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    Fr. Joseph Jenkins

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Reflecting on a Papal Homily

I wanted to give some extended thoughts about the papal homily on Friday.  The Gospel reading was from Mark 10:1-12:

“Jesus came into the district of Judea and across the Jordan. Again crowds gathered around him and, as was his custom, he again taught them. The Pharisees approached him and asked, ‘Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?’ They were testing him. He said to them in reply, ‘What did Moses command you?’ They replied, ‘Moses permitted a husband 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 Jesus about this. 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.’”

The Holy Father stressed in his homily that Jesus “doesn’t respond as to whether it’s licit or not; he doesn’t enter into casuistic logic.”  We are told that the question was a trap.  It had previously circulated what Jesus would say.  At the Sermon on the Mount where he gave us the Beatitudes, he had already stated:  “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.’ But I say to you, whoever divorces his wife (unless the marriage is unlawful) causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery’” (Matthew 5:31-32).  The rejection of the authority of Moses might be interpreted as opposition to God.  Our Lord avoids the trap of this charge (their “casuistic logic”?) by placing the question in the context of creation and not the Mosaic Law.  Divine authority has precedence over that of Moses, who makes a human decision to allow a writ because of their hardness of hearts.  Our Lord, as he so often does, re-frames the question, “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?” Much more fundamentally, he answers that marriage is the enduring reality or truth and that there is no such thing as divorce.  That is why he can so immediately associate divorce with adultery.

Is this faithful to the text?  It seems clear here and even more so in the Gospel of Matthew that while Jesus does not fall for the tricky question, he does render a response that goes beyond the given parameters— beyond Mosaic or Church laws— adding his voice to natural law.

When I reflected on the Scripture text, I had to wonder if Moses did what many of the bishops and theologians are trying to do today— to sidestep a teaching that seems too difficult and arduous for many to follow.  I do not believe that the various requests for clarification from the Holy See are attempts to trick Pope Francis.  The requests are coming from his friends who likewise love him, the Church and Christ.  The question was “Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?”  Jesus’ response was clear.  He cannot abandon her because there is NO such thing as divorce!  When his apostles ask about it, Jesus is blunt— the human construct of divorce leads to adultery.  Note that our Lord does not shy away from using the word, “adultery,” a biblical term that certain churchmen are insisting we avoid so as not to hurt feelings; thus we now speak of couples in “irregular unions.”  I hate to say this but the casuistry seems to be on the other side.

The new question can be framed very simply.  “Can and should couples who are cohabiting and/or living in adulterous situations be invited to receive Holy Communion and be given absolution in the sacrament of Penance?”  There are only a few responses that respect the constant truth and teachings of the Church:

(1)  If the care of children or the needs of the partner demand that the couple remain together, and if there would not be dire scandal, an internal forum solution might be permitted where the couple live as brother and sister.

(2)  While it might seem severe or heartless, given the gravity of adultery, the Church could rightly insist that the couple separate.

(3)  The members of the irregular union might seek an annulment of the prior bond; if granted, the union could be regularized with a convalidation.

(4)  If an annulment is not possible and the couple cannot separate, they would be urged to attend Mass but not invited to take Holy Communion.  If the prior spouse should die then the marriage could be convalidated.  If the irregular partner should die, the remaining member could be absolved in Penance and again take Holy Communion.

The option being argued the Malta bishops and by Cardinal Coccopalmerio is not one that reflects the perennial teaching of the faith, or more recently that of Pope John Paul II.  The Cardinal directly teaches that if the adulterous and/or cohabitating couple means well, then they could be invited to take Holy Communion.  While this might appease the subjective and make people happy at the moment; objectively it would constitute the sin of sacrilege as the couple in mortal sin are not disposed to the graces of the sacrament.  There must be contrition and amendment of life.  Both here are compromised.  While adultery might still be regarded as sin, such a change in discipline would wrongly indicate that it was no longer regarded as serious or even mortal.  Given the growing dissent, we need Pope Francis to give a magisterial answer to the confusion that emerged from his exhortation.  That answer should also reflect continuity in discipline and teaching.  Indeed, all he has to do is assert that Cardinal Müller has spoken for the Holy See.  The good Cardinal recently asserted that those in irregular unions who want to receive the sacraments must practice “perfect continence.”  He further stated:

“For us marriage is the expression of participation in the unity between Christ the bridegroom and the Church his bride. This is not, as some said during the Synod, a simple vague analogy. No! This is the substance of the sacrament, and no power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel, nor the pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change it.”

Adultery is serious, not simply because of infidelity between spouses; it spiritually ranks up there with idolatry.  Christ identifies himself with the beloved.  Betrayal of a spouse is betrayal of Christ.

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