Bishop Tobin on divorce: Changes needed in approach, not teaching

Providence, R.I., Sep 17, 2014 / 09:43 am .- The dilemma of divorced and remarried Catholics should prompt consideration of changes in the Church’s approach to annulments and the Eucharist, but without compromising Church teaching, said Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Providence, R.I.

“The challenge for the Church, of course, is how to maintain and proclaim the irrefutable teaching of our Lord Jesus that marriage entails a sacred and permanent bond between husband and wife, while also providing spiritual care for those Catholics who have fallen short of the ideal,” he said in a column written for the local diocesan paper, the Rhode Island Catholic.

“Although the teaching of Christ and His Church about the permanence of marriage is clear and undeniable, the lived reality is that many individuals, for a variety of reasons perhaps – personal, catechetical or cultural – are ill-equipped to fulfill the lofty demands of the law,” he said.

Next month, bishops the world over will meet with Pope Francis in Rome for a synod to discuss the Pastoral Challenges to the Family in the Context of Evangelization.

Among the topics to be discussed is the issue of whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be allowed to receive the Eucharist, as well as the efficiency of the annulment process.

Church teaching holds that a second marriage cannot be recognized as valid if the preceding marriage was valid. Therefore, divorced Catholics who remarry without obtaining an annulment are “in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law” and should not receive the Eucharist.

Pope Francis has called for the synod to examine a “somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage,” including the divorced and remarried, leading many to speculate on how the situation could be addressed.

In his column, Bishop Tobin pointed to the Gospel of Mark 2:23-28, in which the disciples were walking through a wheat field on the Sabbath and began eating grain because they were hungry, in violation of Jewish law. While the Pharisees condemned them, Jesus responds: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for Sabbath.”

“In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, our Lord clearly placed it in a ‘pastoral context,’ exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment,” the Bishop wrote.

“Could we not take a similar approach to marriage law today? Could we not say, by way of analogy, that “matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?” he questioned.

In his column, Bishop Tobin said that “understand(s) completely the arguments against taking a more ‘pastoral approach’ to this topic, primarily that to do so would betray the sacred teaching of Christ we are obliged to uphold.”

“I know that even within the current discipline, divorced and remarried Catholics, though barred from Holy Communion, are still valued members of the Church and that there are many ways for them to participate in ecclesial life,” he continued. “And I believe in the value of ‘spiritual communion’ as a truly worthwhile devotional practice for those unable to receive the sacrament.”

However, the bishop wondered whether these Catholics are being unnecessarily denied the “consolation and joy” of the Eucharist, a central part of the Catholic faith.

“…the Church has taught the pre-eminent value of receiving the Holy Eucharist, and I keep hearing the words of Jesus about the Eucharist, words that are just as valid and important as His words about marriage: ‘Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you’ (Jn 6:53).”

The bishop said that he has agonized over the many divorced Catholics who have left the Church, and questioned the “pseudo-Catholic politicians” who receive Holy Communion despite defying Church teaching on “gay marriage” and abortion in their legislative work.

Part of the solution to the growing number of divorced and remarried Catholics sans annulment could be a simplifying of the “formal court-like” annulment process itself, Bishop Tobin suggested.

“Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?” he asked.

“In lieu of this formal court-like process, which some participants have found intimidating, can we rely more on the conscientious personal judgment of spouses about the history of their marriage (after all, they are the ministers and recipients of the sacrament!) and their worthiness to receive Holy Communion?”

In his conclusion, Bishop Tobin admitted that he does not have all the answers to the questions that have been raised, but expressed hope that the Holy Spirit guides the discernment of the Pope, bishops and theologians “who are a whole lot smarter and holier than I am” and who are wrestling with these issues before the synod.

Whatever changes are made, Bishop Tobin said he hopes they are at a universal rather than a diocesan level, for the sake of consistency within the Church.

But changes must be made, he emphasized.

“For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic Family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!”


  1. Lea Leger Reply

    I dont agree that divorced or remarried can receive holy eucharist, if that so, more and more catholic divorce and remarried. A lot of Catholics doesnt agree with that.

    1. Caitlyn Reply

      Be merciful as the Lord has been merciful to you and me.

      1. emily ward Reply

        amen Caitlyn!

  2. Vera Reply

    I have been abandoned in my marriage since 2004, yet I do not agree that this should be encouraged for adultery Is not a pastoral decision. I will rather not eat at all than for me to eat and drink unworthily. It’s better that I am in formed than to live in ignorance, for we all have to work out our salvation with a lot of sacrifice not at our convenience.

  3. Irena Reply

    I appreciate your Rticle thank you

  4. Lee Reply

    My friend divorced because his wife was unfaithful. He was punished by being excomunicated from church. Now he is muslim with four wives. The church is only part of the problem. Had he remain catholic this might not of happen. Teach forgiveness as Jesus would do.

  5. Delphine Reply

    If the (Catholic) Church is God’s image: merciful, tender, compassionate, slow to anger, then the (Catholic) Church has to represent this image & accept the divorced & remarried who are still children of God! Let the Spirit of the Most High God be our guide on this poignant issue!

    1. Emma Reply

      Well written

  6. Danny Serrano Reply

    The approach not the teachings of the church maybe made on a case to case basis. But I think annulment of marriage and divorced marriages would soon looses its distinction. In annulment there was actually no marriage at the very beginning of the celebration of marriage, while in divorce the marriage celebration was valid, but for lack of commitment to love each other the spouses agreed to separate or one choose to separate abandoning the other spouse. If matrimony was made for men, not men made for matrimony, what kind of definition would substitute it? Changing definition is doctrinal. I think we have to go back to Christ basic teaching on marriage, rather than conform to the marital problems of the world based on personal, cultural or other religious massive practice of convenient polygamy or polyandry. The church can still survive without them. I think the doctrinal approach here for the church is only to the innocent spouse to accommodate, not to the guilty spouse to be re- married again in the church. The church will surely survive and sanctity preserve without these guilty spouse who married for convenience and personal pleasures. Marriage as commitment entails sacrifices, without it marriage easily explodes$ and even family sanctity would loose all its value. That is dangerous we would surely reduce ourselves into beasts in the end. Pleasure and convenience becomes the only basis of commitment, not sacrifices that makes holiness.

    1. emily ward Reply

      Well said , Delphine, this also brings up another question, if married protestants can become catholic priests, because it happened before they took the vows, are divorced protestants given the same consideration, if it happened before they became catholics?

  7. Calogero Rosa Reply

    The Catholic Church IS the Pillar and Bulwark of Truth and that’s biblical! We believe and profess what the bible says through His Church which is guided by the Holy Ghost! The Church doesn’t try and change it to fit into our belief system that popped up 1500 yrs after the fact!
    St. Luke 10:16 tells us, He that heareth you, heareth me; and he that despiseth you, despiseth me; and he that despiseth me, despiseth him that sent me.
    Seek the truth of what the Catholic Church really teaches! Make sure what is being taught to you from a priest, religious or the pope is actually what the Catholic Church teaches!!!
    Archbishop Fulton Sheen said, “When somebody says, “I’m Catholic BUT” It means their really not Catholic!

  8. ina allen Reply

    Jesus, said to the woman caught in adultery after He asked, has anyone condemned you, He said go sin no more, if someone is on a second relationship, then that has to end, if it is to go sin no more

Leave a Reply to Delphine Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *