The Worrying Thoughts of Cdl. Vincent Nichols on Divorce & Remarriage

by Deacon Nick Donnelly  •  •  July 22, 2015   

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What are the chances of the 2015 Synod voting in favour of abandoning Our Lord's categorical teaching on divorce and the immorality of adultery? There are worrying signs coming from England. Since the close of the 2014 Extraordinary Synod the English cardinal Vincent Nichols has made a number of statements exploring the possibility of accepting a version of the "Penitential Way." If Cardinal Nichols' reasoning is representative of many Synod Fathers' approach to this fundamental doctrine on marriage faithful Catholics have grounds for real concern about the outcome of the October Synod.

Cardinal Nichols will have the opportunity to express the fruits of his thinking on "second marriages" and the "Penitential Way" at the Synod in three months' time. The working paper for the 2015 Synod proposes yet again Cardinal Kasper's frontal assault on the indissolubility of marriage and the sanctity of the Blessed Sacrament. Even though his proposal failed to receive a two-thirds majority during the 2014 Synod the Instrumentum Laboris contains a section on Kasper's so called "Penitential Way" that if accepted would lead to the divorced and re-married receiving Holy Communion.

Cardinal Nichols' Strange Proposal

On his return to England following the 2014 Synod Cdl. Nichols gave a press conference during which he admitted that "his thinking on the question of second 'marriages' had developed and deepened." He told journalists that he "now understood the idea of a 'penitential journey' for those in so-called 'second marriages.'" Cardinal Nichols outlined a number of versions of a "penitential journey," but has focused on one in particular. He said:

In Catholic belief a valid marriage is a sacrament to which Christ gives His word. So for a person who’s in a second marriage that sacrament, the first marriage, remains a source of grace. Now I’ve never thought that before. And they go on to say, even if it’s the grace of repentance and sorrow. But that sacrament never goes away and remains a potential source of grace for somebody as they carry on making the best of their lives with all sincerity and integrity.

Cardinal Nichols returned to this proposal in a homily during a special Mass in thanksgiving for the Sacrament of Matrimony in Westminster Cathedral. He said:

So we have to grasp the challenging truth that even when the human relationships within a marriage degenerate and break down, something recognized in a civil divorce, there remains in that marriage the Word of Christ, given and never revoked. So even a 'broken' marriage remains a source of grace for those who are part of it. From this arises a demanding and painful question: What is the grace of marriage that remains for the spouse in such a situation? Perhaps it is the grace of sorrow and repentance, the grace of being able to see and embrace the hurt done through that breakdown and the responsibilities that still flow from it? Perhaps that recognition is the first step on the pathway of mercy and of conversion.

Importantly, in the second reflection Cdl. Nichols does not talk about spouses in "second marriages" benefitting from the grace of the original sacramental marriage. Of course, separated and divorced, but not re-married, spouses can benefit from the grace of the valid marriage because they are not committing the sin of adultery.

But let's return to the implications of Cdl. Nichols first reflection that talks explicitly of the penitential journey of divorced and re-married spouses and his idea that they benefit from the grace of the sacramental marriage.

Downplaying the Sinfulness of Adultery?

Before attending the Synod Cdl. Nichols admitted that allowing divorced and re-married to receive Holy Communion would require "quite a radical rethink of one or the other" of the doctrines of the indissolubility of marriage and the meaning of reception of Holy Communion. The "penitential path" focused on by Cdl. Nichols requires a radical re-think of both doctrines.

It is hard to see how the suggestion that divorced and re-married benefit from the grace of the sacramental marriage can be reconciled with the grave immorality of adultery committed by the divorced and re-married or with the prerequisite to receive Holy Communion — the intention of a firm amendment of life required for a sincere repentance from grave sin.

I know a Catholic wife and mother who has been abandoned by her Catholic husband following his long-standing affair with a younger woman. The husband went on to contract a civil divorce and re-married. According to the doctrine and discipline of the Church, going back to Our Lord's teaching that divorced and re-married commit adultery, that husband is in a grave state of sin. Though only God and the husband in his inner most conscience knows if he is in a state of mortal sin, this is a very real possibility.

Those proposing such a "penitential path" for divorced and remarried need to address the following questions:

  • Can a husband committing adultery in a civil marriage benefit from the grace of the sacramental marriage he continues to betray?
  • If the divorced and re-married husband is allowed to receive Holy Communion after following a penitential path, what of justice towards the wife and children he continues to betray?
  • Will the penitential path involve the Church assessing if the husband maintains his obligation of financial support towards the children he abandoned? If the husband refuses to pay adequate child maintenance, will the Church insist that he must in order to be reconciled with the Church?

Sin is not an abstract moral condition but is expressed in very concrete decisions and actions. It is important to remind ourselves of the grave consequences of mortal sin:

Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God's forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ's kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. (CCC, 1861)

If the husband continues to sin against his sacramental marriage by persisting in his adulterous relationship, how can one talk about repentance and sorrow creating the conditions necessary for God to re-establish a state of grace that would allow admission to Holy Communion? Rather, St Paul's warning about the consequences of betraying the sacrament of the Eucharist may indicate the consequences for couples of "second marriages" betraying sacramental marriage:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. (1 Cor 11:27–30)

Grace Is the Heart of the Matter

Cardinal Nichols is right in concluding that at the heart of the debate about Holy Communion and the divorced and re-married is the reality of grace. The fundamental truth about grace is that it is a personal gift from God. During this time when people demand their rights, it's important to proclaim the truth that grace is not a right, that grace is not formulaic, that grace is not something that can be achieved through a programme.

God is always ready to accept the repentant sinner and is always ready to give again this gift. But the essential condition is that we have to be disposed to accept this gift. The problem with the various "penitential paths" proposed to allow the divorced and re-married to receive Holy Communion is that, by glossing over the indissolubility of marriage and the grave immorality of adultery, the couple will not be disposed to accept the gift of God's grace. If some form of penitential path, with all these deficiencies, is promoted in the Church we are faced with the tragic spectacle of couples being misled into thinking that they are forgiven, reconciled and in a state of grace, when in reality they remain in a state of grave sin. May God so grant us His grace that in this difficult journey we may discern His truth and that each successor to the Apostles safeguards His doctrines.

This draws on an article originally published in the Catholic Voice Ireland.

Follow Deacon Nick on Twitter: @ProtectthePope


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