The Pope and Divorce

Here is an article I dashed off for Aleteia last evening on the Pope’s personal phone call to a divorced woman.

I commented in the article how very complicated this matter is in practice. It’s even more complicated than I had room to set out in the article.

The Catholic teaching on this matter is simple in principle but complicated in practice.

We think the woman was not divorced, but married a divorced man. However, there are other questions to be asked. Is the man’s first wife still living? If not, they simply need to go to confession and have their civil marriage regularized. If the woman is still living then we ask whether the man has received a decree of nullity. If so, then they go to confession (for being married outside the church) and have their marriage regularized. If the woman is still living and the man has not had a decree of nullity then one asks the question whether he and his wife are living together without sharing a sexual relationship. Some couples in irregular marriages do just this and the pope is right to encourage her to go to communion. Technically a couple need permission to be married in this state, but there is no sin apart from the possibility of causing scandal.

However, even these questions do not unfold how complicated the matter is. In real life, as a parish priest I know how messy these matters can be. What do you do with the “innocent victim” scenario? To take the example at hand, what if the man’s marriage broke down because his first wife had multiple affairs and then ran off with another man? According to existing church law he must remain celibate for the rest of his life. Tough one. What if the first marriage was such that anyone could tell immediately that it was invalid? Let’s say the girl was fourteen and he was sixteen and her father made them get married. That’s a clear case of a marriage being invalid.

Then there is the situation of differing advice from different pastors. One priest advises divorce another one does not. One priest says they don’t have to to through the marriage tribunal. One says they do. One priest says they can go to communion. Another says not.

Consequently, most priests end up making pastorally based decisions which do not adhere strictly to the church’s laws. Some know of an irregular marriage among parishioners and simply turn a blind eye. Others preach on the subject and make the church’s teachings clear, but allow their people to act on it or not. When asked some will adhere to church law, but won’t seek out the problem. Still others are very liberal and take it on themselves to declare certain marriages invalid without going to the tribunal or they will tell parishioners that the problem can be solved in the “inner forum” which means “do what your conscience tells you” which amounts to “do what you want…who am I to judge?”

The main problem in today’s news story is not the pope’s advice to the woman. We can’t make a call on that because we don’t have all the facts. It could be that the woman is entitled to go to communion for the reasons stated above, and the pope was simply reassuring her. We just don’t’ know.

I’ll be frank. For all his strengths, Pope Francis doesn’t seem to know his proper boundaries. He calls up a woman in Argentina to give her personal advice about her marriage? In doing so he criticizes one of his priests? As a parish priest I would never give personal advice to a parishioner from another parish unless that pastor knew the person was coming to me for advice and agreed to it. I would also never criticize another priest to one of the faithful. I’ve bit my tongue many times when I’ve heard the horror stories about the seeming incompetence, cruelty, idiocy and ignorance of my fellow priests, but I have supported the side and not criticized.

But the Holy Father thinks it is his job to call one of the lay faithful, advise them on their marriage and criticize their priest? Is this pope a micro manager or what? Reports from Rome are that he is an extreme micro manager and for all his warmth of personality and dynamism “humility” he is very controlling.

Secondly, when is Pope Francis going to realize that the world’s press (whether he likes it or not) hang on his every word and action? Everything he does–every gesture he makes and every word he speaks is treated as infallible. We’ve given him a year to get used to the job. Doesn’t he have anyone teaching him the ropes and helping him to understand that he is the pope now. He’s a global figure and the mouthpiece of the Catholic church. He can’t do what he wants.

Finally, some will say Pope Francis is a very smart Jesuit who uses phone calls like this to direct the conversation on divorce in his direction. They say he knows what he is doing and he knows the world’s press will pick it up and that they will make headlines that the Pope favors communion for divorced and remarried people. He can then use that pressure to move things his way. They speak admiringly of him being a shrewd politician.

Is that really true? Personally I doubt it. But if it is a true reading, then is this admirable in a pope? Should he be using manipulated media pressure to direct the conversations of the cardinals and bishops of the church? Does a good pope used backhand tactics to influence the mind of the church on important matters? If this is true, then we do not have a simple, humble, compassionate and kindly pope at all. We have a Machiavellian manipulator who cynically controls the media and his whole outward persona of tossing peace doves with little children, kissing deformed people, washing the feet of Muslim women and living in the humble Casa Santa Marta is all one big facade–behind which is a shrewd operator.

I don’t believe this is true, therefore I cannot see that the pope is the crafty politician some make him out to be. I think he’s not yet learned what it means to be a pope and he’s making mistakes.

Yes, yes, yes, I know–”Who am I to criticize the pope?” My only response to that is that we are called to be thinking Catholics and not robots. If the pope does something that seems dumb or is confusing, we should discuss it and try to figure out what’s going on.

UPDATE: Catholic World Report has the fullest coverage on this story here.