Pope Francis and the Permanence of Marriage

pope-francis-one-man-one-woman-marriage-original-picThe Catholic blogosphere has been buzzing recently over some comments made by Pope Francis about marriage.  Specifically, he remarked that some sacramental marriages are “null” because the bride and groom come from a “culture of the provisional” and do not truly understand the nature of a permanent commitment.  Initial reports said that the pope’s original words were that “most” sacramental marriages were null, and then were modified from “most” to “some” or “a part of”.  Here’s the original Italian for those who would like to offer their own English translation: “E per questo una parte dei nostri matrimoni sacramentali sono nulli, perché loro [gli sposi] dicono: ‘Sì, per tutta la vita’, ma non sanno quello che dicono, perché hanno un’altra cultura.”  You can read the entire address here on the Vatican website.

The response from certain quarters has been overheated and dramatic.  One poor soul on FoxNews has even suggested that the Pope should now resign for these comments!  [You can read his assessment here.]  What is going on here?  Is the ecclesial sky really falling?

I have been reflecting on these opinions and, more important, on the pope latest comments from a pastoral-theological frame of reference (and for the record, I’m NOT saying that a canonical frame of reference is NOT pastoral or theological!).  Some initial thoughts:

POPE FAMILIES PASTORAL CARE

Pope Francis gestures as he speaks during the opening of the Diocese of Rome’s annual pastoral conference at the Basilica of St. John Lateran in Rome June 16. Looking on is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, papal vicar for Rome. (CNS photo/Tony Gentile, Reuters)

CONTEXT:  I have great respect for many of the canon lawyers who have weighed in on this.  They are, for the most part, highly upset for many reasons with the pope’s comments.  However, what troubles me in what I’ve been seeing in the blogosphere is a tendency to take the pope out of context; he himself is always cautioning people not to do that with his statements.  So, were these latest comments being made to a convention of canonists?  Were these comments from an address to the Roman Rota?  Were these comments from a lecture being given to canon law students? They were not.  Rather, this speech (actually, his words were a response to a question at the end of his speech, so they were not part of his prepared text) was made during the opening of the annual Ecclesial Convocation of the Diocese of Rome, held in the Cathedral for the Diocese of Rome, St. John Lateran.  The Pope is, of course, the Bishop of Rome, but he appoints a Cardinal to serve has his Vicar for running the day-to-day operations of the Diocese. At this time, that is Cardinal Agostino Vallini, who served as the host for the opening of this annual event for the Diocese.  So, I think the first thing for us to remember is that the pope is speaking here to a gathering of the priests, deacons and other pastoral ministers of his diocesan Church.

POINT OF VIEW:  Within this general context, then, I think we need to read the particular comments about marriage within the broader scope of the point he was making.  What the Pope was talking about is his recognition and concern with today’s “culture of the provisional” (Italian: E’ la cultura del provvisorio.)  In fact, his first example of this culture is not on marriage, but on the priesthood.  The pope recounts the story of a young man who expressed interest in serving as a priest, but only for a period of ten years!  His primary concern here is to express how an overarching culture of the provisional impacts every state of life today, including the priesthood, religious life and matrimony.  It is for this reason that he then makes his statement that many sacramental marriages today are null.

This is certainly not a new theme for Pope Francis.  Here are just a few random links to earlier comments which make the same point, but without the use of the term “null”: here, here, and here.

754It seems pretty clear and straightforward that, whether the pope originally said “most” or “some” marriages is pastorally irrelevant to the point he’s trying to make: that because we are now living in such a culture of the provisional, everyone struggles with the ability to make lifelong commitments; on one level, they may think they understand the nature of permanence, but on another level, they may be incapable of making such a judgment.  The pope is not speaking here as the Legislator or as a judge in a marriage tribunal: he’s speaking from the perspective of an experienced pastor.

He’s actually saying what most ministers readily admit: that most people today have lost a sense of the permanent and that it is hard to find anyone who is willing or able to make a long-term commitment to anything or anyone.  One retired pastor, when I mentioned this kerfuffle to him, replied, “The Pope didn’t say anything that most bishops, priests and deacons who work with engaged couples don’t already acknowledge.” The pope was simply telling his diocesan pastoral ministers that they need to do what they can to help ALL of their people come to a greater sense of permanent commitment: to their faith in general, to their vocational aspirations, and so on.  In my opinion, to read his words and then to jump immediately to canonical judgments about those statements risks losing the BIG PICTURE of what the pope was saying.

Wedding ringsThe bottom line, it seems to me, is pretty straightforward: The first step in listening to the pope is to look at the overall message he is trying to make and to whom he is making it.  Generally speaking, with Pope Francis, he chooses to speak as who he is: a pastor.  He does not speak as an academic theologian, or as a canon lawyer, nor should he, in my opinion.  He is first, foremost and always, a Pastor: that’s his frame of reference, that’s his motivation, that’s his primary concern.  Theology, canon law, curial structures, and all the rest of the ad intra organs of the Catholic Church exist to SUPPORT that pastoral effort.  We all look at the world through the lenses we’ve been given in life: as teachers, as lawyers, doctors, farmers, business people, parents, and even deacons.  For some canon lawyers to be upset and concerned by the pope’s comments is only natural, but they should not be considered the first — or only — line in interpretation of papal statements.

I think, for those of us who serve as deacons, our take away from all of this might best be: how can I help the couples with whom I’m working come to a greater appreciation and understanding of the permanence of our beautiful sacrament of Matrimony?

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Deacons and Politics: Walking the Tightrope

Religion + PoliticsI have written a lot on this subject, but it is one that bears revisiting every election cycle.  As I write this, it seems certain that the two nominees for this year’s presidential election will be Donald Trump for the Republicans and Hillary Clinton for the Democrats.  In my lifetime I have never experienced anything approaching the madness of the primary process, and the general campaign promises more of the same.  So, I hope this review is helpful, since deacons fall into some unique categories on this subject under canon law!

Before turning to the specifics of canon law, let me offer three preliminary points:

  1. chest7One often hears that the reason we clergy are supposed to be impartial with regard to support or opposition to particular political parties, campaigns or candidates is because “the Church” might lose its tax-exempt status.  Often, after making such a claim, chest-pounding ensues as the claimant declaims, “Some things are just too important to worry about such things!  If we lose tax exempt status, so be it!  We have to stand up for what we believe.”  In the Navy, we refer to this as the “damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” response.  Here’s the problem.  This isn’t about tax exempt status.  It is, rather, about the universal law of the Latin Church, which couldn’t care less about our tax exempt status.
  2. Another claim holds that “this is my right as an American citizen” to participate publicly in political life.  That is certainly true.  However, by accepting ordination, the deacon has voluntarily placed himself under the authority of additional legal and moral authority.  Namely, how a cleric, and in particular, the deacon participates in political life is now affected by more than the US Constitution.
  3. buildWe clergy exist, according to Church teaching (cf. especially Lumen gentium #18) to build up the People of God.  Our actions then must be understood with that end in mind: are the words I’m using, the actions I’m taking, the positions I’m teaching all serving to build up, or do they tear down.  It is easy in the heat of the moment to let our emotions get the better of us, and especially when the rhetoric surrounding our current political “discourse” is so heated and volatile, we might succumb to the temptation to be just as superheated in our responses.  Again, not only does our teaching enlighten us in this regard, so too does our church law, as shall be seen below.

zzclsacodesmCanon 285 directs that “clerics are to refrain completely from all those things which are unbecoming to their state, according to the prescripts of particular law.” The canon continues in §3: “Clerics are forbidden to assume public offices which entail a participation in the exercise of civil power,” and §4 forbids clerics from “secular offices which entail an obligation of rendering accounts. . . .” Canon 287, §1 reminds all clerics that “most especially, [they] are always to foster the peace and harmony based on justice which are to be observed among people,” and §2 directs that “they are not to have an active part in political parties and in governing labor unions unless, in the judgment of competent ecclesiastical authority, the protection of the rights of the Church or the promotion of the common good requires it.”

However, c. 288 specifically relieves permanent deacons (transitional deacons are not exampted) of a number of the prior canons, including cc. 285 §§3 and 4, and 287 §2, “unless particular law establishes otherwise.” Particular law in this instance is provided by the National Directory on the Formation, Ministry and Life of Permanent Deacons in the United States, which states at #91: “A permanent deacon may not present his name for election to any public office or in any other general election, or accept a nomination or an appointment to public office, without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop. A permanent deacon may not actively and publicly participate in another’s political campaign without the prior written permission of the diocesan bishop.” The diocesan bishop may also create particular law within his own diocese on such matters. In one case, a diocesan bishop notified his clergy that if anyone could even infer, through their speech, manner or demeanor, which political party or candidate the cleric was supporting, then that cleric had gone too far. While we are each entitled to form our own political decisions for ourselves, we must always be aware of the political lines we must not cross.

AllSaintsSo where does this leave us?  Deacons, although clerics, may participate in political life to a degree not permitted other clerics under the law. However, they are required by particular law in the United States to obtain the prior written permission of their diocesan bishop to do so. I find that two other aspects of this matter are too often overlooked. First, is the requirement under the law that all clerics (and, most significantly, permanent deacons are not relieved of this obligation) are bound by c. 287 always “to foster peace and harmony based on justice.” This is a critical point for reflection for all clerics: How do my actions, words, and insinuations foster such peace and harmony, or are my actions serving to sow discord and disharmony? Since permanent deacons may become more engaged in the political sphere than presbyters (with the permission of their bishop), this will take on particular relevance for deacons. Second is the whole area of participation in political campaigns. Deacons may only participate in their own or someone else’s political campaign with the prior written permission of their bishop.

mediaThings are so much more complicated today than in years past, with all of the various social media available.  Tweets can replace reasoned response, a Facebook status can mimic a political platform, and even a “like” can raise political tempers.  Furthermore, what about the deacon’s family and their rights and obligations to participate fully in the political process?  In one common example, what if the deacon’s family wants to put a yard sign supporting a particular candidate in the yard, or to put a bumper sticker on the family car?  Today, when political support is often reflected through the social media, all of us might well reflect on how our opinions stated via these media constitute active participation in someone’s political campaign.

All of us, lay and cleric, are obliged to participate appropriately in the political process. One would hope that all people, lay and cleric, will want to “build up the People of God” and not tear down!  However, as clerics – and in a particularly challenging way, permanent deacons – we have not only a moral obligation to do so, but a legal one as well.  This means that we must often walk a fine moral tightrope in doing so.

Reckless person