Last week Pope Francis took another step to dismantle the edifice of teaching on marriage left to the Church by his predecessor, Pope John Paul II.
You already know, I trust, that Pope Francis has made it easier for Catholic couples to obtain an annulment: a declaration that their union was never a sacramental marriage. Now, however, the Pope has—belatedly—turned his attention to the children of those unions. But he has done so in a way that turns the problem completely upside-down.
Bear with me, while I try to explain the confusion.
Nearly every year during his pontificate, when he delivered his annual address to the Roman Rota at the start of its judicial year, Pope John Paul II would urge the tribunal judges—and by extension, the judges on marriage tribunals in every diocese—to uphold the sanctity of the marital union. More specifically, he exhorted tribunal judges not to rush to judgment in annulment cases—not to assume that a troubled marriage is no marriage at all.
Pope Benedict XVI delivered the same message, but added that tribunals could be more efficient. Where there is a strong case for the nullity of a marriage, he said, the faithful have the right to a timely judgment.
Then Pope Francis rushed headlong into the campaign, encouraging the tribunals not only to act quickly, but also—in an apparent reversal of his predecessors’ messages—to hand out annulments more readily.
And even in cases where the tribunal could not find justification for an annulment, in Amoris Laetitia Pope Francis urged pastors to allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist in some circumstances. (These circumstances were not clearly defined in the papal document, allowing pastors ample room for maneuver.) He explained in Amoris Laetitia #298 that in “a second union consolidated over time, with new children,” the remarried couple might need to maintain their new relationship for the sake of the children.
Here Pope Francis clearly contradicts the teaching of Pope Pius XI, who in Casti Connubi #10 quoted with approval the judgment of St. Augustine that “a husband or wife, if separated, should not be joined to another even for the sake of offspring.” [emphasis added] Pope John Paul II had relaxed that teaching—while maintaining the essential principle behind it—by allowing in Familiaris Consortio #84 that in some cases a remarried couple might continue living together for the sake of their children, if they “take on themselves the duty to live in complete continence, that is, by abstinence from the acts proper to married couples.” (Then-Cardinal Ratzinger added that even this solution would be inadequate if by living together the remarried couple caused scandal.) But again Pope Francis plunged forward, saying that the remarried couple might enjoy the benefits of sexual intimacy—even though their marriage is illicit—and still receive the Eucharist.
How this new papal teaching can be reconciled with the constant tradition of the Church, and with the Lord’s vivid warning against adultery, I do not know—nor do the learned cardinals whose dubia are still unanswered. But the Pope’s argument appears to hinge on two assumptions: first that the second marital union must be maintained for the sake of the children; second that sexual intimacy is essential to the health of that second union.
The first of those assumptions seems reasonable enough, and explains why Pope John Paul II allowed for remarried couples to continue living together. But the second assumption is at best questionable. Many happily married couples can testify that abstaining from sexual relations is a hardship but not an impossibility. In any case, it is a hardship for the parents, not for the children. Yet Pope Francis suggests that the couple must have sexual relations for the sake of the children.
Are children of a second union somehow hurt when their parents—following the advice of Pope John Paul II—make the commitment to live as brother and sister? There is no evidence to support that conclusion. But there is evidence—ample evidence—to show that children are damaged by divorce. Until the release of Amoris Laetitia, the whole weight of Catholic teaching on marriage testified to the Church’s understanding of that unhappy reality.
Last week, in his own address to the tribunal judges of the Roman Rota, Pope Francis observed that a marital union “cannot be extinguished in its entirety with the declaration of nullity” when there are children involved. The Church—the tribunal—must be mindful of the welfare of those children.
So far, so good. But now watch how the Pope illustrates his point:
… how can one explain to children that—for example—their mother, abandoned by their father and often not willing to establish another marriage bond, receives the Sunday Eucharist with them, while their father, cohabiting or awaiting the declaration of the nullity of the marriage, cannot participate in the Eucharistic table?
In this remarkable example, Pope Francis reveals his sympathies. The abandoned mother who is “not willing” to remarry—in other words, the woman who holds fast to her marital vow even at sacrifice to herself—is the villain of the piece. The father who remarries is the aggrieved party, who deserves extra pastoral attention.
The Pope suggests that the children will be troubled not because their father abandoned their mother (and presumably abandoned them, too), but because their father, who is now engaged in an illicit union, cannot receive the Eucharist. The Pontiff has enlisted these children as witnesses for his argument. But is their testimony reliable? More to the point, do these children exist? Good luck finding them.
You will have no trouble, however, in finding children who are troubled because their father, who abandoned their mother, now shows up at Mass every Sunday with his younger female companion, and does receive the Eucharist, under the vague dispensation offered in Amoris Laetitia. How do you explain that to the children, without undermining their faith in the Church’s commitment to the sanctity of marriage?
And just by the way, how do you explain it without undermining the children’s confidence in the Church’s commitment to them, the abandoned offspring of the first marriage? It is striking, isn’t it, that the pastoral novelties introduced “for the sake of the children” always seem to benefit the adults who are willing to leave those children behind.
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