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Still Looking for Clarity in the Pope’s Homily

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?

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10 Responses

  1. This is one of those things where we will not agree, but, thank you for taking the time, Fr. Joe.

    Karl

  2. Fr Joe,

    It is clear that the brother and sister accommodation renders the life-long commitment archaic.

    Any justification is sophistry.

    Since I did not agree to the brother and sister accommodation, my vows were nullified in a “bait and switch”. This, too, is crystal clear.

    Please understand, I defended our marriage because I once believed that marriage was for life. But a marriage for life cannot coexist with the brother and sister accommodation. Only God Himself will change my mind. The Catholic Church is willingly in grave error.

    Karl

    FATHER JOE: I would disagree with your assessment. However, the internal forum solution is not always possible. The Church witnesses marriages that are ministered by the couples. The fault for broken marriages and vows is not the Church, but either one or both of the spouses. The Church has a moral authority that many no longer acknowledge. We cannot force people to be faithful. The measure of spiritual culpability is often weighed upon the spouse that abandons his or her partner. But, in truth, because of hardness of heart or even abuse, some spouses are driven out of the house. The Church will always try to show compassion and bring healing; but sometimes the situations cannot be fixed.

  3. Fr Joe,

    I write to you, sincerely, not with intent to deceive.

    If you could get the circumstances that I am confronting, to the Pope,
    it would, at least, present to him, the impossibilty that is faced in the current times, by people like myself.

    I, honestly, do not think he cares, but has convinced himself that he does. Nor do I think he is willing to listen in a real sense. AND, this
    I see, as exhibiting much the same characteristics of a spouse, or spouses, in a seriously deteriorated/wounded state, when, for mostly or purely selfish reasons their conscience is no longer Catholic, but is self-serving and intentionally blinded to the consequences of such self-serving choices/behaviors, even in the face of the unmistakeable, unrelenting, suffering those choices/behaviors are directly causing, often to people who are innocent and/or unable to defendthemselves.

    Karl

  4. I wrote to Msgr Cormac Burke, what I sent you: no reply.

    I wrote to a Judicial Vicar whom I respect: no real answer, when I
    Responded with the 1994 Ratzinger ok for communion for unmarried abandoner living with lover, being fine provided there is no sex.

    I did not consent to marriage in the sense that, at least to me, is clear from the straight forward reading of that 1994 Ratzinger letter from the Vatica.va website. Unless this brother and sister accomodation is
    Completely rejected, irreversibly, I cannot, in good conscience( I mean a sincere, catholic conscience, as I was taught things by the quite orthodox people teachers(nuns/priests) I learned from, not a reactive self-serving anger driven) accept my marriage(twice upheld in separate what I then believed orthodox tribunals) to have been valid.
    Nor can I remain in the current version of the Catholic Church. This version’s teaching on marriage is polygamy, to me, in reality, as well as arbitrary dependent upon spousal mood. It is not as I was taught and as my parents, lived.

    This dichotomy needs to be addressed and made clear, not nebulous as it has been since I first heard of it back in the 1990’s.

    I believe that all marriage are null, sacramentally, until this is resolved.

    As I was taught, if my conscience was/is authentically catholic, I must follow it. Mine is.

    My conscience sees that it cannot support what is now the Catholic Church, but I have no authority to start my own, or to join with other, adulterous so called Churches who left the Catholic Church(yes the Orthodox(Big O) are adulterers, too).

    So, I am a homeless orphan.

    No, I would not civilly marry again, nor could I muster the trust, again, to give myself to a woman.

    Karl

    FATHER JOE:

    Permitting serial marriages without annulments would indeed be polygamy. But I have to think that there are genuine cases where prior bonds can be deemed invalid. There can be no wholesale invalidation of sacramental marriages as the ministers of the sacrament are the couples themselves. As long as the right form and matter is observed, a man and woman making the proper vows with the correct intention and the ability to fulfill the obligations of marriage (in light of the Church’s laws) — those marriages are genuine and indissoluble.

    Conscience for the Catholic means that we have the mind of the Church and that there is conformity to the truth to make proper judgment. The Church still teaches that marriage is a life-long commitment. The Church still teaches that adultery is a sin. Given how you address this topic, I am convinced that it is less a cerebral judgment for you than it is an emotional response. None of us can guarantee that every instance of praxis or discipline is what it should be. I am not privy to the details of your case, or the assessment of the Tribunal, but I would not abandon the Church over it— no matter how personally it affected me.

    I am still praying for you. Peace.

  5. I did not intend/desire to hurt you.

    But, I am lost and I have no hope.

    There is nothing but void.

    Karl

    FATHER JOE: It does pain me that you suffer so. I wish there were some way to lift the sadness and sorrow you feel. We have to trust there is light beyond the darkness.

  6. The reason that I have remained faithful is because I believed that our vows were binding unto death. I would not have married if I believed that ANY circumstance could supersede that obligation. It is unjust, to this simple man, how promises to me can be voided.

    Please, do not pray for my salvation if the Catholic Church teaches that my vows can be voided.

    Karl

    FATHER JOE:

    I do not like editing comments. But I could not stomach nonsense about anyone giving himself to Satan. Thus, half your remarks are missing but the main point is still present.

    There are grounds for annulments. However, what upsets me is the attitude that most marriages are seriously flawed and that annulments are always easily attained. I have known cases where the petitions for nullity were denied. I am worried about the current trend to streamline the process or to make annulments easier. Having said this, I am happy that the financial cost has been removed from the equation. It gave the impression that annulments were purchased and that they were akin to civil divorces. I concur that much of the talk these days, along with the sympathy, seems to rest with those who either engineered the breakups or who have committed adultery. My heart is more with the abandoned spouse than the one who walks away. I am told that nothing of the doctrine has changed about the permanence of marriage and the sin of adultery. Indeed, any change would be impossible. God’s law is immutable. Nevertheless, I am at odds with certain churchmen as how the praxis or discipline might be changed to allow those in irregular unions to be fully restored to the sacramental life. I was always taught that those who cohabited (with sexual activity) and adulterers were not spiritually disposed for either Holy Communion or Confessional Absolution. The penitent must in conscience express sorrow for sin and firm amendment of life. It has long been regarded as sacrilege for those in mortal sin to take Holy Communion; although, they would still be asked to attend the weekly Sunday Mass.

    Men, even in the Church, are fallible. Tribunals can also make mistakes. God cannot be faulted for the failures of men. I would beseech those wounded by abandonment and pastoral accommodations, not to target God with anger or to suffer a loss of faith. Catholics, in particular, should know that to follow Christ means taking up the Cross. We can add our sense of betrayal and pain to that of our Lord in his sacred Passion. The devil saw his pathetic victory slip from his grasp. The rejection of the Christ became the means by which our Lord would offer his saving oblation to atone for the world’s sins. We need to imitate Christ. There can be no allegiance to Satan. Remember that the devil is the very source of betrayal, division and alienation.

    Jesus came into the world to bring healing, hope and life. One person’s life may have much harmony and happiness; another’s life might suffer the breech of loneliness and pain. But, where ever we find ourselves, we are called to be faithful. Imitating Jesus, we pray both for those who are easy to love and for those who have made themselves hard to love. I would urge those who have lost their spouses, either to the grave or to an interloper and sin, not to despair. Healing in this world is not always possible. The posture that should be pursued is to pray for the spouse and family, yes, even as one sheds a downpour of tears. The goal of life is the attainment of heaven and the beatific vision. We leave the judgment of others to almighty God. All we can control is our own response to God’s grace. We can still make a positive difference in the world. We can find a degree of happiness by keeping faith, abiding by our convictions and knowing that we walk with the Lord.

  7. Abandoned spouse here. lost everything. abandoner and partner long supported as my kids parents. pushing 28years of this.

    Rarely attend mass. don’t do sacraments as I consider them empty.

    If God supports this Bergoglio, I WILL NOT serve him. he would be unworthy of me.

    Karl

    FATHER JOE: I cannot say for sure where some of this is going but I have to think that the abiding truths of the Church will win out: marriage is until death and adultery is a sin. The Church can transmit or pass on the teachings of faith, but we do not have the authority to reverse or change what God has ordained. As for your case Karl, know that I have not forgotten you and that you remain in my prayers.

  8. Father Joe, I can see clearly that you are upset by a lack of response to your questions. I will be praying that somehow you might find answers that are both morally, logically, Biblically sound and simultaneously compassionate. Until you can, I pray that you will study AND spend time in the arms of Jesus, who will console you.

    I do want to let you know what these—your searching posts—have done for me personally. You have caused me to search deeper. As you know, I’ve been Catholic for almost two years now, my husband is not Catholic, and we were married (took vows) in a protestant church. Yes, we’ve been faithful to each other (no adultery), but is God truly the center? Do I really see marriage as my vocation? These are sobering questions—ones that require “fasting and prayer.” Is this vocation one I can grow into?
    Every day in my e-mail I get a short reflection on the day’s (Mass) scripture from Bishop Robert Barron, so I went back and looked at what he had to say. Here’s his reflection on Mark 10:1-12:

    **

    “Friends, in our Gospel today, Jesus defines the fundamental sacredness of marriage. I’m convinced that the deep sacramental and religious meaning of marriage—even within the Church—has been, in recent years, dramatically compromised. We say that marriage is a vocation, but do we mean it?

    “We can look at human sexual relationships at a number of different levels. Two people can come together purely for physical pleasure, for economic reasons, or for psychological companionship. And we might witness two people coming together out of authentic love. But none of these levels level is what the Bible means by marriage. When I was doing parish work I would invariably ask young couples, “Why do you want to get married in church? Most would say something like, “Because we love each other.” But I would reply, “Well, that’s no reason to get married in church.” Usually, they looked stunned, but I meant it.

    You come to church to be married before God and his people when you are convinced that your marriage is not, finally, about you. That it is about God and about serving God’s purposes, that it is, as much as the priesthood of a priest, a vocation, a sacred calling.”

    **

    Wow! Just wow!

    I understand your frustration is not the same as my challenge, but the call to trust God more fully appears everywhere. Please pray for me; I’ll be praying for you. This Lent is going to be wonderful!

  9. I heard that Pipe Honorius I was a good administrator, but his ambiguity caused him to be post humaniously condemned by name in the 3rd Ecumenical Council of Constantinople. No matter what good Pope Francis does, if he does not clarify his legacy will be shrouded with the same weakness as Pope Honorius I.

    FATHER JOE: It is true that the Pope was guilty of ambiguity over the issue of one will or two in Christ. I suspect he meant to teach that there could be no conflict between Christ’s humanity and divinity. But I would not suggest any comparison to the current pontiff.

  10. Discernment! The priests are directed to discern each case, not apply a blanket rule to all sinners. Discern the hearts. This is the constant message from the Holy Spirit, and so many continue to ignore Him.

    FATHER JOE: Discernment will not make adultery any less a mortal sin. People in a habitual state of mortal sin can neither be given absolution nor the Eucharist. They are not objectively disposed to saving grace. Until the present confusion, this has been the long-standing teaching of the Church. The Holy Spirit has been speaking to us all along… not just recently. Human nature has not changed.

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