VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Balancing the need to uphold Christ’s teaching about the permanence of marriage and the call for the church to show God’s mercy for those who have failed their marriage vows will be a major theme of discussion by the world’s bishops.

The church needs to find ways to let all of its members find a home in the church without compromising its teachings, said Cardinals Vincent Nichols of Westminster, England, and Wilfrid F. Napier of Durban, South Africa. Both men attended meetings in Rome ahead of October’s extraordinary synod on the family and a 2015 world Synod of Bishops on the same theme.

Some 150 cardinals from around the world gathered with Pope Francis Feb. 20-21 to talk about the family, and cardinal members of the Synod of Bishops continued those discussions Feb. 24-25.


“At this stage, what the cardinals were really interested in was, how do we balance the justice of God with his mercy?” Cardinal Napier told Catholic News Service Feb. 24.

“The justice of God means you must keep his law, but when you’ve broken that law, how does his mercy come into play? That, I think, is the dilemma that we are having to handle and we have to keep that before us leading up to the synod, at the synod and beyond the synod,” he told CNS.

The same day, Cardinal Nichols told journalists that when it comes to family life and marriage, many people “feel failure, feel themselves to have failed, and they have a desire to start again.”

Many divorced and civilly remarried Catholics see not having the Eucharist available to them as “a kind of punishment, as a sign of not being accepted in the church,” Cardinal Nichols said. So there is a need to explore more deeply “what part does the Eucharist play?” and not to forget that “these are people we are talking about” who are experiencing “real hurt in their lives.”

The 68-year-old English cardinal said that when he was growing up, there was a more “moral, reserved attitude” toward the Eucharist, that “it was something that actually made demands on us, that to receive the Eucharist was a highpoint” and not a given.

While the church is concerned about properly ministering to people who are divorced and civilly remarried, he said it sees it must continue to uphold the truth of Christ’s teachings about the unity and indissolubility of marriage, which are “of central importance.”

“There must be ways in which people can live a very fruitful life in the church,” Cardinal Nichols said, even though they may not have access to the Eucharist.

It also calls for “much more positive ways we engage with people whose marriages have broken down” and to let them know that there could be solutions that apply to them if there are questions about the validity of their first marriage, he said.

Cardinal Napier said the church will be looking more closely at whether the way it prepares couples for marriage is adequate.

There are couples whose marriage seems like “a sacramental marriage, but when you look more closely, do they have the right disposition, do they have the right understanding even to actually contract that kind of a marriage that’s permanent, exclusive and for life.”

There is a sense that there is a real lack among Catholics about what marriage really is, he said.

Another issue, the South African cardinal said, is that, in many cases, the people who are requesting Communion were not “guilty of breaking up the first marriage, but were innocent parties that have not always been given credit for the amount of suffering they’ve had to go through.”

For example, he said, “a woman who was abandoned by her husband. What does she do? She has children to bring up, she needs security, she meets somebody, she marries. Now is she really to blame? And is the church not going to find a way to exercise God’s merciful love?”

Cardinal Napier said there is also a contradiction in situations where the second marriage is stable and loving, and “here we are telling this couple, you must bring your children up so they value the Eucharist with Christ at the center of your lives and you yourself as a couple can’t have Christ at that center of their life.”

“Of course, putting it only in the sacramental context is also limiting it,” Cardinal Napier said, and many couples have been able to be active through “spiritual communion.”

Cardinal Nichols said that “for marriage to be what it’s meant to be, that is, a sacramental covenant, there has to be some understanding not just of the faith in general but of the faith in its specific insights and gift into the nature of marriage.”

“Maybe it’s not enough that people marrying today have permanence and indissolubility as an aspiration, as a hope: ‘We hope it will work out,’ because actually the sacrament requires more than that. It requires a commitment to the indissolubility and an openness and reliance on the gift of grace in married life.”

Many Catholic marriages do endure, he said, and those who do give witness to a faithful marriage can play a role showing how marriage is “a work of grace.”

Cardinal Nichols said he has “great admiration for the resilience and dedication of people in family life.”

People really do struggle to be faithful and make their marriage work, he said, because they know divorce is a tragedy “and really scars people.”

Cardinal Nichols said parishes should offer support and “build a family of the church” that spans multiple generations, backgrounds and experiences to help “society knit its families together again.”