By Terence P. Jeffrey (originally published in CNS News)
Can a pope change Catholic teaching on marriage?
When the synod of bishops that Pope Francis has called to discuss the family was meeting in Rome earlier this month, someone not particularly familiar with the Catholic faith might have presumed the answer was yes.
The synod, for example, released a midterm report with a section headed: “Positive aspects of civil unions and cohabitation.”
Yet the Catholic Catechism states: “The Lord Jesus insisted on the original intention of the Creator who willed that marriage be indissoluble.” The Catechism cites Chapter 10 of the Gospel of Mark as one source for this teaching:
“The Pharisees approached and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him,” says the Gospel of Mark.
“He said to them in reply, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted him to write a bill of divorce and dismiss her.’
“But Jesus told them, ‘Because of the hardness of your hearts he wrote you this commandment. But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh.”
So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.
“In the house, the disciples again questioned him about this,” the Gospel states. “He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.'”
Cardinal Raymond Burke is the Prefect of the Sacred Tribunal of the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court of the Catholic Church. In an interview conducted last Friday for CNSNews.com, I read Cardinal Burke this passage and asked him: “Was Jesus right about marriage?”
“Absolutely,” the cardinal said.
“His saving mission to restore us to communion with God the Father — that communion which had been broken by the sin of Adam and Eve — had as one of its fundamental aspects the restoration of the truth of marriage and fidelity to that truth in the life of a husband and a wife,” he said.
“And so Our Lord, in His teaching, makes reference to creation itself, in other words to that order which God has placed in the world and in the human heart by which a man and a woman are attracted to one another to form a lifelong, faithful and procreative union, that Our Lord makes it very clear that this is the truth about marriage, that there is no other truth about marriage, that that is the whole truth.
And Our Lord makes it clear that God the Father gives the grace to those who are called to marriage to live this wonderful sacrament and to live this mystery which reflects in a very particular way the love within the Trinity, which is also faithful, enduring and fruitful.
“So, we see that in Our Lord’s saving work that one of the most important aspects was to restore marriage to its truth,” said Cardinal Burke.
I asked: “Given that it was Jesus Christ Himself who taught us what marriage is, can any priest or bishop overrule or change what Jesus declared about marriage?”
“No, absolutely not,” said Cardinal Burke. “The priests and bishops are called to be faithful to the truth. Our office is to teach this truth and to assist the faithful to live it, but we can never — even under some supposed pastoral approach — either alter or deny the truth about marriage.”
I asked: “Can the pope himself change the nature of marriage given what Christ said?”
“No, it’s not within his power,” said Cardinal Burke, “and this is very clear in the teaching of the church, that if a marriage has been validly celebrated and consummated it cannot be separated. It cannot be ended by anything except death itself.”
“And it was so clear that the disciples questioned him about it because they were struck,” said Cardinal Burke. “They said: Well, maybe it’s better not to marry.