The following is an excerpt from The Hope of the Family, a booklength interview with Gerhard Cardinal Müller, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.
Question: Public opinion in recent months has been very concerned about the problem of divorced and remarried persons. It has gone so far as to call into question the criterion established in Familiaris consortio, which in number 84 says: “The Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist. Besides this, there is another special pastoral reason: if these people were admitted to the Eucharist, the faithful would be led into error and confusion regarding the Church’s teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.” Starting from a certain interpretation of Scripture, patristic tradition, and magisterial documents, some recent commentaries have hinted that it is time to propose an updated version of Familiaris consortio. What position should we take with regard to this? Is it possible to hope that there might be a change of doctrine in this matter? But above all (to formulate the problem more clearly and proactively): Is there any concrete way to accommodate divorced persons who have entered a new civil union?
Cardinal Müller: Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because her Founder, Jesus Christ, entrusted the faithful preservation of his teachings and doctrine to the apostles and their successors. The Gospel of Matthew says: “Go and teach all people everything that I commanded you” (cf. Mt 28:19–20), which is nothing if not a definition of the “deposit of the faith” (depositum fidei) that the Church has received and cannot change. Therefore the doctrine of the Church will never be the sum total of a few theories worked out by a handful of theologians, however ingenious they may be, but rather the profession of our faith in revelation, nothing more and nothing less than the Word of God entrusted to the heart—the interiority—and the lips—the proclamation—of his Church.
We have an elaborate, structured doctrine about marriage, all of it based on the words of Jesus himself, which must be presented in its entirety. We encounter it in the Gospels and in other places in the New Testament, especially in the words of Saint Paul in the First Letter to the Corinthians and in Romans. We also rely on tradition, with many writings and reflections of the Fathers of the Church, such as those of Saint Augustine. These are joined by the particular development that Scholasticism and the Magisterium made in the Councils of Florence and Trent. Lastly, a final stage in the progressive exposition of dogma is magnificently expressed for us in Lumen Gentium and, above all, in Gaudium et Spes (nos. 47–51), which are a complete synthesis that the Second Vatican Council made of the Church’s entire doctrine on marriage, including the question about divorce also.
In this regard, the Church cannot allow divorce in the case of a sacramental marriage that has been contracted and consummated. This is the dogma of the Church. I insist: the absolute indissolubility of a valid marriage is no mere doctrine; rather, it is a divine dogma defined by the Church. In the case of a de facto break-up of a valid marriage, another civil “marriage” is not permissible. Otherwise, we would be facing a contradiction, because if the earlier union, the “first” marriage, or, more precisely, the marriage, really is a marriage, the other later union is not a “marriage.” In this regard, I think we are playing with words when we speak about a first and a second “marriage.” A second marriage is possible only when one’s legitimate spouse has died or when the previous marriage has been declared invalid, whereby the preceding bond has been dissolved. Otherwise, we are dealing with what is called an “impediment of the bond.”
There are many respectable authors, renowned for their prestige in theology and canon law, who at present warn about the danger of simplifying or even adulterating these teachings. In this connection, I want to emphasize that in 1994, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the congregation over which I now preside, with the approval of then-Pope Saint John Paul II, had to intervene expressly in order to reject a hypothesis that had appeared (the one that you set forth in your question).
At the root of the question you pose, and beyond any apparent theological dispute, we must keep in mind that we are addressing a problem that casts doubt on the fact that it is necessary for the Church always to remain faithful to the doctrine of Jesus, whose words in this regard are absolutely clear.
This does not prevent us, however, from speaking, as we must, about the problem of the validity of many marriages in the present context of secularization. We have all attended a wedding at which you could not tell whether the intention of the couple contracting marriage really was to “do what the Church does” in the rite of matrimony! In theory, we all know the criteria or classical conditions for being able to contract marriage; especially that the will to consent not be vitiated but rather should be free and that there be sufficient personal maturity. Nevertheless, this current situation described earlier makes us reflect, and, as pastors, we are worried about the fact that many people who contract marriage are formally Christians, since they have received baptism, but are not practicing the Christian faith at all; not just liturgically, but also existentially.
Benedict XVI issued an insistent call to reflect on the great challenge posed by baptized non-believers. Consequently, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith took up this concern of the pope and set a good number of its theologians and other collaborators to work on the problem of the relation between explicit and implicit faith. What happens to a marriage when even implicit faith is lacking in it? It is certain that when implicit faith is absent, even though it was celebrated libre et recte [with free consent and with the proper form], it could be that it was invalid. It leads us to think that besides the classical criteria for declaring the invalidity of a marriage, it is necessary to reflect more on the case in which the spouses exclude the sacramentality of marriage. At the moment we are still in the process of working, with calm but persistent reflection, on this matter. I think that it would not be good to propose hasty conclusions, since we have not yet found a solution, but this does not prevent me from pointing out that in our congregation we are making great efforts to give a correct answer to the problem posed by implicit faith in the contracting parties.
Question: So that if the subject were to exclude the sacramentality of marriage, just as if one were to exclude children, for example, at the moment of the wedding, this could also make the contracted marriage null. Is this what is being studied . . .
Cardinal Müller: Faith is an essential part of the sacrament. Nevertheless, we have to clarify the juridical question posed by the invalidity of the sacrament because of an obvious lack of faith. A famous canonist, Eugène Corecco, used to say that the root of the problem is specifying the degree of faith necessary to bring about sacramentality. The classical doctrine assumed a minimalist position, requiring a merely implicit intention: “to do what the Church does.” Corecco added that in today’s globalized, multicultural, and secularized world, where the faith is something that cannot simply be taken for granted, it becomes necessary to require a more explicit faith of the contracting parties, if we really want to save Christian marriage. Nevertheless, I emphasize again that this question is still being studied. To establish a valid and universal criterion in this regard is not a trivial question. In the first place, because persons are constantly developing, in matters pertaining both to the knowledge they acquire over the years and also to their faith life. Learning and faith are not static data! Sometimes at the moment when marriage is contracted, a person was not a believer; but it is also possible that a conversion process took place in his life, through which he experienced a sanatio ex posteriori [a “healing” or validation after the fact] of what was a serious defect of consent at the moment when it was given.
I want to insist, however, that when we are dealing with a valid sacramental marriage, in no way is it possible to dissolve that matrimonial bond: neither the pope nor any other bishop has the authority to do so, because this reality is not their concern but, rather, belongs to God.
Question: In this same context, there is talk about giving spouses the option to “redo their lives.” What are the underlying assumptions of this question? Is it a good approach to the problem? Most importantly: If the revelation of God was constantly bound up, both in the Old and in the New Testament, with the nuptial mystery and with a certain concept of the reality of marriage, what implications would that have for the faith? Within this same framework, it has also been said that the love between Christian spouses can “die.” I ask myself: Can a Christian really use this expression? Is it possible for the love between two persons united by the Sacrament of Matrimony to die?
Cardinal Müller:These theories are radically wrong, because they refer terminology that may be true about the life of the spouses to the life of their love. One cannot declare a marriage defunct with the excuse that the love between the spouses has “died.” Contrary to what many people claim today, in a not disinterested way, love is something more than a feeling. Love is the will that a person has to share his life with another and, above all, to give himself to her. Marital indissolubility does not depend on human feelings, whether they are permanent or transitory. This property of marriage was willed by God himself. The Lord has become involved in a marriage between a man and a woman, and for this reason the bond exists and originates in God. This is the difference.
The proposal to which you refer is in itself yet another expression of the grave secularization of marriage. But basically it is an instance of “begging the question” (petitio principii). In reality, only the death of a spouse dissolves the bond of a sacramental marriage. And I am not referring to death in a metaphorical sense. The reason for this is that the marriage is not only a merely human reality; it is a transformed human reality. The kind of marriage desired by Christ is a sacrament; it is a visible representation of the transforming grace that has created a new reality that did not exist before. In this regard, we must consider that the indelible character of baptism, confirmation, or priestly ordination does not disappear, either, when the Catholic who has received the sacrament distances himself from the Church or from his priestly commitments. Theological tradition speaks in this connection about a “quasi-sacramental character” in matrimony, because a person is permitted to contract a new marriage after the death of the spouse, but not while the spouse is alive.
In its intrinsic supernatural reality, marriage includes three goods: the good of exclusive, personal, reciprocal fidelity (the bonum fidei), the good of welcoming children and educating them to know God (the bonum prolis), and the good of the indissolubility or indestructibility of the bond, the permanent foundation of which is the indissoluble union of Christ and the Church, which is sacramentally represented by the marriage (the bonum sacramenti). This is why, although a limited abrogation of the physical communion of life and love is possible, the so-called “separation from bed and board,” for a Christian it is not lawful to contract a new marriage while the first spouse is alive, because the legitimately contracted bond is perpetual. The indissoluble matrimonial bond corresponds in a way to the character (res et sacramentum) imprinted in baptism, confirmation, and holy orders.
Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller is prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Formerly the Archbishop of Regensberg and a professor of theology, he is president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Communion.