This particular blog subject has been “stewing” in my mind for some time now. Quite simply put, can some divorced and remarried be readmitted to the sacraments? The question has received a lot of mileage of late due to a reading of Chapter Eight in Pope Francis’ Post-Synodal Apostolic Instruction entitled Amoris Laetitia (simply “AL” from this point on in this reflection).
The simple and plain fact of the matter is that some divorced and remarried have been returned to the sacraments for years by virtue of what is referred to as the “Internal Forum Solution” or perhaps more simply put, advised by a priest within the sacrament of confession to do so. It is not an approach with which I personally and pastorally feel comfortable as I think most couples who find themselves in this situation want something more than a single priest’s adjudication of their situation. When it is working well (which is not always the case), the annulment process provides a measure of healing and authentication that many Catholics wish and need. It also allows for a marriage ceremony of some type while the “internal forum” approach allows the couple a secret and furtive (in some minds) return to the sacraments.
Internal forum solutions have been applied when one or both of the couples in the second marriage morally and with a deeply formed conscience feel that their first marriage was never a sacramental or real marriage but they just cannot prove it in a canonical procedure. Properly used, the internal forum solution usually follows an unsuccessful search for an annulment decision and rarely should be the first response to the desire for a return to the sacraments.
Neither I nor any bishop has any way of knowing how many Internal Forum Solutions are being utilized in a given diocese for even reporting a number would likely be a violation of the seal of confession. It is simply a pastoral application which begins and ends with a priest in confession.
Some say that “AL” encourages greater and perhaps a more liberal use of this opportunity. Several bishops of this country and of two provinces of Canada have recently said, “oh no it doesn’t.” Several bishops in the area of Buenos Aires, Argentino, have said “yes” it does, only to receive a letter of encouragement from Pope Francis saying basically, “keep at it men, you are on the right track.” So what’s a local bishop like this one to do? In one word, punt.
I have not yet suggested that my priests signal “fair catch,” and then run with the ball. I think the game has yet to begin and it is too early. There is an ambiguity to be found in “AL” which I think is purposely placed there by Pope Francis. I believe he wishes the church universal to talk about this pastoral issue of the divorced and remarried and their readmission to the sacraments in a deeper and more penetrating way than simply a knee-jerk reaction to wrap oneself in history or in the reverse, anything goes. He wishes a conversation, a dialogue and has opened up possibilities of pastorally assisting our sisters and brothers in this situation. He knows that someone who murders another can, if truly contrite, receive absolution for his/her sin, almost instantaneously but someone who made a mistake in choosing a marriage partner at ages 20-26 cannot be as easily forgiven, if ever. He wants his shepherds to accompany them, dialogue with them, explore the possibilities with them, reconcile them whenever possible and recognize the new realities of culture and human behavior, for weal or woe. So how do we move from ambiguity to acuity? Slowly, deliberately, patiently.
First, we bishops should have listening sessions with our priests to gauge their pastoral opinions on this since they deal with it regularly. Many bishops come from academic backgrounds or, as in my case, from bureaucratic backgrounds and don’t always personally feel the human pain and suffering. Our priests can teach us a lot that we have only read or heard about. A presbyterate needs to be as close to one mind on this matter so that a local church responds consistently and clearly. I see this matter as so important that here in the Diocese of St. Petersburg I think that with a new bishop months away, the discussion should await his arrival and participation.
Second, once we bishops have the smell and feel of the sheep from our presbyterates and those who work in tribunals and with marriage cases and particularly with the RCIA program, we need to have an open conversation among ourselves because I feel territorial morality creeping in on this issue. Several bishops (as is their right) have already published guidelines for their dioceses but I know sometimes their next door neighbors do not fully concur. The danger here is something akin to “geographical morality.” There is a committee dealing with this which has been formed but its chair is one who has already spoken his mind on the matter.
Third, lots of other people with fine backgrounds have much to say and offer on this subject. If I had my way, which I do not and will not, I would love the USCCB to hold geographical listening sessions on “AL” before we issue anything – much like was done on the peace and economy pastoral. Father only knows best when he knows the minds of the experts, the daily practitioners, the wise and sometimes even the foolish (not always any harm done).
These are some pastoral thoughts ruminating through my mind. I’m sure I will hear from more than a few in reaction but all I am doing is what Pope Francis asks: discernment, dialogue and accompaniment.