The content for this blog entry has been simmering for some time and, in fact, I wrote the first draft over ten days ago. Why the delay? I wanted to wait, think and pray about its contents, hoping beyond hope that I might simply stimulate others to prayerfully reflect on its contents and claiming only to be the teacher of this local church faith community who makes no claim to infallibility or even to profundity of theological thought. I simply am a pastor who attempts to discern the presence of Christ in the Church I am privileged to lead and to which we are all baptized into belonging.
In the last forty-eight hours I have been made aware that Sister Mary Ann Walsh, RSM, a former colleague of mine at the USCC/NCCB (I wrote about her departure from the Conference staff in this space sometime ago) is about to complete her earthly journey, having been diagnosed with a particularly virulent strain of cancer). Sr. Mary Ann, I dedicate this entry to you and I will see you soon enough with the Lord if I merit what will surely be your reward.
If you have been following the media’s reporting on “Catholic issues” for the past several months, you must have noticed that largely because of Pope Francis, great ink has been spilt on divorce and remarriage in the Church, artificial birth control, same sex marriages, and to a lesser degree women in the Church today. I thought the time might be opportune for me to share with you some of my own thoughts on these subjects which I hope and trust are in line with those of the Holy Father. But I begin with restating one undeniable truth – there has been no change in doctrine or Church teaching in regard to any one or all of these subjects.
On divorce and remarriage, I find it just short of amazing that this Pope is so “connected” with an issue that is largely of North American and European consequence. I say this because while I do not have the exact percentage figures, I would go to the bank with a number akin to 85% of all marriage annulment cases come from the above-mentioned geographies.
Twenty some years ago when I was General Secretary of the US Bishops Conference, I asked my Brazilian counterpart, Bishop Celso Quieroz about how many marriage cases were processed in Brazil, a larger Catholic country than the U.S. He looked at with me with utter amazement and said, “dear Bob, so do you know how long it would take a letter seeking testimony in a case to reach a recipient in Amazonas (the large northwestern state in Brazil) when the mail boat which is the only means of communication comes to the river village maybe once a month?” He led me to believe that in Brazil, there are few formal cases seeking annulments and people largely decide themselves how to deal with the matter.
That Pope Francis has shown interest in this matter I find amazing. Here in the Diocese of St. Petersburg the annual number of formal cases has gone down from approximately 600 per year to the present number of slightly in excess of 200. There are myriad reasons why Catholics no longer seek a review of a prior marriage by the Church, among which are fear of opening older wounds encountered during the civil divorce proceeding; the fear of getting a “no”; the time it takes (an average of slightly in excess of a year including the mandatory review of the first decision by an appellant court in Miami and much longer if one party appeals to Rome); one party believes that there truly was a valid marriage and so the whole process is suspect in their mind; and a general frustration and occasionally anger with the Church, etc.
Every pastor knows of wonderful married couples in his parish who remain faithful despite being denied Eucharist by Church Law and others who just don’t come but wish they could, and still others who having received a negative judgment readmit themselves to Eucharist sometimes with the counsel of a priest and sometimes without. When it works, the tribunal process can be very healing. When it is perceived that it does not work, it is one more source of great pain. I have had two marriages, which I witnessed, which ended in a negative decision (not from the St. Petersburg Tribunal) and in my heart and mind I know the decision was outrageously wrong but there is nothing that can be done. Restating what is clearly not obvious (even the vaunted New York Times a few Sundays ago got it wrong, again), no Catholic is excommunicated because they are divorced, but only when they remarry outside of the Church do they incur the penalty of being unable to receive the Eucharist for even then they are not excommunicated and remain members of the Church.
At a meeting two weeks ago, the pastors of our parishes asked me to abolish all costs associated with the work of the Tribunal and I did that effective February 1, 2015 so let no one here say, “I don’t seek an annulment because I can not afford it.”
What can and will be done this year about this situation. I can honestly say I do not know but I am comforted that the Vicar of Christ feels the pain of many in the Church in second, non-sacramental marriages and that of many priests who wish that at least the process were simplified, or speeded up, or both. Time will tell.
Now to the contraception question which Pope Francis raised himself in several ways during his trip to the Philippines? First, amazingly, he acknowledged that as a priest and bishop, he counseled a woman who was pregnant with her eighth child, all but the first two by caesarian section, that she should do nothing which might render her children motherless. I would bet almost every one of the priests of this country has on occasion offered the same solace and advice. It is now possible because of Pope Francis to speak of the modern day reality of pregnancy and childbirth without fear of ecclesiastical punishment.
Of all the popes of my seventy-three years, I would easily vote Pope Paul VI to have written the best encyclical letters to the whole church, on life, evangelization and the People of God in the post-Vatican II world. I would also proudly say that if someone asked me to direct them to the finest magisterial teaching on marriage, parenting, and conjugal love, without question I would send them to Pope Paul’s Humanae Vitae. So far there really is nothing better.
But what about those few what some consider tendentious paragraphs dealing with artificial birth control. Again, I can embrace Pope Francis who said that his predecessor was being prophetic. I had an uncle who was one of the most loved and best ob-gyn doctors in the Milton, Quincy, Dorchester area of Boston. When I was twenty-seven and Humanae Vitae was issued in a storm of controversy, my Uncle Ed called it prophetic and it confirmed his medical approach to pregnancy. It also cost him mightily not in patients (they still flocked to him) but in serenity in group practice.
However, as Pope Francis acknowledged, Pope Paul VI understood that many would find this teaching hard and would seek the comfort of their own conscience, often with the support of their priests. When Paul issued his encyclical he even allowed national episcopal conferences to demur from its teaching. He was a pastor who saw the need for marriage as a primary albeit only means of propagating the earth and from that every act should be open to propagation, but he knew the world of marriage and family was evolving. Mothers were beginning in great numbers to enter the workplace to support even small families and that was not likely to change. Will Church teaching and doctrine change on contraception; it is too early to tell. As the new Archbishop of Chicago, Blasé Cupich said recently in an interview in Commonweal magazine:
“The Pope has a firm belief that the Spirit of the Risen Lord is working in the lives of people . . . . Ours is a living tradition. It always has been. There is no moment in time that can be so idealized that it undermines the tradition is a living one. It is a living tradition not because of anything we say, but because the Risen Christ is always doing something new in the life of the Church. In Pope Francis’s Evangelii Gaudium , there is a whole section in which he talks about the idea that Christ is always doing something new in the lives of his people as he accompanies them.”
Unless and until there might be some change, Pope Francis is urging us to be pastorally sensitive, compassionate and understanding. What’s wrong with that? Our Holy Father is showing himself to be a deft pastor, a good gauge of the times and needs of people, and a defender of doctrine. It is not an east balancing act or tightrope to walk as some of his detractors are beginning to charge.
I note no Church change at all in approving civil society’s rush to legalize same sex marriage and I can assure all that I for one do not foresee it ever becoming sacramentally possible. However, I do hear Pope Francis in his constant refrain to bishops and priests, religious and laity, to be sensitive and caring of those who feel that they are not just on the periphery of the Church but are ostracized by it. Some of the vehement and I would term hateful language emanating from professed Catholics leads me to pray all the more for these zealots. Every gay or lesbian person is someone’s child and they are also children of God.
Finally [by now that adverb must be music to your eyes – a mixed metaphor if there ever was one], I know a lot of young women who still tolerate us but wonder about us. The news that a pastor in a parish far from here banned female altar servers is causing something of a current media storm and is just one more thing to make a loving, faith-filled mother cringe. I think Pope Francis has some surprises up his sleeve in positioning women in offices of great responsibility in the Church, which will lead to even greater utilization of their talents, gifts, and intelligence. Sister Mary Ann Walsh, Sister Sharon Euart (the first female Associate General of the USCC/NCCB), a religious sister who was General Secretary of an African episcopal conference are all pioneers in a Church structure which must to remain credible avail itself of women’s gifts and presence. Enough already.