Civil Divorce Statement on the referendum by the Irish Bishops’ Conference
A referendum concerning the proposed removal of the Republic of Ireland’s constitutional ban on divorce is scheduled for 24 November.
An unconditional promise
On their wedding day, a bride and groom declare before God, and in the presence of the community, that they take each other as husband and wife,for better, for worse,for richer, for poorer,in sickness and in health,till death do us part (or all the days of our life)Different words are used in different religious traditions and in civil ceremonies, but the promise “till death do us part” is the very heart of marriage.
The promise is unconditional.
It is made without limit of any kind.
Facing an unknown future, a man and a woman stand before the world and before God declaring that they will be committed to one another until they are parted by death.
They promise that, however unexpected their future, however great the challenges they meet, they will remain committed to one another as husband and wife.
In marriage a man or woman give and receive an unconditional promise to be a husband or a wife as long as they live.
If ‘remarriage’ is recognised by the civil law, then, even as they speak these solemn words, the state will effectively say “If either of you wishes to repudiate this promise, the courts will act on the basis that you do not mean what you say.
“Divorce means that a judge, even in the face of a spouse’s firm opposition, may declare, “You are no longer a husband; you are no longer a wife.
“A second chance?It is a great tragedy when a wife and husband find that, in spite of their best efforts, the high hopes of their wedding day have not been fulfilled.
They may find that, instead, their life together has become intolerable.
In some cases, separation may be the proper course of action.
It is an understandable reaction to think in terms of a ‘second chance’ for people who are separated.
It is argued that many marriages have been dead for years and that people should be allowed to begin again.
We all have friends and relatives or know of people who are separated or in second unions.
We want to show understanding towards the partners and to cherish the children.
It is tempting to conclude that the most efficient and comprehensive way of achieving this would be through ‘remarriage’.
But is ‘remarriage’ the answer? A ‘second chance’ – that is, ‘marriage’ to a new partner – is a fundamental denial of what the couple declared on their wedding day.
They pledged that, until they were separated by death, neither would give to any other person the commitment they were giving to each other.
A new marriage does not just say that their pledge has proved impossible to live out as they had hoped; it repudiates the pledge.
A couple in a second union may understandably wish to have the social standing, approval and support which marriage gives.
The truth is, however, that this can only be done by undermining the very reason why marriage receives that social endorsement.
The standing of marriage in society is due precisely to the fact that it is founded on an unconditional promise which endures as long as both partners shall live.
Second unions are not necessarily more happy or stable than the first.
Indeed statistics show them to be less stable.
The proposal before the people does not simply offer ‘a second chance’.
It provides for third and subsequent chances.
The proposal would give a ‘second chance’ – and subsequent chances – to a spouse who has been abusive or violent.
The promise underminedWho would be happy with a marriage ceremony where the promise honestly expressed what the referendum proposes: “I take you as my lawful wedded wife/husband until four years after one of us wishes to begin living apart”? That would be a meaningless formula and it would not express what the bride and groom wish to say to each other.
It would undermine and trivialise the commitment they make.
Yet it is proposed that, whenever requested to do so by one of the partners, our courts should declare that this is what the promise effectively means.
The bride and groom are entitled to expect the whole community to accept and to sustain the sincerity of the unconditional promise they are making.
It would surely be resented by the couple if anyone were to say to them on their wedding day, “It doesn’t have to be for life.
“Marriage is a life-long commitment.
‘Remarriage’ after divorce is a denial of that commitment.
‘Remarriage’ cannot, therefore, be marriage as it has hitherto been understood.
It has been claimed that the conditions written into the proposed amendment will ensure that there will be no easy divorce in Ireland.
These conditions lay down a time scale; that is all.
In reality, nothing further would be required to rescind an unconditional promise than that one of the partners wishes to be free from it.
The phrase “irretrievable breakdown” need mean nothing more than that one partner is determined to withdraw the promise.
Civil law and Catholic teachingThe proposal that is now before the people is a proposal about changing the civil law.
It is not a question of whether or not the teaching of the Catholic Church should be removed from the constitution.
The simple fact that something is in harmony with the church’s teaching is not in itself a reason to keep it in the constitution, but neither is it a reason to remove it.
The proposal should be evaluated in the light of the social implications of introducing divorce.
There are, as the bishops have said on a previous occasion, many factors that need to be considered by legislators and by voters in a matter of this kind:”Among other things they have to take account of the convictions of those who do not accept the teaching of the Catholic Church.
They have to aim at creating laws which favour reconciliation between citizens and communities throughout the island of Ireland.
They have to try to give citizens the maximum freedom which is consistent with the common good.
” (11 June 1986)But we are obliged to ask whether these considerations outweigh the damage that divorce would do to society.
Any undermining of the marriage promise would profoundly damage the stability of society.
It would be shortsighted to pursue freedom and reconciliation by the introduction of ‘remarriage’.
We are convinced that the introduction of ‘remarriage’ would weaken marriage and family life.
It would damage the genuine rights and wellbeing both of spouses and of children.
While it would ease the pain of some, it would, we believe, bring pain to a much greater number.
NullityIn a small number of cases, the promise made in a wedding ceremony is not what it appears to be.
Like any promise, it may be invalid because it is given by someone who is incapable of giving it, who is not entitled to give it, who is being coerced into giving it.
The church recognises that some marriages were never true marriages.
Civil courts, in Ireland and in Britain, also make declarations of nullity on grounds very similar to those which apply in the church courts.
But the church has never asked or expected that the civil and canonical jurisdictions should coincide.
The bishops do not ask that church decrees of nullity should be accepted by the civil courts.
Nullity is not a solution to marriage breakdown.
In the vast majority of cases where a couple would wish to separate, there is no basis for questioning the validity of their marriage.
A church decree of nullity is not divorce by another name.
The sacrament of marriageThe proposal before the people would affect only the civil law of marriage.
The teaching and practice of the church cannot be changed.
The valid and consummated marriage of a baptised man and woman absolutely excludes marriage to another person while both parties survive.
It is simply not possible to ‘remarry’ in church; it is not possible to ‘remarry’ in the sight of God.
Should the constitutional amendment be passed in referendum, the word ‘marriage’ would begin to be used in two entirely different senses.
There would be no identity, or even similarity, between the two meanings – that of church, which sees marriage as an unconditional promise for life, and that of the state which would regard marriage as a promise breakable at the request of either party.
Marriage as celebrated in the Catholic Church would differ profoundly from marriage as Irish law would then define it.
The sacrament of marriage is a union which reflects the union of God with the chosen people, the union of Christ with his church.
The image of marriage is used throughout the bible precisely to indicate that God’s love is tender and generous and, most importantly, that it is utterly reliable and faithful.
God’s love endures in spite of neglect, in spite of rejection, in spite of ingratitude.
God’s love is shown most powerfully when Jesus Christ, betrayed and unjustly condemned, lays down his life for us.
That is the love which inspires and sustains the fidelity of husband and wife.
Supporting the commitmentFidelity in marriage makes huge demands.
The promise may have to be lived for worse, for poorer and in sickness.
Yet the great majority of married couples remain faithful to one another.
In this way husband and wife united in sacramental marriage, “perform the role committed to them of being in the world a ‘sign’ of the unfailing fidelity with which God and Jesus Christ love each and every human being.
” A particularly heroic sign is given by those “who, even when abandoned by their partner, with the strength and faith of Christian hope have not entered a new union; these spouses too give an authentic witness of fidelity, of which the world today has great need” (Familiaris Consortio 20).
Our duty as a Christian community is to support couples in that faithful commitment.
We need to be especially sensitive towards those separated people for whom the indissolubility of their marriage seems to offer only loneliness and struggle.
We need to be more actively involved in helping couples who are under stress through unemployment or illness; we need to recognise our responsibility to young married couples and to those who are experiencing difficulties.
Much is being done.
We commend those organisations, many of them church-based, which, in a great variety of ways, give support to families and to those who are separated.
Apart from the contribution of various organisations, however, it is the duty of every follower of Christ to offer support, by friendship, by prayer, by practical help, so that wives and husbands, called to be a sign of fidelity in our world, know that they are not alone.
The outcome on the vote on the amendment will have serious moral, spiritual and social implications, not just for the immediate future but for generations to come.
It is the duty of each citizen to reflect very carefully on these implications and on the heavy responsibility that each of us bears in the casting of our vote.
Fidelity is possible.
The marriage promise means what it says.
If the law of the land suggests otherwise it will make it harder for couple to remain true to their marriage promise.
Such a suggestion would be false kindness, misguided compassion and bad law .
The present proposal is, in our considered judgement, precisely that.