Church must know situation of couples it tries to help, pope says

| Cindy Wooden | November 20, 2016 | 6 Comments
Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his weekly audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 5. CNS/Reuters

Pope Francis greets newly married couples during his weekly audience in Paul VI hall at the Vatican Aug. 5. CNS/Reuters

Discerning the best way to help a couple whose marriage has failed is not easy, Pope Francis told a group of bishops, but he said he was certain that with study and prayer they would find ways to help the people entrusted to their care.

As some very public debates swirled in mid-November about the pastoral possibilities Pope Francis opened to bishops and priests for helping divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, he visited the offices of the Roman Rota, a marriage tribunal, but did not issue clear, blanket instructions.

The pope made his visit Nov. 18 to speak with bishops who were at the Roman Rota for a course on implementing the rules Pope Francis published in September 2015 to reform the process for verifying the validity of a marriage.

Pope Francis told the bishops that “any impediment of a mundane character” — specifically cost or staffing — that makes it difficult for couples to get a timely judgment on the validity of their marriage must be eliminated.

Canon law, the pope said, is at the service of the salvation of souls and fulfills that service by promoting a “healthy relationship between justice and charity.”

After all, he said, the entire Code of Canon Law ends with the words, “The salvation of souls, which must always be the supreme law in the church, is to be kept before one’s eyes.”

To evangelize and help save a person, the pope said, the church must know what they are experiencing.

“The church of the Incarnate Word incarnates itself in the sad and painful events of the people, it bends down to the poor and those who are far from the church community or who think they are outside it” because their marriage has failed, he said.

The divorced — whether or not they remarry — “are and remain incorporated into Christ by virtue of their baptism,” the pope said. By their ordination, the bishops have been charged by Christ and the church with the responsibility of tending to those people.

“We are called not to exclude them from our pastoral concern, but to dedicate ourselves to them and their irregular and difficult situation with all concern and charity,” he said.

The pope quoted from the First Letter of Peter, “Tend the flock of God in your midst, overseeing not by constraint but willingly, as God would have it, not for shameful profit but eagerly. Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock.”

Questions about exactly how to help different couples in different situations are not easy to answer, the pope said. Bishops must “seek responses in the word of God and in the truth of the faith,” guided always by a recognition that the salvation of souls is always the “supreme good.”

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  • Dominic Deus

    An excellent story illuminating an elegant proclamation of compassionate faith in action by Pope Francis. Reconciliation with the divorced and remarried, the non-traditional and “irregular”is our Christian duty. Judgement is not.

    “Do not lord it over those assigned to you, but be examples to the flock,” ascribed to St. Peter, is good guidance and I hope cardinals and bishops have the strength to follow it. Equally important is the direction of the Holy Father to engage with the divorced, remarried, and suffering and merely “irregular” on a personal level in order to reassure them and learn from them. The traditional teaching of the Church is not the only teaching at issue. Those wounded by a failed marriage are very willing to share lessons of love lost, love regained, healing, spiritual and emotional darkness, and rebirth into the light.

    Those irregulars who have been stigmatized or even shunned by their own friends, family and fellow believers deserve compassion and a invitation to return to fellowship and communion.

    The Church should welcome them and, in fact, celebrate them, for they are all children of God.

    • Charles C.

      Dear Dominc,

      I admire your sensitivity and concern. Indeed, all of mankind is valuable and loved in the sight of God and must be treated with the honor and respect due to them. All people are blessed by hearing God’s word and being in the company of believers, we should not stand in their way.

      Love and Truth are necessary for all of us, and it is that which the Church has been tasked with providing. Reconciliation and full Communion can be had in most circumstances, but not all.

      “I am aware that I am committing a mortal sin. I do not seek forgiveness for it, I have no intention of giving it up, and I plan to continue it.” That is not the way to express a desire for reconciliation and full communion.

      Allow me to tell you an old story (which I just made up).

      A mother and her child are stranded in the desert. They cannot
      communicate in any way, and there is no water for 300 miles in any direction. The next chance of rescue is three days in the future. In thirst, the child cries for water, but the only fluid they have is a bottle in their backpack. The mother says they have no water, but the child cries more loudly and insistently describing his sufferings from thirst.

      The mother tolerates this as long as she is able, then says, “You can’t drink what’s in the bottle. See, it’s marked ‘poison’.” The child says he doesn’t care, he has to drink something lest he perish from thirst. After hours of this the mother can no longer bear the crying, screaming, and begging, so she gives the child the bottle of poison.

      The child drinks the bottle, and at the taste of the liquid he stops crying, smiles, thanks his mother, and relaxes. The mother is delighted that she was able to relieve her child’s distress. Then the inevitable occurs.

      After the rescue, three days later, when the mother is recovering in the hospital and her child has been buried, the mother thinks, “What a wonderful person I am for relieving my child’s distress. I was so merciful and loving. I showed great compassion.”

      “For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.” (1 Corinthians 11:29 King James Version)

      • Dominic Deus

        Thank you Charles. I love your disclaimer for the story. I plan to use it myself.

        Mortal sin (sin “deadly to the soul”) was constructed by the Church to create a category of moral failure so grievous that the perpetrator is no longer in communion with the Body of Christ (the Faithful). Sins categorized as
        “mortal” align very conveniently with actions the Church finds challenging to its dogma and legitimacy as a governing body, whether that governance is political or spiritual. Grievous sins against one’s fellow human beings or God’s natural world are frequently spared the name “mortal” in order that the Church be able to maintain relationships the powerful interests that are so often the perpetrators of those sins.Heads of state, nations, and powerful economic forces are far more likely to be the recipients of discrete chastisement, diplomatic dialogue, and sometimes they are ignored completely, at least as judged by the public face of the Church.

        If there is an actual, formal, codified teaching of the Church that divorce or divorce and remarriage are mortal sins as opposed to garden variety every day sins, I’m am unaware of it. Lesser educated clergy sometimes make pronouncements about mortal sin and excommunication without foundation in actual Church teaching in order to reassert authority they see slipping away.

        I cannot imagine marital dissolution, let alone, new found love and marriage to be mortal sin and I question whether or not, in authentic Catholic teaching, divorce is a sin at all. To me there would have to be accompanying moral failure of another sort in the marriage: violence, criminality, ongoing drug or alcohol abuse, child abuse, infidelity, neglect–and even then, moral failure would be attributed to the perpetrator, not the victim.

        It should be remembered that there are many theologians,scholars, Faithful and even some brave clergy who hold that “..let no man put asunder” means exactly what it says: Any man who cannot love, shelter and protect his family from being “put asunder” by his actions is acting immorally, sinfully, and is modern parlance, being a total jerk. The innocent spouse is *obligated* to do what is required to protect herself and the children. Of course this interpretation would be unpopular in the ancient patriarchal Church, and the modern patriarchal Church as well.

        On the matter of mortal sin and its many uses, I am reminded of this:

        • Charles C.

          Dear Dominic,

          I only wish Miss Anthony were correct. If I honestly believed that all of my desires were what God wanted me to do, I would be a far more holy individual than I am. Reality, and the Church, teach me that many of my desires are not in line with what God wants from me, hence my need for mercy and forgiveness as I confess to Him.

          But to your points. Please don’t combine divorce with divorce and remarriage. The Church does not condemn the separation of a married couple as sinful. It’s often sad and painful, but not a sin.

          But, divorce then remarriage?

          “If there is an actual, formal, codified teaching of the Church that divorce or divorce and remarriage are mortal sins as opposed to garden variety every day sins, I’m am unaware of it.”

          I’m sure you’re aware that there is such a teaching in the matter of adultery. From the Catechism:

          “1857 For a sin to be mortal, three conditions must together be met: “Mortal sin is sin whose object is grave matter and which is also committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent.”

          “1858 Grave matter is specified by the Ten Commandments, corresponding to the answer of Jesus to the rich young man: “Do not kill, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and your mother.” . . .
          . . .

          “1861 Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself. It results in the loss of charity and the privation of sanctifying grace, that is, of the state of grace. If it is not redeemed by repentance and God’s forgiveness, it causes exclusion from Christ’s kingdom and the eternal death of hell, for our freedom has the power to make choices for ever, with no turning back. . . . ”

          The next question then is whether divorce and remarriage constitutes adultery.

          Jesus said so:- “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery” (Matthew 19) (Luke 16)(Mark 10)

          And back to the Catechism, Section 1650:
          ” . . . The Church maintains that a new union cannot be
          recognized as valid, if the first marriage was. If the divorced are remarried civilly, they find themselves in a situation that objectively contravenes God’s law. Consequently, they cannot receive Eucharistic communion as long as this
          situation persists. For the same reason, they cannot exercise certain ecclesial responsibilities.

          “Reconciliation through the sacrament of Penance can be granted only to those who have repented for having violated the sign of the covenant and of fidelity to Christ, and who are committed to living in complete continence.”

          It seems to me, then, that the Church has clearly stated the actual, formal, codified teaching that you were asking about.


  • Charles C.

    Moved to a reply to Dominc.