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Status quo fuels a bit of controversy

Vatican isn’t changing stance on marriage, divorce, communion

SHARE Status quo fuels a bit of controversy

Change often causes controversy.

But then so do decisions not to change.

Earlier this month, the Vatican created some waves by announcing there would be no change in its position on divorce and communion. Roman Catholics who divorce and remarry cannot receive the sacrament of communion unless they abstain from sex.

And in Utah, as in other places, the decision has served as an opportunity for both debate and instruction.

The Most Rev. George H. Niederauer, bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, begins his comments on the subject with a scripture — Matthew 19:3-9 — where Jesus talks of the sanctity of marriage and says "What God hath joined together, let no man put asunder."

"As with all commandments, the church views itself as a guide for people in responding to the law and teachings of Christ," says the Rev. Niederauer. "A very commonly misunderstood reality is that the church does not say a divorced person cannot receive communion, it's only people who divorce and remarry or live as if that marriage bond has been dissolved."

The Catholic Church does perform marriage annulments, however.

"What the church does is look at marriage and ask, 'What kind of marriage bond is Jesus talking about?' And for an annulment, the church asks, 'Were the partners free to enter into the contract?' 'Was there sufficient reflection?' 'Was there sufficient maturity?' Certain conditions must be met."

Reaction to the Vatican's decision varies in different parts of the world. In the more conservative Catholic societies it makes perfect sense. In the United States, where Catholics have a reputation for being independent-minded, many in the clergy feel it will hardly cause a ripple.

"To be honest, I'd be willing to guess that many students here are unaware there was a prohibition in the first place," says the Rev. Denis Reilly of the Newman Center at the University of Utah. "The younger Catholics seem to be less informed about such regulations and less responsive than their parents and grandparents. There is a breakdown in the strict line of authority. Those who follow prohibitions from Rome will follow it, those who don't, won't."

That's not to say Catholic youths enter into marriage without much thought, says the Rev. Reilly. They just never enter into marriage believing it will fail. And the church does offer many impressive programs to help young people get marriage right the first time.

"I know what worries people in the church is that religion is becoming a la carte, that people accept what is convenient and reject what isn't," says the Rev. Reilly. "But we don't just make things up to make life hard for people. These are the teachings of Christ."

Still, the Rev. Reilly says he feels no pressure to "screen" those who take communion. Taking communion is between the individual and God, he says, and he would only take action if giving communion would create a scandal.

Maria McCandless of Salt Lake City became a Catholic four years ago. Three years ago she was married in a Catholic ceremony. Personally, she sees no problem with the decree.

"It makes sense to me," she says. "It's a practice based in the Bible."

Still, she says, she knows others will disagree.

"In every religion, there will always be people who go their own way," she says. "I think most Catholics would try to get their first marriage absolved before taking communion. But I also know a lot of them who got married outside the Catholic Church and still take communion without thinking twice, though they probably shouldn't."

As for the notion that this latest move by the Vatican points to a pope who sees trouble ahead and wants to anchor the church's traditional teachings before passing on, the Rev. Niederauer says he actually sees it more as business as usual.

"You mean does he want to batten down the hatches before the 'perfect storm' hits?" asks the bishop. "I don't see that. I don't see him teaching or emphasizing things that haven't been taught by previous popes or that he himself didn't emphasize early on. There really isn't anything startling or new in what he has said about divorce or abortion or capital punishment. But I do think there is some lazy thinking in the way people read what he says."


E-mail: jerjohn@desnews.com