Dear Deacon Ditewig,
As one Catholic blogger to another, both ordained Catholic ministers with PhDs, I have to say that despite your recent post, I remain confused. I don’t disagree with Pope Francis – I can’t, because I don’t fully grasp what he is is asking me to do. Perhaps that’s because of a different kind of polarisation, which has nothing to do with traditional/liberal viewpoints in the church and everything to do with the way we think about right and wrong.
I fully recognise that I live in a polarised church. Many Catholics, particularly those formed in the 60s and following decades, are humanitarians. They fully embrace the command to “love your neighbour” and are rather uncomfortable with those church teachings (e.g. about divorce, contraception, abortion) which make life more difficult for people in already-difficult situations (many don’t seem comfortable with the idea of a God who reveals Himself and speaks with authority). Meanwhile, a generation of young Catholics, particularly upcoming seminarians, have taken refuge in the outer trappings of identity, taking comfort in cassocks, Latin, and various traditions dating back 500 or 1000 years, though not to the time of Christ himself.
The thing is, I find myself in neither of these groups. I am an evangelical Catholic, seeking the voice of Christ in Scripture, Apostolic Tradition, and the Magisterium, and willing to set aside my own preferences for the sake of obedient unity. Before Pope Francis, I did not wash women’s feet at the Maundy Thursday Mass. A year following his election, guided by his example (and sensing that he wished to lead by example rather than issuing documents), I washed women’s feet at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper for the first time. But I felt more comfortable about doing so after the Vatican had made it official.
I want to live out my Catholic priesthood faithful to Jesus Christ and to the directives of the Magisterium. But I find it difficult to make sense of Amoris Laetitia. Pope Francis says explicitly he does not intend to set out case examples to guide us, because we as parish priests need to “accompany” and “discern” individual cases of persons who have entered a second union after a failed marriage. But what is it that I am to discern?
Do I recognise that there is moral good present in a relationship which is faithful and expressive of agape love, but which lacks the Church’s blessing? (AL 292) Yes, of course.
Do I recognise that some Catholics don’t have a fully developed understanding of their call to faithfulness in a marriage blessed by the Church? (AL 295) Yes, that too.
At the root of all of this is the teaching of Our Lord himself, who forbade divorce (with the exception of ‘porneia‘, which the scholars still argue about), tempered by St Paul’s privilege for a Christian abandoned by an unbelieving spouse.
The problem with marriage is that, for a person to be validly married, they must stand up in public and declare themselves to be freely entering into an unbreakable, lifelong, commitment. Now, if in my conversation with the person, I find that they didn’t understand this, I have grounds to believe the original marriage was invalid. But if they did understand this, what is left to discern?
In AL 300, Pope Francis sets out that there are many different cases of second unions, and priests may need to accompany such partners in an examination of conscience; in some cases, we may find that there was “no grave fault” on the part of the divorced person. The Pope says there can be no double standards and there is no “gradualness in the law”. I take this to mean that in working with such a person, I can help ease the guilt they may feel about the failure of the first relationship, but I must also help them understand that they have made a promise to God to live in lifelong fidelity to that partner, since the same law applies to every sacramental marriage.
Pope Francis then points out (AL 305) that a person in objective sin may partially or even totally lack subjective culpability and still be living in God’s grace. In footnote 351 he reminds us that the Confessional must be a place of mercy and the Eucharist is medicine for the sick. Clearly by placing these footnotes where they are, the Pope is asking me to consider whether I should offer absolution or holy communion to a person in a second union. But how can I absolve a person for breaking a promise of life-long faithfulness if that person is not yet willing or able to resume keeping the promise?
Reading on (AL 308), Pope Francis indicates his preference for a “less rigorous” approach which intrinsically allows space for confusion. Well, I am certainly confused. I am not helped by noticing that while the Polish Bishops have affirmed the status quo, the Maltese Bishops have indicated that in certain circumstances, persons in second unions might receive absolution and communion, and be admitted as godparents. If the Magisterium says it is not possible to give clear rules or even case studies of when I should say yes or no, how am I to make my discernment?
My PhD is not in Theology (though I have a first class Bachelor’s in Theology) – it is in Astrophysics. While you sail the seas, I navigate the heavens. I have a mathematical mind, trained in logic and principles. And perhaps that is the problem. These days, we understand that people have different thinking styles. Not everyone’s brain tackles moral problems the same way. Some brains see things more in terms of principles; others see consequences. It might be the case (I’d love to have the research time to test this) that professors of moral philosophy are more likely than average human beings to be biased to think in terms of principles. Perhaps Pope Francis, and Jesuits in general, have an aptitude for discerning imperfect courses of action which lead a step closer to God’s will without reaching its fullness.
Pope Francis does not want to throw the floodgates open for everyone. But he does want me, as a parish priest, to discern whether a particular individual might approach the sacraments without ruling out that possibility. “Discerning” means I can’t decide a priori to allow everyone or no-one to do so. But without (non-binding) case studies and examples, I don’t know what I am looking for.
There have been many times in my life when I have chosen to act on principle even though I foresaw the consequences may have been problematic. I did so before I became a Catholic; and once I was a Catholic, I took comfort in the idea that the Church teaches that there are intrinsic evils, so morality depends on principles rather than consequences. I know that saints have been martyred for holding to their principles. But I also know that a strong reason that I live by my principles is that I am “wired” to do so, and not all human beings are wired like me.
Deacon Ditewig, you have suggested that those who say Pope Francis’ words are “confusing” are really hiding the fact that they disagree with him. But please hear me when I say that if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to deny communion to those in second unions, I will do so; if the Magisterium teaches clearly that I am to admit them, I will do so (while still maintaining that such relationships are prima facie adulterous; I recognise that the Eucharist can be medicine for sinners). As a parish priest I have been charged with “discerning and accompanying” individuals towards a possible decision to admit them to communion, a process which is as alien to my science-shaped mind as it seems intuitive to Pope Francis (who graduated as a chemical technician, and is therefore skilled in providing solutions).
Therefore I remain, respectfully,
Confused of Cardiff.
(Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon, PhD, MInstP, MA (Oxon), BTh, Director of Ongoing Formation of the Archdiocese of Cardiff – views are my own)