My dear brothers and sisters in the Lord,
This is the last in a series of articles summarizing the teaching of our Holy Father, Pope Francis, on The Joy of Love.
This installment summarizes Chapter Eight which is perhaps the most difficult chapter to understand.
First of all, its title, Accompanying, Discerning and Integrating Weakness, guides us in understanding the chapter. Our Holy Father says, “the Church must accompany with attention and care the weakest of her children, who show signs of a wounded and troubled love, by restoring in them hope and confidence…”
One of the greatest things the Church can do, as our Holy Father said, is to give truth and hope to people. The truth is that there is no possibility for breaking the marital bond. It is inviolate and that ideal must always be upheld and never be trivialized because marriage is a sacrament and replicates the union of Christ and His Church which never can be broken.
This chapter gives guidelines for pastoral care which tries to meet people where they are, whether they be cohabitating, in civil marriages or even remarried after divorce. Pope Francis tells us that it is important to listen to the stories of these people and, perhaps, challenge them to examine their consciences as Jesus did at the well with the Samaritan Woman who had five husbands, which our Holy Father gives as an example.
It is the law of gradualness, which is referred to by St. John Paul II in Familiaris Consortio, that becomes the backdrop as we try to understand that good is achieved in stages. It is not, however, a gradualness of law that is spoken about in the chapter. Rather, it is the ability to make prudential judgments and actions based on the concrete possibility available to persons.
Those in irregular situations need not be condemned, but rather should be shown the mercy of Christ. As Pope Francis says, “No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!”
Pastors need to help people find the grace that is available to them in whatever situation in life they find themselves. For some, it is to return to a celibate state, living as brothers and sisters. But if this is not possible, an appeal to conscience must be made, and yet there is no one rule or “easy recipe” that can be found to resolve these complex situations. The goal is to integrate the divorced and remarried into the life of the Church without causing scandal, remembering that they are not objectively excommunicated automatically. This depends on their own knowledge of the situation.
One pastoral method proposed at various times is the “internal forum” solution where people who cannot objectively prove that their marriage was invalid are asked to engage in the pastorally guided information of conscience to make a judgment regarding their own situation in regard to the reception of the Eucharist. This case presumes that couples in this type of situation must first pursue the annulment process, now made less complicated and available without cost, which may help to resolve the issue objectively. Only when it becomes impossible to proceed would someone move toward an internal forum solution.
To make this concrete, perhaps a real life situation that is all too common today might focus our attention on this type of solution. A young executive of 45-years of age decides that he wishes not to be married to his wife. He leaves his wife and three children to marry his 25-year old secretary. His wife, the mother of three underage children, later married a man who now provides a father for her children and a loving spouse for herself. Perhaps it is impossible to prove that the previous marriage was invalid in canonical terms. But what recourse does she have in this situation? She married a man who was previously unmarried to give a father to her children. Now she wishes to live fully her Catholic faith with her family. No automatic permission to receive Communion can be given in this case either by the priest nor can presumption be made by the aggrieved and abandoned party. Rather, a process of discernment must occur in which God’s truth concerning marriage and the concrete circumstances of all the persons involved are prayerfully considered together. These are the concrete situations which the Synod on the Family and the Holy Father’s exhortation attempt to address.
It is clear to me that our priests are in need of training in order to assist couples or individuals in the formation of conscience regarding their objective moral situation and canonical position. We will provide workshops for them and they will be planned as soon as possible. Again, this is not something that lends itself to a yes or no answer, or something that the priest “said was OK.” No, it demands dialogue and prayer to understand the real life situation.
Chapter Eight goes on to state the mitigating factors that are present in many irregular situations, and that those in these situations can still live a life of grace and enlighten their consciences.
The rules of discernment cannot follow, “an intolerable casuistry.” This was a moral teaching tool used in the past. However, it has been proven inadequate for the complexity of the modern world where a particular discernment cannot be reduced to inviolable laws. A way of charity and mercy are important to the application of the law. Our Holy Father puts it that we are not to “throw stones” at those who are in irregular situations.
The logic of pastoral mercy is to first remember that the ideal of indissoluble marriage must always be held as valid and achievable. With the Lord’s grace, it is possible to live the fullness of God’s plan for marriage. Thus, the most important step for persons in an irregular marital situation is to grow in their personal relationships with Jesus, who invites us to come to Him with our burdens and difficulties (Mt 11:38). Yet, because mitigating circumstances can enter into the lives of those who find themselves in irregular situations, they must be treated with compassion.
Thus Pope Francis, in this document, continuously invites the faithful to dialogue with their pastors so that together they can travel the path to the truth, freedom and peace that the Lord desires to give. This is especially true in the Year of Mercy in which we find ourselves, so that we must show the mercy the Father has shown to us through Jesus to others. In the application and teaching of moral theology, the highest values must be maintained, while at the same time understanding, in the light of advances in psychology, the concrete situations of people.
The Church desires that people not assume there is nothing that can be done to address the concrete needs of their particular situations. There remains much misinformation regarding what the Church actually says and teaches. People cannot take it upon themselves to determine what they can do without guidance. Rather, conscience formation needs to take place, which is why, in the document, the Holy Father puts so much emphasis on the need of people to seek the guidance of the Church’s ministers.
The Holy Father has put out into the deep problems of the family in the modern world. He has applied compassion and mercy to the resolution of these problems for many. The best we can do is offer witness in our own family life to the values given in the instruction and to offer our prayerful support to all families.