On the Truth that Heals the Crisis of Marriage

Part II: On Christ’s Love of the Sinner1

Do we believe that God can act in our lives; indeed, that God can act for the benefit of everyone in our lives? In the myriad situations of life, God is not a “situationist:” God alone is the one who acts for the good of everybody in everybody’s life; and, therefore, the intricate difficulties that we all experience when it comes to our concrete history are a call to faith: faith in God, the Good Shepherd. In other words, there is not a difficulty, not a complex history, not a trail of sin, and its harm, that is beyond the actual help of God. On the one hand, then, let us acknowledge the reality of our lives; and, on the other hand, let us appeal to God for help. God knows the concrete facts of our lives, the tangle of relationships, and the number of our children. What is more, God knows the longing for love which He expressed in each one of us. Let us not be afraid, then, to turn back to the Creator: to the one who is truly creative in addressing our whole human needs.

In the course of the on-going discussion of what is possible for the remarried, within the embracing love of the Church, there is emerging a number of distinct aspects: accompaniment as a “way” of drawing people closer to the Church; a “moment” of discernment in that process in which a couple recognize the need for abstinence and the possibility of being helped to do this; and, thirdly, a philosophical point in Pope Francis’ Letter On Communication which may impact on our understanding of the Christian life particularly on our conversion to reality (III).

What Does It Mean to Accompany the Remarried ?
There are three related questions to consider here:

  1. What does it mean to remarry?
  2. Is there a real possibility of a true death of a marriage?
  3. What is accompaniment?

What Does It Mean to Remarry?
In this context, “remarriage” means that a spouse has “married again” when the husband or wife from the first marriage is still living. If the Church has recognized that the first marriage was invalid, then the couple are free to “remarry;” for, in this instance, there is no prior, valid marriage. C. S. Lewis, it seems, reasoned that if Joy Gresham was married to a man who was divorced, the fact that he was divorced invalidated his marriage to Joy; and, therefore, Jack Lewis and Joy Gresham were free to marry. This reasoning, while not identical to the Catholic practice of discerning the validity of a marriage, nevertheless indicates the kind of facts that can illuminate a particular situation. “Remarriage” here, then, is specifically concerned with those whom the Church has not, for one reason or another, recognized as being free to marry; and, therefore, there remains a prior act of marriage awaiting the discernment of the Church. This discernment is necessary because Christ Himself says: “What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder” (Mk 10: 9; cf. Mt 19: 6). In other words, the sacrament of marriage is an act of God that the Church cannot undo; but, in the mission of love to which she is called, she can seek to identify if, in fact, God has acted, and a sacramental marriage does in fact exist.

The embrace of the Church is in the discernment of whether or not God has acted; and, if He has, then this cannot be undone. Christ does not say to the woman at the well that she was not married, but that she was not married to the man with whom she now lived (cf. Jn 4: 18). The first part of the process of accompaniment is, then, an act of love towards the “remarried”; and, in reality, entails an act of evangelizing enlightenment. In other words, it is not just about understanding that a previous marriage has existed, it is also about seeking to understand the presence of God in the history of people who are now drawing closer to the Church and, indeed, encouraging them to draw ever closer. At the same time, the Church’s vocation is to help us to see that the act of God that brings a marriage to exist is irrevocable. Just as the act of God that brings a human being to exist cannot be undone, neither can the act of God which brings marriage to exist be undone. Even more, however, must it be said, that God continues to act in the history of each of us; and, therefore, it is not as if the reality of marriage is God’s last word in our salvation history. In other words, it is how to respond to the call of Christ to conversion that transforms a preoccupation with law into a proclamation of love:2 to turn away from ourselves, and towards Him; and, therefore, the goal of accompaniment is to participate as fully as possible in the Gospel of Love: both evangelizing and being evangelized!

Can a Marriage Die?
Carla Mae Streeter, OP, has summarised an argument which runs as follows: just as when the “bread” of the Eucharist dissolves ,and Christ is no longer present, so the death of a marriage is when “the human love dissolves … [such that] the matter of the sacrament in that case ceases.”3

Although it seems plausible to argue for the “dissolution or death” of a marriage, this does not take account of what God has rooted in the sacramental reality of a temporal relationship in Christ: a temporal relationship in Christ which is also an image of the spousal banquet of eternal life. In other words, the Son of God’s Incarnation founded, irrevocably, the Paschal Mystery, His death and Resurrection and Ascension into heaven, so His “relationship” to us established the possibility of our relationship to God, and to each other. Thus, the truth of marriage is that it is an irrevocably temporal relationship between a man and a woman, in Christ, established by God. If, then, the marriage was an act of God, in virtue of the very communion between man and God in Jesus Christ, then the “matter” of the sacrament is the reality of the relationship to which the man and the woman, on marrying, have entered into. Just as an act of God is irrevocable, so is the taking up into that act all that pertains to it; and, therefore, just as the bread and wine is irrevocably the body and blood of Jesus Christ, after consecration, so is the human and the divine act of marriage indissolubly one in the sacrament of marriage.

Whatever a marriage suffers, then, in terms of the temporal reality of disappointment, betrayal, uncertainty, doubt, and sin, the whole sacramental reality of marriage is the whole Paschal Mystery: the irrevocable mission through which Christ brings the new life of the resurrection out of the whole existential situation of the marriage (cf. Jn 2: 1-11).

What is Accompaniment?4

To bring a person to Christ, or to stand in the way? What are these two possibilities from the point of view of grace?

The first possibility is a discernment, by the Church, of the work of God. What is the action of God in the concrete situation of a person’s life.5 This act of discernment is not a human invention. To see what God is doing in a person’s life, we might say, is a central act of the mission of the Church. The Church is a body and, therefore, there is a participation in what the Lord is doing: a participation which begins with drawing close enough to see what the Lord is doing in a particular person’s life; and, in view of the nature of the Church as communion, this participation is an inseparable part of the work and mission of the Lord. The Lord calls us into communion, not abstractly but, to begin with, in and from the actual reality of our lives; and, at the same time, the call to communion has an inherent conversion in it: a concrete turning to the Lord.

What, then, does it mean to stand in the way of an action of God? Perhaps, concretely, to stand in the way of the Lord’s call to communion is to overlook the help that Christ has given to me, which may be a part of the help which the Lord wants to give to another; and, therefore, instead of sharing how the Lord has helped me, I may be unwilling to reveal the humbling reality of my own life, its many falls, and the many times that the Lord has shown me that He exists to help.

The gift of faith, I increasingly think, is an expression of the Lord’s mercy: it is an act of God’s mercy to be called to believe that God exists, and that He acts to help. The call to faith, then, is already, the beginning of the act of mercy which matures unto eternal life in the communion of saints.

In the “moment” of discernment, that abstinence is necessary. It has also become clear that there can be a “moment” when two people recognize that, in reality, the Word of God, the Tradition of the Church, and the voice of the Magisterium (cf. Dei Verbum, 10) has enlightened them to see that they are called to renounce being “remarried” and to live as brother and sister. In this situation, there is a power of love that makes possible the fulfillment of a word as dramatic as the woman caught in adultery experienced when Christ said to her: “Has no one condemned you?” …. “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again” (Jn 8: 10-11). The fact that Christ said He did not condemn the woman is evidence, precisely, of what Pope Francis is seeking to accomplish: a love that expresses reconciliation with Christ. In other words, there is a moment in which God is experienced as the One who delivers from sin6 and its slavery.

At the same time, Cardinal Müller, while prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the divorced and remarried cannot take Communion, except possibly when they try to live “in complete continence”7 Objectively, then, there is a distinction between coming closer to the Church, perhaps not realizing the reality which is lived, and beginning to perceive that God has called us to live “in complete continence”. In other words, in the situation of God calling people to live “in complete continence,” there is already a recognition of the evangelical goal: of living the truth in love; and, therefore, it is in this situation that Cardinal Müller says that there can be recourse to the sacraments of Holy Communion and, by implication, Penance. In other words, there is no confusion here about the reality of conversion: God has begun to initiate the call to complete continence; but, in terms of the daily work of transforming “remarriage” into a relationship akin to that of being brother and sister, there is a change which is both dramatic and graced. How, in actual fact, God brings about the grace of conversion is, indeed, a challenge for us to understand; but, nevertheless, if the Church in Her wisdom recognizes that this is indeed a favorable moment to receive the sacraments of Penance and Communion, then this is because of striving to live “in complete continence.”8

In the concrete circumstances in which people find themselves, both in the course of their enlightenment, and following it, there is a new reality to embrace: a new action of God to “be birthed”. Thus, the sacraments are not a substitute for change but are, in good faith, an expression of it. In my experience,9 however, there is the possibility of a kind of “sacramental treadmill” of sin and absolution; and, indeed, there came a “moment” when I was sick of returning to my own vomit (cf. Proverbs 26: 11).

God answered my despair and “planted” faith: Just as God can bring creation out of nothing, so He can bring new life to the sinner (cf. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 298).10 I cannot endorse enough, then, the wisdom of a journey of accompaniment that is especially relevant to helping this encounter with the Lord to be a profound deliverance from the slavery of sin to the freedom of love.

I am inclined to believe, then, through my own bitter and protracted experience of recourse to Christ’s sacraments, and His Church, that there is an abiding wisdom in the renewed realism concerning conversion, and how to assist it. At this level, then, pastoral action which is rooted in Amoris Laetitia does seem to possess a realistic welcome of the sinner.

Is there a philosophical point in Pope Francis’ Letter on Communication which may help us to understand the Christian life: particularly conversion to reality: “In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning.”11

III: Part One on Communication. Pope Francis says: “In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning’” and, in the next sentence, “Everything depends on the way we look at things, on the lens we use to view them.”12

On the one hand, then, it could be claimed that this is philosophically flawed in so far as it suggests that there is no objective reality: that “In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning.” Indeed, it could be argued, this statement opens up the possibility that a lens, whether Christian, or otherwise, is some kind of arbitrary imposition of meaning which, in a way, could just as well be one lens among many, and not intrinsically more relevant, useful, or truthful than another. In other words, is this a “bald” statement of a philosophical position that makes it possible to advance the view, mistakenly, that the interpretation of human experience has no roots in reality itself and is, as it were, an imposition or labeling of meaning that does not reach or recognize what really exists?

On the other hand, however, if we take this statement in the context of World Communication Day, it could be argued that, according to the take by journalists, commentators, experts, politicians, and people generally, that there is in fact a variable meaning that would lead us to conclude: “In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning.” Or, alternatively, we might argue that just as there are scientific, embryological, psychological, philosophical, and theological insights into the beginning of human personhood that, in fact, we need the complementarity of the different disciplines to enrich each other, and to enable, through a wealth of study, to go beyond the limitations of any one account. At the same time, it could be maintained, there is an abundance of evidence in the “hearing of the Word of God” that it can speak to us in a nuance that is at once personal to us, available to others in so far as we share it and, therefore, it expresses a range of meaning that is extraordinarily subtle, and able to address each one of us in our daily reality. In other words, it is possible to maintain that there is a legitimate sense in which it can be said that “In and of itself, reality has no one clear meaning.”

III: Part Two on Ambiguity.
If the first part of this section has considered taking a single statement in two ways—one positive and one negative—is it possible that ambiguity13 has a “good” about it—the good of causing us to search our hearts?

What if God, who allowed the suffering of Joseph in view of the good he had planned to bring about (cf. Gn 50: 20), has allowed a certain ambiguity in the expression of Church teaching in view of a good that arises out of the challenge to which it calls us: the challenge to self-examination? Just as God did not move Joseph’s brothers to harm him, yet He drew a great good out of it for His people, so God did not “engineer” an ambiguity in a Church document, but yet intends it to be a great good. In other words, if we believe that the Spirit of God is at work in the Church, is there a good that exceeds the human reasons of an ambiguous expression in Church teaching?14 Could it be, in a sense, like Christ challenging us with an unfamiliar use of language in order, as it were, to scrutinize our attitudes and reactions the better to purge it of an unhelpful perfectionism: a kind of literal Catholicism that makes us more conscious of a deviation, than of the person who needs help.

It is true, then, that the grace of God brings about the fulfillment of the law of love; but, in so doing, perhaps God needs to bring about a greater good of helping us to respond to the sinner He is seeking to save. Perhaps the problem to be faced is not so much the fear of transgressing a moral norm, real though this is, as that people who are living through this transgression need us to have a wisdom that exceeds observing the problem of “their” transgression. In other words, it is not so much that people are “objectively” at fault, as that they need help to recognize the discrepancy between their “subjective” understanding of what they are doing, and an objectivity, not just of the moral law in general, but of their real situation. When Christ says to the woman caught in adultery, “go, and sin no more,” it is clear that He has both objectively expressed the truth about adultery, and the freedom that that the woman needs from sin (Jn 8: 3-11).

Perhaps, then, what the Spirit of Truth seeks from us is not so much a grasp of the unchangeable law, as that we need to see the blindness of the blind in order to help them; and, in order to see the blindness of the blind, we need to see the blind spot in our own vision. The blind spot, then, is the whole situation in which, in this day and age, people “wake up” to find themselves, for a whole variety of reasons, in complex situations which exceed their power to resolve. The truth, then, that sets people free (cf. Jn 8: 32) comes with a powerful gentleness (cf. Dignitatis Humanae, 2-3) that needs, in its human exponents, all the subtlety of understanding, and the help that grace makes possible. There can never be a truth that contradicts truth—but there can be a lovelessness which contradicts the loving expression of the truth: “St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross says to us all: Do not accept anything as the truth if it lacks love. And do not accept anything as love which lacks truth! One without the other becomes a destructive lie.”15

What if, then, part of the problem of the “reception” of Pope Francis is precisely his emphasis on the actual reality of the human personhood and life of the sinner.16 While not rejecting the clarity of the principled expression of the truth, perhaps Pope Francis is seeking to imitate Christ “scandalously”—that in the reality of the moment of being discovered to be a sinner, there is one who does not condemn us, but utters a transforming word of life: “go, and do not sin again.” (Jn 8: 11). Are we not called to do likewise?

  1. This is now a part of the book,
    The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends, (Chapter 4: Part I: enroutebooksandmedia.com/familyonpilgrimage/)
  2. Cf. Cardinal Wuerl, “Is it confusion or different approaches,” cardinalsblog.adw.org/2017/01/confusion-differentapproaches/; and cf. too, Sandro Magister, “Buenos Aires and Rome. For Francis, These Are the Model Dioceses”, chiesa.espresso.repubblica.it/articolo/1351383?eng=y.
  3. “Reflections On Some Responses to Francis’ Amoris Laetitia”, ITEST Bulletin, Vol. 47 – #4, p. 9.
  4. This section was first posted as a response to an article, and the discussion of it, on the following website:

    The article itself was by Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, entitled “Chapter Eight of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia”, which was translated by Andrew Guernsey.

  5. Subsequent to inserting this section, the following article has been published: ‘Divorce, Remarriage, and “Discerning the Body”’, by Dr. Matthew J. Ramage: hprweb.com/2017/05/divorce-remarriage-and-discerning-the-body/.

    On the one hand, I agree that there is an objective nature to sin. On the other hand, there are degrees of subjective participation in that objective reality: from diminished responsibility, to consent, to the malice of the act. It is an integral part of the work of an accompanying discernment to identity the reality of sin in a person’s life and, if possible, to help that person respond to Christ’s call to conversion.

  6. Cf. Francis Etheredge, Witness “Begets” Witnesses, hprweb.com/2015/02/witness-begets-witnesses/.
  7. Staff Reporter, “Cardinal Müller: Communion for the remarried is against God’s law”, catholicherald.co.uk/news/2017/02/01/cardinal-muller-communion-for-the-remarried-is-against-gods-law/.
  8. At the same time, however, there is a very instructive piece by Cardinal Paul Cordes, “Spiritual Communion: Freed from the Dust of Centuries”—”Then, I remembered a possible way to relate to Christ which might be open to remarried and divorced persons. For centuries, it was known to be the believer’s comfort and nourishment for unity with God: spiritual communion. Spiritual communion is tied only to the interior desires of the heart” (hprweb.com/2016/12/spiritual-communion-freed-from-the-dust-of-centuries/).

    In other words, spiritual communion is a person’s intense, personal prayer to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. Similarly, there is a general need to “reclaim” the power of the word of God to help us. Who knows the mind of the Lord, and how He will respond to the heart of those who turn to Him?

  9. Cf. “Accompaniment: On the Truth that Heals (Part I)”, linkedin.com/pulse/accompaniment-truth-heals-francis-etheredge?published=u.
  10. Francis Etheredge, “Witness ‘Begets’ Witnesses”, hprweb.com/2015/02/witness-begets-witnesses/
  11. “Message of His Holiness Pope Francis for the 51st World Communications Day”, 24th January, 2017,
  12. Pope Francis, World Communications Day, January 24, 2017.
  13. The original stimulus for this section was an article by Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap, “The Flawed Strategy Behind Amoris Laetitia” (hprweb.com/2017/08/the-flawed-strategy-behind-amoris-laetitia/) and my response to it at: hprweb.com/2017/08/the-flawed-strategy-behind-amoris-laetitia/#comments (September 8, 2017)
  14. Cf. Fr. Regis Scanlon, OFMCap, “The Flawed Strategy Behind Amoris Laetitia”.
  15. Homily of St. John Paul II for the Canonization of Edith Stein, Sunday, 11th October, 1998: 8.
  16. Cf. Cardinal Francesco Coccopalmerio, translated by Andrew Guernsey, “Chapter Eight of the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitia”: ‘Pope Francis evaluates reality through the person or, again, he puts the person first, and thereby he evaluates reality. What counts is the person, the rest comes as a logical consequence’ at hprweb.com/2017/05/chapter-eight-of-the-post-synodal-apostolic-exhortation-amoris-laetitia/.
Francis Etheredge About Francis Etheredge

Mr. Francis Etheredge is married with eight children, plus three in heaven. He is the author of Scripture: A Unique Word and a trilogy, From Truth and Truth (Cambridge Scholars Publishing); The Human Person: A Bioethical Word (En Route Books & Media, 2017), with forewords from eight writers; The Family on Pilgrimage: God Leads Through Dead Ends (2018); and Conception: An Icon of the Beginning, with contributions from ten other authors, as well as The Prayerful Kiss (2019); Mary and Bioethics: An Exploration (2020); Honest Rust and Gold: A Second Collection of Prose and Poetry (2020), Within Reach of You: A Book of Prose and Prayers (2021), Unfolding a Post-Roe World (2022), Reaching for the Resurrection: A Pastoral Bioethics (2022), Human Nature: Moral Norm, Lord, Do You Mean Me? A Father-Catechist! (2023), A Word in your Heart: Youth, Mental Health, and the Word of God (2023), and An Unlikely Gardener: Prose and Poems.

Francis is currently a freelance writer and speaker and his “posts” on LinkedIn can be viewed here. A radio interview can be heard here.

He has earned a BA Div (Hons), MA in Catholic Theology, PGC in Biblical Studies, PGC in Higher Education, and an MA in Marriage and Family (Distinction). He is a collaborator of the Dignitas Personae Institute for Nascent Human Life.