Pope Francis, Nondenominationalist?

Pope Francis, Nondenominationalist? May 2, 2018
Image via Pixabay

Over at Conciliar Post, Jacob Prahlow has an article suggesting that the emergence of nondenominational churches represents the most significant shift in institutional Christianity since the Reformation. While I’m a tad skeptical that all self-professed “nondenominational” churches are reaaaaaally nondenominational, I think he makes a very good point: within the Protestant fold, traditional denominational loyalties seem broadly to be dissolving, resulting in the proliferation of more individuated church bodies.

But is the emergence of nondenominationalism really the most significant “reformational” development in Christianity? Upon first reading Jacob’s piece, I wondered particularly about the potential for a Catholic rupture stemming from disputes over Pope Francis’s approach to certain social teachings.

A brief explainer for those unfamiliar with the biggest current controversy (no, actually it has nothing to do with the doctrine of hell): Traditionally, the Catholic Church has taught that marriage is sacramental and indissoluble: if entered into properly, marriage is for life. As a result, Catholics who divorce their spouses and remarry (while that former spouse is still alive) are ineligible to receive Holy Communion. Unless they elect to live as “brother and sister” with their new spouse (that is, abstaining from sexual relations), they may not commune. (However, there’s a loophole: the annulment process. If a church tribunal decides that the marriage was initially invalid under church law—taking a variety of considerations into account—both spouses are free to remarry and subsequently receive Communion.)

This teaching sounds severe to Western Protestants—and indeed, to many Catholics. In 2016, Pope Francis released the encyclical Amoris laetitia (“The Joy of Love”), which contained the following pronouncement: “[I]t is possible that in an objective situation of sin—which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such—a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” In context, this language clearly refers to those formally ineligible to receive the Eucharist based on their marital status. This sentence was followed by a footnote, which controversially stated that “[i]n certain cases, this [help from the Church] can include the help of the sacraments. Hence, ‘I want to remind priests that the confessional must not be a torture chamber, but rather an encounter with the Lord’s mercy.’ . . . I would also point out that the Eucharist ‘is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.’”

While Pope Francis’s language is undeniably ambiguous, for many conservative Catholics this appeared to be a significant shift away from the Church’s traditional teaching: that marriage is indissoluble, and that divorce and remarriage erects a barrier between congregant and Eucharist. The debate over the meaning of Amoris—and, more broadly, over the direction and implications of Francis’s papacy—continues to roil Catholic intellectual circles (as ably chronicled by Ross Douthat in his recent book “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism”). The consequences of a major split in the Catholic world would, obviously, be dramatic.

Not being Catholic myself, I’m perhaps outside my wheelhouse in even commenting on this issue, but there’s an important point in this debate that troubles me. Namely, characterizations of Amoris as uniquely disruptive to traditional teaching—or, perhaps, uniquely damaging to the sacramental view of marriage—seem (at least in my mind) difficult to square with the laxity of the existing annulment process (Douthat briefly touches on this point in a recent podcast interview). In order to obtain an annulment, a petitioner must show that one of five requisite elements of a Catholic marriage—freedom, consent, intent to be faithful, intent of the other’s good, and consent given in the presence of witnesses before a church official—was not met. Married on a beach by a Presbyterian minister? Marriage invalid. Fully expected to cheat during the marriage at some point? Marriage invalid. “Incapable of consenting” due to poor judgment at the time? Marriage invalid.

In short, the grounds for requesting annulment are so broad that they seem (at least to me) largely incompatible with the traditional “indissolubility” view of marriage. This “loophole problem” is reflected in the data: roughly 90% of annulment requests are granted (as of 2014). So, assuming both the sacramental view of marriage and that Amoris indeed represented a break from historic teaching, I’m left that the actual theological difficulties commonly attributed to Amoris really aren’t unique to that document. From the perspective of an Amoris critic, any pushback against Amoris really ought to be accompanied by pushback against a lenient annulment system.

But perhaps there’s a more fundamental conflict here.

At least from a functional standpoint, I wonder if the Amoris debate is perhaps better characterized as a dispute over process and authority rather than over indissolubility itself. Statistically speaking, the median Catholic seeking to remarry and receive Communion may do so once they pursue an annulment of their first marriage: their petition will almost certainly be granted. But today, individuals simply aren’t going to the trouble of requesting annulments (admittedly there is a financial cost associated with this process, but it’s not hard to think of ways this could be offset).

Amoris (again assuming the “disruptive” reading) outsources the process of “marital status adjudication,” taking the matter outside church tribunals and apparently committing it to priests’ pastoral discretion. The institutional church loses its jurisdiction over these questions (previously, annulment determinations could be appealed all the way to Rome through the Church’s judicial hierarchy). The process, in other words, becomes individualized.

And insofar as critics of Amoris are concerned by this shift, they are right to be worried. A similar individualist impulse seems to rest at the heart of Protestant nondenominationalism—a resistance to process and authority, and the constraints associated with formal confessional strictures. In the context of Catholicism, that process and authority rests at the heart of the Church’s universalizing claim.

So at bottom, I find myself sharing Jacob’s conclusion, even if somewhat indirectly. Deinstitutionalization—whether it takes the form of ad-hoc annulment processes or the proliferation of nondenominational churches—certainly does represent a sea change in the ecclesiastical landscape, with consequences that will be difficult to foresee. Time will tell.

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  • Steve

    Catholic commentor here: In years past I was really jaded and scandalized by the annulment proposition. I knew it was good in theory – because vows really can be taken with impediments. But I’d literally had a priest tell me, “They always find some basis for nullity.” So I, like many others, began to think of it as the gigantic loophole in the Church’s doctrine of marriage. And I silently harbored judgement on people who’d gone through the process.

    That is, of course, until my best friend had to go through it. I found myself spending a year coaching him through it. And in the end, they really did have a good case for nullity. His wife entered the union with no intention for permanence, exclusivity, or fecundity. The fact is, American culture is rife with bad ideas about marriage. And that plays out in lots of people taking vows with no concept of what they mean, and no intention of keeping them.

    Nowadays, I’m a bit more circumspect about casting judgement over the annulment process and those who have gone through it.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    Why is he riding in a bulletproof vehicle? Doesn’t he believe what he says?

    He said ” “Only God can decide who dies”.

    If he really believes that, no need for protection, he will live until god has decided he will die.

  • Martha Arenas

    I work for the Catholic Church in the US. Being in charge of the Christian Initiation process, I am fairly familiar with the nullity procedures as I often encounter them, particularly amongst Christians coming from other denominations. Let me start by saying that nullity procedures are NOT unique to the Sacrament of Marriage. Such exist for all seven Sacraments. For example, a baptism can be declared invalid if the trinitarian form was not used, if water was absent from the celebration, or if performed by an unauthorized person (save emergency baptisms).

    Now, in reference to the Sacrament of Marriage, Pope Francis’ shift is simply over jurisdiction. For example if a marriage took place in a different country, but both parties now reside in the new country, then the Diocese of the petitioner can have jurisdiction over nullity procedures instead of sending the petitioner back to the country in which he or she were married. In addition, it is NOT individual priests who are the ultimate judge, is the Bishop (or Archbishop). Before the changes instituted by Pope Francis, a second judge from a stranger Diocese was required before declaration of nullity could be granted.

    Furthermore, this process has always existed in the Church and it is most certainly not a loophole to divorce as the process is based on scripture (starting all the way back with Abraham who notoriously pushed his wife Sarah into fraudulent “marriages.”) Even though the current process was codified in 1917 and revised in 1983, one can find very early historical references for this process, i.e. Pope Nicholas I (858-867), famously refused to grant an annulment to King Lothair II of Lotharingia so that Lothair could marry his mistress Waldrada, and when a Council pronounced in favour of the annulment, Pope Nicholas disbanded the Council. Then, in the 12th century Pope Alexander III also granted various declarations of nullity.

    Lastly, marriage nullity proceedings are not exclusive for the Catholic party. The Catholic Church respects the marriages of non-Catholics and presumes that they are valid. Thus, for example, it considers the marriages of two Protestant, Jewish, or even non-believing persons to be binding for life. Marriages between baptized persons, moreover, are considered to be sacramental. Even when the intended spouse comes from a faith tradition that accepts divorce and remarriage, the Church requires a declaration of nullity in order to establish that an essential element was missing in that previous union that prevented it from being a valid marriage, and thus the intended spouse is free to marry a Catholic.

  • Pinky Bee Millard

    Thank you for being so honest about judging others and changing your mind. Your humility and forgiveness inspires me as a Christian. I support what you said; I’m in the UK where it seems fecundity is celebrated, but intent of exclusivity and permanence is expected of a parent towards their offspring, rather than between parents. It reminds me of what Jesus said in Luke 6:32: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them.” In a way, I’m glad that marriage annulment is so accessible and that people feel free not to marry, as it may sort the wheat from the chaff; those who are worth having as partners from those who aren’t. However, may I ask anyone who has faith to join me in a quick ‘Amen’ in Jesus’ name, for those who currently follow culture to instead, in their hearts, follow Christ’s way and for those who currently reject the tenets of Christian marriage to instead truly celebrate them; especially someone I know called Rida – I pray that he has a Christian marriage to Holly and that he faithfully desires, without fail, a Christian marriage to her, asap and forevermore, in Jesus’ name, Amen. Thank you brothers and sisters. God bless you all

  • Pinky Bee Millard

    Exactly, the Jesuits believe in the great architect of the universe, not the God of Jesus.

  • Steve

    You can say the same of everyone who wears a seatbelt.

  • C_Alan_Nault

    As an atheist, I do not believe God decides anything.

    The point is the pope is being a hypocrite when he claims “Only God can decide who dies”. If he really believed what he said, he would believe god won’t let him die until god wants him dead.

  • Steve

    Well, in the past he’s eschewed the thing for precisely those reasons. You should write him a letter and let him know of your disapproval of his inconsistency.

  • Great article. Few commentators have grasped that decentralization, rather than structural reforms or theological liberalism, is THE major interpretive key to the Francis Papacy.

    With that said, I would like to suggest that there was a very practical reason for the localizing the discernment process in regards to the reception of the Eucharist. As a former RCIA directer, I’ve observed that there is a significant population of remarried that do not wish to pursue the annulment process out of fear of the harm it will cause to their current nexus of relationships and responsibilities. For example, person 1 might be worried that the annulment process would open up wounds with former spouse and the delicate truce they’ve worked out over custody rights. Or person 2 might have children from a second marriage and not wish to introduce to his current partner the pain and misunderstanding of a process that amounts to “invalid until proven innocent”. I would argue that in many circumstances, this desire is grounded in charity, and demonstrates that grace is already operative and healing.

  • Your comment is ironic to me, the Jesuits have historically tried to veer the Catholic church away from overly deterministic models of God back onto the God revealed in Jesus Christ. But I agree with C Alan Nault: saying God decides who dies is very problematic, and in context actually undermines the broader argument he was trying to make.