The extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family has cast a new spotlight on the Roman Catholic church's teachings on divorce and remarriage. According to doctrine, Catholics who divorce and remarry outside of the church are prohibited from receiving the Eucharist. For decades, theologian and ethicist Mercy Sr. Margaret Farley has written about the church's teaching on divorce and remarriage, asking new questions about the nature of commitment and the conditions for release from obligations. She does this work most notably in her books Personal Commitments: Beginning, Keeping, Changing (Harper and Row, 1986; Orbis Books, 2013 rev. ed) and Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics (Continuum, 2006). NCR sat with Farley to discuss these themes and her own take on the possibilities for change in the church's teaching.
NCR: In its annulment process, the Catholic church provides conditions under which it can be argued a sacramental marriage did not take place. Do you think those conditions are adequate for justifying a divorce?
Farley: In Catholic teaching, there is a radical difference between annulment and divorce. The Catholic church recognizes that it can be justifiable to remove a marriage obligation when the original "marrying" was marked by some basic flaw. For example, a lack of full consent, a flaw in the procedure, or circumstances where at least one partner was physically, psychologically or morally incapable of making the commitment. In such cases, one can argue that there was no marriage, or at least no sacramental marriage. The marriage did not really, validly take place. So this isn't finally a release from an obligation, but an acknowledgement that no marriage obligation was ever truly undertaken. The more difficult question is whether the obligation intrinsic to a sacramental marriage can ever be ended without betrayal and without an unjustified and unjustifiable violation of the commitment.
In your book Personal Commitments, you talk about the conditions under which couples can be released from a marriage obligation. What are those grounds?
In that book, I talk generally about possibilities of releasing obligations, especially those generated through the making of a profound commitment. . . .