
until recently was obvious to everyone: marriage is between a man and a
It is always assumed by the Church that couples are truly, or "validly"
married. The burden of proof is on anyone who says that they are not.
When requested, however, the Church will examine a marriage to discover
whether it was a truly binding commitment of the type that Jesus is
talking about, i,e, a valid marriage, which cannot be dissolved. If,
after very careful study, the Church discovers that at the time when
they exchanged consent at their wedding the couple for some reason did
not truly make a binding commitment to marriage, then it will issue a
statement, or "declaration of nullity," officially confirming that the
marriage was not "valid" from the start. This is very different from a
divorce, in which the government official grants that there was a valid
marriage, and then uses the power of the state to end it.
Brandon Vogt: Some
Catholics hope the Church will soon change her position regarding
communion for those who are divorced and remarried, perhaps at the
upcoming Synod. Others worry such a change would undercut Jesus' clear
teachings on marriage. On this issue, which teachings and practices are
immutable and which are open to change?
Cardinal Thomas Collins: The Synod on the Family will
surely deal with the whole range of issues facing the family today, not
only this one issue of communion for those who are divorced and
remarried. For example, one of the key problems we face now is that
couples are more often living together without getting married. And
there are many societal trends, especially in the western world, that
undermine the family. The question of communion after divorce and
remarriage is one among many issues, and I would imagine that the Synod
will spend most of its time on the broader issues affecting marriage and
The command of Jesus that marriage is unbreakable is central to the
Christian understanding of marriage, and cannot be changed by the
Church. But we can change the way we help couples prepare for marriage,
and help them live their marriage, and help them practically if their
marriage breaks down.
Even apart from Our Lord's command, divorce is a great human tragedy
that can have devastating effects upon the spouses, and especially upon
their children. That is why we need to do all that we can as a Catholic
community to help couples prepare for marriage, and to assist them
during marriage. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. There
are many groups, such as "Marriage Encounter", and other such groups, that offer great assistance to spouses. When there are problems in a marriage, groups such as "Retrouvaille" seek to help the couple once more have a healthy marriage.
One thing we need to do is celebrate wedding anniversaries. Recently, in
my diocese, we had a great celebration of the 25th, 50th, 60th and
higher anniversaries of married couples. In the context of Mass, they
renewed their vows. It was inspiring, and encouraging to them and to
other married couples. We need to encourage all married couples with
such living examples of fidelity in the midst of the struggles of life,
especially in our society that is so allergic to lifelong commitments. I
hope that the Synod will show the way towards better marriage
preparation, encourage groups that seek to strengthen marriage, and help
those whose marriage is in difficulty.
In a society in which permanent commitments are not valued - and that
applies to the priesthood and religious life as well as to marriage - it
can take great spiritual strength, and is certainly counter-cultural,
to renew each day a sacred lifelong commitment, trusting in the grace of
God. That must be our path as Christians, and anything that tends (even
unintentionally) to re-inforce a culture that undermines fidelity to
sacred permanent commitments must be resisted, as also any action that
suggests that the Church does not take seriously the permanence of such
Our Lord's teaching on marriage, like his whole teaching on
discipleship, can at times be very difficult. Especially in the world in
which we live, but really in all periods of history, a certain heroism
is required in the Christian life. We are all called to holiness; that
is not just the vocation of the few who are canonized, but of all of us.
So what cannot be changed is the fact that what God has joined together,
no one can put asunder. But the Synod may well deepen our understanding
of Christian marriage, building on the treasure of teaching in
Scripture and Tradition, such as the beautiful document of St. John Paul
II, Familiaris Consortio. We need above all to help couples faithfully and fruitfully live the sacrament of marriage.
Sadly, marriages sometimes fail, and the Synod may try to find more
effective ways of caring for people in those painful situations. If a
couple separates, despite every effort to heal the marriage, and are
legally divorced, each is called to continue in a faithful life of
Christian discipleship. They cannot marry again, as they are married
already. Many divorced Christians lead a life of exemplary holiness,
recognizing this reality. They are an inspiration to us all. I hope the
Synod offers encouragement to those who are divorced and faithfully
living the Christian life.
Perhaps, when someone has been civilly divorced, if the marriage is
examined by a Marriage Tribunal of the Church, it will be found not to
have been valid, and the person will be free to marry. But that may not
happen, or a person for various reasons will decide not to seek to
discover their status in the Church concerning their marriage (that is,
whether they are in reality single or married). Although the dedicated
staff of marriage tribunals offers great pastoral care to those whose
marriage has failed, the Synod might be able to find ways of improving
the processes tribunals use for making a judgement concerning the
validity of marriages, and so that is one possible area of change. Any
human process can always be improved.
Many people who are divorced, and who are not free to marry, do enter
into a second marriage. There are various reasons that can lead to this,
and their fellow parishioners should not occupy themselves speculating
about them. Catholics in that tragic situation can be involved in many
ways in the life of the community, but they may not receive the
sacraments, such as Holy Communion, since whatever their personal
disposition is or the reasons for their situation, known perhaps only to
God, they are continuing in a way of life which is objectively against
the clear command of Jesus. That is the point. The point is not that
they have committed a sin; the mercy of God is abundantly granted to all
sinners. Murder, adultery, and any other sins, no matter how serious,
are forgiven by Jesus, especially through the Sacrament of
Reconciliation, and the forgiven sinner receives communion. The issue in
the matter of divorce and remarriage is one’s conscious decision (for
whatever reason) to persist in a continuing situation of disconnection
from the command of Jesus. Although it would not be right for them to
receive the sacraments, we need to find better ways to reach out to
people in this situation, to offer them loving assistance.
One thing that would help would be if all of us realized that receiving
communion is not obligatory at Mass. There are many reasons why a
Christian might choose not to receive communion. If there were less
pressure for everyone to receive communion, it would be some help to
those who are not in a position to do so.
Often, people in this situation decide no longer to continue as members
of the Catholic community, as they are not able to receive sacramental
communion at Mass, even though they can experience a kind of spiritual
communion through prayerful adoration, although abstaining for good
reason from receiving communion; that, for a Catholic can be a truly
penitential act. It is a great tragedy if they leave the Church. It is
likely that they, and their children, and their descendants, will
become disconnected from the source of life in Christ that is found in
the Church. We need to think of what we can do to reach out to people in
this situation, in a loving and effective way. But as we do so, we also
need to be attentive to the command of Christ, and the necessity of not
undermining the sanctity of marriage, with even more dire consequences
for all, especially in a world in which the stability of marriage is
already tragically compromised. If we proclaim in actions, even though
not in words, that the marriage covenant is not really what Jesus says
it is, then that offers short term comfort at the cost of long term
suffering. As the sanctity of the marriage covenant is progressively
weakened, it will ultimately be the children who will suffer most.
So although fidelity to the teaching of Christ on the indissolubility of
marriage is not open to change, there may be things that we can change
to assist our brothers and sisters in Christ who are in this difficult
and painful situation. Real assistance can be given through
improvements in the way the Church examines the validity of marriages,
and through efforts to give spiritual support to Catholics who are
divorced and remarried, encouraging them to be engaged in their parish
as much as they can, and offering them ways of prayer appropriate to
their situation. We need to consider what the Church community can do to
assist the couple with their children, often living in combined family
situations. But over-riding the explicit teaching of Jesus on the
unbreakable nature of marriage is not an option. Nobody has the
authority to do that.
Brandon Vogt: Outside
the Church, the secular media overwhelmingly expects the Synod to
substantially revise Catholic teaching on marriage and divorce. How does
this compare to the expectations swirling before Pope Paul VI’s release
of of Humanae Vitae in 1968?
Cardinal Thomas Collins: In the years before the letter
of Pope Paul re-affirming the constant Christian teaching that
contraception is not in accord with the will of God, there was
widespread speculation that the Church was going to change this
teaching. This kind of speculation is based to some degree on the idea
that Christian doctrine is like government policy: when the
circumstances change, or when more people support this alternative
rather than that, then policy changes.
But Christian teaching is based upon the natural law that is written in
our very natures by God, and especially upon the revealed word of God.
We discover God's will, and the scriptures and the living faith of the
Church help us to do so. We do not shape God's will according to what
currently seems best to us.
So when Pope Paul did not change what he could not change, but
re-affirmed Christian faith, many, many people were upset, and simply
decided to ignore the teaching. That is our present situation. I
certainly hope that we do not suffer a repeat of that, as unfounded
speculation swirls concerning a change by the Church of the explicit
teaching of Jesus on marriage.
Brandon Vogt: You’ve
previously mentioned how Our Lady, Undoer of Knots—one of Pope Francis’
favorite devotions—is specially connected to the healing of broken
marriages, and how we should therefore turn to her as a key intercessor
and guide on this issue. Why this connection?
Cardinal Thomas Collins: I had not heard of this
devotion until recently, when I read a booklet about it. Apparently its
origin is found in something very close to the issues now being
discussed: in the 17th century, a young couple experienced immense
difficulty in their marriage. They prayed to Our Lady, and she untied
the knots in their relationship. A descendant of the couple commissioned
a painting of Our Lady untying knots, and that has become a great focus
of devotion, which Pope Francis has done much to popularize. It is a
devotion that can be connected to many situations in life, but
apparently it arose out of prayer to Our Lady to bring healing to a
troubled marriage. We should ask Our Lady to help us address these
difficult issues of marriage in a way that is loving and faithful.
Brandon Vogt: Some
theologians have looked to the Church’s tradition for examples of
divorced-and-remarried Catholics licitly receiving communion, sometimes
pointing to the Council of Nicaea’s rulings. What did that Council have
to say on the question?
Cardinal Thomas Collins: There is a rule that comes
from that most important Council that refers incidentally to people who
are in a second marriage. It has mistakenly been taken to justify a
second marriage, after divorce, but it actually refers to those whose
spouse has died, and who then marry a second time, which is certainly in
accord with our faith.
Brandon Vogt: The
annulment process seems to be a common-ground target for renewal. Many
Catholics believe it could be more efficient and dignifying. What are
some ways to renew the annulment process without compromising its
Cardinal Thomas Collins: I am not an expert on the law
of the Church, and I know that those engaged in the ministry of marriage
tribunals at every level seek diligently to serve the Church, and
especially those who ask them to examine the validity of a marriage. But
it would be good for those who are more expert than I to see if there
are ways of improving this process.
Brandon Vogt: At
the heart of this discussion are millions of divorced Catholics
experiencing real pain and difficulty. How can the Church welcome and
serve these people while still promoting the deposit of faith?
Cardinal Thomas Collins: It is vital that we do all
that we can to reach out in loving support for all of our brothers and
sisters who are experiencing the terrible pain of divorce. There are
movements in the Church that seek to do that, but each parish and
diocese also needs to care for people who are suffering this pain. Their
children may be suffering most of all. This should be a focus of our
prayer, and in individual situations, pastors and parishioners need to
do all that they can to help.
Cardinal Thomas Collins is the Archbishop of Toronto. He is a member of
the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and the Congregation
for Catholic Education.
Brandon Vogt is the Content Director at Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.