The marriage of twice-divorced Boris Johnson in Westminster Cathedral made the Church look to many ridiculous at best, cruel at worst. A priest who has spent a lifetime wrestling with the Church’s marriage laws suggests that an opening to the East may help unpick some of the anomalies

from THE TABLET, 12 June 2021

In my Redemptorist community in Liverpool we have a confrère whose memory has failed, but he remains quietly content, responding to every query with the refrain: “Are you sure?” I have spent a lifetime wrestling with the Church’s marriage laws and my confrère’s refrain springs to mind whenever I hear the Catholic marriage maze defended, or possible reforms discussed.

The marriage of Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds was conducted after due process and entirely within the laws of the land and of the Catholic Church. So why has it led to such outbursts of anger – including from Catholics who say they have not received the same degree of compassion and sympathetic pastoral care – and why has the Church been so mercilessly ridiculed for the absurdity and hypocrisy of its rules on marriage?

The answer isn’t that Boris Johnson was given special treatment or that the rules were bent to favour someone rich and powerful. It is simply that ever since canon law was codified in 1917, the section on marriage, which tried to embrace a centuries-long debate in the Church about the nature of marriage, has left us with legislation which is not only complicated but, it is increasingly clear, inadequate and often unjust. The teaching on marriage is full of anomalies and inconsistencies. It is a maze that sometimes allows a lengthy, elaborate route to freedom, and sometimes becomes a prison with no means of escape.

From apostolic times, the Church has wrestled with the dilemma of how to protect the sanctity and permanence of marriage while at the same time ministering the love and compassion of Christ to those traumatised by the experience of marital breakdown. The heart of the problem with the current legislation is the influence of a degraded form of medieval scholasticism, which sought to define the way God works in precise, absolute formulae, often collected into the infamous “manuals” that were for many years the staple of seminary training. Thus, distinctions between the natural bond of marriage and the sacramental bond (that is, when two baptised Christians are united in marriage) are so strictly defined that they leave no room for manoeuvre when delicate questions are posed in relation to people’s faith and intentions at the time of their marriage. Had Boris Johnson been baptised in an Anglican church rather than a Catholic church, and had one of his two former wives also been a baptised Christian, then, no matter where the marriage took place, even in a register office, he would have been regarded as validly and sacramentally married, and could not have married Carrie in Westminster Cathedral unless he had first obtained an annulment.

The origin of the distinction between the natural and the sacramental bond of marriage is to be found in St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. There, he teaches that a valid marriage between two unbaptised people can be ended if one of them is subsequently baptised, and the unbelieving partner desires to separate. After centuries of wrangling, it was finally agreed that in such cases a second marriage could follow, and this became known as the Pauline Privilege. The Petrine Privilege, relating to the authority of the Pope as the successor of St Peter, which allows that a marriage where one of the partners was not baptised is open to dissolution, is an extension of this exemption from the otherwise universal norm that a valid marriage that has been consummated cannot be dissolved by any cause other than death.

The only recourse for those in a valid sacramental marriage seeking to re-marry in the Church is to seek a decree of nullity, a declaration that there was something defective in the consent of the couple at the time of the marriage which renders the bond null and void. In practice, the Church has found ways of dissolving a valid marriage bond which is not between two baptised people – in other words the majority of marriage bonds in human history – and it has also been willing to annul even supposedly indissoluble sacramental bonds.

Thirty years ago I began a piece of research into the pastoral care of separated, divorced and remarried Catholics on behalf of the Bishops of England and Wales. I eventually reported to their Low Week meeting in 1994, and subsequently published an edited version of my findings as What Binds Marriage? Roman Catholic Theology in Practice. I interviewed hundreds of people, including a cross-section of the clergy. My brother priests tended to fall into one of two categories (although in fairness there was something of the rigorous canon lawyer and something of the good pastor in all of them): those with an instinctively legalist outlook and those with an instinctively personalist one. Those with a personalist outlook would begin by seeing the suffering person before them; those with the legalist outlook would begin by seeing the canonical complications. It was not that the latter necessarily lacked compassion; it was just that their training had so conditioned them that this was their reflex response.

I will always remember a meeting with the Senate of Priests of the Westminster Archdiocese at London Colney. I came under fire from a couple of rigid canonists, when Bishop Vincent Guazzelli came to my rescue. He told the unbending canonists he had heard all they were saying many times before and that it would not cut much ice with the poor people in the East End of London. He encouraged me to keep going. I felt I had come of age as a Redemptorist. Our founder, Saint Alphonsus, had battled in his day with those who took a rigid moral stance, and he is now the patron of moral theologians. It is not simply a matter of “lightening up” and being “more pastoral”. But we must move on from imagining that canon law and moral law are the same thing, as the manuals made us think.

A fellow Redemptorist priest, Bernard Häring CSsR, sometimes found himself in conflict with officialdom when he sought to help people in difficult situations form mature consciences. A year before I began my research, he published No Way Out? Pastoral Care of the Divorced and Remarried, advocating in particular that we engage the Orthodox Churches in a dialogue about the ancient doctrine of oikonomia, the Greek word which gives us “economy”. The doctrine is built on the idea that the bishop is God’s housekeeper, oikonomos, and is invested with the power of Christ to heal in the Church wounds that no law can cure. Economy must never harm dogma, it can never constitute a legal precedent, no one ever has a right to it, no one other than the bishop can use it. In exercising it the bishop intuitively imitates God’s own prodigality. I was able to speak with Fr Häring about my work and I treasure some of the correspondence we shared before he died.

After the Second Vatican Council, real strides were taken in trying to address the anomalies, inconsistencies and injustices. The grounds for annulment were extended to include a range of psychological factors and the number of annulments rose exponentially in certain parts of the world.

Theologians explored the use of the “internal forum” – that ministry which seeks to find a way forward privately when the public (external) forum of the annulment process is unable to provide the solution – not just in the context of the confessional but also within spiritual direction, reminding us of the primacy of an individual’s conscience. The internal forum solution became the focus of much attention precisely because canonists and theologians were looking for pastoral solutions to the problem of marriage breakdown and second marriages, seemingly with the blessing of the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Vatican was, though, to attempt to outlaw the use of the internal forum even in the so-called “conflict cases”, where it is privately acknowledged that a former marriage was invalid, but for some reason this cannot be established in the external forum.

There are many different possible ways forward. Pope Francis has streamlined the annulment process and revived the use of the internal forum. Even before he became Pope, he had a reputation for reaching out to other Church leaders: we would do well to follow his example, particular with the Orthodox Churches. They, too, believe in the sanctity and permanence of marriage, but they are not hamstrung by our definition of the bond. One of the most compelling encounters of my life was a meeting with Gregorios, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain, at his home in October 1995. He opened my mind to the wonder of the Orthodox theology of oikonomia. When problems arise, it is the job of the oikonomos, the bishop, to take the problems before the Lord and pray for the guidance of the Spirit. In this way he was able to resolve many marriage problems. Of course, in the Orthodox understanding of marriage, it’s the Church that marries people, as opposed to the Western view that people marry each other: the Church (and the State) are merely witnesses. So what the Church does, according to the East, the Church can undo. But the question the Archbishop put to me before I left him still resonates: “Timothy, can you envisage any situation which is beyond the redeeming power of the Lord?” And to that there is only one answer.

Let us renew the dialogue that Bernard Häring proposed all those years ago and free ourselves from the madness of the present situation. If the Johnsons have hastened the day when this process begins in earnest, they may have done us all a great service.

Timothy J. Buckley is a Redemptorist and parish priest of Our Lady of the Annunciation (Bishop Eton) and St Mary’s, Woolton, Liverpool.

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