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Divorce among Catholics may be Possible...

But only if the Sacrament of Matrimony was Faulty


The Power of the Pope and the Marriage of the Baptized

Unsigned L'Osservatore Romano article

Faithfully following the teaching of the Gospel and the Apostles (cf. Mt 5:31; Mk 10:11-12; Lk 16:8; 1 Cor 7:10-11), which restored and brought to fulfilment God the Creator's original plan (cf. Gn 1:27; 2:24; Mt 19:3-9; Mk 10:2-9), the Catholic Church has always proclaimed the absolute indissolubility of the sacrament of marriage. Down the centuries she has repeatedly taught this same doctrine in various Ecumenical Councils (e.g., the Councils of Florence, Trent and Vatican II through the ordinary Magisterium of the Roman Pontiffs and Bishops, and through her constant, universal catechetical and missionary activity.

The introduction of divorce into civil law, even in countries of long-standing Christian tradition, has spurred the Pastors and faithful to bear clear and steadfast witness to the value of the indissolubility of marriage. However, there have arisen among the faithful irregular marital situations which have been and still are a source of deep sorrow. In order to deal with these situations, theological hypotheses have been developed over a number of years, which, while respecting the intrinsic indissolubility of marriage, propose on the basis of various arguments that in certain cases the vicarious power of the Roman Pontiff could be extended to the dissolution of consummated marriage between the baptized (a ratified and consummated marriage). In other words, while maintaining the principle that the marital bond cannot be dissolved by the will of the spouses ("intrinsic indissolubility"), the idea has been proposed that the Successor of Peter has the power to dissolve a consummated marriage between the baptized whenever that would be required for a serious reason concerning the good of the faithful.

According to some authors, new circumstances justify extending to ratified and consummated marriages the power that the Roman Pontiff exercises in some cases over the consummated marriages of the non-baptized (cf. CIC, cann. 1143-1149 on the "privilegium in favorem fidei") and over the non-consummated marriages of the baptized (cf. CIC, can. 1142). According to other scholars, it is a question of applying to new cases a juridical power of dissolving ratified and consummated marriages which, in their opinion, the Church has always exercised when, for example, she allows widows and widowers to remarry. It should be immediately noted that no historical, biblical, theological or canonical proof is given for the existence in law or in fact of this power; in reality, it has never existed nor has it ever been exercised. The complexity of the matter, however, and its notable impact on the life of the faithful call for some clarifications.

As Pius XI stated, appealing to an age-old doctrinal tradition, the indissolubility of marriage, "although not in the same perfect measure in every case, belongs to every true marriage", even when the sacramental element may be absent from marriage, as is the case with the non-baptized. Pius XI adds that if indissolubility "seems to be open to exception, however rare the exception may be, as in the case of certain natural marriages between unbelievers, or among Christians in the case of those marriages which, though valid, have not been consummated, that exception does not depend on the will of men nor on that of any merely human power, but on divine law, of which the only guardian and interpreter is the Church of Christ".1

The dissolution of a marriage between the non-baptized in favour of the faith is explicitly and formally based on the teaching of St Paul (cf. 1 Cor 7:12-16). The particular problems which arose during the Church's first missionary activity on the American continent led the Roman Pontiffs, "from Our sure knowledge and in the fullness of Apostolic power"2 to apply, according to some explanations, the Pauline teaching on the "favor fidei" even in the form today described by CIC, cann. 1148-1149 and, according to others, to exercise in a new way the vicarious power over non-sacramental marriages which the Church had already been long aware of possessing.

The Church's certainty and unanimity in applying the "Pauline privilege" also marks her age-old conviction of not having any power to dissolve a consummated marriage between the baptized ("ratified and consummated marriage"). What CIC, can. 1141 says today - "a marriage which is ratified and consummated cannot be dissolved by any human power or by any cause other than death" - is not only a canonical principle that the Church has consistently followed down the centuries, even in the face of the most intense pressure from the powerful, but represents a doctrinal principle that has been reaffirmed many times by the Church's Magisterium. Among the many examples, we can cite the teaching of Pius XI, which states that the Church's power "can never affect for any cause whatsoever a Christian marriage which is ratified and consummated, for in this case, just as the marriage covenant attains its full perfection, so, by the will of God, it obviously has the greatest firmness and indissolubility, which may not be dissolved by any human authority"3

We can clearly see that the phrase "any human power" also includes the vicarious power of Peter's Successor, both from the context and from the even more explicit teachings of other Roman Pontiffs before and after Pius XI. For example, Pius IX wrote to the Bishops of the Province of Fagaras and Alba Julia, Romania: "This permanent and indissoluble firmness of the marital bond does not derive from ecclesiastical discipline. For the consummated marriage, this firmness is solidly based on divine law and on the natural law: such a marriage can never be dissolved for any reason, even personally by the Supreme Pontiff, not even if one of the spouses has violated conjugal fidelity by adultery".4 Pius XII taught in the same vein: "The Christian marriage bond is so strong that, if it has attained its complete stability through the exercise of conjugal rights, no power in the world, not even Ours, that is, as Vicar of Christ, can rescind it."5

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which was declared by John Paul II "to be a sure norm for teaching the faith",6 summarizes this doctrine in the following words: "Thus the marriage bond has been established by God himself in such a way that a marriage concluded and consummated between baptized persons can never be dissolved. This bond, which results from the free human act of the spouses and their consummation of the marriage, is a reality, henceforth irrevocable, and gives rise to a covenant guaranteed by God's fidelity. The Church does not have the power to contravene this disposition of divine wisdom (cf. CIC, can. 1141)".7

The profound reason for the absolute indissolubility of Christian marriage, which is in addition to the natural indissolubility of every true marriage, lies in the "mystical signification of Christian marriage, which is fully and perfectly realized in a consummated marriage between the faithful. For as the Apostle says ... , the marriage of Christians represents that most perfect union which exists between Christ and the Church: ‘This is a great mystery, and I mean in reference to Christ and the Church' (Eph 5:32); which union can never be dissolved by any separation, as long as Christ shall live and the Church through him".8

The delicate and complex nature of morality and marital law, as well as the new situations that continually arise in connection with missionary activity and changing customs, has caused the Church to reflect long and carefully on extending the vicarious power of the Roman Pontiff. The distinctions between lawful marriage and ratified marriage, between ratified marriage and consummated marriage, and the relatively more recent distinction between intrinsic indissolubility and extrinsic indissolubility are the result of this reflection. The Church is convinced and has repeatedly affirmed that her power in no way extends to ratified and consummated marriages, which are thus intrinsically and extrinsically indissoluble. This is not the place to address the technical question of what theological note should be given this affirmation. In any case, we can say with certainty that it is not merely a question of discipline or of a simple historical fact. We are dealing, instead, with a doctrinal teaching of the Church, based on Sacred Scripture, which the Magisterium has explicitly and formally taught again and again. Thus, it should at least be considered as belonging to Catholic doctrine and should be accepted and firmly held as such.

Lastly, we should note that the real reason for the problems troubling the faithful in irregular marital situations is the spread of civil divorce laws and the culture that gives rise to them, a culture which they help to consolidate, thus making it increasingly difficult to create the necessary conditions for successful marital life. The Church must reach out to the faithful. experiencing these problems, but in fidelity to the Word of God and out of love for the individuals concerned, she cannot adopt those recommendations, however well intentioned, which, by improperly invoking the vicarious power of the Roman Pontiff, would merely circumvent the intrinsic indissolubility that Christian marriage possesses by divine law. Certainly, "it is a question of repairing these collapses, of heating these wounds, of curing these illnesses. The Church's heart bleeds at the sight of the unspeakable anguish of so many of her children; she spares no effort in coming to their aid and she pushes her compassion to its ultimate limit. This ultimate limit is solemnly expressed in can. 1118 [of the 1917 CIC, corresponding to can. 1141 of the 1983 CIC]: 'Matrimonium validum ratum et consummatum nulla humana potestate nullaque de causa, praeterquam morte, dissolvi potest'".9

The limit that the divine plan puts even on the power of the Roman Pontiff actually expresses the greatness of the mystery of marriage. It shares in the definitive nature of God's love for his people, and who can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus)


1. Encyc. Let. Casti connubii (31 December 1930): DS 3711-3712.
2. Pius V, Const. Romani Pontificis (2 August 1571): DS 1983.
3. Encyc. Let. Casti connubii (31 December 1930): DS 3712.
4. Let. Verbis exprimere (15 August 1859): Insegnamenti Pontifici, vol. I, Edizioni Paoline, Rome 1957, n. 103.
5. Address to Newlyweds (22 April 1942): Discorsi e Radiomessaggi di Sua Santita Pio XII, vol. IV, Editrice Vaticana, p. 47.
6. Apost. Const. Fidei depositum (11 October 1992): AAS 86 (1994) 117.
7. Catechism of the Catholic Church, n. 1640.
8. Encyc. Let. Casti connubii (31 December 1930): DS 3712.
9. Pius XII, Address to the Prelates of the Roman Rota (6 October 1946): AAS 38 (1946) 396.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
25 November 1998, page 2

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