Monday, 13 October 2014

Pope Francis and pastoral care of remarriage & divorce

Upon his return from World Youth Day in July 2013 Pope Francis surprised his followers by making reference to the predicament of divorced and remarried Catholics.  He told reporters that the next synod (October 2014 and now in session) would explore a "somewhat deeper pastoral care of marriage," including the question of the eligibility of divorced. At the same time Pope Francis added that church law governing marriage annulments has to be reviewed, because ecclesiastical tribunals are not sufficient for this.  Such problems, he said, exemplified a general need for forgiveness in the church today. The church is a mother, and she must travel this path of mercy, and find a form of mercy for all, the pope added.  This did not sit well with many traditional Catholics.

More recent public disagreements over whether the Roman Catholic Church can change its teachings on Communion for remarried Catholics are growing sharper with conservatives led by U.S. Cardinal Raymond Burke making another push against loosening the rules.  Burke said allowing Communion for the divorced and remarried would complicate the Church’s pastoral outreach and that better strategies are needed.   The church currently holds (with some exceptions) that divorce and remarriage without a proper annulment is considered 'a grave offence against natural law' and such individuals cannot therefore receive communion.

It is in this context that I recently found myself taking exception.  Withholding communion (in Catholic terms ‘the real presence of Christ’) seems to be a complete contradiction to how God works among his people.  The church appears to be saying “first you must repent and admit your sin, before you can come before God”.  Whereas Jesus said "When he [the Holy Spirit] comes, he will convict the world, and show where right and wrong and judgement lie. He will convict them of wrong..." (John 16:8). At this point the question that needs to be asked is simply:   ‘Who convicts our heart, God or the institution?  While the Church will no doubt refer its members to the various official Vatican documents including "Concerning the Reception of HolyCommunion by Divorced-and-Remarried Members of the Faithful” as submitted by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a letter to the world's bishops on October 14, 1994. Others may search for a personal and compassionate answer by looking for a more merciful God within.  Guess what - here again the church claims its ruling has primacy over ‘personal conscience’.

While debating the issue on-line with a conservative Catholic news source I was surprised to learn that some Christians believe that have a duty to support their church which includes publically shaming divorced and remarried couples who, according to their definition, have not received the necessary sanction from the church to receive communion.  Reminding them about the biblical story of Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at the Well  (John 4:8) did little to diminish their demand for proper ‘old fashioned’ justice and punishment.    Did Jesus turn away from this adulteress or did he change her heart to the incredible degree the story ends for her?  Remember this woman would probably not have had access to a bible and definitely not the Roman Catholic Catechism. 

Of course in Matthew 5:29 we hear Jesus speaking to the Pharisees when asked by them “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for just any reason?”  And Jesus responds “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries commits adultery; and whoever marries her who is divorced commits adultery.”  But did Jesus walk away from them?  The Eucharist was instituted to bring people together ‘in communion with one another and God’  - not for the purpose of judging others. 

Is should be obvious to readers that Jesus never shunned sinners in fact he is often seen surrounded by them.  So why then do some members of the clergy insist that the Eucharist should be publically withheld from the divorced or remarried? Yet we continue to use vengeful punishment language all the time. 

Jesus often used hyperbole and in the case of remarriage used it to underscore its sacredness.  However a few individuals prefer a literal interpretation.  O.K. then when was the last time you attended Mass and you were greeted with a parish full of one eyed sinners?  Because Jesus, again using hyperbole, said this in Matthew 25 about adultery, “If you’re right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away! It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body thrown into hell. Let us not get caught up interpreting everything at the expense of Jesus’ call to love and not punish our neighbour. The role of the Church is simply to walk with sinners and lead them to discover the God within – not outside. 

It cannot be the role of the Church, and that includes the laity, to DETERMINE the sins of others.  We may have a role to play in teaching people about sin, but in the end only God can convict a heart.  And the only way to the heart is through Jesus.  Why then would some Catholics insist on taking away his ‘real presence’ through the sacrament of the Eucharist?  Isn't that the place where Catholic hearts are renewed?  Church rules demand that only when sin is acknowledged and the person is truly repentant may Catholics celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation and finally receive communion.  But must that now be preceded with punishment?  When Jesus spoke about sin did he really turn his back on the sinner and demand some form of revenge or punishment?  Do we still believe that God is vengeful and far more interested in our sins then our potential?

Anyone familiar with Jesus’ actions and teachings, especially his Parables, would understand that he defied the ways of the world again and again.  It can thus be said that Jesus presents the ‘upside down values of the world’.  From the point of view from the world they are always seen as ludicrous.   The problem with a lot of Roman Catholic issues today, is that some of the teachings are presented and understood by some as being in legal and ABSOLUTE terms.  If only life were that simple.  That is not how God deals with his people as unique individuals.  Remember, God promised he would never leave us orphaned.  Thus, for Jesus to withhold himself i.e., the Eucharist – for whatever reason – cannot in any way express what he does for any sinner.  Think again about the woman at the well, the sinners he surrounded himself with.  It is important to understand that Jesus was not the least bit interested in PUNITIVE JUSTICE.  He always choose the more demanding and difficult path of RESTORATIVE JUSTICE.  


Perhaps we are still stuck on a religion based on reward and punishment.  Only by making the distinction between punitive and restorative justice can we begin to understand God’s redemptive justice.  Fr. Richard Rohr, OFM, one of my favourite spiritual teachers, suggests that for many God’s love or grace is sadly based on a false sense of justice which demands that sin must be punished and followed by a lengthy period of repentance.  Fr. Rohr calls this a religion based on meritocracy.  But Rohr provides the following beautiful illustration of God’s intended grace pattern as follows:

As some of us still understand it: 

Sin - - -  >punishment - - - >repentance - - - > transformation

But the actual grace pattern is:

Sin - - - >unconditional love- - - >transformation - - - >repentance

Note how this pattern is perfectly mirrored in the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the  well. Here you will not find the slightest hint of punishment, only redemption in the form of God’s healing and restorative justice. Perhaps by seeing divorce and remarriage in this new light may we finally bring the necessary compassion and understanding to this controversial issue  thus fulfilling Pope Francis’ desire to bring a deeper pastoral care of marriage and divorce.

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