Pope Francis, Divorce & An Uphill Struggle
While first reading Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium I witnessed the stance take...
On the previous Sunday the Catholic Universe newspaper presented an article with
the title Middle Ground Sought for Divorc...
It is unthinkable that a person can fall into a black hole from which
God is unable to pull that person out.
And …
The Chu...
of 3

Pope Francis, Divorce & An Uphill Struggle

An appraisal of the current position regarding potential change in the Catholic church, twelve months on from Pope Francis' election and five months on from the universal survey of the laity on the family.
Published on: Mar 4, 2016
Published in: Spiritual      

Transcripts - Pope Francis, Divorce & An Uphill Struggle

  • 1. Pope Francis, Divorce & An Uphill Struggle While first reading Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium I witnessed the stance taken by the man who had achieved so much so quickly in the first twelve months of his papacy. I think it is important to note that Pope Francis’ Evangelii Gaudium is not an apostolic doctrinal pronunciation but rather the bishop of Rome exhorting the Catholic world to think differently and reflect on the context to what he hopes will be a new age within the Catholic church. I must say Evangelii Gaudium has something in it for everyone and my own particular focus has been the pope’s scoping out of change in the Church. Pope Francis talks about ‘new meaning for today’s world’, presenting the faith as an attractive, ‘delicious banquet’ and exhorting readers to ‘seek the good of others’, presenting the ‘fragrance’ of the gospel rather than providing a diet of ‘certain doctrinal or moral points based on specific ideological options’. He tackles complacency by rejecting the principle of ‘we have always done it this way’ and focuses on ‘self-renewal and adaptivity’ rather than making ‘our religion a form of servitude’. At this point I can only admire the man’s courage and sheer energy, qualities I hope are the basis of his popularity rather than some mistaken assumption about whose side he may be on. The fact that this document has relevance for so many inevitably leads the individual to apply Pope Francis’ thoughts to individual pastoral contexts and challenges lived out at the interface of the gospel and the messiness of the human condition. There appears to be no hiding from his exhortations even for those who find their satisfaction and consolation in life by admiring their faithful commitment to orthodoxy and moral rectitude: A supposed soundness of doctrine or discipline leads instead to a narcissistic and authoritarian elitism, whereby instead of evangelizing, one analyses and classifies others, and instead of opening the door to grace, one exhausts his or her energies in inspecting and verifying. In neither case is one really concerned about Jesus Christ or others. With approximately 28% of Catholic marriages ending in divorce it is most likely this 28% of the ‘Catholic cohort’ are some of the people that the pope wants the modern Catholic Church to reach out to and find new ways of including rather than excluding them. Last Sunday’s gospel recounted a dramatic expression of the ‘included’ and the ‘excluded’ of first century Palestine. The self-righteous Pharisees narcissistically adored their own orthodoxy and, despite coming face to face with the Son of God Himself and practically witnessing his miracles first hand, ask ‘We are not blind surely?’ Meanwhile, a man who has had his sight restored to him has the cheek to ask the same Pharisees ‘Do you want to become his disciples too?’ The irony of this is extreme. A man who is ‘a sinner through and through’ defies soundness of doctrine, demonstrates how evil can be overcome, miracles do happen and the sinner can actually be included rather than excluded. Pope Francis’ words appear to be have been written for ‘Pharisees’ of both the first and twenty-first centuries: The Church must be a place of mercy freely given, where everyone can feel welcomed, loved, forgiven and encouraged to live the good life of the Gospel.
  • 2. On the previous Sunday the Catholic Universe newspaper presented an article with the title Middle Ground Sought for Divorced and Remarried in which Pope Francis had chosen the German Walter Kasper to present a keynote address to an assembly of 150 cardinals 20th-21st February on the theme of the family. In a similar way to the blind man of the gospel modern day Catholics face conditions in their family lives that, despite sometimes heroic efforts, place them in a position of being rejected by Catholic orthodoxy. As a result Catholics can find themselves forbidden from receiving the Eucharist and unable to go to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation as they no longer ‘fit in’. A Catholic whose marriage has broken down irretrievably and has begun a new relationship is barred from receiving Holy Communion for as long as his or her first spouse is alive. Unless annulment is granted that person cannot go to confession and receive God’s grace that way either if they have begun a new relationship labelled as ‘adulterous’ under the rules of orthodoxy. It doesn’t seem to matter if the conditions for the original marriage were deeply unhealthy for all involved such as in the case of emotional or physical abuse. This current situation is exclusive of people in these circumstances causing disillusionment, isolation and, rather than assisting when someone is most weak, the pain of dealing with a broken marriage is compounded by the Church’s official teaching and the intolerable variation in pastoral response varying from parish to parish and even country to country. Again, Pope Francis’ words reach out to circumstances such as these when he says: The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems. In cases such as these Pope Francis’ analogy, earlier in his papacy, of the church being a field hospital in the battleground breaks down as the Church sometimes is perceived as causing the wounds rather than healing them. Unfortunately, there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence that demonstrates the hierarchy of the church needs forgiveness for their failings and inconsistent practice. Diocesan policy on the management of clergy is often opaque and right and wrong appears to be much more situational rather than consistent. For example, one bishop blessed a serving headteacher of a Catholic school who was divorced and remarried but suspended another right at the most vulnerable point of his marital breakdown when his wife left him and gossip erupted. Decisions seem to be made on the basis of how marketable and credible one person is compared with another. While reading the late Clarissa Dickson Wright’s Spilling the Beans she recounts her early life story which was marred for many years by being trapped by her father’s alcoholic physical abuse of her and her mother. When she finally had the courage to disclose the problem to her nun headmistress she was chastised by the headmistress for being a ‘liar’ who then proceeded to inform the father of his daughter’s waywardness. The basis for Cardinal Kasper’s keynote address was a sound mixture of compelling pastoral good sense and the very Catholic thought of Blessed John Henry Newman. For example, Cardinal Kasper says:
  • 3. It is unthinkable that a person can fall into a black hole from which God is unable to pull that person out. And … The Church must not judge as it had a guillotine in its hands, rather it must always leave the door open to mercy, to a way out that allows everyone to have a new beginning. Kasper is then quoted on his reference to how John Henry Newman viewed doctrine as something more like a ‘flowing river’ rather than a ‘stagnant lake’. The article concludes with a reference to Newman’s insistence that the Church must listen to the faithful in its role of defining doctrine and how Kasper recognises the need to consult more broadly than people living in celibacy who comprise a very small minority when viewing the people of God as a whole. Unfortunately, the news presented by the other more ‘conservative’ newspaper, the Catholic Herald, was that 85% of the cardinals rejected Cardinal Kasper’s presentation. The Herald’s front page article was mostly comprised of Cardinal Burke’s opposition to change concluding (in reference to Cardinal Kasper) by saying ‘I trust that the error of his approach will become ever clearer’. The fact is that people are struggling with the church’s teaching and receiving inconsistent pastoral responses which represent a spectrum of opinions ranging from condemnation to outright rebellion towards the church and its rules. Earlier this year a survey in The Tablet demonstrated how practically no one takes Humanae Vitae seriously implying birth control is an area in people’s lives where trust and respect for the Church’s authority has changed dramatically and often diminished. Pope Francis has clearly paved the way for change and encouraged his colleagues to move towards a new position where the faithful are treated at least more consistently and, hopefully, more inclusively. People often do their best, say their prayers, receive the sacraments and trust in God but life can turn into a moral maze which can literally cause disaster. I believe Pope Francis wishes to remove the ‘guillotine’ and avoid people falling into ‘black holes’ but in doing so will need God’s grace and blessing as he faces what appears to be an uphill struggle. 4th April 2014

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