The Newer Phariseeism

The debate over remarriage after divorce has resurfaced with an interpretation of controversial aspects of Amoris laetitia by Archbishop Victor Fernandez, a papal advisor rumored to have ghostwritten the document. Like many wishing to accommodate “second unions,” he seems to prefer vagueness and marginalizing those who raise objections rather than presenting a precise, comprehensive rationale. Nevertheless, it’s worth trying to clarify a few key points.

The problems begin with the human tendency to treat morality as a kind of legal system. This approach mistakenly identifies the rigorous application of rules with “justice” and circumstantial adaptation with “mercy.” Those who prefer “mercy” often label their opponents “Pharisees.” But they fail to recognize that, by contrasting justice and mercy, they expose their own pharisaical mindset. The correct assessment of a “second union” – or any moral situation – requires an understanding of morality based on Christ and the righteousness of God, not on approaches designed to favor allegedly just or merciful applications of legal precepts.

Human laws cannot anticipate every situation. Hence, judicial decisions tend either to apply the law strictly or to adapt it to circumstances. Because legal justice strives to give “what is due” to others, mercy toward an offender sometimes conflicts with justice for an aggrieved party.

But this is simply not the case for divine justice and mercy. God owes us nothing; his works of creation and salvation are acts of pure generosity. The Old Testament calls this generosity “justice” or “righteousness” (tzedeqah). It means giving to others “what is good” rather than “what is due.” God calls his people to practice this generous justice rather than mere legal justice.

Despite sin, God’s justice does not abandon us but offers “what is good” for us: truth, conversion, and union with Himself. Thus, divine justice reveals itself in merciful love (hesed) and fidelity (emet). Because God’s merciful love expresses his justice, they cannot be in tension. Covenantal justice is founded in love of God and neighbor. This foundation is personal, not legalistic, calling for the faithful gift of oneself in imitation of God’s gift of Himself.

Covenantal justice, merciful love, and fidelity are directed to authentic and realizable goods, not to subjective or idealized ones. In a fallen world, these goods may be unwelcome or entail considerable suffering – even death – because fidelity to the good cuts against our fallen condition, mistaken judgments, false attachments, and sinful inclinations.

Our commitment to God and neighbor causes pain when we see how we and others mistreat them. It also leads to suffering innocently from evil and from the animosity of the world.

Curses Against the Pharisees by James Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]

God’s people proved unfaithful, under trials, in the Old Covenant. Responding with justice, God generously promised to wed them to himself in a New Covenant by sending his Spirit and giving them new, faithful hearts.

Through the incarnation, death, and glorification of Jesus, God fulfilled his promise. He now abides in us so that we share his justice, merciful love, and fidelity. This new covenantal relation makes possible a new righteousness. No longer is love measured by our human capacity (i.e., “with all your heart” and “as yourself”). Instead, Jesus’ love becomes the source and measure of our love (i.e., “as I have loved you”). The imitation of God is thereby achieved through an indwelling participation in his divine life, enabling us to be faithful in all circumstances.

Christian morality, then, is not based on the application of precepts or ideals, but on our nuptial union with God in Christ. The moral assessment of a situation, including a remarriage after divorce, is fundamentally a matter of recognizing what it means to join Jesus in doing what is truly good for us and others. This is always just, merciful, and faithful.

Jesus insisted that what is good for us will lead to crucifixion; we must be prepared to lose our loved ones and our lives if we are to love as he loves. (Mt 10: 37-39) Inevitably, this entails sacrifices and martyrdoms of many kinds, including the loss of the personal and financial support of a “second spouse” who abandons a family because a partner refuses adulterous sexual relations. In that situation, it is no act of mercy to offer a way around the Cross by declaring the sexual relations “good” since deliberate infidelity is not good, but harmful for each partner’s union with Jesus, their current relationship, children, and the first marriage.

Nuptial fidelity to one’s first spouse and to Christ must be chosen over adultery, regardless of the cost. That is the clear meaning of the fidelity, merciful love, and justice God has shown to us; a meaning reaffirmed by the Lord’s life and his teaching that remarriage after divorce is adultery; adultery is a sin; sin is a betrayal of Him; that it is better to suffer than to betray Him. (Mk 10:11; Jn 8:11; Mt 25:31-46; Mk 9:43)

Jesus condemned the Pharisees not only for the false burdens they created but also for the righteous duties they set aside. (Mk 7:1-15) In the past, strict priests wrongly burdened those in troubled marriages by refusing to consider the need for legal separation or the possibility of an invalid marriage. Now, accommodating priests wrongly declare sexual relations in a second union “good” by setting aside the first marriage in light of the current partners’ support for each other and their children.

This is not pastoral progress or mercy, but the replacement of an older pharisaical approach with a newer one – its mirror image. In the name of avoiding rigorism, this effectively “nullifies the word of God” regarding covenant fidelity, marriage, adultery, and sin.

This new pharisaical approach can be corrected only by viewing second unions in light of the first marriage and the union of Christ and the Church. For we call something “good” not because it fits a strict or accommodating application of moral principles, or because it suits our preference for a “just” or “merciful” solution, but because it conforms to Him who alone is good. (Mk 10:18-19)

Fr. Timothy V. Vaverek, STD has been a priest of the Diocese of Austin since 1985 and is currently pastor of Assumption parish in the city of West. His studies were in Dogmatics with a focus on Ecclesiology, Apostolic Ministry, Newman, and Ecumenism. His new book is As I Have Loved You: Rediscovering Our Salvation in Christ (Emmaus Road Publishing). Click here to watch Scott Hahn interview Fr. Vaverek about about the book.