francis1In the wake of yesterday’s publication of Amoris Laetitia allow me to weigh in with a parish priest’s perspective. In the midst of a busy day in the parish I didn’t actually have time to read the exhortation. Neither did I have time last night or this morning. However, I have read some of the online commentary, and I have read the paragraphs deemed controversial and I will read the whole thing over the weekend.

Am I allowed, therefore, to be just a teeny bit annoyed at all the armchair experts, Facebook moral theologians and Monday morning priests who have felt it their moral duty and obligation to go online just as soon as possible to point out the Holy Father’s errors and correct the successor of Peter?

What strikes me about this document is that it is first and foremost a pastoral exhortation. While it fully affirms the traditional teaching of the church regarding marriage it also makes a valiant attempt to deal with the messiness of real life. With respect to all the dear laypeople, the armchair experts, the theoreticians, amateur theologians and experts in church law–it is we priests who actually deal with the real life situations of ordinary people. We’re the ones who have to help them match up their lives with the teachings of the church.

It was Jesus who knelt in the dust with the woman taken in adultery. It was the scribes and Pharisees who stood at a distance accusing her of breaking the law. His response to them and his response to her, it seems to me, is exactly what Amoris Laetitia is all about. I just wonder why the Holy Father didn’t simply refer all of us to that text and say. “There it is. Read it and weep.” Instead he took the trouble as a loving Father in God to lay out for the clergy and faithful some principles in helping to navigate the perfect storm that is modern marriage.

The fact of the matter is, all of us who are faithful Catholics wish to uphold the indissolubility of marriage, we are all dismayed at the rising tide of remarriage after divorce, the increase in co habitation, artificial contraception and all the rotten fruit of the sexual revolution. Like every revolution, the sexual revolution has been violent, and we priests realize more than anyone else  that many of our people are the walking wounded. We are the ones they go to when it all goes bad. We are the ones who hear them crying in the confessional. We are the ones who struggle with them as they try to reconcile their lives with the teaching of the church.

Therefore instead of a line by line nit picking through the pope’s exhortation trying to find something to disagree with, let me present my views from where I sit in my study and in my confessional. The few tales I am going to relate are, of course, not real. That would be to betray confidences and the seal of the confessional. However, I can tell stories that are mosaics: pictures built up from the broken pieces of various true stories. The names are fictional and the situations are composed, but they are all “true” stories inasmuch as they are very similar to real people I know and have helped.

Every priest who takes time for his people will agree. They have heard these stories and many more. These are the people we are here to minister to, and the black and white definitions and condemnations of today’s Catholic scribes and Pharisees just won’t do. Are parts of Pope Francis’ exhortation ambiguous, fuzzy or messy? Listen to these stories I have to tell and see if you think that maybe, perhaps, just a little bit, real life is fuzzy, ambiguous and messy. I will make no judgements. I tell you the story.  You decide, if you were a parish priest, what you would do.

Story 1: Bob admits that he never had a life with God. He was a child of the 1960s and lived that way. His first marriage was at the beach to a fellow love child when she got pregnant when they were both high. He married his second wife because she was a rich widow. Later in life he found God through an Evangelical house church and then met Susan–a lapsed Catholic. They married outside the church, but then Susan re-discovered her Catholic faith and she and Bob started going to Mass. He went through RCIA in a liberal Catholic parish where the priest waved a hand and said he didn’t need to worry about “all that annulment stuff.” So Bob became a Catholic and now twenty years later,  he and Susan have six kids a great marriage and are active members in the parish. Only after a conversation with the priest did Bob and Susan discover that they were in an irregular relationship. Bob’s second wife–the elderly widow was dead, but he reckoned his first wife (the hippie who was married to him for less than a year) was still living somewhere, but Bob has no idea where she might be. So what do you do? 

Story 2: Lucy was married to Phil for twenty five years. They were both Catholics when they got married in church after proper preparation. For fifteen years of their marriage Lucy and Phil had no relations and Lucy suspected Phil was having affairs. Then in his early fifties Phil walked out and declared he was gay. He moved to Florida and Lucy never heard from him again. All during their marriage Lucy was faithful to Phil. The divorce was quick and final. Lucy continued to raise their two kids who were finishing high school. Her faith deepened through her difficulties and she got more involved in the parish. Through her work with the local soup kitchen she met Harold–a Catholic widower. They became companions then fell in love. Lucy tracked Philip down and asked him to co operate with the annulment process but he told her to get lost. Lucy and Harold decide to get married anyway. One of the reasons is that Harold is well off and Lucy will benefit materially as they get older together.  What do you advise?

Story 3: Malcolm married his high school sweetheart when they were both nineteen. He was from a poor broken home. She was the daughter of the town’s banker, the prom queen and the most popular girl in school. Both were nominal Methodists. By the time they were married five years they had both grown up and grown away from each other. The sixties hit her hard and after a string of affairs Sally began to hit the bottle. Malcolm stuck it out for another ten years, and finally had enough. They divorced and Malcolm dated various women for five years. During that time he married Jeanette–a girl he met on vacation–in a Las Vegas wedding chapel. Jeanette took off with another man after two unhappy years and Malcolm met Frances in rehab. Frances was there because, like Malcolm she had turned to drink when her own Catholic marriage broke down. They married quietly and started to attend Mass. God touched their lives and healed both of them of the deep wounds they had suffered. As a result Malcolm entered RCIA and longs to be received into the Catholic Church. What would you do?

I know what I would do in each situation. I know how I would try to match the high ideals for marriage that we uphold with the reality on the ground, but I am not outlining what I would do, because if readers have read this far, they might see how complicated such situations are. Furthermore, the three stories I have made up are the simple ones. Others are even more complex and heart breaking.

I relate these stories to remind readers that for many complicated reasons marriage in our society is a shipwreck. It’s hit the iceberg and gone down long ago.

The people picking through the Pope’s exhortation like carrion crows do not make me feel very good to be honest. The Pope has made a good effort to help us sort through the wreckage, salvage what we can and build a raft to sail on.

Perhaps all the armchair critics should have the dignity and self respect to listen to the pope and seek to learn from him. He said in the opening paragraphs of the exhortation that it is long and complex and we should read it prayerfully and give it time. I plan to do so.