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Monday, December 05, 2016

Making Sense of Catholic Marriage

Recently, "traditionalist" Catholics have been complaining about Pope Francis' Amoris LaetitiaSpecifically, they demonstrate a deep misunderstanding of exactly how sin and the confessional work.

The bishops of Buenos Aires have issued a teaching on how to deal with chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis has lauded their summary, saying "There is no other interpretation." Let's look at what the Argentine bishops said.
“When the concrete circumstances of a couple make it feasible, especially when both are Christians with a journey of faith, one may propose that they commit to living in continence.” Amoris Laetitia “does not ignore the difficulties of this option (cf. note 329) and leaves open the possibility of receiving the sacrament of Reconciliation when one fails in this intention” (cf. note 364). 
This is nothing new. Living "as brother and sister", that is, living as a married couple but without engaging in sex certainly does not bar either member of the couple from the sacraments. It never has. Sex outside of marriage is a sin, but if two people are living in the same space, but are not having sex outside of marriage, that is, if they are "living in continence", they are fine. They can receive the Eucharist.

Even if they occasionally fail, that is no new thing. How many of us go to confession, confess a sin, fully intend to never repeat it again, then find ourselves in the confessional the next month, confessing EXACTLY the same sin again? What matters at the moment of confession and absolution is intent at the moment of confession and absolution. As long as we have proper intent, we are absolved of our sin and able to receive the Eucharist. Even if we fail a few hours later, for the few hours that our resolve held, we can receive. The situation the Argentine bishops described above is EXACTLY the same as the situation any sin puts us in.

But the bishops did not stop there. They added this in the next paragraph:
“In other more complex circumstances, and when it is not possible to obtain a declaration of nullity,” the document continues, “the aforementioned option may not, in fact, be viable. Nonetheless, it is equally possible to undertake a journey of discernment.” And “if one arrives at the recognition that, in a concrete case, there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability (cf. 301-302), particularly when a person judges that he would fall into a subsequent fault by damaging the children of the new union, Amoris Laetitia opens up the possibility of access to the Sacraments of Reconciliation and the Eucharist (cf. notes 336 and 351). These in turn disposes the person to continue maturing and growing with the strength of grace. 
This paragraph does not say that all couples who have gotten civil marriage without benefit of annulment have the right to the Eucharist. What AL points out is something that already applies to other sins: "there are limitations that diminish responsibility and culpability." 

Case 1

Again, this is not a new concept. We don't become new people overnight - it takes time to change habits. Priests are required to recognize this reality in the confessional. Lay Catholics are required to recognize this in real life. 

For instance, getting drunk is a mortal sin, but if the sinner is addicted to alcohol, then that diminishes the sinner's culpability. What is purely sinful for me, who has no addiction to alcohol, no habit of imbibing when life gets me down, might not be as sinful for you, who has developed this habit. Your habit has enslaved you to commit this sin in a way that my life has not enslaved me. It will be easier for me to avoid this sin in the future than it will be for you. You have less culpability, less responsibility, because you have lost ingrained habits of control in this regard. Any sin can become a habit in this way, any habitual sin reduces culpability. This is true of every sin, even the sin of sex outside of marriage.

Combine this with the fact above concerning intent, and we have the possibility of a civilly remarried couple who intend to live from this point forward as brother and sister. They receive Eucharist after confession, perhaps even receiving Eucharist outside of Mass, and then fail in their intentions just hours or days later. Perhaps this is something they struggle with over the course of months or years, with the time elapsed between sinful episodes slowly expanding, sometimes contracting, as they constantly work on this area with the help of Confession and Eucharist.

Remember, civil re-marriage is not a canonical crime, it does not incur the penalty of excommunication. As the Diocese of Madison points out:
Are those who divorce and civilly remarry excommunicated?
No. Excommunication is a specific canonical penalty imposed as a consequence for certain very serious canonical crimes. Neither seeking a divorce nor attempting remarriage are currently punishable by excommunication, nor are they even classified as canonical crimes. This is not necessarily to say that divorce and civil remarriage are not immoral or sinful, or that they have no effect on one's relationship with the Church. In general, divorce introduces disorder into the family and society, bringing grave harm to the deserted spouse and to children traumatized by the separation of their parents (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 2386). Therefore, depending on the circumstances, divorce can be gravely immoral. And attempting remarriage while already validly married in always seriously sinful.
In the case of the couple above, with whom the priest is assiduously working, no law of the Church is broken, no reality is ignored. Pope Francis points out that there is nothing wrong with working with a couple in this way.

Before we go further, we should recall Pope Benedict famously stated that the use of condoms in extramarital sex might constitute a first step towards morality. Now that Pope Benedict has cleared the way for such discussions, Pope Francis and the Argentine bishops use "the Benedictine condom principle" to point towards a similar application within marriage itself - the protection of the children.

Remember two things: (1) One of the three goods of marriage (procreation, union of the spouses and remedy for concupiscence) is the conception and raising of children (both are part of procreation), (2) According to Pope Benedict, the use of condoms is evil in itself, but may indicate a willingness to consider the good of another. If that is the case, Benedict considers the use of condoms a first step towards morality.

So, Francis just takes Benedict's condom principle and applies it to marriage (Pope Benedict himself said the condom principle applied even in heterosexual acts). According to the "Benedictine" principle, the sexually active couple who view their own sexual union as necessary to their life together, may see their life together as pre-eminently important for the children (a good). That is, they recognize the children from one or both first marriages need to have both a mother and a father present in the house. The couple want the children to have both mother and father. The couple has taken civil (natural) vows of fidelity to each other, but recognize that they themselves have a tendency to stray. So, they have sex in order to reduce/remove their tendency to stray (quiet concupiscence), in order to maintain their union and in order to help make sure the little ones have a home. They are showing concern for innocent little ones.

Again, according to Pope Benedict, this concern for fidelity to each other for the sake of the children would constitute the first step towards morality to the priest who tries to guide them towards the good of preparing themselves for sacramental marriage. Their willingness to work to stay together, even though it involves sex that is not licit, is undertaken for the good of others, innocent children. According to "the Benedictine condom principle", this willingness to recognize personal weaknesses and the needs of the children has to be taken into consideration by the priest as he works with them to move towards a situation that does not do violation to the sacrament of marriage.

So, anyone who defended Pope Benedict's remarks on condoms (Ignatius Press, I'm looking at you), should likewise be defending Pope Francis' and the bishops of Buenos Aires on Amoris LaetitiaPope Francis is merely following in Pope Benedict's footsteps. 

Case 2

But we can take it even further. There is a fact about marriage tribunals which all priests and bishops (should) already know: the declaration of a marriage tribunal is a disciplinary, not a doctrinal, statement. Again, we quote from the Diocese of Madison:
Are tribunal judgments infallible?
The marriage nullity process serves precisely to allow for and encourage the discovery of truth regarding the juridic status of the marriage under review. In other words, the process is designed to arrive at the truth as to whether a valid and indissoluble matrimonial bond arose between the two parties at the moment of consent. Even though the judicial decisions of an ecclesiastical tribunal are certainly trustworthy, they are not infallible. (emphasis added) In theory, the judges could err in two ways: 1) they could incorrectly declare a valid marriage to be invalid, or 2) they could incorrectly declare an invalid marriage to be valid. Neither error is a good thing, but the former is much worse, since the judges would essentially be doing what the Lord prohibited, separating what God has joined. For this reason, the Church's law is designed to ensure that any doubts about the validity of a marriage are resolved in favor of the marriage bond, means that marriages are presumed valid until proven otherwise.
Marriage tribunals can be wrong. As I have pointed out before, those who are not sinning have a right to the sacraments. If those innocent of mortal sin are denied access to the sacraments, the priests who deny them access have sinned against them. What do we do if the marriage tribunal has erroneously closed off access to the sacraments of Marriage and the Eucharist?

Remember, marriage tribunals do not just draw their power from canon law, but also from the power of the local bishop. That is, marriage cases can, at least in theory, be decided directly by the local bishop without the use of a marriage tribunal. Now, this almost never happens, but in theory, it could. This possibility of circumventing current procedures lies within AL as well - the possibility that it is time for the Church to find a better disciplinary method than a marriage tribunal for assessing the sacramental bond of marriage.

Time to Change Discipline?
Changing the disciplinary method for a sacrament has precedent. For the first thousand years of the Church, a man learned how to be a priest by following a real priest around. That was originally the function of an altar server - he was the priest's apprentice. Unfortunately, the process was only as good as the priests in the process. Every priest trained his own replacement via an apprenticeship. Since half of any group is sub-average, this apprenticeship process guaranteed half of all new priests would receive sub-average training. That wasn't good.

Although the apprenticeship method stank to high heaven and no one really liked it, for over a thousand years, no one knew how to fix it. The priest formation process stayed broken until technological change, specifically, the invention of the printing press and the resulting hundred-fold drop in book prices, allowed the Council of Trent to develop an alternate solution: the seminary. With the new seminary training system, the old apprenticeship was abolished. After Trent, all priests had to attend a seminary, a training school, where only the best priests of the diocese were allowed to serve as instructors. Now everyone got the best instruction that the diocese had to offer. Some dioceses were better than others, but that was the best anyone could do. That solution has held for the last 500 years.

The marriage tribunal is similarly an invention of the Church, meant to handle marriage questions in a more systematic and professional way. But nobody really likes the system. By reminding bishops that they have a certain amount of latitude in dealing with marriage questions, Pope Francis may be opening the door to start a discussion about how to move forward from the current marriage tribunal system to something more efficacious and certain.

I have no idea what that would look like, and AL gives only the barest hint that something like this is open for discussion. But, we should consider the possibility that it is time the Church came up with a "seminary-like" solution for marriage questions. It may well be time to abolish marriage tribunals and implement a new process that is better than the tribunal solution we currently have, better at administering and clarifying the ancient understanding of the sacrament of marriage. If that is where Pope Francis would like to go, he has the support of most of the Church.

If Pope Francis' point seems convoluted and in serious need of explanation, that may be because his point builds so directly off of Pope Benedict's deeply confusing remarks. Note, the comment below is about Benedict's condom remarks:
“I have never seen a communiqué from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith that explains the words of the pope after the fact,” said Paolo Rodari, a Vatican expert at Il Foglio, an Italian daily newspaper. “I think it’s unique. And it demonstrates how many complaints and serious criticism the Vatican has received.”


Confitebor said...

Ah yes, there go those traditional, orthodox Catholics whining again about how ignorant they are. "Waaaa! We're just so ignorant of the Faith!"

How can anyone take you seriously?

And now you even admit that the same erroneous reasoning used by Benedict when he twisted Catholic moral teaching on condoms is enshrined and applied in Amoris Laetitia. Yet you only object to Benedict's error, while gloriously exulting in the "superior understanding of the Catholic Faith" found in Amoris Laetitia. Never mind that AL reaches conclusions that have always been rejected by the Faithful and calls for us to set aside the words that Jesus spoke about marriage, divorce, and adultery. If you were consistent, you'd object to Benedict's error as well as Francis' errors, but tellingly, you reprobate the one and laud the other, even as you admit that it's the same error at the basis of both.

It shouldn't be too much to expect logical consistency and coherence from someone who says he offers orthodox Catholic commentary.

Steve Kellmeyer said...

When Benedict came out with his condom remarks, I explained how those could be consistent with the Magisterium. It was the Vatican's "explanation" of Benedict's remarks that created the inconsistency with Magisterial teaching.

Pope Francis's remarks are likewise able to be reconciled with the Magisterium, as are the Argentine bishop's explanation, at least concerning intent.

As for the different venues for the remarks, AL says nothing contrary to Catholic teaching.

Pope Francis' confirmation of the Argentine bishop's interpretation of AL is Pope Francis making private remarks - his remarks are not in a universal teaching document, it is just him speaking as a private theologian, in EXACTLY the same way Benedict's condom remarks were as a private theologian.