Summer 2014

The Merciful Gift of Indissolubility

Nicholas J. Healy Jr.

"The deepest wounds in our culture stem from a crisis of faith."

In his interview with Fr. Antonio Spadaro in August of last year, Pope Francis summed up his vision for the Church with a
memorable image:

What the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds. . . . I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars. You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds. Heal the wounds.1

Among the most painful and most serious wounds of our time is the widespread breakdown of marriages. This wound is both a human tragedy—a source of deep suffering for the spouses and especially for their children—and, as Pope Francis argues, a “profound cultural crisis . . . because the family is the fundamental cell in society.”2 Within the Church, the breakdown of marriage represents a crisis of faith in the sacramental economy. The sacrament of marriage is a privileged point of contact between the order of nature and the new gift of grace. Marriage is a real symbol of the fidelity and mercy of God in his covenant love for creation. In the life, death, and Resurrection of the Incarnate Son, this faithfulness reaches down to the deepest roots of nature and—through the Church and her sacraments—heals and elevates nature to the extent of allowing nature to share in God’s own life and love.3

The entire situation is made more complicated due to the fact that many, if not most, of those whose marriages have apparently failed have received a civil divorce and have entered into new civil unions. Here we approach one of the difficult questions at the center of the upcoming synods on the family. How can the Church offer pastoral care for Catholics in this situation? How can the Church help to heal the wounds? For reasons that I hope to clarify during the course of this essay, a proposal that emerged in Catholic theology in the early 1970s has gained new currency. The proposal, which represents a departure from Catholic teaching and practice, is that civilly divorced and remarried Catholics should be readmitted to eucharistic Communion—not as a “general norm” but in particular cases.

Obviously, there are many dimensions to this issue: What is marriage, both as a natural institution and as a sacrament of the new law? What is meant by the indissolubility of marriage and what is the ground of indissolubility? What is the meaning of adultery and why is marriage the only legitimate context for conjugal relations? What is the relationship between marriage and the Eucharist, “the source and summit of Christian life?” What does it mean to receive this supreme gift of God in a worthy manner? Finally, what is the meaning of mercy and what is the relationship between mercy and sin?4


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1. Interview of Pope Francis by Antonio Spadaro, SJ. Text available at:

2. Francis, Evangelii gaudium, 66.

3. The image of Christian marriage reaching the “deepest roots” of nature is taken from Matthias Scheeben, The Mysteries of Christianity, trans. Cyril Vollert (St. Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1946), 610:

In this sacrament the Church clasps to her heart the first of all human relationships, that upon which the existence and propagation of human nature depends. . . . Nowhere has the truth more strikingly come to light that the whole of nature down to its deepest roots shares in the sublime consecration of the God-man who has taken nature to himself. Nowhere does the truth more clearly appear that Christ has been made the cornerstone upon which God has based the preservation of and growth of nature.

4. Lumen gentium, 11.