Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 34: Some More Delicate Cases

Regarding Some More Delicate Cases, we can take this relatively brief numbered section in its entirety. “More delicate” might also be identified as “more difficult,” and I note the pastor John Paul II feels the difficulty quite seriously. Not all will approve of his approach, but I would be strongly inclined to take him at his word. Many human situations present actual difficulty and consternation for pastors, loved ones, friends, and ordinary lay people.

34. I consider it my duty to mention at this point, if very briefly, a pastoral case that the synod dealt with-insofar as it was able to do so-and which it also considered in one of the propositions. I am referring to certain situations, not infrequent today, affecting Christians who wish to continue their sacramental religious practice, but who are prevented from doing so by their personal condition, which is not in harmony with the commitments freely undertaken before God and the church. These are situations which seem particularly delicate and almost inextricable.

The chief of these situations remains the matter of divorced and remarried Christians, both those who are Catholic, as well as non-Catholics who seek Communion with Rome.

The Holy Father recognized two values which are often found in conflict: mercy and truth.

Numerous interventions during the synod, expressing the general thought of the fathers, emphasized the coexistence and mutual influence of two equally important principles in relation to these cases. The first principle is that of compassion and mercy, whereby the church, as the continuer in history of Christ’s presence and work, not wishing the death of the sinner but that the sinner should be converted and live, (Cf Ezekiel 18:23) and careful not to break the bruised reed or to quench the dimly burning wick, (Cf Isaiah 42:3; Matthew 12:20) ever seeks to offer, as far as possible, the path of return to God and of reconciliation with him. The other principle is that of truth and consistency, whereby the church does not agree to call good evil and evil good. Basing herself on these two complementary principles, the church can only invite her children who find themselves in these painful situations to approach the divine mercy by other ways, not however through the sacraments of penance and the eucharist until such time as they have attained the required dispositions.

And yet, in many instances people do call good evil. Undeniably, people have found spouses and children later in life after an earlier error. Sometimes such situations are found after the experience of abuse. It is a sad truth that the objective good of sacramental marriage is tarnished with the evil of intimidation, physical violence, substance abuse, and other sins. While no partner in a marriage is ever totally without fault, it’s an undeniable truth that some offenders bear nearly all the blame for a failed marriage.

It’s a curious thing that penance requires a certain disposition other than contrition. The older I get, the more skepticism I find within for the most serious situations.

On this matter, which also deeply torments our pastoral hearts, it seemed my precise duty to say clear words in the apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio, as regards the case of the divorced and remarried, (Cf Familiaris Consortio 84) and likewise the case of Christians living together in an irregular union.

Torment is a good posture for the pastoral heart where remarriage is concerned, especially long-lasting second marriages, including those committed outside of Roman Catholicism. This is paerhaps a good moment to offer the more pastoral discipline of Eastern Orthodox Christians where divorce is conceded as a human reality, despite a sacramental validity accepted by Rome. Second marriages may be blessed.

Another concern here, one far less frequently encountered, but a situation that impacts many friends and former colleagues in the ordained priesthood:

At the same time and together with the synod, I feel that it is my clear duty to urge the ecclesial communities and especially the bishops to provide all possible assistance to those priests who have fallen short of the grave commitments which they undertook at their ordination and who are living in irregular situations. None of these brothers of ours should feel abandoned by the church.

Doubtless many talented men and women find themselves on the outs because of contracting a marriage after ordination and/or vows. How to discern roots of the problem here? Is it a matter of loneliness and lack of emotional and ministerial support? Is it a failure of discernment before a candidate is trained for priesthood? The only declarations of nullity I’ve seen proffered is when a baptism is conducted in seriously incorrect ways. Does that become the first resort of a priest who wants out–keeping a videotape in case a better offer comes along?

For all those who are not at the present moment in the objective conditions required by the sacrament of penance, the church’s manifestations of maternal kindness, the support of acts of piety apart from sacramental ones, a sincere effort to maintain contact with the Lord, attendance at Mass and the frequent repetition of acts of faith, hope, charity and sorrow made as perfectly as possible can prepare the way for full reconciliation at the hour that providence alone knows.

All true, but much of the Church of today remains focused on sacraments as quasi-magical experiences of grace. Consider how often you’ve experienced a priest preside at a Bible Vigil (not a funeral) or at a non-sacramental celebration of Penance (it’s in the book) and you’ll have a big chunk of the answer.

The simple truth: the Church doesn’t know how to administer mercy in needed ways outside of sacramental rites.

This document is Copyright © 1984 – Libreria Editrice Vatican. The link on the Vatican site is here.


About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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2 Responses to Reconciliatio et Paenitentia 34: Some More Delicate Cases

  1. Liam says:

    The dog that was not barking in the 1984 text here, but very much ruddered the retrenchment on Form III that immediately precedes this section, is the-then status of the reception of Humanae Vitae.

  2. Liam says:

    The yet-older dog that is not barking is the development in Second Millennium Catholicism of treating categories sexual and sexually-adjacent sins anomalously (compared to other categories of sins) as all implicating grave matter in objective terms.

    Changes in the forms of sacrament and adjacent sacramentals don’t really address that.

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