Many and various are the expectations for the Extraordinary Synod of Bishops to be held in October 2014 on the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of the Evangelisation.”
Most bishops understand that this is an opportunity for the Church to strengthen her pastoral support for families and marriages while upholding the Church’s countercultural witness to God’s plan. For instance, when the Synod was announced, Bishop Anthony Fisher tweeted “Great news @Pontifex calling synod on family. It should help us be faithful to the Lord’s teaching on marriage & deal with current issues.”
On the other hand, there were many commentators who immediately saw it as the indication that the Pope was going to change the Church’s teaching and practice regarding the communion for divorced and remarried Catholics (such as this article from The Times reprinted in the Australian). Some, such as those on the Pastoral Council of the Diocese of Freiburg, even jumped the gun by issuing new guidelines without the permission of their bishop, let alone the pope and the synod of bishops.
And then there are those in between. In this statement, Bishop Egan of Portsmouth in England outlines three hopes he has from the Synod:
1) “a renewed appreciation of the demanding yet beautiful vision of marriage and family life that the Church presents us with”
2) “to find new ways of celebrating and supporting parents, married couples and Christian family life”, and
3) “that it will give renewed attention to the situation of those Catholics who find themselves in ‘irregular unions’, or are divorced and remarried.”
Does he mean by this “that it will change the Church’s teaching on divorce and remarriage”? That would be reading far too much into it. Rather, like Pope Francis and Pope Benedict before him, he asks: “Is there some way of affording them mercy, help and reconciliation?” He also wonders:
Along with this, I hope that some help will also be given to those non-Catholics who wish to be received into the Church but find themselves prevented by an irregularity in their own or their partner’s marital status.
I have some interest in this myself, of course. For almost three years my pathway into the Church was blocked by the fact that I was in an irregular union at the time of my conversion. But to cut a long story short, mercy, help and reconciliation was given to me and to my wife by means of the Tribunal of the Catholic Church. It was a long and thorough process, but in the end, God’s grace and mercy led me through. I received a lot of support from priests and friends within the Church which made the journey easier.
Now, a few days ago, Archbishop Mueller, the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, published in L’Osservatore Romano a very good summary of the Church’s teaching with regard to divorce and remarriage, and the reasons why those who enter into illegitimate marriages cannot receive communion until their marriage has been regularised or they have been reconciled to the Church by the sacrament of penance.
In this article, significantly entitled “The Power of Grace”, he explains the way in which the Church shows God’s mercy to those who are in irregular unions:
A further case for the admission of remarried divorcees to the sacraments is argued in terms of mercy. Given that Jesus himself showed solidarity with the suffering and poured out his merciful love upon them, mercy is said to be a distinctive quality of true discipleship. This is correct, but it misses the mark when adopted as an argument in the field of sacramental theology. The entire sacramental economy is a work of divine mercy and it cannot simply be swept aside by an appeal to the same. An objectively false appeal to mercy also runs the risk of trivializing the image of God, by implying that God cannot do other than forgive. The mystery of God includes not only his mercy but also his holiness and his justice. If one were to suppress these characteristics of God and refuse to take sin seriously, ultimately it would not even be possible to bring God’s mercy to man. Jesus encountered the adulteress with great compassion, but he said to her “Go and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). God’s mercy does not dispense us from following his commandments or the rules of the Church. Rather it supplies us with the grace and strength needed to fulfil them, to pick ourselves up after a fall, and to live life in its fullness according to the image of our heavenly Father.
I would quibble with his choice of words “to pick ourselves up after a fall” – it is after all precisely the power of God’s grace which raises us up when we fall – but otherwise he makes a very important point in the passage I have highlighted in bold. There are ways of “showing mercy” which are ultimately not “merciful” because they subvert justice and truth. The miracle of the paschal mystery, the fruits of which are bestowed upon us by the “entire sacramental economy”, is that in Christ Jesus God’s justice and mercy have embraced and (paradoxically) worked in favour of his mercy without denying his justice. He cites the exemplary case of Jesus words to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Interestingly, along the way, Archbishop Mueller makes direct reference to the Greek Orthodox practice of regarding second or third marriages within the category of “oikonomia” – a practice that historically arose directly out of the fact the Patriarch of Constantinople was willing to grant for the Emperor what the Pope of Rome refused to the King of England.
All that being said, there are those who are now saying that by publishing his article, Archbishop Mueller, the Pope’s man in charge of the doctrine of the faith, is “subverting” Pope Francis’ own purported desire to change the Church’s teaching on these matters.
Who is right on these matters? Well, we shall see. But it is important to note that, in restating the Church’s teaching on marriage and divorce and the reasons for the Church’s practice in this important pastoral area, Archbishop Mueller has done everyone a favour. If a way is to be found in which the Church becomes a more faithful steward of the mercies and mysteries of God, then that is greatly to be desired. But she cannot be an unfaithful steward in these matters and then excuse herself to her Lord by saying “I was only doing what you would have done.”