The devil and the deep blue sea

I knew Tom very well when we were boys but I had not met him for some time until recently. Under the misapprehension that I was an expert on moral advice, he sought my opinion. He is a scrupulous man and the issue was clearly one of importance to him.

He had been divorced several years ago, and he had remarried. Children by both marriages. I don’t know the reason for his divorce. Having returned to Catholicism he wanted to know the best way to rectify matters. He told me that his first wife would not have him back (she herself is remarried) and his second wife was not prepared to live as “brother and sister”. Their children are young.

Yes, I did respond to his question but I shan’t, for the moment at least, tell you what I said. But I would be very interested know what you think I should have said

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to The devil and the deep blue sea

  1. tim says:

    I’m not the right person to open this discussion, but…

    If he has returned to Catholicism, has he been to Confession? If so, what advice did the priest give him? Shouldn’t that be his first port of call?

  2. Iona says:

    I used to know (ever so slightly) someone in a similar position. She attended Mass conscientiously every Sunday but never took communion. She was bringing her children up as Catholics. The PP described her as being “in an irregular union” (I think she was married to someone who was divorced from his first wife).

    As for what your friend should do… I think his options are going to depend very much on his relationship with his wife; and he also needs to give very careful consideration to the effect whatever he does may have on his relationship with their children. I’d want to explore all that before venturing anything at all by way of advice.

    I suppose he’s looked at the possibility of his first marriage being annulled?

  3. claret says:

    I am not absolutely certain on Canon Law but I think for an anullment to stand a chance he should not have re-married. ie.
    he should have got an anullment first ( assuming he had grounds for one,) and then married lady number two. ( in the eyes of the Church there would then have been only one valid marriage.)
    As for advice on his current situation then it can only be that he does not receive Holy Communion but avails himself of all the other blessings and sacraments available to him , and to leave it to his conscience as to his sexual life with his ‘second wife’ but to have sound instruction on the immorality of it in the eyes of the Church.

  4. rjgrace says:

    Being new here and all, I thought I’d tackle an easy question… 😉

    Checking with his priest is a good idea. Most pastors will probably go over it all with him and help him examine his conscience. In the light of this they will probably come to a reasonable solution that, in the end, he can act on knowing he’s worked through it in clear conscience with his pastor. I assume he has a pastor whom he can trust for such a task!

  5. Juliana says:

    Having had the utmost difficulty regaining a password to this site I have persevered because I wanted to comment on this blog.

    Picking up the points made…I think it is correct that one needs to get an annulment (assuming you can) before re-marrying, which I did. However, there was a hiccup at the end which delayed it so my husband-to-be and I jumped the gun, went to a register office and also had a blessing from our PP who had followed the whole procedure. For about four months we were therefore not sacramentally married but when the nullity came through we had our marriage convalidated in Church.

    During the four months between the register office and the convalidation we followed the late Arnold Lunn’s advice and became, in his phrase, “back-pew Catholics”. We did what Iona’s acquaintance did: went to Mass but not to Communion.
    I know of at least three couples in this position who go up for a blessing but not to Communion. This is very difficult if you have children…but then to receive Communion in this situation is rather more of a difficulty and can mess up one’s conscience.

    Arnold Lunn points out in his essay that the “Back-pew Catholic” who has taken his/her children to Mass and brought them up in the Faith is in an infinitely better position than someone in the same situation whose reaction might be one of rebellion against the Church’s teaching, who leaves it and refuses to pass on the faith to any offspring.

    To go to Mass but not to Communion means you are keeping open communication with the Church. You are not burning your bridges and can always return fully if and when circumstances change.

    As for myself…having been fortunate to have been granted an annulment, I often feel a squeak of guilt or embarrassment, if I am at Mass with friends who are not in the position to qualify for nullity, about going to Communion myself. This is a problem which I have occasionally solved by staying on my knees in the pew!

  6. I intimated that I would tell you what I said to my friend, and so I will. But just a point first. Often the main problem with annulments (assuming there are grounds) is getting the other parties involved to agree. Many “first” wives jib at accepting the invalidity of their marriage and, as they see it, the resulting status of their children. And many “second” wives have a similar objection if their children were born before an annulment is completed.
    In fact I confined myself to asking Tom a simple question. Given the situation in which, innocent or guilty, he finds himself, what is the most loving thing that he can do now? Where does justice lie?
    You might think that was a cop out, but years of marriage counselling taught me that the best help one can give is to assist by suggesting the right questions. People have to take their own decisions.
    In fact the problem was posed to me some 2 or 3 years ago now, but I met Tom again just recently, which brought the incident back to my mind. We did not return to the subject but it was clear from his conversation that he was playing an active part in parish life. I have no idea whether he is a back-pew Catholic, as Juliana describes (I agree with her about this). And I don’t know whether he receives the Sacraments with or without his pp’s permission. But I do remember Our Lord’s words “Much has been forgiven her because she has loved much.”

  7. claret says:

    You are right about one thing. Your answer was a ‘cop out.’

  8. May be, Claret. But I think it could depend on how you approach these things. Which is more constructive? I could have answered Tom by telling him the ‘rules’ – which he knows perfectly well already. Or. as I did, suggest a question aimed at helping him to get closer to his own answer. When he arrives at the Day of Judgment it will be no excuse to say ‘Quentin told me to do so and so.” But if he can say: ‘I sincerely thought about it, and concluded that the most loving thing I could do in these circumstances was such and such.’ then, if the Gospel is anything to go by, he has made the right conscience choice.

  9. claret says:

    Quentin,
    Your ‘advice’ on how your friend should approach his dilemma opens up a bag of worms when we talk about conscience.
    One can think of many ‘errors’ motivated by love that do not offend a conscience but which clearly transgress the ten commandments.
    Suppose your friend had asked what he should do for his wife who was dying a lingering and pain ridden death from some incurable disease that would not cause her death for some time yet.
    Or perhaps advice on a daughter who had been brutally raped by several men and left pregnant with a child she did not want.

    Love and conscience are not always happy bedfellows.

  10. Claret,
    Here’s another question to add to your list.
    Remembering that the observance of the Sabbath was the very heart of of Jewish obedience to God and sense of identity, what would you have said if Jesus had asked you you whether he should allow his hungry disciples to glean on the Sabbath day?

  11. AMDG says:

    Claret: “One can think of many ‘errors’ motivated by love that do not offend a conscience but which clearly transgress the ten commandments.”

    Is this conscience to which you refer a well formed conscience, attuned to the Natural Law and to the mind and teaching of the Church? If so, as the late Cardinal Newman said, it is very difficult to imagine a situation occurring where such a conscience could find itself in conflict with the Church’s teachings since both come from God and serve truth. Your examples of euthanasia and abortion certainly provide situations which would “tug at the heart strings” of any compassionate Christian but would not permit the informed and formed Christian conscience to approve the taking of innocent life. Conscience should never be confused with the inner impulse of being drawn to what we want to do, even if it seems for the best, it is the solemn inner obligation of knowing what we ought to do.

    As to the original question I would add one more to Quentin’s as a preliminary. That would be to ask Tom “why do you want to be reconciled to the Church?” If it is because you believe in God then pray and pray unceasingly for perseverance and guidance. Do whatever is in your own power to bring yourself as close to God and His Church as you can and leave the rest to Divine Providence.

  12. Frank says:

    Excellent comment from AMDG; I second it.

  13. claret says:

    Quentin
    Having been away for a couple of days I have just ‘caught up ‘ with the debate that has moved on to love and conscience.
    In answer to your ‘additional question’ Quentin, I would like to think that I would be satisfied with Jesus’s answer to the question you ask me that was also asked of him. Viz. ‘The Sabbath was made for man , not man made for the Sabbath.’
    In any event the question you pose to me is not comparable to that asked by your friend or to those posed by me.
    Jesus was asked a ‘trick question’ as to the Sabbath. Your friend was hopefully not setting a trap for you , however if as you assert he knew the answer for himself in relation to the rules of the Church why was he testing you on it?
    It suggests to me that he was looking for a ‘get out’ and that you would provide it. In this he was correct it would seem.
    Your answer to him should have been simply: ‘you know the rules.’
    As for AMDG’s comments I think we are coming from the same standpoint. My questions on killing and abortion were meant to be rhetorical with the answer being , I hoped, clear that love cannot dictate to conscience.
    Finally one has to have some regard to those Catholics who find themselves in great difficulty over their divorce and yet remain fathful to the teachings of the Church , (and Jesus.)
    It would be a sad day for them if they were to be told that they could have re-married after all, as long as their conscience had allowed it!

  14. Claret, I think we are in danger of getting into a a lengthy debate about the relationship between love, conscience and law. In doing that we would I fear miss the central point of how we best help people who come to us for help.
    You feel (and I hope I don’t misunderstand you) that the answer is either to spell out the ‘rules’ or simply suggest that they keep them.
    I feel that the best way is to ‘midwive’ their ability to discover what they really believe is right to do. I find that the human instinct to aspire to the good, and to work towards it, is very strong.
    Perhaps we need to leave it to others to decide which is most likely to be effective.

  15. claret says:

    Quentin.
    I wasn’t suggesting anything except in an answer to the specific questions you invited a response to.
    You set this hare running but perhaps it has now run its course.

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