Here’s the problem I have as a parish priest. The Holy Father hints that we need to be more pastoral when dealing with Catholics in illicit marriages. Some Catholic pastors say, “that divorced and re-married Catholic needs the nourishment and strength of the sacrament! They should not be excluded from communion!”
Now I want to be a nice guy as much as the next fellow. I like to be liked. More than that, I agree with the Pope. I want to present a merciful Church, a loving, open and accepting church. I don’t want anyone to be excluded. I sympathize with the wife whose husband has cheated on her then walked out on a twenty year old marriage for a twenty year old. I sympathize with the man whose wife has kicked him out, hired a bulldog lawyer and taken him to the cleaners because she “needs to find herself.” I’m aware of the difficulties and complexities of marriage in our modern world. I realize that the whole marriage thing is in a state of chaos due to many complex pressures.
I want to be nice, kind, welcoming and embracing to all. However, I’m also aware that I am a Catholic priest. I don’t have the authority to teach anything but the Catholic faith. I don’t have the authority to knowingly welcome a person to communion whom the church excludes. If I start this where will it end? If the divorced and re-married person should come to communion, then what about the person who is divorced and re-married two or three times? What about the co-habiting couple, the same sex couple and the serial fornicator? I’m stuck. Is there a church discipline or not? Is the discipline simply what every parish priest chooses to do?
Furthermore, in trying to be nice and warm and welcoming to people and taking it upon myself to change the rules aren’t I doing much more harm than good? Here are a few examples: Let’s say Fr. Feelgood says to a potential convert who is waiting for his decree of nullity before he is received into the church, “There, we don’t need to bother about all that. I’ll receive you into the church now.” Fr Feelgood thinks he’s being real nice to that person, but I’ve met potential converts from Protestantism to whom that has been said and their reply was, “I was shocked that a Catholic priest should take the rules of his church so lightly and that he took the situation of my previous marriage so lightly. Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he respect the rules of his own church? Doesn’t he respect me and my decisions? Are all Catholic priests so arrogant and hypocritical?”
See? Things don’t always pan out the way you thought. What I might think is an act of mercy and kindness will be interpreted by a clear thinking person as hubris and hypocrisy. Too often though, Fr Feelgood won’t be aware of any of that because he’s not only infatuated with his own nice guy image, but he probably carries a heavy agenda about how “legalistic, harsh and out of touch that hierarchical Church establishment is.”
Here’s another example:
Let’s say Fr Feelgood has to deal with a couple who have re-married after painful divorces. They have a couple of kids between them. Fr. Feelgood says, “You just come along and receive communion anyway. The Lord is merciful.” They feel warm and welcomed and Fr Feelgood feels warm and wonderful about himself too.
But then the kids of that union grow up and learn what the teachings of the church really are and suddenly their Dad and Mom are seen as the A-number one hypocrites and Fr Feelgood is their facilitator. The kids leave the church because nobody–neither their parents or Fr Feelgood really took it all seriously. In fact, they draw the conclusion that the divorce and re-marriage was just fine because the priest himself let it slide. So they’re going to have the tools in their toolbox go make solid marriages? Probably not.
What if Fr Feelgood welcomes the woman who is divorced and re-married and she receives communion and takes a leadership role in the community. Is there no concern for the feelings of the husband she divorced? I’ve known situations where the spouse cast aside through divorce ends up lonely and rejected but sees the spouse who engineered the divorce re-married and welcomed into the embrace of the church by Fr Feelgood. In being kind to one spouse he’s being very cruel to the spouse who has been wronged. Where is the mercy and compassion in that?
In the desire to be nice and warm and welcoming to all I also have to uphold the value and preciousness of the sacrament of marriage. As a priest if I go all squishy and don’t teach and uphold Christian marriage, then I’m doing a great disservice to all of my flock. When I take the easy way in marriage discipline I’m saying to my whole flock, “That marriage for life thing? It’s not really what we believe. You do what you want.” If I go to the extreme of being warm and welcoming to all no matter if they are in an illicit relationship am I not slapping in the face all those people who did not live together before marriage, were faithful to their partners for better or for worse their whole lives, who waited years for their decree of nullity before being received at communion?
In being kind to Ms Liberated and Mr Runaround am I not being unkind to many, many more? In undermining and denigrating the sanctity of marriage am I not betraying the faith and delivering a lie to the children and young people in my care –who believe you me–are watching and listening to everything we say and do?
There’s more. When Fr. Feelgood does whatever he thinks right and dispenses with the discipline of the church he undermines the ministries of all the other Catholic priests who are trying their best to live with the difficulties and complexities. We are a church. We live and work and pray in unity. That unity is wrecked when one priest sets himself up as the arbiter of marriage discipline. Fr. Feelgood is essentially saying to his fellow priests, the diocesan tribunal, the bishop and everyone else– “You guys don’t really know what you’re doing. You’re misguided and wrong. My way is the right way.” Furthermore, with his easy way Catholicism he makes everyone else who is struggling to live by church teachings look not only like a fool but a legalistic hard guy. What kind of Catholic priest is that? What kind of a colleague is that?
Upholding the marriage discipline of the Catholic Church is the hardest thing we priests have to deal with. Too often the two extremes are the only way offered in this discussion: Fr Feelgood who allows anything and Fr Hardline who runs a tight ship and is a strict disciplinarian.
Surely the best way forward is to uphold the disciplines of the church while admitting the complexities and difficulties of each individual case. Surely the pastoral way is to walk with our people through the difficulties of marriage and family life–never giving up on the ideals, but also being aware and sympathetic to human weakness and offering the way of mercy and help when people stumble and fall. The marriage discipline of the church with tribunals and canon law–all of this exists to serve our people and help them through these difficulties. The pastoral way is to walk with them through it–not dispense with it.
We should also remind those in broken relationships that God is doing something mysterious in the pain and mess of their lives, and that an easy answer is not God’s answer. We should remind them with courage and compassion of the power and grace of obedience. When they obey the teaching of the church–even when it is difficult– especially when it is difficult or even absurd–then great graces are released. Their spiritual life will take a quantum leap. We need to remind them and remind ourselves of St Therese’s mischievous comment, “There is no virtue in doing what is reasonable.” And that’s the main problem with cheap grace–it cuts out God’s mysterious way of working in and through the mess of our lives. We step in with what seems to be the nice thing to do and we cheat our people of experiencing the power and the glory and the pain and the screaming agony of the mystery of obedience.
Yes, we want to express God’s mercy, but the way of mercy is always through the cross, not by avoiding the cross.
It is our duty to remind our people and ourselves that to follow Christ is to walk in the way of the cross. Is it difficult to observe the church’s disciplines when a marriage has failed and hearts and lives are broken? Of course. But then it is difficult for married people– who are not supposed to use artificial contraception. It is difficult for single people who are to remain celibate. It is difficult for people who experience same sex attraction who are supposed to remain celibate. It is difficult for the person addicted to prestige, power and wealth to give up all to follow Christ. It is difficult for the ego-maniac to die to self. It is difficult for anyone who hears the call to leave his nets and follow the Master.
Broad is the way that leads to destruction. Narrow is the gate that leads to life and few there be who find it. Following Christ is not easy, and it was not meant to be. Shall we be saints by taking the easy way? Shall our souls be purified with candy? Shall we climb the mountain of sanctity by taking a helicopter to the top? The way of the saints is not the way of ease, and in our self indulgent, soft and sick society this message is hard to hear.
But I see no other way.
[…] Walking the Marriage Tightrope […]
Again, as usual, another compelling analysis, Father. Thank you.
My wife and I were raised Catholic and are happily married 53 years. My sister was for nearly 53 years before she died. Our father walked away when I was 2 and she was 6. My mother suffered but chose to remain faithful to our Catholic Faith and never dated or remarried. My sister and I practice/d our Catholic Faith as best we can, no one is perfect by any means and the Sacrament of Reconciliation is so important.
You clearly explain the quandary of failed Catholic marriages. I think much more needs to be written and taught about the need to know and evaluate one’s readiness for life long marriage and the readiness of the intended spouse. Such teaching needs, I think, to be done long before the couple comes asking to be married. But certainly more needs to be taught and required to reduce the risk of failed Catholic marriages.
It seems it is so easy to get married and so very hard to get annulled. We cannot expect people trained to the medic level to perform as surgeons, if the analogy fits.