Letter to The Tablet


Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger

Sir: Please permit me to correct two misrepresentations of my position which appeared in your publication.

The first concerns the doctrine of papal primacy … The second misrepresentation concerns the problem of divorce and remarriage as presented by Theodore Davey in the issue of 27 July 1991. Fr Davey cites me as having contributed to the formulation of ‘norms’ of ‘an evolving pastoral practice’ whose application could permit divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the sacraments. The ‘norms’ Fr Davey refers to, accurately recounted in themselves, are not norms in any official sense at all. They formed part of a suggestion (‘Vorschlag’) I made as a theologian in 19724. Their implementation in pastoral practice would of course necessarily depend on their corroboration by an official act of the magisterium to whose judgement I would submit. Incidentally, unlike Fr Davey, as a Catholic theologian I could never subscribe to the notion of dual magisteria, ‘the magisterium of the bishops or that of the theologians’ (Davey, p. 905).

Now the magisterium subsequently spoke decisively on this question in the person of the present Holy Father in Familiaris Consortio5. Since the Tablet series on divorce nowhere cites the pertinent passage, please allow me to (no. 84):

… 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.

There are other errors and distortions in Fr Davey’s position amounting to an all but rhetorical repudiation of the doctrine of the indissolubility of marriage. These would require too much space for me to deal with here. I would, however, at least like to correct Davey’s misinterpretation of statements of Cardinal Seper and Archbishop, now Cardinal, Hamer since they concern my predecessors at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

First, Cardinal Seper’s mention in his letter of 1973 of the ‘approved practice in the internal forum’ which Fr Davey cites was not referring to the so-called internal forum solution which properly understood concerns a marriage known with certainty to be invalid but which cannot be shown to be such to a marriage tribunal because of a lack of admissible proof. Cardinal Seper for his part was not addressing the question of the validity of a prior marriage, but rather the possibility of allowing persons in a second, invalid marriage to return to the sacraments if, in function of their sincere repentance, they pledge to abstain from sexual relations when there are serious reasons preventing their separation and scandal can be avoided.

By the way, as far as the ‘internal forum solution’ is concerned as a means for resolving the question of the validity of a prior marriage, the magisterium has not sanctioned its use for a number of reasons, among which is the inherent contradiction of resolving something in the internal forum which by nature also pertains to and has such important consequences for the external forum. Marriage, not a private act, has deep implications of course for both of the spouses and resulting children and also for Christian and civil society. Only the external forum can give real assurance to the petitioner, himself not a disinterested party, that he is not guilty of rationalization. Likewise, only the external forum can address the rights or claims of the other partner of the former union, and, in the case of the tribunal’s issuance of a judgement of nullity, make possible entering into a canonically valid, sacramental marriage. I might add, moreover, that the numerous abuses committed under the rubric of the internal forum solution in some countries attest to the practical unworkability of the internal forum solution.

It is for reasons such as these that the Church in recent times, most notably in the new Code of Canon Law, has broadened the criteria for the admissibility of testimony and evidence in marriage tribunals so that the need to appeal to an internal forum solution would not arise. Of course in some extremely rare case where appeal to the Church’s canonical practice has not availed and a matter of conscience is at stake, recourse can be had to the Sacred Penitentiary.

Finally, Archbishop Hamer’s stipulation in his letter of 1975 that divorced and remarried couples, whose first marriages were not declared null and void, could be allowed to receive the sacraments if ‘they try to live according to the demands of Christian moral principles’ means nothing more again than abstaining, as Pope John Paul II would later write in Familiaris Consortio, ‘from the acts proper to married couples’ (no. 84).

In closing echoing the words of the International Theological Commission, I would underscore that what is at stake in respect to the teaching of the indissolubility of marriage is nothing less than the Church’s fidelity to the radicalism of the Gospel.

This severity does not derive from a purely disciplinary law or from a type of legalism. It is rather a judgement pronounced by Jesus himself (Mk. 10:6ff). Understood in this way, this severe norm is a prophetic witness to the irreversible fidelity of love that binds Christ to his Church. It shows also that the spouses’ love is incorporated into the very love of Christ (Eph. 5:23-32).6   

(Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger ‘Letter to The Tablet,’

The Tablet, 26 October 1991, p. 1311)

4 Cf. Ehe und Ehescheidung (Kosel-Verlag, Munich, 1972), pp. 54f. I say there as follows: ‘I would like to attempt, with all due caution, to formulate a concrete suggestion which seems to lie within these parameters.’

5 Contrary to what is said in the Tablet editorial of 10 August 1991, I made exactly this point in remarks at Cambridge when my earlier position was held up to me.

6 Cf. ‘Propositions on the Doctrine of Christian Marriage’, in International Theological Commission: Texts and Documents 1969-1985 (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1989), pp. 163-174. Cf. also ‘Christological Theses on the Sacrament of Marriage’ in the same volume, pp. 175-183.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s