Pope Francis has surely been a sign of contradiction. Leftists were first enthused, thinking his passion for social justice meant he was one of them. Now they are dismayed to discover he insists on social justice for the unborn and other powerless undesirables they would rather discard. The ideological right is ever vigilant, seeking out evidence of incipient socialist, collectivist tendencies in his comments. What to do with a pope who insists that the eternal verities are, indeed, both eternal and true while insisting with equal vigor that man was not made for the Sabbath, but the Sabbath for man? We could try listening, rather than judging everything he says through our own a priori set of assumptions.
The sacramental institution of marriage is one of the things Pope Francis has weighed in on that has sent both the left and the right into unwarranted tizzies. The pope is reported to have mused that a good 50% of all marriages are invalid and is open to the idea of some remarried Catholics receiving communion without having had a proper annulment. This has inspired hope on the left that they have found an unlikely ally in their assault on marriage and the family. It has inspired fear of the same on the right. Both the hopes and fears are the unwarranted fantasies of those incapable of seeing things without the coloring of an ideological lens
Before I get down to business, I must note that I have no personal stake in this. I am divorced. I do not have an annulment because, in 1991 the priest who examined my application discovered I fit a narrow set of criteria that allowed for the dissolution of the marriage under a little known and seldom used provision called a Petrine Privilege. Application had to be made to the Vatican and, with the pope’s approval, the marriage would be dissolved. I am free to date and re-marry. But it is not just a get-out-of-jail free card. Should I decide I want to re-marry, both my proposed partner and I must receive the recommendation of a priest, the recommendation of the marriage tribunal in my original diocese and the request must be sent to the Vatican. I can then re-marry if the pope sends back formal approval of the match. I have never gotten so serious with anyone that I had to explain these hoops to them. It does amuse me to think that if ever I should get so serious, the woman in question will probably be more than a little taken aback to discover I literally have to get the pope’s permission first.
The process of annulment is designed to determine whether a marriage was sacramentally valid in the first place. This requires the informed, free consent of the parties to the marriage. If that is lacking, it is not a valid sacramental marriage, in which case an annulment can be granted. An annulment is not (or should not be) a Catholic ‘divorce.’ Rather, it is a formal finding, after investigation, that the presumed marriage lacked the elements to make it sacramentally valid. This website on Catholic Culture provides a good article for laymen on the criteria involved. In all such decisions human judgment is involved, which means there can be errors of judgment. Provided that real diligence and deference to authentic teaching of faith is observed, such errors will be rare and can be corrected with appeal.
But what happens when an entire culture undergoes a collective breakdown?
Sometime beginning in the ’50s, I think (it could be earlier, but certainly not later), more than a few Catholic officials and priests were seduced by a culture of therapy which assaulted the culture of faith. Though most were well-intended, it was a terrible vanity to think their transient feelings trumped the accumulated wisdom of the faith. But the smoke of satan was rising and these officials started passing annulments out like party hats. A vain shepherd may honestly believe he has liberated the sheep when he sets them to roam where he should know wolves lurk, but it will not release him from his responsibility to the Master when sheep are slaughtered. The faithful were not liberated from the constraints of faith, but exposed to wolves bent on shredding a culture by unrelenting assaults on marriage and family.
Those who appeal to the law are right that it was an unwarranted permissiveness that opened the gates to the wolves. But what a vanity it is to berate the sheep who were wounded when shepherds charged with defending them helped open the gates to the wolves! Pope Francis has two great charges in this. First, he must care for the wounded and try to nurse them back to health. Second, he must re-erect the fences that keep them safe.
Several generations have been deluded into believing marriage a provisional contract rather than an enduring covenant. To continue the delusion would be to continue the disorder and the pain it entails. But what sort of impoverished piety would only minister to those left unravaged when the gates were thrown open to the wolves? When an entire culture abandons the knowledge of what marriage is and entails, most of the marriages contracted are just that – contracts that are sacramentally deficient. When people wounded by that rampant cultural disorder are barred from communion, it impoverishes the Church and further wounds the faithful. But to offer a blanket amnesty would merely invite more disorder.
Pope Francis is working with the grave and charitable view of a truly faithful shepherd. St. John Paul the Great began a crackdown on the abuse of annulment in marriage tribunals, a crackdown that continued under Pope Benedict XVI. Pope Francis has shown no hint of backing off from those reforms. These popes have been consistent with all their predecessors that marriage is an enduring sacramental covenant. They have acted boldly to insist that those ministers under their direction who had lost that sense once again live it. Having insisted that the downed fences be re-erected, I think Pope Francis is now seriously working to bring those who were wounded by the abuses back into full and joyful communion with the Church. For me, a priest should rigorously examine a couple contemplating marriage to ensure that they are serious and understand the covenant they are entering. Once entered, it must not be sundered unless it legitimately is determined to have been invalidly entered – which, with sufficient vigor before approving a marriage ceremony in the first place, should be rare. But I deeply pray that a process is put in place that will bring back all those wounded by the last few generations’ errors with generosity. It probably must be handled on a case by case basis. If penitents seeking full communion with the Church are treated as victims of the cultural disorders of the last few generations and welcomed back, provided that they understand and acknowledge that any present or future marriage must be valid, I think that would be the equivalent of Christ’s gentle forgiveness of the woman taken in adultery when others wanted to stone her. The rigorous treatment of marriage going forward from this point as the enduring sacramental covenant it is would be the equivalent of Christ’s commanding the same woman to “…sin no more.” If Pope Francis can develop a solid way to accomplish both these things, he will be in good company, indeed.
Never forget, God calls all men to salvation. Man was not made for rules, but rules to bring men to salvation. It is a joy to me to see Pope Francis constantly thinking of how best to invite broken men back to salvation. We live in a time of great darkness, but the light is dawning and the darkness cannot overcome it.