The sage, sane and sober ponderings in these pages sometime ago from Father Joseph Creedon were at the time a refreshing change from many media comments on Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of Love.” Many publications did their best to uncover some hint of alteration of Church doctrine within the Pope’s lengthy counsel. Sadly the weightier matters of authentic human love on assorted levels — spousal, parental, fraternal, ecclesial — passed without much comment. Father Creedon was then wise to advise a broader and deeper reading of the papal teaching. More recently Father Michael Najim was daring in his outline of a practical situation that is not easily resolved in the light of Pope Francis’ instruction. In turn Bishop Tobin expressed his own desire for a clearer, authoritative analysis of contemporary marital developments.
In his much discussed exhortation, Pope Francis readily acknowledges that it is improper for anyone to enter into a second marriage while an apparently valid bond to a previous spouse still exists. But, passing over the enduring rights and responsibilities of a prior sacramental marriage, his Holiness goes on to argue — or at least to suggest — that leaving that second marriage might be likewise unacceptable. Adopting the language of Cardinal Kasper, the Pope proposes that perhaps there are children to be raised, perhaps one partner is in need of special care, perhaps finances are woefully lacking, perhaps further scandal would ensue — in other words, separating would cause more harm than good.
His Holiness writes that sometimes “…a man and woman cannot satisfy the obligation to separate.” Such persons are motivated by a clear duty to their present situation which, while flawed, is not leading to further sin. The Pope observes, “Hence it can no longer simply be said that all those in any “irregular” situation are living in a state of mortal sin and are deprived of sanctifying grace.” Their observable situation might be objectively and legally wide of the mark, but their personal marital situation could be subjectively and morally defensible. The Pontiff is clearly calling for mercy in the midst of human frailty. He concludes: “Jesus wants a Church attentive to the goodness which the Holy Spirit sows in the midst of human weakness, a Mother who, while clearly expressing her objective teaching, always does what good she can, even if in the process, her shoes get soiled by the mud of the street.”
Pope Francis understands his primary duty toward his flock is to make real for all persons the mercy of God reflected in Christ and mediated through his Church. Christ died for humanity not after humanity had repented but while humanity was still in a state of sin. The Pope believes such Christlike mercy will evoke progressive conversion. Certainly by his own daily practice, Pope Francis has made admirable efforts to comfort the bewildered, redirect the confused, and hearten those who face complex issues. However the Pope must be equally clear that the greatest act of mercy is to lead someone to the truth.
The Pope’s recent instruction acknowledges (through a footnote!) the discussion in some circles regarding the reception of Holy Communion by those in irregular unions. But no modification in current practice is actually endorsed – hence all the discussion. The reception of Holy Communion is a corporate, ecclesial activity, signifying both internal and external union with God in Christ through his Church. This recent exhortation mercifully recognizes in all persons of good will the state of grace, the state of being at interior peace with God through dealing honestly with a sinful situation. But internal peace is not the same as external agreement. Many Protestants no doubt experience internal peace with God through Christ but they are not (as yet) welcomed into the Communion line.
Authentic Catholic Church life demands and deserves both inner adherence and outer observance. The incarnational nature of Christianity requires the unity of spirit and flesh, soul and body, inner peace and outward exercise. The modern tendency to separate spirituality from religious practice is the same tendency that would separate the individual conscience from Church practice in this discussion. Authentic mercy must respect both personal situations and church teaching. Personal pastoral sessions, the devotional if not the sacramental life of the Church, as well as involvement in parish activities must and will nourish those whose conjugal situations fall short of the indissolubility of sacramental marriage as taught in Sacred Scripture and maintained by constant Church tradition.