Heretical Praxis

Reviewing Correctio filialis, I found that I was in substantial agreement about the theoretical problems related to the exhortation Amoris Laetitia, but I regretted that the contradictions of its pastoral implications were not made more explicit.

I have two examples of cases that are to the point here. The first is of a couple I met during the procession to the cemetery of a young man who died of a drug overdose. The half-sister of the deceased and her intended spouse rode with me and we talked a great deal because the cemetery was in another county.

They wanted to get married. However, both of them were Catholics and divorced. Their spouses were living and both had teenage children. I asked whether they had sought a decree of nullity for their marriages. No, they did not want to do that. Their excuse was that they did not want their children to feel they were illegitimate. It is interesting how a concept that is really no longer used in the Church should still have such prestige among Catholics. Illegitimacy has become a civil issue more than an ecclesiastical one. The couple is not the first that stated the question of legitimacy was a serious objection to decrees of nullity.

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The couple wanted to know what I thought about Pope Francis. They hoped that he would change things so that their marriage could be blessed by the Church without the rigmarole of a tribunal process. Didn’t I think Pope Francis had a better idea? Forgiveness and mercy made sense to them and they wanted to be able to receive the sacraments again, including the sacrament of marriage.

When I explained to them that the pope seemed to think they could go to communion and receive the sacrament of Penance but that there was no talk of another church marriage for them, they were confused. I understand their reaction to the inherent ambiguity of the pastoral practice of saying, as Amoris Laetitia seems to do, that one’s sacramental marriage does not have an impact on sacramental practice. But if it was ok to remarry, why wouldn’t there be a church wedding for them?

I wonder myself about couples who live together without marriage. If they are able to marry and don’t do so, should they be denied the sacraments? If people who experience failed marriages can remarry outside the Church and receive some sacraments, why couldn’t baptized Catholics cohabiting but not “ready” for marriage go to communion and penance? What about persons in a second marriage who want to become Catholics? Could they be baptized and/or confirmed even though their marital status was not clarified? If communion is not denied to a Catholic in similar circumstances, why deny baptism or confirmation to someone who did not want to bother with the Petrine or Pauline privileges?

Abigail McCarthy, who chronicled her political life through the prism of her marriage to Senator Eugene McCarthy in Private Faces, Public Places said that her ex-husband was a great friend of some monks who had a university. After visiting some of the monks, Eugene McCarthy had said that theologians no longer consider marriage a sacrament. I thought the remark strange when I read it in the 1970s (Catholic monks returning to Reformation tropes?) but now I wonder if there was some kind of underground movement finally crawling out of the shadows. Didn’t some Roman figure say that maybe Christ’s words about adultery were not ipsissima verba?

The whole swamp of examples about marriage reminds me of an episode in a novel by the Peruvian Nobel Laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. In his Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Vargas has a story about a priest, Padre Seferino Huanca Leyva, who works in the slums of Lima. By very unorthodox means, he is able to persuade the parents to baptize all the children of the poor barrio and then announces to the astonishment of the diocesan chancery that all the couples in the area have been married also. The bishop sends delegates to investigate how that wonder has been achieved because in Lima, like in many parts of Latin America, unions without benefit of clergy abound.

“It was sacrilegiously simple,” writes the novelist. Padre Seferino, “not bothering them with impertinent questions,” just married every couple who came to him. “And as, in this way, many of the residents of the barrio ended up married several times without previously being widowed—given the speed with which unions in the barrio broke up, re-shuffled and were dealt anew—Padre Seferino fixed all the problems involving sin by purifying absolution.”

The story is a kind of reductio ad absurdum of a kind of “fix ‘em up” pastoral strategy that ignores sticky questions of sacramental bonds and law. In the novel, it earns Padre Seferino his “hundredth warning” from the chancery while he continues to be a celebrity priest, loved by the media and a lightning rod of polemics.

The strange story of the “street priest” taken from the plot of a Radio Soap Opera from the novel begins to look like prophecy. I understand the idea that some cases are for internal forum and not external forum. But it seems that the Holy Father wants to make the internal forum an external one. Instead of the exception proving the rule, we have a kind of cognitive dissonance. That is defined as “a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent.” Correctio filialis is really about the “mental discomfort” caused by dissonance.

That leads me to the second practical example. A woman in my parish was divorced and lived alone. She became an Extraordinary Minister of the Eucharist. Because of her age, I had advised her to seek a decree of nullity so that she could discern another marriage. She had no plans for remarriage at the time. A few years later, she moved in with a boyfriend. When I heard of this (I was probably the last to know in the small parish I serve), I took the woman off the active list of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist. She was very unhappy about it and eventually quit the parish because of it.

When I told her that people who served at the liturgy should live according to the guidelines of the Church, she said she didn’t think it was any of my business with whom she lived. I pointed out that all her friends knew and most of the parish also. She did not think I was following the direction of the Holy Father Pope Francis who preaches mercy.

I see her point, but like that witness to the Gospel recognized recently by the Vatican by the issuance of a postage stamp, I am forced to say, “Hier ich stehe, ich kann nicht anders.” But I can’t help wondering whether a future Motu Propio will surprise me unpleasantly.


  • Pastor Ignotus

    Pastor Ignotus, a pseudonym, is a priest from a diocese in the Midwestern United States.

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