When I was reading and preaching Friday morning, I could not help but wonder how the Holy Father might interpret the liturgical text for February 24, 2017. Would his homily shed light upon the controversy raised by the small but troubling section of Amoris Laetitia on possible access to the sacraments by divorced and remarried couples? After reading his remarks, I suspect that the confusion will pretty much remain. He says that we must abandon a legalistic obsession with what is and is not permitted, and instead strive to integrate divine justice with divine mercy. What does this integration imply? Many of the bishops of Germany and Malta are asserting that there are particular cases where Holy Communion and absolution must be extended to those in irregular unions. But is it mercy to compound sin upon sin? Does this policy not undermine moral teaching? This is all happening on Pope Francis’ watch, but he resists making strict clarifications. Canon lawyers are often targeted but the notion of law can also refer to creation and Scripture. Much of canon law is not capricious but codifies truths from natural law and divine positive law. As an instance of missing specificity, the Holy Father speaks about happiness, but is this earthly happiness and satisfaction or joy in knowing that one is in right relationship with the Lord? If one is not disposed to the graces of the sacraments, then what good is it to go through the motions? If there is a lack of contrition and no genuine intention for amendment of life, would not the penitent remain in sin, even if the priest attempted to offer absolution at the end of the sacrament of Penance? Would the priest err and sin by enabling couples to remain in sin or by deceiving them about their actual stance before almighty God?
The Pope speaks negatively about casuistry. One definition of “casuistry” is that it refers “to the application of broad principles to concrete cases.” This seems perfectly in order. More often the word is defined as “the use of clever but unsound reasoning, especially in relation to moral questions,” in other words, sophistry. Ironically, it may be this equivocation that has forced cardinals, priests and professors to ask for clarification from the Holy See. The request comes from men and women in shock. Literally, they are thinking, “the Pope cannot be saying what we think he is saying.”
What does the Holy Father mean by casuistry? When I look at the Scripture he preaches upon, I suspect that he defines it as dishonest language meant to trick or to bring ridicule upon the person being questioned or opposed. Thus, the Pharisees were not seeking real enlightenment or truth but only wanted to discredit Christ. Does Pope Francis see those who are asking for clarification from him in this light? I sincerely hope not. But note his remarks come only about a week after his Council of Cardinals made the unusual if not political move of visibly expressing their “full support” for the Pontiff after facing a handful of public challenges.
I have been warned that my questions and concerns are precisely what the Holy Father is condemning as casuistry? But how could this be? He would also have to condemn as casuistry the Church’s long-standing teachings and practices on the subjects of marriage and sexual morality. I just cannot see that happening. Indeed, I have been told again and again that Church doctrine has not changed, just the praxis that would invite people back to the fold and make possible an accompaniment with the Church’s ministers.
The stumbling blocks for me are (1) walking in the wrong direction during this accompaniment that the Pope urges; (2) the misuse of the sacraments for people ill-disposed to the graces dispensed; and (3) the priority given to the subjective feelings of distressed couples in irregular unions over their objective moral stance before God. I suspect that this third point is what motivates many churchmen to either support or criticize such leniency. No doubt proponents are viewing this as a process in which people who counted themselves unalterably loss to the Church might find their way home. The emphasis is upon a process that is a “means to an ends.” I think there is nobility in the goal. But I am not convinced that it is a legitimate course to follow and that it will work. There may be some situations that just cannot be easily fixed. I would concur with the Holy Father that life is sometimes messy. But the wrong responses and solutions can make matters worse.
As a case in point, three clients with whom I was working for annulments have terminated the process. Each of them pointed to news stories that the Pope was changing the rules. The formal case essays are difficult. Couples are quick to pursue an easy out. They were told that they could not be absolved from adultery until they separated or got an annulment and convalidation. They were told to attend the sacrifice of the Mass but not to take Holy Communion. But with news of this discipline changing, they shopped around for a more “understanding” pastor with a like-mind to the pope or at least to those more liberal interpreters of his exhortation. As far as they could tell, there was no apparent need to pursue any further legal work or to change their lives or even to suffer a sacrificial conversion. How could I compete with that? If I told them they would be living a lie, they could respond that I was promoting the bygone discipline of a dead rigid Church over the current practice recommended to priests by bishops, cardinals and the Holy See. Can a priest who struggles to be holy and orthodox find himself stamped as disobedient and wrong in the eyes of the Church?
The Holy Father was right that “Jesus always speaks the truth and explains things as they were created.” What he did next though made me step back. The Pope criticized those who would ask what you can and cannot do as people of faith. But is not such a questioning basic to the moral life. We teach children their catechism with references to the Decalogue, Christ’s two-fold commandment, the Precepts of the Church, the Beatitudes, and the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. We want to pursue virtue and to avoid vice. We found something of this in the appeal of the rich man who came to Jesus. He had kept all the commandments. He asked what more he might do. Jesus told him to give away all he had and to follow him. We are told he went away sad because his possessions were many. The moral life may demand a great deal of us. Ours is a jealous God. He wants us all to himself. He calls us to follow him. We may possess things but we must not allow things to possess us. Instead of compromising important moral teachings, should we not all be witnessing a courageous and sacrificial faith?
The Old Testament and the New agree: adultery is a sin. Divine positive law is confirmed by Christ, albeit with the overture of forgiveness. There is no divorce. We are commanded to avoid the sin of adultery. This is vital, not only to the moral life but to the Church’s basic sacramental understanding. Christ will never divorce himself from his Church. Our Lord will always be faithful as the groom of the Church. The question is will we be faithful? The Church is the bride of Christ. Her gown of white is bleached or purified by the blood of the Lamb. He comes to make his bride perfect. If adultery were viewed as a crime of the woman against the nation of Israel, it is even more a violation of our hope and identity as Christ’s people. Adultery becomes another word for the great sin of idolatry. Every marriage is a participation in the marriage covenant of Christ. Spousal love is raised up, particularly in the marital act, as both the renewal of a couple’s love and the intimate union of Christ with his bride, the Church. Widespread toleration of adultery would signal a repudiation of this precious signification.
Reflecting back upon the story of the woman caught in adultery, there seems to be a disconnection with how the story is cited by advocates for a change in praxis or discipline. First, there is no getting away from the fact that adultery is a serious sin. Second, Jesus is God and as such he has the power to forgive sins. Jesus could certainly forgive the adulterous woman her moral offense and well as her crime against her people. But in truth she was guilty and wrong. Mercy came to her with absolution and the admonition to change her life. This latter element is missing with couples in irregular unions or living in habitual sin. They will go home and share the intimacy of a husband and wife even though one or the other is married to someone else. Where is the mercy for the wronged spouse in all this? Why a silence for one who may be heroic in the faith in favor of one who might be the reprobate that abandoned the true spouse?