Pope Francis and the Permanence of Marriage

pope-francis-one-man-one-woman-marriage-original-picThe Catholic blogosphere has been buzzing recently over some comments made by Pope Francis about marriage.  Specifically, he remarked that some sacramental marriages are “null” because the bride and groom come from a “culture of the provisional” and do not truly understand the nature of a permanent commitment.  Initial reports said that the pope’s original words were that “most” sacramental marriages were null, and then were modified from “most” to “some” or “a part of”.  Here’s the original Italian for those who would like to offer their own English translation: “E per questo una parte dei nostri matrimoni sacramentali sono nulli, perché loro [gli sposi] dicono: ‘Sì, per tutta la vita’, ma non sanno quello che dicono, perché hanno un’altra cultura.”  You can read the entire address here on the Vatican website.

The response from certain quarters has been overheated and dramatic.  One poor soul on FoxNews has even suggested that the Pope should now resign for these comments!  [You can read his assessment here.]  What is going on here?  Is the ecclesial sky really falling?

I have been reflecting on these opinions and, more important, on the pope latest comments from a pastoral-theological frame of reference (and for the record, I’m NOT saying that a canonical frame of reference is NOT pastoral or theological!).  Some initial thoughts:


Pope Francis gestures as he speaks during the opening of the Diocese of Rome’s annual pastoral conference at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome June 16. Looking on is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, papal vicar for Rome. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

CONTEXT:  I have great respect for many of the canon lawyers who have weighed in on this.  They are, for the most part, highly upset for many reasons with the pope’s comments.  However, what troubles me in what I’ve been seeing in the blogosphere is a tendency to take the pope out of context; he himself is always cautioning people not to do that with his statements.  So, were these latest comments being made to a convention of canonists?  Were these comments from an address to the Roman Rota?  Were these comments from a lecture being given to canon law students? They were not.  Rather, this speech (actually, his words were a response to a question at the end of his speech, so they were not part of his prepared text) was made during the opening of the annual Ecclesial Convocation of the Diocese of Rome, held in the Cathedral for the Diocese of Rome, St. John Lateran.  The Pope is, of course, the Bishop of Rome, but he appoints a Cardinal to serve has his Vicar for running the day-to-day operations of the Diocese. At this time, that is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who served as the host for the opening of this annual event for the Diocese.  So, I think the first thing for us to remember is that the pope is speaking here to a gathering of the priests, deacons and other pastoral ministers of his diocesan Church.

POINT OF VIEW:  Within this general context, then, I think we need to read the particular comments about marriage within the broader scope of the point he was making.  What the Pope was talking about is his recognition and concern with today’s “culture of the provisional” (Italian: E’ la cultura del provvisorio.)  In fact, his first example of this culture is not on marriage, but on the priesthood.  The pope recounts the story of a young man who expressed interest in serving as a priest, but only for a period of ten years!  His primary concern here is to express how an overarching culture of the provisional impacts every state of life today, including the priesthood, religious life and matrimony.  It is for this reason that he then makes his statement that many sacramental marriages today are null.

This is certainly not a new theme for Pope Francis.  Here are just a few random links to earlier comments which make the same point, but without the use of the term “null”: here, here, and here.

754It seems pretty clear and straightforward that, whether the pope originally said “most” or “some” marriages is pastorally irrelevant to the point he’s trying to make: that because we are now living in such a culture of the provisional, everyone struggles with the ability to make lifelong commitments; on one level, they may think they understand the nature of permanence, but on another level, they may be incapable of making such a judgment.  The pope is not speaking here as the Legislator or as a judge in a marriage tribunal: he’s speaking from the perspective of an experienced pastor.

He’s actually saying what most ministers readily admit: that most people today have lost a sense of the permanent and that it is hard to find anyone who is willing or able to make a long-term commitment to anything or anyone.  One retired pastor, when I mentioned this kerfuffle to him, replied, “The Pope didn’t say anything that most bishops, priests and deacons who work with engaged couples don’t already acknowledge.” The pope was simply telling his diocesan pastoral ministers that they need to do what they can to help ALL of their people come to a greater sense of permanent commitment: to their faith in general, to their vocational aspirations, and so on.  In my opinion, to read his words and then to jump immediately to canonical judgments about those statements risks losing the BIG PICTURE of what the pope was saying.

Wedding ringsThe bottom line, it seems to me, is pretty straightforward: The first step in listening to the pope is to look at the overall message he is trying to make and to whom he is making it.  Generally speaking, with Pope Francis, he chooses to speak as who he is: a pastor.  He does not speak as an academic theologian, or as a canon lawyer, nor should he, in my opinion.  He is first, foremost and always, a Pastor: that’s his frame of reference, that’s his motivation, that’s his primary concern.  Theology, canon law, curial structures, and all the rest of the ad intra organs of the Catholic Church exist to SUPPORT that pastoral effort.  We all look at the world through the lenses we’ve been given in life: as teachers, as lawyers, doctors, farmers, business people, parents, and even deacons.  For some canon lawyers to be upset and concerned by the pope’s comments is only natural, but they should not be considered the first — or only — line in interpretation of papal statements.

I think, for those of us who serve as deacons, our take away from all of this might best be: how can I help the couples with whom I’m working come to a greater appreciation and understanding of the permanence of our beautiful sacrament of Matrimony?

A Lenten Reflection on Catholics and Politics

politics-religionIt’s Lent: a time for purification and enlightenment, according to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults.  Most of us grew up thinking of Lent in terms of what we were going to “give up.”  Speaking only for myself, I sometimes wish I could give up following what passes these days for American political “discourse.”  But as Pope Francis said recently, quoting Aristotle, a human being is by nature a “political animal.”  We cannot and should not avoid the political process; in fact, we have a moral obligation to participate to the best of our abilities!  As Catholics, then, how might we participate in ways consistent with Christian discipleship?  For those of us who also serve as Catholic clergy, what are our own obligations and limitations with regard to political life?

360_wtwain_0714American political life has always been, to say the least, exciting, interesting, and inherently disputatious: there’s nothing new about that.  Consider just a few historic, pointed quotes from Mark Twain (1835-1910) and Will Rogers (1879-1935):

Here’s Mark Twain, writing about politics in the 19th Century:

The political and commercial morals of the United States are not merely food for laughter, they are an entire banquet.

Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.

A lie can travel half way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.

Patriot: the person who can holler the loudest without knowing what he is hollering about.

Anger is an acid that can do more harm to the vessel in which it is stored than to anything on which it is poured.

A half-truth is the most cowardly of lies.

Will RogersAnd here’s Will Rogers with some observations about American politics during the 1920’s an 1930’s:

There is only one redeeming thing about this whole election. It will be over at sundown, and let everybody pray that it’s not a tie, for we couldn’t go through with this thing again.

If you ever injected truth into politics you have no politics.

This country has gotten where it is in spite of politics, not by the aid of it. That we have carried as much political bunk as we have and still survived shows we are a super nation.

America has the best politicians money can buy.

The Senate just sits and waits till they find out what the president wants, so they know how to vote against him.

A president just can’t make much showing against congress. They lay awake nights, thinking up things to be against the president on.

There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you.

Politics is a great character builder. You have to take a referendum to see what your convictions are for that day.

Today, however, I think most people would readily admit that what passes for political “discourse” has deteriorated to a level that does not warrant the term, since “discourse” is supposed to be “a communication of thought by words, talk, or conversation; earnest and intelligent exchange” or “a formal discussion of a subject in speech or writing. . . .”

Aymond 1Gregory M. Aymond, the Archbishop of New Orleans, has written an excellent column, “What has happened to civility in politics?” (read the whole piece here) in which he observes, 

What has happened to politics, from my perspective, is candidates in campaigns no longer run on merit, their qualifications or their ability to lead, but run on the weaknesses of the other person. The name-calling and insulting comments that candidates exchange, in my mind, create an evil spirit among us.

Archbishop Aymond outlines four principles for evaluating a political candidate:

  1. Human Life: This principle covers the spectrum from conception to natural death, with the Archbishop listing abortion, euthanasia, the death penalty, caring for the poor, issues regarding biotechnology, issues of war and the promotion of peace “in our country and beyond.”
  2.  Family Life: This principle obviously includes marriage, and “a candidate must be willing to do all he or she can to help a person form a family that gives respect to family and children.”  This principle also involves wages, since one’s income affects how one can support a family with respect.
  3. Social Justice: Here the concerns listed by the Archbishop include: welfare policy, religious freedom, Social Security, affordable health care, and sharing housing and the resources of the earth with the poor.  He also includes the reform of the criminal justice system, and the issue of immigration (“welcoming the stranger). Not only must the immigrant be treated with dignity, the Archbishop correctly observes that “the Catholic Church teaches that people, under certain circumstances, have a right to leave their country and find a new life.” Other social justice issues involve respect for the environment and using the environment in a way that promotes respect for humanity.
  4. Global Solidarity:  Finally, the Archbishop asks, “what is the candidate willing to do to foster solidarity, for the elimination of global poverty, for religious liberty and human rights? We must ask how the person will work with the United Nations and international bodies.

Archbishop Aymond is a realist who recognizes that “it is likely that no candidate will measure up to all four completely.”  What is the Catholic citizen to do?  He answers:

We have to decide which of them would best move our country forward in a way that reflects those qualities.  We as Catholics must have our voice heard: We are tired of the lack of civility that exists in campaigns and we are calling for change.

Aristotle-Bust-640x424So, as much as we might be tempted to “give up politics” for Lent this year, as human beings (and therefore “political animals” as the Pope cites Aristotle) we cannot; as Christians we must not.  In fact, I think we can add to the Aristotelian reference and find this moral obligation highlighted even more.  In his Politics, the fourth century BC philosopher writes:

Hence it is evident that the state is a creation of nature, and that man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either above humanity, or below it. . . . he may be compared to a bird which flies alone.

Now the reason why man is more of a political animal than bees or any other gregarious animals is evident. Nature, as we often say, makes nothing in vain, and man is the only animal whom she has endowed with the gift of speech. And. . . the power of speech is intended to set forth the expedient and inexpedient, and likewise the just and the unjust. And it is a characteristic of man that he alone has any sense of good and evil, of just and unjust, and the association of living beings who have this sense makes a family and a state.

As difficult as it can be, therefore, we have a moral obligation to participate in the political process.  We cannot say that we are “above” it or that we are presented with no other moral option than to withdraw.  The greater good — the common good — demands that we do the best we can on behalf of others as well as ourselves, as expressed in the greatest Commandment given by Christ: to love God and to love others as we love ourselves.

pope-congress04.w529.h352A word about clergy and politics.  I have written about this previously, but I want to recap three points here.

  1. Clergy and Social Media: Clergy of all faiths are prominent in their use of social media and are blogging, tweeting, writing, speaking and teaching at every conceivable level, and even venues formerly considered more informal, such as Facebook.  It is important to reflect on our own participation in such exchanges in light of our responsibilities as clergy. It is often not what we say, or don’t say, from the pulpit that can influence others, but our casual “status update” on Facebook, a blog entry or even a tweet can have far-reaching effects.
  2. Catholic Clergy and Canon Law:  Canon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”  However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons would still bound) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.”  While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross. Much more about this can be said and I will review all of this in more detail in a later posting.
  3. Unique Political Position for Catholic [Permanent] Deacons:  As we just saw, permanent deacons may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics (including transitional deacons) under the law. However, permanent deacons are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is such a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony?  Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop. Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign. 


In concluding this Lenten reflection on Catholics and political life, I return to Archbishop Aymond’s fine column one last time.  His own frustration is almost palpable as he ponders what the Church is supposed to do in the face of the contemporary political situation:

First of all, the church’s responsibility is to do what I am doing – speaking out and saying this is not what we want politics to be. It’s not of God. Where is our negativity bringing us? The second thing we should look at – helping people form their consciences so when they go to the voting machine, they know the basic qualities they are looking for in a candidate.

So, for Lent this year, let’s give up the vitriol, the name-calling, the demonizing of those who disagree with us.  In fact, let’s go the other direction and increase and deepen our involvement in the political process as our state of life demands.  In this season of purification and enlightenment, we must keep both of these elements in mind: to purify ourselves of that which demeans humanity and God’s creation, and to seek out and be enlightened by God so as to build up rather than to tear down.

Lenten Jerusalem Cross

The Extraordinary Synod and Battling Cardinals: Perspectives from Vatican II

synod bishopsIt begins this Sunday, 5 October 2014: the Extraordinary Synod on the Family in the Context of Evangelization.  The media, religious and secular, have been all over it.  The topic itself is so broad that almost everyone can find issues affecting themselves or other members of their families, leading to the questions, “How will the assembled bishops respond?  How will this affect me and my family?”


Cardinal Walter Kasper

Much has been made of the very public debate going on between Cardinal Walter Kasper on the one hand and other Cardinals such as Raymond Burke and Gerhard Muller on the other.  “We can’t change church teaching!”, some cry,

Cardinal Raymond Burke

Cardinal Raymond Burke

“Mercy, mercy!” cry others.  “There will be no change to the teachings of the Church, because they are the teachings of Christ Himself,” report some; “we must find new ways of responding to the crises that face today’s families,” respond others.  And, at least according to some observers, all of this public debate by such high ranking prelates is simply unseemly, with fingers being pointed at the other side, saying, “Well, he started it!”

What shall we make of all this?  As the members of the Extraordinary Synod gather in preparation of the opening Mass of the Synod on Sunday, perhaps we can place all of this in some historical and ecclesiological context, using the Second Vatican Council as a guide.

Peter vs Paul_21) Kasper vs. Burke: “Cardinals shouldn’t fight in public; it’s just wrong!”  Well, prior to — and during — Vatican II, cardinals and other bishops often engaged in public debates, wrote letters, published opinion pieces and so on.  It was all part of the process, and this is no different.  Ever since St. Paul and St. Peter got into it over the question of who could become Christian, bishops have disagreed, sometimes publicly and loudly, to anyone who would listen.  Consider it part of the necessary public discourse for such important issues.  But I also invite people to avoid polarization!  When two people argue, one could be right and the other wrong, both could be right, or both could be wrong!  These issues, like life itself, are complex and demand rigorous, comprehensive argument, but no one is helped by a “white hat, black hat” mentality.

2) Even the fault lines of the arguments are similar to those surrounding the Council.  The Pope had called for an ecclesial aggiornamento (updating), and the response from some bishops was that you could NOT update the Church without weakening church teaching, giving the impression that what had gone before was wrong and now being corrected, or that God’s truth was somehow being compromised.  Other bishops responded that doctrine develops (certainly picking up cues from Cardinal Newman’s work in the 19th Century), and that the pastoral needs of the 20th Century demanded new and more pastorally effective approaches.  None of this was new THEN, nor is it new NOW.  This is what led St. John XXIII to teach, in his opening address to the Council:

John OpeningThe substance of the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith is one thing, and the way in which it is presented is another. And it is the latter that must be taken into great consideration with patience if necessary, everything being measured in the forms and proportions of a magisterium which is predominantly pastoral in character.

This seems to me to be precisely what Pope Francis is asking for, and what Cardinal Kasper is attempting to do: he is not questioning “the ancient doctrine of the deposit of faith,” but rather “the way in which it is presented.”  Furthermore, the framework for both content and method must be “predominantly pastoral” in character.  The pope included all of this in his opening address precisely because there had been such vehement debate on these points during the antepreparatory and preparatory phases leading up to the Council itself.  Fifty-two years ago this month, St. John was concerned that the bishops of the world be clear on what he was asking for, and what he perceived the Church and the world needed most.

3) Keep the relationship of theology and law in proper perspective.  This is very important, especially in the current debates.  Theology precedes law; law is not a source for theology.  Law develops out of the theology which comes first.  It is because we believe certain things about God and ourselves that we then develop laws which reflect those prior realities.  Looked at another way, we don’t start with the law and then develop a theology — or at least we shouldn’t!  Why do I bring this up?  Because in some of the recent breathless exchanges on the issues surrounding the Synod, there have been appeals to what the law has to say, while the “other side” has been speaking theologically.  Yes, theology and law intersect, certainly!  But the law serves theology, not the other way around.  Consider a debate between a medical doctor and a lawyer over the nature of a particular disease.  The doctor is going to look at the disease from within her own framework of science: causes, methods of transmission, treatments.  The lawyer is going to look at the same disease from with his own framework of the law: actions, responsibilities, jurisprudential history.  Same disease, different ways of addressing it.


Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani

During Vatican II, especially during the often fiery first session, the Prefect of the Holy Office (now known as the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) was not a theologian at all.  The Prefect was a respected canon lawyer, Cardinal Alfredo Ottaviani.  Think about that: a canonist responsible for guarding the church’s doctrinal office.  This led to some fiery exchanges during the First Session of the Council, as many of the world’s bishops took to the microphone to complain publicly about the way Cardinal Ottaviani and his curial staff was dealing with theologians around the world.  It led the aged Cardinal to respond passionately in defense; he refused to stand down at the end of his allotted time and eventually one of the Cardinal-Moderators simply unplugged his microphone.  Cardinal Ottaviani left the Council and did not return for a couple of weeks in protest.

But consider this.  As I wrote above, we need to avoid a “white hat, black hat” approach to these arguments.  During Vatican II’s debate on war and peace in 1964 and 1965, there was no stronger opponent of ALL warfare than Cardinal Ottaviani.  To read his interventions on the subject, you could easily hear the voice of any number of folks “on the left” who were arguing to outlaw all war.  On this issue at least, the canonical lion was more “liberal” than almost everyone in the “progressive” group of bishops.  Just like everyone else, bishops are complex human beings who defy easy characterization.

As I also said above, public debates between bishops is no new thing.  But it is also important, when assessing an argument, to discern the frame of reference being used by the respective participants.  Theologians such as Cardinal Kasper are speaking and evaluating things theologically; canonists such as Cardinal Burke are doing the same, but canonically.

This all goes back to St. John XXIII’s point, to paraphrase: Certain points of theology cannot change, perhaps; but the way they get enshrined in practice and in law can and sometimes must change.

Vatican II

Vatican II

4) Since we’re looking at the Council, what did those bishops have to say about the current question?  You can rest assured that whatever documentation emerges from the Synod, there will be multiple references to the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et spes), especially paragraphs 47 to 52, which focus on the nobility of the family. Read the whole document here.  Many of the challenges identified in the preparatory work for the Synod were already realities identified by those bishops five decades ago: these are not new challenges.  In many ways, the work of these two synods (this year’s and next’s) can be understood as an extension or a continuation of the Council’s work.

5) Keep your expectations reasonable, and follow closely; this is going to be fun!  On the one hand we should not expect too much from this year’s Extraordinary Synod.  Its purpose is to prepare for NEXT year’s ORDINARY Synod.  The debates this year will help refine the questions and procedures to be dealt with more formally next year.  Synods like this do not hold the magisterial weight of a General Council (such as Nicaea, Trent, Vatican I or Vatican II), but they will certainly lead to significant developments nonetheless.  I would expect that no papal document will result from this first, Extraordinary Synod.  Pope and BishopsFollowing the Ordinary Synod next year, however, there should be an Apostolic Exhortation from the Holy Father.  I would also hope that, following this Extraordinary Synod, there might be another opportunity for listening sessions around the world in which experiences and opinions are sought from a wide variety of people.  And, hopefully, sufficient time will be given for the process, unlike last year in which tight deadlines prevented many people from responding to the questionnaire set out from the Synod office.  Again, our model can be Vatican II.  In between the Council’s sessions, bishops went home and consulted with many of their own experts on matters they would be discussing in the following session.  It was a graced time of mutual exchange and shared learning and consultation.

May this synodal process over the next year or so be fruitful and benefit the common good of all!

Swiss Guards

Relationships: Marriage, Theology and Law

KasperThere has been much angst recently about an interview given by retired German Cardinal Walter Kasper, a distinguished theologian who has emerged as Pope Francis’ go-to theologian and éminence grise.  He gave an opening address at the recent consistory of cardinals (read more about it here) , and was even the first theologian the pope referenced after his election a year ago.

So, what’s the buzz about this latest interview?  Why all the agita?

The interview was given on 10 March, based on Kasper’s speech to the Consistory of Cardinals entitled “The Gospel of the Family.”  You can read the CNS interview here.   Speaking on the subject of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics, the German theologian called for “a middle ground that does not destroy or abandon doctrine, but offers a renewed interpretation of church teaching in order to help those whose marriages have failed.”

“I propose a path that goes beyond strictness and leniency,” he said, an such an approach “isn’t against morality, it isn’t against doctrine, but rather, (is meant) to support a realistic application of doctrine to the current situation of the great majority of people and to contribute to people’s happiness.”

Kasper 3 The Cardinal referenced the research that had been done to ascertain the relationship between church teaching on marriage and the actual experience of Catholics around the world.  He observed that the results clearly show that “there is a difficulty, an abyss” between church teaching and the actual situation of many people.  “The church has to bridge this abyss,” he said, not by surrendering our teaching, but by explaining it in new ways “in order to help people and at the same time remain faithful to the Gospel.”

“It’s not about something new as much as a renewal of church practice, which is always necessary and possible,” he said.

The backlash in some quarters against the cardinal’s suggestions has been as passionate as those who have taken comfort in his words.  Some have misinterpreted (deliberately so, perhaps, since his words seem completely clear and nuanced) his remarks as calling for a change in church teaching, and this is certainly not what he is suggesting.  He is echoing Pope St. John XXIII who reminded the bishops of the world at the opening of the Second Vatican Council that religious truth is one thing; the way that truth is expressed is quite another.  Let’s see if we can pull some of this together.

1) Matrimony is a sacrament of the Church, and considered as such by Catholics, Orthodox and some other Christian traditions.  This means that marriage is a sacred state in which people encounter Christ is a specially graced way with each other and the ecclesial community.  It is an sacrament “at the service of communion” in which salvation is worked out in communion with another.

2) Christ talked about marriage, and based on this teaching, his disciples quickly accepted the notion of the indissolubility of a sacramental marriage, a complete gift of a man and a woman for the whole of life.

3) The Church’s sacramental understanding of matrimony, however, has been reflected in a wide variety of cultural and legal systems. I readily admit that I am not any kind of a lawyer, and I will not attempt to render any kind of legal judgment, and I’m eager for qualified, competent legal expertise to continue this conversation!  My point here is simple: legal procedures within the church are built upon theological and sacramental foundations, and they can take various forms.

matrimony4) The Church has also accepted, over the centuries, that not all marriages look alike.  For example, older couples often marry, long past the time when they might have their own biological children, but even knowing this, the church welcomes and sacramentalizes their union, giving a broad and generous understanding of the procreative nature of that marriage.  In other cases, couples are simply unable to have children, and yet that does not cast doubt on the validity of their marriage.  Also the Church accepts that some marriages fail, and there have been different ways of dealing with this reality.  Why?  Because different legal systems, different cultural expressions, have resulted in a variety of approaches and processes.  Put another way: our current system of diocesan marriage tribunals, levels of courts (“first instance,” “second instance” and so on), court officials (“defender of the bond”, “procurator advocate”, etc.) is only the most recent way of structuring part of our response to those who have divorced and now wish to be free to marry again.

In short, while the teaching of the Church on marriage has not significantly changed, the external procedures on dealing with the pastoral issues involved have changed and evolved in the past and could so again.  Claims that somehow Cardinal Kasper’s theology is “flawed” or that he is “dangerous” in his attempt to recast Catholic theology of marriage and family are completely misplaced, and misunderstand and distort what he is saying.  The teaching is one thing; how that teaching is expressed and lived can and sometimes must change.

Those whose marriages fail must deal with many issues, none of them pleasant.  It is a time when, more than ever, the presence, support, pastoral care and love of pastoral ministers and parishioners is needed.  And, should love again flower in their lives and the hope of a new life, there should be a way to minister to that reality as well.  Typically, since the emergence of canon law as a field of study in the 12th Century, the Church has frequently sought the assistance of external tribunals to discern the sacramental state of a marriage.  (I’d be curious to hear how extensive this was, however, in the lives of most Christians; it would seem that this would have been something more available to the nobility perhaps, but not to the poor).  A rather complex process of tribunal procedure has developed over the centuries, involving different levels of courts, appellate procedures, and so on.  It is a formal, visible exercise of the external forum.

And then there is the internal forum: the forum at the level of individual conscience.  Appeals can be made to this forum when external situations are lacking: a lack of documentation, for example, or other reasons.  Clearly the use of the “internal forum solution” is avoided except in extreme cases.

But how about something like this?  Why wouldn’t something like this work?

Imagine a Catholic parishioner who is divorced.  She was divorced years before when she and her former husband were very young and the marriage failed for a variety of reasons, including physical and emotional violence on the part of her former husband.  Now, years later, she has met another man and they have fallen in love.  They would love to marry in the church and form a new family.  She approaches her parish deacon who interviews her about her former marriage and her current situation.  The deacon and the pastor review the case, following diocesan norms, and the pastor determines that the first marriage was null and refers the case to the diocesan tribunal for review and concurrence.  The diocesan Judicial Vicar reviews the acts of the case as submitted by the pastor and affirms the declaration of nullity and so informs the pastor and the young woman; she is free to marry.

That’s it.  The court of “first instance” would be at the level of the parish, following norms and procedures provided by the diocesan bishop as the Chief Judge of the diocese.  The court of “second instance” would be the review by the Judicial Vicar on behalf of the diocesan bishop.

Kasper 2No change of teaching, but simply a greater acceptance of the rights and obligations of the individuals under conscience, who then work with their local pastoral ministers to determine their freedom and readiness for marriage.  This approach could also work for people who have divorced and already re-married civilly.  The matters could be handled between parishioner and parish pastoral leaders.  Given what the church already teaches about the role of conscience in the life of the faithful, this approach offers, in my opinion, considerable respect for that teaching on the primacy of conscience as well as an exercise of legitimate subsidiarity in the processes involved.

Why couldn’t we start there?

As Cardinal Kasper says, “The doctrine of the church is not an ideology in the clouds, but God wants to be present, close to his people.”


“Lead, Follow, or Get Out of the Way!”

Thomas Paine This famous quote, generally attributed to Thomas Paine, but used (and abused!) by many has inspired leaders for a long time.  “Leadership” and its exercise, especially in the Church, is something that concerns us all in one way or another.  Some years ago, I reflected on ecclesial leadership while working on my doctoral dissertation, which dealt with the theological and canonical issues related to governance and deacons.  Although my degree is in Theology, not Canon Law, there was no way to address this issue without consulting extensively with canonists, and, in particular, the late and great American canonist, Fr. James H. Provost.  Jim became a good friend before his death, and his loss is still being felt by all who knew him.  Provost

I recently came across some notes I made from an article Jim wrote entitled,“Canonical Reflection on Selected Issues in Diocesan Governance” (in The Ministry of Governance, James K. Mallett, ed.).  I offer the following list, taken and adapted from Jim’s article, as a reflection on traits essential to servant-leadership in the Church today.  Jim wrote them specifically for his fellow canon lawyers, but I believe they have relevance for all pastoral ministers.  The categories are Jim’s; the brief commentary is mine.

1)      Be always vigilant for the spiritual purpose.

As we serve the People of God, this vigilance should be at the forefront.  Regardless of the issue we are helping people with, what is the ultimate spiritual purpose behind it?  Without this focus, ministry might become little more than social work.  Obviously, this is not to suggest that social work is a bad thing!  For the minister, however, we go beyond that task.  As canon law itself reminds us, “The salvation of souls is the highest law” (salus animarum suprema lex).  Keeping this principle in mind will help us keep our priorities straight.

2)      Think with the Church.

As Pope Francis has recently reminded us, to “think with the Church” does not simply mean knowing the teachings of the Church, as important as that is, but to have a sense of what all members of the Church are thinking, and what their needs are.  In other words,  the Church — as People of God, Mystical Body of Christ and Temple of the Holy Spirit — is not simply the hierarchy, nor is the “mind of the Church” (mens ecclesiae) reducible to a collection of dogmas and doctrines: it involves active and caring listening to all, attempting to discern the will of God, and then acting accordingly.  In short, when we consider this maxim, Pope Francis would remind us, “Think with the WHOLE Church.”

3)      Serve if you would lead.

Anyone who has ever led others quickly realizes the profound truth that “a good leader is first a good follower.”  However, it is equally true that the best leadership style is a servant-leadership, one that cares for the people serving with the leader.  This is true, no matter what the venue.  After leaving the seminary after eight years, I joined the Navy and wound up serving on active duty for twenty-two years, first as an enlisted linguist, and then — for the bulk of my career — as an officer.  I served for many leaders, and had the privilege of serving in leadership as well: and the BEST leaders were always servant leaders.  Such a leader was always concerned first with the needs of those he or she is leading so that they are then free to carry out the mission, whatever that happens to be.  If this is true even in ways of life outside the Church, how much more profoundly is it true of those who serve in leadership in the Church.  Servant leaders put others first, dream dreams, have visions, and inspire others to greatness in the eyes of God.

4)      Use the power you have.

Power is not a bad word, despite the negative connotations often associated with it.  Power is the first of the divine attributes, and power is imparted to us through the sacraments.  Power is the ability to act, to serve, to provide care: all of this is good.  Often people, even those who serve in ministry, will bemoan the apparent fact that they “don’t have the power to change” something.  Still, all of us, through the grace of sacramental initiation and, for some, ordination, have a measure of “power” which must be used in service of others.  Instead of worrying about what we cannot do, we need to focus on what we can do!

servant-leadership-mountain2-e12788128583935)      Empower the Church.

Speaking of power, it is meant to be shared.  When Christ heals Peter’s mother-in-law, she immediately gets up to serve.  That’s a good lesson for us in ministry: We are called not only to help others, we are called to help them UP.  We are to give them the power they need to serve others and continue that mission.  Power is meant to be used and shared.

6)      Promote and protect rights.

The theology of the Church, as expressed through the law of the Church, focuses not only the responsibilities we have under the law, but on the rights we have: rights that come from God, and rights that are extended through the ministry and authority of the Church.  Jim’s advice here, to focus on rights, puts the correct emphasis on ministries.  The responsibilities we have flow from those rights: the responsibility for parents to be the prime educators of their children in faith, for example, flows first from their RIGHT to do so!  In other words, we are encouraged not only to react to our responsibilities but to act first out of our rights; to be ACTIVE, not merely REACTIVE.

7)      Consult when making decisions.

Fr. Provost was reminding canonists that the law often requires prior consultation in decision-making, but his advice is helpful to all of us.  The Church, from its earliest days, has valued collegiality, collaboration and consultation.  Consider, as just one example, the so-called “Council of Jerusalem” when Paul went up to Jerusalem to meet (confront?) the other leaders of the Church over the issue of Gentile converts.  After talking together, those early leaders wrote a letter to the converts which acknowledged their dependence on the Holy Spirit who then informed their decision.  Although we often hear from some folks that “the Church is not a democracy,” this is simply too simplistic and ignores the evidence of history, which suggests widespread models of collegiality and consultation, and we ignore that to our peril.

8)      Interpret the law as it is meant to be interpreted.

This is a tricky one, but critical!  For those of us who are not lawyers, it might be tempting to “read the black” and assume we know precisely what it means!  Language, however, is symbol, and symbols always “contain” more than appears at first sight.  When serving in ministry, do we make the proper attempts to find out how specific laws are to be interpreted?  Consider point #1 again: How am I to interpret this law in light of the overall spiritual purpose of the situation?  I am not suggesting that we find ways around our laws; merely that they will need to be interpreted as the law itself expects.  For that, consultation may be required  (see #7)!

9)      Be generous.

One principle of the interpretation of Church law involves the very “generosity” of the law.  The law exists for the spiritual good of people, and that involves being as generous as possible with the benefits of the Church.  For example, do we seek out ways to provide the sacraments to people?  We saw this recently when Pope Francis baptized the infants in the Sistine Chapel, including a child of a couple not yet married in the eyes of the Church.  The situation of the parents, while of concern to us of course, need not cause us to be stingy with the benefits of baptism for the child as well as her parents.  All of us in ministry can think of countless other examples: we need to think with our arms open.

10)   Be consistent.

Every pastoral situation is unique, as we all know full well.  And yet, justice obliges us to be consistent in our interpretation and application of law, while still appreciating the unique demands of each situation.  I think the caution here also involves the dangers of parochialism or favoritism for some people, and a narrow interpretation for those we may not know — or like! — as well!  This gives us a needed balance of pastoral approach.  It also conveys a sense of positive predictability: we are trying to be even-handed with all because all are equal in the sight of God.

11)   Be timely.servantLeadershipLogo

Is this one ever important!  Remember, again, that Jim was writing this to fellow canon lawyers, reminding them that “justice delayed is justice denied.”  That applies across the whole spectrum of pastoral ministry.  Are we as responsive as we should be to the questions, requests, concerns that come our way, or do we procrastinate or even ignore certain things?  The people we serve have a right to a timely response, whatever their need is.  How do we feel when it seems someone is ignoring or discounting us and our concerns?

12)   Be forthright.

Many of us struggle with this one.  As ministers, we don’t want to hurt others.  Sometimes, however, we are the bearers of bad news or difficult decisions.  Jim’s reminder is that, despite the difficulties which we may encounter in doing so, we need to be honest and direct with those we serve.  This does not mean that we are insensitive or nasty about things; it simply means that we all have to be honest with each other.

I, for one, continue to struggle with these principles.  Still, they are a good “checklist” for servant-leadership, and can serve as a fine reflective tool when we’re on retreat, for example!  Perhaps it is better to say that they can form part of a ministerial examination of conscience as we grow in service to others.  There are times when each and every one of us is asked to “lead.”  At other times we are all called to “follow”, and still other times when we just need to “get out of the way”!

Francis washing feet