Pope Francis strives to balance rigor and mercy in family document

Any who follow a path of discipleship with Jesus understand the simple yet profound truth that we are not yet the people we are called to be. Ours is a path, and although the destination draws nearer and is seen more clearly by God’s grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, human nature wounded by sin falls short of perfection rather consistently.

Pope Francis seems to lay before the reader a tightrope upon which the Church treads in dealing with persons whose marriage situations allow only an incomplete participation in the life of the Christian community. Recognizing the pain and isolation of those in such situations, whose spiritual anxiety is reinforced by an intense longing to receive the Most Blessed Sacrament but whose “irregular” marriage situation prevents it, the pope points the way toward discernment, not a facile solution.

This question is not newly found as a source of tension for the Church. It is not a product of the modern world. As evidence of the historical conversation between the commitment to marriage and the reality of human frailty, we need only look to the evolution of ecclesiastical tribunals with procedures and grounds for investigating and judging the validity of marriage. Not every commitment to marry proceeds happily “until death do us part.” It has never been so.

Pope Francis points out that, in the age-old tension between rigor and mercy that arises over one issue and then the next in the life of the Church, the Church always prefers compassion and the exercise of mercy. He terms this “mercy and reinstatement.”

Nonetheless, we can never forget that the foundational doctrine at issue — namely, that remarriage following divorce is a sin — is not a doctrine of human origin. It is a teaching of Our Lord attested by the Gospel writers, and the Church is not competent to change — let alone, ignore — it. That other Christian communities have done so is of no consequence to the Catholic Church: those communities bear the responsibility for explaining a denial of clear teaching from the mouth of Jesus.   

Recognition of this truth — that the prohibition of remarriage following divorce is not merely ecclesiastical law but Divine law — has led the Church to circumscribe its ministry to divorced and remarried persons within categories of law, prohibiting in many cases the application of mercy. This gives rise to an insoluble conflict, when, as an example, an innocent spouse is abandoned by an unfaithful partner. The innocent spouse remains, in the understanding of canon law, married to the spouse who abandoned her (or him). The innocent spouse has no option but to remain unmarried — as Pope Francis points out, an occasion of sin. The unfaithful spouse whose conscience prods him or her decades later to seek mercy is beyond the reach of absolution if traditional categories of penitential disciple are applied, since firm purpose of amendment would seem to demand abandoning the second spouse and family.

The approach to Catholics who are remarried following divorce has in recent times been governed almost exclusively by canon law. The recognition of a marriage as either valid or invalid is an exercise of law. Pope Francis seeks to remind the Church of a principle that every student of canon law learns early and often: the rigor of the law must be tempered by compassion.

For the Catholic Church, a historically rich body of teaching affirms that human beings often make decisions without complete freedom. Pope Francis refers to this traditional understanding of moral modifiers when he points to “mitigating factors and situations” that may inhibit an undiscerning declaration that a person is living in a state of mortal sin and deprived of sanctifying grace. This is not a startlingly new teaching; it is an affirmation of a foundational tenet of Catholic moral theology.

In reminding the Church that categories of moral theology can be applied to the otherwise static view of marriage as either valid or invalid, Pope Francis awakens within the conscience of the Church the awareness that marriage is not a doctrinal or canonical construct, but rather a lived reality between two flawed human beings. He asks that we wade into difficult conversations about moral decision-making when considering a person's current state in life, as well as discernments over legal validity and invalidity.

The onus is placed on pastors of souls to walk with their people in a mutual discernment, applying the tools of both canon law and of moral theology as appropriate to a particular situation. We are reminded that pastoral ministry is an art, requiring a palette of tools to guide the discernment of God’s loving will.

Despite the fact that many secular media sources expected something radically new in this document, Pope Francis rather conservatively notes, “ … neither the Synod nor this Exhortation could be expected to provide a new set of general rules, canonical in nature and applicable to all cases” (No. 300). Rather, the pope invites pastors of souls to draw close to individual persons and enter into conversation with them about their irregular marriage situations, considering both theology and law, and with the necessary conditions of “humility, discretion, love for the Church and her teaching” (No. 231) to seek God’s loving will for that individual in terms of a level of participation in the life of the Church.

This may be disappointing to those who sought a bright line instruction either in affirming the indissolubility of marriage in categories of law, or in accommodating human weakness and sin by opening widely the sacramental life of the Church to those in “irregular” marriage situations. In truth, what Pope Francis teaches is no more and no less than a reminder that the Church walks through history in a way that respects and balances both rigor and mercy, and we walk the path of discipleship best when we do so with humble recognition of our shared need to walk together.

Reverend Monsignor William J. (Bill) King, JCD, is a priest from the Diocese of Harrisburg and an adjunct professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America.