There is a lot of discussion going on about the document produced at this stage in connection with the synod on the family. The document suggests that we need to attend to the lived experience of couples who are in situations that the Church has taught involve sin–that is, who are in unions that the Church cannot regard as marriages. A fear of some Catholics–and the hope of others–is that this attention to lived experience will be used as a justification for throwing overboard or watering down the Church’s traditional teaching. But this need not be the outcome. Indeed, if we think it through, we might well see that of course attention to lived experience does show that good things come out of such unions. But further attention to the lived experience might also show that it gives no reason to depart from the Church’s traditional teaching, and even gives good reason to retain it.
Think of the situation of a cohabiting couple. Although they are not married, and have made no formal commitment to each other, they may well still stay together, take care of each other, and make sacrifices for each other. Many things are going on here that one would have to regard as good. Suppose they have children. They may well care for them with as much attention as many married parents. Those new lives produced are good, and the care given to them is good. Moreover, the experience of being loved and cared for that the children have is also a good.
And of course, all of this would also be true in the case of a divorced and remarried couple. They, too, could care for each other and for the children to whom they give life. The divorced and remarried father who sits up all night with a sick child, the divorced and remarried mother who does the same, are doing something that our moral reason can see is worthy and beautiful. Attention to the lived experience shows us much that is good here.
Is this a reason to get rid of the Church’s traditional teaching on marriage as an indissoluble union? I don’t think so. Because I think further attention to the lived reality would reveal good reasons to retain it.
Consider again this divorced and remarried couple. Remember that in the context of the arguments to which the Church is responding we are talking about a divorced and remarried couple that wishes to return to the sacraments, to a full communion with the Church. That is, they wish to be Catholic.
Suppose we asked them about their first marriages. Did they really intend those first unions as indissoluble, as ordered toward the unity of the spouses and the procreation of new life? That is, did they really intend to marry as the Church understands marriage? Given the current state of our culture, I think that most of the divorced and remarried would say: “I did not even think of it that way. Like most people these days we married hoping it would work out, but with the idea of divorce in the back of our minds in case it didn’t. And like most people these days we took it as a matter of course that we would use artificial contraception if we wanted to.” And I suspect that many others among the divorced and remarried would say that even if they at the time of the first union said they intended to choose what the Church means as marriage, they really were not morally mature enough to make such a commitment.
If I am right about this, then the lived experience would point toward getting an annulment, since many marriages today are really not marriages as the Church understands them. It would not point to changing what the Church teaches that marriage is.
And I think this conclusion would be even more strongly supported if we thought through the possible response to it. Would the divorced and remarried couple insist not only that they did not intend the first union as an indissoluble marriage, but that there really is no such thing as an indissoluble marriage? It would be strange to insist on that, because then they would be saying that they are not totally committed to the new marriage, that it, too, might be ended if they think it necessary to do so. Would they really want to say that to each other? Maybe some of them would. But if so, it would be strange for them to even want to re-enter the Church. For they would be in the position not of people who had made a mistake in the past that they now wished to correct, but in the position of people who just don’t agree with what the Church teaches about marriage.