Almost one year ago today, I wrote a post praising Bishop Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island, for criticizing Pope Francis. I did not agree with a word he said, but I thought it was important to have him say it (but also to hold him to the same standard of collegiality and openness).
Today, I find myself in the position of again praising Bishop Tobin, not only for having the courage to say what he said but also because I find myself in agreement with him. Looking forward to the upcoming Synod on the Family, he reflects as a pastor on the problems involving divorced and remarried Catholics, and writes:
I often think about, and truly agonize over, the many divorced Catholics who have “dropped-out” of the Church completely, as well as those who attend Mass faithfully every Sunday, sometimes for years, without receiving the consolation and joy of the Holy Eucharist. And I know that I would much rather give Holy Communion to these long-suffering souls than to pseudo-Catholic politicians who parade up the aisle every Sunday for Holy Communion and then return to their legislative chambers to defy the teachings of the Church by championing same-sex marriage and abortion.
Ignoring for the nonce his swipe at pro-abortion politicians (which has been his trademark issue for a number of years and so to be expected), I see here the pastoral side of Bishop Tobin expressed in a way that redounds to his credit. One of the things that has bothered me about the various prelates who have been defending current practice has been the intellectual distance of their discussion—I get no sense, even when they are proposing their modest solutions, that they appreciate the depths of pain and trouble in the lives of ordinary Catholics that lie behind their abstract arguments. See, for instance, my discussion of Cardinal Mueller’s position. Cardinal Burke and others have also laid out similar positions. (Sandro Magister has been reporting on this in detail: see here and here for recent posts.)
Bishop Tobin goes on to propose, if not a solution, then a different way of thinking about the problem:
In my personal reflection on this dilemma, I turn to the incident in the Gospels in which Jesus and His followers were walking through a field of grain on the Sabbath and because they were hungry, began to pick and eat the grain, a clear violation of an important Mosaic Law. The offense was roundly condemned by the religious experts, the Pharisees. But in response, Jesus said, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mk 2:23-28)
In other words, while not denying the validity of the law, our Lord clearly placed it in a “pastoral context,” exempting its enforcement due to the human needs of the moment.
Could we not take a similar approach to marriage law today? Could we not say, by way of analogy, that “matrimony is made for man, not man for matrimony?” Although the teaching of Christ and His Church about the permanence of marriage is clear and undeniable, the lived reality is that many individuals, for a variety of reasons perhaps – personal, catechetical or cultural – are ill-equipped to fulfill the lofty demands of the law.
This proposal echoes in many ways the Orthodox solution, which is to allow, for the good of souls, divorce and remarriage in certain circumstances, and with the second Church wedding marked by a more penitential nature. (See the discussion here.) I find the Orthodox approach attractive for a number of reasons, but I also admit that both theologically and canonically their theory and practice of oikonomia is foreign to western Catholic tradition, and there would be significant problems if we attempted to graft it onto our current legal and doctrinal structures. (Jesus’ dictum about using new cloth to patch old clothes comes to mind.)However, in thinking about this problem, I was struck by one situation that may or may not be completely parallel. The long standing discipline of the West is that priests are celibate, but even in the East the ancient tradition is that a priest may not marry after being ordained. Even advocates of a married clergy in the West appear to support this tradition. However, if a priest is laicized, he may then validly enter into a sacramental marriage. Now laicization is not the same thing as an annulment: the priest is still considered a priest and bears the indelible mark of the sacrament on his soul. Nevertheless, he is able to marry. Therefore, it seems to me that if the Church allows, for good pastoral reasons, a priest who has been dispensed from his vows to marry, then it could also, for pastoral reasons (indeed, for the salvation of souls, as Bishop Tobin alludes to), dispense Catholics who are married, civilly divorced, but whose marriages are still considered valid, from their vows to allow them to marry again, or at least to receive communion.
It can be argued that this comparison is only superficial, and that since priests are allowed to marry and only forbidden from marrying after ordination as a matter of practice and not a matter of doctrine, the marriage of a laicized priest is not a problem. On the other hand, the prohibition against divorce and remarriage is doctrinal and thus not amenable to similar exceptions. This is the line of reasoning adopted in a Q&A over at EWTN. I would want to see this distinction more carefully explored, and then balanced against the exercise of the Pauline and Petrine privileges, whereby the Pope can dissolve natural marriages for the good of souls. John Noonan wrote about this in his book The Church that Can and Cannot Change. His book has been criticized and while I find his arguments persuasive (particularly on the subjects of slavery and usury) I felt his chapter on marriage more tentative and less compelling. But, as I was preparing this post I stumbled upon a very critical review in which the author, in challenging Noonan’s views, writes
[Noonan] narrowly construes the Pauline privilege without recognizing that the principle implicit in the granting of that privilege is the idea that the natural-law principle of the indissolubility of valid marriage may be “superseded” by the higher principle of the establishment or preservation of the faith in the heart of a man or a woman.
This seems to me precisely the idea that is driving the discussion of communion for the divorced and remarried: a concern for the faith of those affected by this ban. This also seems to lie at the heart of Orthodox practice.
In any event, this is very much a tentative comparison, but I find it suggestive. Others who understand these things better will have to sort out the niceties, and I am hoping that some more knowledgeable folks will chime in in the commboxes with a more careful analysis of my idea. It may be a bad one, but I would like to see the reasons why more carefully worked out.
Let me close by quoting the conclusion of Bishop Tobin’s essay, a plea with which I most heartily concur:
Nevertheless, my forty-one years as a priest and nearly twenty-two as a bishop have convinced me that the status quo is unacceptable. For the spiritual well-being of the divorced and remarried members of our Catholic Family, for the salvation of their souls, we’ve got to do something!