I had lunch with Father Thomas Weinandy this past Saturday; he is a Capuchin, the former Warden of Greyfriars s in Oxford and the former doctrinal consultant to the USCCB. He and a group of other theologians published a critique of Amoris Laetitia, and he reiterated his unhappiness with the ambiguity of the document, which seems to allow access to the sacraments to the divorced and remarried, even if they continue to have intercourse. The document is ambiguous, but Pope Francis in a private letter to the Argentine bishops said that indeed that was a valid interpretation.
Weinandy said that intercourse in such circumstances was adultery, forbidden by the Commandments and reinforced by Jesus when he forbade divorce and remarriage. Francis seems to follow those theologians who see obedience to the commandments, at least in sexual matters, as an ideal; but the commandment that forbids adultery is not an ideal, but a command. It is not optional. Obedience to the commandments is required to be in a state of grace and to receive the sacraments.
But I think that Pope Francis, in his work in the barrios of Buenos Aires, frequently encountered situations like these:
- A man and a woman living in a stable relationship with children.
- A man and a woman living in a civil marriage with children.
- A man and a women, one or both of whom had been in a sacramental marriage, living in a stable relationship or civil marriage with children.
What might well happen is that one partner, and I suspect almost always the woman, would have pangs of conscience about their relationship and seek counsel in confession.
The man might not even be a Christian, and even if Catholic might well be, like many Hispanics, anticlerical.
In case one or two, the man might refuse to have the church witness the marriage.
In case three he might well refuse to cease intercourse.
If the woman denies him intercourse, he might well abandon the family, leaving the children without a father and without provision.
The woman is willing to enter into a sacramental marriage (case 1 and 2) or to cease intercourse (case 3), but cannot get her partner to agree.
What is a priest to do? If he insists that the woman deny her partner intercourse before she can receive the sacraments, he might well break up a stable union and the children would suffer, perhaps severely.
In case one and two, she is committing fornication every time she has intercourse; in case three she is committing adultery.
Father Weinandy said these are hard cases, but I suspect they are not at all uncommon, especially among the poor of South America.
Should a priest deny access to the sacraments to the woman? She wants to obey the commandments.
My wife and I have been watching British mysteries; a constant theme is that when the guilty are caught and punished, the innocent suffer as well. Who wants to tell a wife and children that the man in the house is a pedophile or a murderer?
Sometimes there is no way to avoid hurting the innocent. But even detectives, and even more so priests, seek way to avoid hurting children.
I think this is what Francis has encountered. Those who take the strictest line say, Fiat iustitia, ruat caelum; but if at all possible mercy and compassion should be shown to the innocent, the children whose lives would be disrupted at best and perhaps ruined if the priest insists on the strictest obedience to the commandments.
It is hard to justify theologically allowing the woman to receive the sacraments, and Francis made no attempt to do so. It is somewhat like the conundrums surrounding lying. Augustine and Aquinas said that is never under any circumstance allowed to tell a lie – it is an exceptionless norm. But what were the Jesuits to do who had to take on false identities to minister during the English Mission? Or resistance fighters who were protecting Jews from the Nazis?
Can an exceptionless norm have exceptions? Or is willingness to obey the equivalent to obedience to the norm, even if obedience is impossible without injuring the innocent? I don’t know.