After a decade of slow steps, Pope Francis may change how the church treats couples who have split. It would be a powerful shift
Wednesday 5 February 2014 08.15 EST
By Elizabeth Scalia
Pope Francis has called the Catholic Church a ‘field hospital’ for the world.
Thirty or so years ago, two very dear friends were married in a nuptial mass, and for a gospel reading they chose Mark 10:2-9, which includes this passage:
But from the beginning of creation, ‘God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, no human being must separate.”
Even in Jesus’ day, divorce was a theological challenge.
For the bride and groom the reading was a pledge of determination; one of them was still reeling from the recent divorce of parents married for over 20 years, and the subsequent remarriage of the mother.
The divorce created anxiety before the wedding: would the mother present herself for communion? We brilliant twentysomethings mused on it over wine and cheese, noting that from a purely legalistic view, the mother had ex-communicated herself by remarrying outside the church, and before attaining an annulment. Finally, in vino veritas, one pertinent fact came to the fore: “She never loved my father,” said our friend. “Her family wanted the marriage, and she was obedient, but she never loved him.”
Oh. That does matter in the grand scheme of things – where sin and sacraments are concerned, intentions matter.
Prior to the divorce, this had been a family of practicing Catholics. Three decades later, the mother is fulfilled in her healthy, loving, second marriage but still removed from the church, as are all of her children and grandchildren. If you ask them, they will tell you they’re Catholic, but only nominally; everyone has been baptized and confirmed, but no one attends Mass or observes Holy Days – not even Christmas. Whether the grandchildren will feel compelled to baptize their own children is unknowable, but we can hazard a guess.
Within four generations, a previously-faithful family has experienced a categorical move away from Catholicism, trending toward 21st century “None-ism” (a belief in not much of anything) and that trajectory can be traced to a civil divorce that was met by inadequate outreach and, likely, inadequate catechesis.
It’s precisely because of stories like these that Pope Francis has called for an Extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the Family. This month, in anticipation of it, the pope will meet with the eight cardinals who advise him to discuss the pastoral care of the modern family, which has been wracked by divorce, redefined by secular interests and the sexual revolution, and is in dire need of spiritual direction and large slices of capital “T” Truth, served up with generous dollops of mercy.
They will be looking at data culled from a recent questionnaire sent to diocese around the world, which asked specific questions about matters of divorce, same-sex partnerships and the children being raised within them, in preparation for October’s Synod. By all accounts the question of divorce and annulment will be a primary focus.