Phil Lawler wonders about the pastoral implications of Pope Francis’ pastoral advice in Amoris Laetitia. Consider the plight of “regular” Roman Catholics:
In any Catholic community there will always be some devout believers who, following the Lord’s advice, “Strive to enter by the narrow door.” They will pray often and ardently, try to attend daily Mass, practice their own private devotions, and seek out spiritual direction from priests who demand a lot of them. For these people—let’s call them “high-octane” Catholics—Gresham’s Law will not apply. They are the equivalent of the folks who demand payment in doubloons.
But most Catholics, in most times and places, are not of the high-octane variety. Most “regular” parishioners will do what the Church demands of them, but will not seek out extra rigors. They will attend Sunday Mass on a regular basis, raise their children in the faith, follow the precepts of the Church as they understand them, contribute to the parish. Faithful if not zealous, they will form the backbone of the Catholic community. Nourished by the sacraments and encouraged by their pastors, they will grow in faith; some will eventually become high-octane Catholics.
Now notice how these “regular” Catholics—who sincerely intend to meet their obligations, without taking on extra burdens—are likely to choose between two hypothetical parishes:
In Parish A, Sunday Mass lasts 90 minutes or more; the liturgy is “high” and solemn; the Gregorian chant is unfamiliar. In Parish B, Mass is out in 40 minutes; the hymns sound like (and sometimes are) snappy show tunes.
In Parish A, religious-education classes are demanding, and students who do not master the basic catechism lessons do not advance. In Parish B, teachers assume that “they’re good kids” and don’t worry about details.
In Parish A, when a young couple comes to discuss marriage, and the pastor notices that they list the same home address on their registration forms, he tells them that they must live separately. In Parish B the pastor “doesn’t notice” the matching addresses, and plans for the wedding can move forward.
In Parish A, priests often preach on controversial topics, driving home the Church’s least popular messages, reminding the parishioners of their sins. In Parish B, the homily is always a gentle reminder that we should be kind to one another, and not too rough on ourselves.
Needless to say, high-octane Catholics will flock to Parish A. Regular Catholics will gravitate toward Parish B. Human nature being what it is, most people will choose the less demanding of two options.
Now notice what happens to priests in these parishes when they meet a couple that has been re-married:
In his apostolic exhortation, Pope Francis sets up the model of a pastor who will meet with these couples, help them to review and assess their lives, to repent their past failings, to bring their lives closer to the Christian ideal, and to do everything that they can in their current circumstances to grow in holiness. Exactly how this process will unfold is unclear, because, as the Pope explains, it is impossible to anticipate all the unique circumstances of any individual case. But clearly the Pope is describing a rigorous process, rather than a quick solution.
But what sort of priest would insist on that rigor in his dealings with a remarried couple? The pastor of Parish A, probably. But that pastor would very likely tell the couple that if they wish to receive the sacraments they must live as brother and sister. And the couple, for that matter, if they were active parishioners in Parish A, would probably have reached that conclusion for themselves already. So Amoris Laetitiae would bring no change in their case.
In Parish B, on the other hand, the pastor—having long ago established the pattern of requiring only the minimum—would be far more likely to tell the couple that they should not worry about details, that they should feel free to receive the Eucharist. In all likelihood he would already have conveyed that message, and they would already be in the Communion line every Sunday. Again, the apostolic exhortation would cause no significant change.
But consider what might happen in the marginal cases, where change is most visible. What will happen to divorced/remarried couples who, after years away from the faith, are inspired by the Pope’s message to return to the fold? If they happen to meet with a priest who expects them to go through a long and difficult process, aren’t they likely to seek a second opinion, and maybe a third, until inevitably, they find a pastor who will welcome them back immediately, with no requirements and no strings attached? Hasn’t that pattern already been clearly established by the young couples who want their wedding scheduled without a demanding marriage-prep program, or want their children confirmed without a rigorous CCD requirement?
This is not exactly the church that was opposed to any trace of modernity for at least 150 years.
Now imagine the real life (fictional couple) of Rex Mottram and Julia Marchmain:
Julia manages to match Sebastian’s dissolute lifestyle through her own acts of intransigence. She eventually plans to marry Rex Mottram, a Protestant Canadian, who has managed to gain a seat in the House of Commons. It is this relationship with Rex that marks Julia’s descent into chronic sin. Julia learns that Rex may be carrying on an affair with a mistress. She thinks that if they become engaged, this can put an end to the affair. When it doesn’t, she then begins to reason that if she is going to keep Rex from being unfaithful, she will have to offer sexual gratification to her fiancé before they are married. Julia justifies this in her own mind and presents the proposition to a priest: “Surely, Father, it can’t be wrong to commit a small sin myself in order to keep him from a much worse one?” The Jesuit responds in the negative and suggests that she make her confession. It is this moment, when Julia does not receive what she wants, that she turns against the faith: “‘No, thank you,’ she said, as though refusing the offer of something in a shop. ‘I don’t think I want to today,’ and walked angrily home. From that moment she shut her mind against her religion.”
During their engagement, Rex agrees to receive instruction so that he can convert to Catholicism. However, matters are exasperated when it is revealed that Rex was previously married and divorced in Canada. Rex does not understand how this can be an impediment to a prospective marriage to Julia and he sees no difference between his divorce and the granting of an annulment. When it is obvious that nothing can be done with only a few weeks before the wedding, Julia and Rex agree to marry in a Protestant ceremony, separating themselves from Catholic society and the Marchmain family. Julia’s intransigence reaches its peak as she voices a modern refusal to recognize objective sin: “I don’t believe these priests know everything. I don’t believe in hell for things like that. I don’t know that I believe in it for anything.”
So which priest would Rex and Julia seek? Parish A or Parish B? This writer thinks Parish B’s priest is closer to Pope Francis’ instruction in his apostolic exhortation:
If they were alive today, would Julia and Charles have had to part ways? Amoris Laetitia offers alternatives: “Because of forms of conditioning and mitigating factors, it is possible that in an objective situation of sin – which may not be subjectively culpable, or fully such – a person can be living in God’s grace, can love and can also grow in the life of grace and charity, while receiving the Church’s help to this end.” Couldn’t Julia and Charles have spoken with Father MacKay in the internal forum for the sake of contributing to the “formation of a correct judgment”?
Even the idea of living as brother and sister seems to be impossible in this modern age. While Julia explains to Charles that she plans to “[j]ust go on – alone” this is not a sad revelation because she is finally able to receive God’s mercy and to return to a right relationship with Him. However Amoris Laetitia makes it seem that “going on alone” or abstaining from sexual intercourse is impossible in 2016. Pope Francis explains that “many people, knowing and accepting the possibility of living ‘as brothers and sisters’ which the Church offers them, point out that if certain expressions of intimacy are lacking, ‘it often happens that faithfulness is endangered and the good of the children suffers.’” In the age of Brideshead, one didn’t die if they abstained from sexual intimacy. Apparently, in this sex-obsessed age, it is impossible for one to live without it.
Some will say that no dogma has changed. And sure the dogma of mortal and venial sins have not changed. But if priests’ pastoral counsel, with a green light from the magisterium, is defective by not warning the flock from sin, if it tolerates sinful practices under the guise of being pastoral, something has changed.
Evelyn Waugh knew that the Church of England had changed (even when dogma hadn’t). Do Roman Catholic apologists think Waugh wouldn’t notice this?