We hear this term mentioned frequently with regard to issues of divorced and remarried Catholics and their access to the sacraments, especially in the teaching of Pope Francis. Popes vary in the tone of their ministry. Pope Benedict was, first and foremost, a scholar and teacher. Pope St. John Paul II was known for his insistence upon national and religious freedom, as well as his focus on doctrine and liturgy, even as he was the first traveling pope. In contrast, Pope Francis, while maintaining doctrinal standards, has become known as a pastoral leader, one for whom the flock and its needs come ahead of rules.
A pastor is a shepherd
The word pastoral refers to the Latin word for shepherd, pastor, referring to Jesus’ title of Good Shepherd. He tells the story of the shepherd who, leaving the ninety-nine behind, goes after the lost sheep, and on finding it, rescues it and returns it to the flock. The priestly leader of a parish is called a pastor. The pastor of an entire diocesan church is the bishop. A pastoral leader is one who is shepherd-like.
While these men may be at times presiders, confessors, administrators, presbyters, their role as pastor calls them to care for the spiritual (and even physical) wellbeing of those in their community. They are not simply law enforcers, not simply liturgical directors, not simply arbiters of doctrine. A pastor’s first concern must be for his sheep.
The Bishop of Rome is the pastor of pastors
So, yes, our chief pastor, Pope Francis, has directed the Vatican Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life to prepare a new document that will address divorced and remarried couples, according to prefect Cardinal Kevin Farrell. Since the document is only in its preparation stage, we can’t say exactly how it will address the situation of these couples. Knowing Pope Francis, we can assume that its tone will be pastoral. We can also be sure that it will adhere to Church teaching on the sacrament of matrimony.
What does the Church teach about marriage?
A juridical view of marriage tells us that marriage is between a man and a woman, and that it is a permanent bond. Once the vows are pronounced, the couple is married until death. Divorce does not free a person to remarry in the Church. A divorced and remarried couple cannot receive communion.
Pastorally, there is so much more to consider. First of all, the validity of a marriage depends on three factors:
· The spouses must know what they are entering into.
· The spouses must give full consent.
· The spouses must be able to fulfill the vows they will be making.
If one of these conditions is not met, the marriage may be invalid.
Let’s just look at some examples. Sheri and John have been dating in high school. Both are in love, both want to move in together as soon as they graduate. They decide to marry then. Neither has attended a Catholic high school; neither has a very good idea of what it means to take a vow, or what forever is all about (as Pope Francis has pointed out.) As typical high school kids, they don’t want to hear what their parents have to say. They tune out most of the pre-nuptial instruction given by the parish. The young woman is excited to plan the wedding, with her attendants, the dresses, the flowers, the cake. The young man is going along with it. They live together in bliss for a few years. He joins the military, and on base meets a woman who seems to have a lot more in common with him. They fall in love. He asks for a divorce.
Sheri is left to figure out how to get her life back together, and cannot now remarry, even though the breakup was not her fault.
But wait! Did these two understand the seriousness of their marriage vows? It doesn’t sound like John did.
He is ready to marry his new love. Cad, though he is, he can humbly admit his lack of knowledge and apply for an annulment. (This may or may not be granted, based on whether the diocesan tribunal deems it appropriate.)
Sheri continues to be involved with the Church, and several years later she meets a Catholic man, Joseph, who would like to become her husband. She, too, can apply for an annulment on the basis that John did not take the sacrament seriously.
But what if she has no proof, and John is not going to help her out with this. It doesn’t change the fact that in God’s eyes, her immature ex had no idea what he was promising to do. God sees that the marriage was invalid; but does the tribunal see it that way?
This is the problem that comes up often in situations like this. The first marriage was clearly invalid, but is there proof?
I worked with OCIA in one of my parishes, and as part of that process, I also helped couples with their annulments as they prepared to enter the church. I could see very clearly that, for example, a former spouse had been on drugs and not mentally competent to make a vow. In another case, the woman might have gotten pregnant and her parents made her marry the guy, even though she did not love him. She had not entered freely into the marriage. In another case, a former spouse might have been gay, unable to live out the vows he had intended to make.
With documentation, these cases could be given to a tribunal for annulment. Without proof, which sometimes was impossible to obtain, the same case could not go forward.
Here is a couple, wanting to start their lives anew, returning to the Church, seeking Confirmation, and yet they are hindered because proof is out of reach. Does God know the state of their former marriages? Yes. Can it be proven to a tribunal? No.
Here’s where a pastor is faced with a dilemma. Can he make an executive decision, having prayed for discernment? Can he make a pastoral choice?
I suspect such a decision would be referred to his bishop, who would then be faced with making such a pastoral move.
I will say that I have known such a case to be resolved in favor of the couple. It was done quietly. No one in the parish knew of their former situation, and those they may have told assumed they were going through the annulment process. There was little risk of scandal.
Scandal is the real danger in these situations. People seeing formerly married parishioners now with a new partner going to receive the Eucharist would likely assume that the Church has changed its teaching on marriage. So many things have changed; why not this? Example is a powerful teacher, so we have to be careful what we allow it to convey. Any exception to the rule must be accompanied by teaching, so that an apparent breach of the law may actually strengthen it with greater understanding.
Now more than ever we need to fortify the sacrament of marriage with language that will cement it in the minds of younger people. This sacrament faces real challenges in today’s world, the worst of which is not remarriage. Catechesis must address the doctrine and state of marriage, enabling it to become the foundation of family life in our parishes once again.
Jesus left his authority in the hands of the Church
Meanwhile, let us not fear the pastoral authority of the Church. We see it frequently in Jesus' own ministry, when he healed on the Sabbath, for example. When he ate with sinners, too, and touched lepers, he was disobeying some of the many Jewish laws of that time. He commited the "sin" of blasphemy, in many eyes, when he allowed himself to be called Son of Man. Jesus gave his own authority to the Church, not to a set of laws. The magisterium of the Church is first and foremost its leadership, not just its Canon Law. We can trust to our bishops and pastors to make decisions in line with that magisterium.