79. The Church’s Response to Marriage-related Cases
79. The Church’s Response to Marriage-related Cases

79. The Church’s Response to Marriage-related Cases

Happy New Year to you. May this year renew our joy and hope. Amen.

As we explore the theme of merging customary marriage and canonical marriage, it is opportune to review the Church’s response to other marriage-related cases.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II issued the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio (FS), which focused on pastoral care for families in difficult situations under the following sub-headings—particular circumstances (families that find themselves in difficult situations), mixed marriages, trial marriages, de facto free unions, Catholics in civil marriages, separated or divorced who have not remarried, divorced persons who have remarried, and those without a family. This post will explore cases of interest.

Trial marriages are relationships where couples arrange to live together for a time to see if they are compatible for marriage. The document states:

The Church, for her part, cannot admit such a kind of union, for further and original reasons which derive from faith. For, in the first place, the gift of the body in the sexual relationship is a real symbol of the giving of the whole person: such a giving, moreover, in the present state of things cannot take place with full truth without the concourse of the love of charity, given by Christ. In the second place, marriage between two baptized persons is a real symbol of the union of Christ and the Church, which is not a temporary or “trial” union but one which is eternally faithful. Therefore, between two baptized persons there can exist only an indissoluble marriage” (FS, 80).

De facto unions are “unions without any publicly recognized institutional bond, either civil or religious” (FS, 81). Today, we describe it as cohabitation. The document says:

The pastors and the ecclesial community should take care to become acquainted with such situations and their actual causes, case by case. They should make tactful and respectful contact with the couples concerned, and enlighten them patiently, correct them charitably and show them the witness of Christian family life, in such a way as to smooth the path for them to regularize their situation” (FS, 81).

Regarding Catholics in civil marriages, the document says:

The aim of pastoral action will be to make these people understand the need for consistency between their choice of life and the faith that they profess, and to try to do everything possible to induce them to regularize their situation in the light of Christian principle. While treating them with great charity and bringing them into the life of the respective communities, the pastors of the Church will regrettably not be able to admit them to the sacraments” (FS, 82).

Regarding the separated or divorced persons who have not remarried, it is “necessary for the Church to offer continual love and assistance, without there being any obstacle to admission to the sacraments”. (FS, 83). The issue of divorced persons who have remarried is the most contentious. The document says:

 “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” (FS, 84).

 In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI, through his Post-Apostolic Synodal Exhortation, Sacramentum Caritatis, attempted a resolution to the problem when he said:

Finally, where the nullity of the marriage bond is not declared and objective circumstances make it impossible to cease cohabitation, the Church encourages these members of the faithful to commit themselves to living their relationship in fidelity to the demands of God’s law, as friends, as brother and sister; in this way they will be able to return to the table of the Eucharist, taking care to observe the Church’s established and approved practice in this regard. This path, if it is to be possible and fruitful, must be supported by pastors and by adequate ecclesial initiatives, nor can it ever involve the blessing of these relations, lest confusion arise among the faithful concerning the value of marriage” (Sacramentum Caritatis, 29).

Since the proviso of Pope Benedict was rife with challenges, Pope Francis, in the Post Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, in 2016,attempted to find ways in which divorced and remarried Catholics could receive communion, or at least be integrated into the Church. The recommendations raised serious concerns and even strong opposition from high-ranking Church members. I am not sure of the extent to which we implement the proposals today.

None of these situations above fully describe customary marriages. The closest is Catholics in civil marriages. As Familiaris Consortio affirms, they are those “who for ideological or practical reasons, prefer to contract a merely civil marriage, and who reject or at least defer religious marriage” (FS, 82).

However, customary marriages are identity-based and identity-driven. No one is born a Catholic. I was first an Igbo before being a Christian, and then a priest.

At birth, I automatically acquired Nigerian citizenship of Igbo descent. There was no choice because one cannot be stateless. However, I only acquired my ecclesiastical citizenship (Catholic identity) at baptism, which happened weeks later. My parents (My dad was a late convert to Christianity, and my mum was a Methodist till she married) and sponsor wanted my baptism. They could have wished otherwise. This choice corresponds to the free will God gives us to choose our actions—a choice that makes us culpable for our actions.

Therefore, customary marriages are not contracted for ideological or practical reasons or in rejection of Christian marriage. 

It is necessary to note that the three Church documents cited above are all post-synodal apostolic exhortations. A post-synodal apostolic exhortation is a document the pope issues after the conclusion of an assembly of the Synod of Bishops.

Familiaris Consortio was issued on 22 November 1981 after the Fifth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (26 September – 25 October 1980) on the theme: “The Christian Family”. Sacramentum Caritatis was issued on 22 February 2007 after the Eleventh Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (2-23 October 2005) on the theme: “The Eucharist: source and summit of the life and mission of the Church”. Amoris Laetitia was issued on 19 March 2016 after the Fourteenth Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops (4-25 October 2015) on the theme: “The vocation and mission of the family in the Church and in the contemporary world”.

There have been two Special Assemblies for Africa of the Synod of Bishops. The first is on the topic, “The Church in Africa and Her Evangelizing Mission Towards the Year 2000”,held from 10 April – 8 May 1994. Pope John Paul II issued the post-synodal document “Ecclesia in Africa” on 14 September 1995. The second is on the “The Church in Africa in Service to Reconciliation, Justice and Peace,” held from 4 – 25 October 2009. Pope Benedict XVI issued the post-synodal document, “Africae Munus”, on 19 November 2011.

 Unfortunately, the validity and liceity of customary marriages have not been considered at the universal level, and, sadly, even at the special assemblies for Africa (at least from the documents). As the Church in the West is pushing to change Church laws to suit their needs, no one will discuss the issue of customary marriages except we do so.   

May God continue to help us🙏🏾


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