Pope Francis, marriage, and paper tiger morality


We have to find a new balance. Otherwise, even the moral edifice of the church is likely to
fall like a house of cards
, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel.”
– Pope Francis

Radical, earth-shaking, disruptive policy changes don’t generally happen before subtle hints have been dropped in order to gauge reactions and initiate some low-level discussions. A prudent leader wants to anticipate problems and objections in advance. On several occasions now, Pope Francis has hinted that he would like to relax the Church’s perennial discipline as it pertains to withholding communion from those living in invalid “second unions” (those who have divorced and remarried without an annulment). He believes that the present discipline is “unmerciful”. Yesterday, it was announced that the pope will call an extraordinary session of the Synod of Bishops next year to discuss the matter. This appears to be a subject close to Pope Francis’ heart. His previous remarks on this topic may have seemed unscripted and “off the cuff”, and perhaps subject to translation problems, etc., but he seems very determined to move forward on this subject.

As every Catholic should know, the sacramental theology of the Church requires that communicants be in a state of grace, or free from mortal sin. A person who contracts a civil “marriage” while still validly married to another person is, objectively, living in a state of adultery until this second union is renounced or the first union is canonically annulled. That is reason enough to bar such persons from the reception of the Eucharist. Furthermore, there is the additional problem of scandal, whereby even if such persons were subjectively ignorant of their sin, by publicly receiving communion they would still give scandal to the faithful.

This is a big deal, folks. In theory, I suppose it is possible that Pope Francis could change the longstanding discipline of the Church without, in theory, unraveling the Catholic doctrine of indissoluble marriage. But a change in discipline wouldn’t change the objective reality of sacrilege at the altar. Furthermore, with respect to the faithful, the psychological effect would be devastating, effectively making a mockery of marital “indissolubility” and thereby poisoning every marriage at the outset with an escape clause. I can’t help but think of the insult this would send to thousands of faithful Catholics who, in obedience and faith, have remained faithful to their marriage vows, even when deserted by and divorced from their spouses, and whose fidelity has been – until now – honored by the discipline of the Church.

In the La Cavilta Cattolica interview quoted above, the pope expresses concern that the Church’s “moral edifice” could collapse like a “house of cards” unless the Church finds a “new balance”. He seems to be saying that the Church must relax her disciplines or risk losing her moral authority in the lives of the faithful. The danger is that this “new balance” will itself reduce the Church’s “moral edifice” to a paper tiger.

18 thoughts on “Pope Francis, marriage, and paper tiger morality

  1. Jeff,

    I am worried about this too. I understand that they want to be “pastoral”, but I think you would agree that sometimes being too “pastoral” isn’t being pastoral at all. If this really happens, then what mortal sins can be prohibited from receiving Holy Communion?

    Personally, I don’t see this happening. Is living in an adulterous relationship a mortal sin or not? I don’t see how this definition can be changed. Thus I don’t see how the prohibition can be lifted without the couple changing their relationship.

    In just talking to Lori about this, she thinks the pastoral solution (and I agree) is more effort in teaching Catholics the true meaning of marriage and thus why it is sacred, etc. (Of course this is the whole problem, a largely uncatechized Catholic population.)


  2. Jim, I agree with you, but apparently Pope Francis doesn’t. It’s safe to say that a majority of bishops are unlikely to offer any resistance to the change he wants, and many will be ecstatic about it.

    I can already see the reasoning they will use. “The prohibition of communion is discipline, not dogma, and therefore subject to change.” “Objective sin doesn’t matter, only subjective culpability, and who are we to judge?” “It’s unmerciful to withhold the Eucharist from sinners who need it the most.” “Changing this discipline will remove a huge barrier to reunion with the Eastern Orthodox.” Etc.


    • Well, the Eastern Orthodox have a different theology of marriage than Roman Catholics. Surely the pope knows this. In Orthodoxy, my understanding is that it is the Church that grants the sacramental marriage directly on its own authority, and so it can authoritatively grant an ecclesiastical “divorce”. In Catholicism, the couple is actually the minister of the sacrament, which the Church acting as witness, and the Church does not possess the authority to grant any sort of “divorce”, save an annulment, which, as you know, is not the same thing. So I hardly think the pope is going to do anything like what the Eastern Orthodox do, even if he looks at their theology for what it is.


  3. please, get with the program, pope knows better than you guys, if you don’t believe in democracy, and at least believe in the holy spirit that guides the church. why are you worried about the pope and the changes he proposes?You still live in the middle ages of hypocrisy,external piety and no spirit in your life. Those days are over, don’t you see the pain the church goes thru, because of your low information about reality of life the bishops and priests go thru every day. You guys lived in lie now the truth comes out. You don,t like it. Succuk it up and move on


  4. Hi all,

    This is very strange timing for me. I just posted a comment over at The Sensible Bond about my marriage that was convalidated in 2008 after a grueling two year process of gaining an annulment for my husband’s previous marriage. He left me soon after the convalidation but I have been able to remain faithful to the vows because I believe in the Real Presence and would not dream of committing the sin of sacrilegious communion. The blog owner asked if he could repost my comment on his main page.

    If I can link to my post from Friday October 4th here it is:


    This is not to brag about myself because surely it is only by the gift of the Holy Spirit that I was inspired to remain faithful and by His grace that I feel even more inspired to speak up about the blessings that come with obedience to the True Faith.

    I hope that I will have the strength for the upcoming battle if what we sense might be coming forth from the lips of the pope to water down the “discipline” occurs. I dread another Bergoglio Imbroglio…

    Pray for me as I try to find a way to join in on defending our faith.


  5. Thank you so much! I have just started a blog called psychthomist.wordpress.com thanks to the encouragement received by you, Ches and Mundabor…

    I will attempt to begin over there with sharing my conversion story and recovery from a life entrenched deep in mortal sins of the flesh, involvement in a hindu cult, “meeting” Jesus, and finally being led back to the Catholic faith that my parents abandoned in the Berkeley of the 70’s where I grew up…

    I pray that God will use me to defend His Holy Catholic Church!


      • I have much to learn. I know the sin of calumny involves repeating to others even true things about another person that work to destroy that person’s reputation. I pray never to be guilty of that in responding to our Pope’s remarks or teachings…

        I don’t know if that is what you are referring to but I will take your comment just as a warning to myself to tread very carefully in anything I say and to keep the respect for the Papal Office uppermost in my thoughts.

        I should probably spend more time in prayer than on the internet, especially before posting anything on the new blog! God Bless you and thank you for the encouragement.


  6. “…I can’t help but think of the insult this would send to thousands of faithful Catholics who, in obedience and faith, have remained faithful to their marriage vows, even when deserted by and divorced from their spouses, and whose fidelity has been – until now – honored by the discipline of the Church.”

    That comment rings so very true…as a Catholic spouse who has chosen to honor the vows of my first and only marriage after a forced divorce and specious annulment, I have no doubt that any changes such as you mention would surely cause the gutting of a large part of my defense of my marriage, especially among our children, who have already borne the brunt of the destruction of their nuclear family. To open the doors to the savagery of allowing divorced & re-married Catholics (w/o annulments) to receive the Body and Blood of Our Lord only serves to further weaken a Sacrament, already weakened by the Annulment crisis. It is once again, the Church of Christ bowing to the world, rather than the world bowing to the Church of Christ…it is those breaking the laws getting the Pastoral Care and those abiding by the Law getting the shaft…it is de-sensitizing the Parishioners to what a sublime and august privilege it is to receive the Body and Blood of Christ and makes it just another emotional feel-good practice so law breakers “feel” one-with-the-flock and can go home knowing that they have finally been “accepted”. It is a Free Will choice that put them at odds with Christ’s Church, their family, their friends, their fellow parishioners and Christ. It is they who should change their priorities…not the Church.

    I disagree with the Pope…the Moral edifice of the Church will never collapse, as was promised by Our Lord, despite the best efforts of Her enemies to hasten it.


    • Bai McFarlane on her website http://www.marysadvocates.org does just that…speaking up about the sanctity and indissolubility of marriage, as well as annulment abuses within the US dioceses. It is problematic that the Church presently is only concerned about the “pastoral care” of the divorced-and-remarried, and thinks nothing of the abandoned spouses who neither wanted to nor became willing participants of the civil divorce brought by the other spouse. The US Church pays no heed to the 7 reconciliation Canons in the 1983 Code of Canon Law. Nor do they even contact the other spouse to try and seek reconciliation at the parish level – at least I was not. It is hard to trust that anything of substance will come from the October 2014 meeting, other than maintaining the status quo. Still, we all must continue to pray for the Pope, for the Cardinal members of the commission and especially to the Holy Ghost, that a fruitful outcome will be forthcoming that will restore the Honor and Dignity that is the Sacrament of Matrimony and that will break the cycle of what is, in G.K. Chesterton’s words, “…the philosophic peculiarity of divorce and re–marriage…that a man breaks and makes a promise at the same moment.”


  7. Perhaps what the Holy Father is saying is that in pursuance of the New Evangelization it is the faithful who need to absorb the discipline which emerges from a desire to serve Truth. When Pilate had Truth standing before him, he failed to recognize Him, and used the wrong interrogative pronoun: ‘What is truth’, he asked, when what he should have asked was, ‘Who is Truth’? Perhaps the world, as it often does, assumes it understands the cultural meaning of the words and misses their philosophical import. So far, the Catechism rests.


  8. The pope’s comments about this have been vague, sure, but they do not constitute anything substantial at all by themselves. He has yet to do or say anything specific about it. Why do you insist on stressing out so much with all of this speculation?

    In his comments, Francis is calling attention to a serious and growing social issue, and what he eventually does may not necessarily include any disciplinary change at all. The divorce rate among Catholics is about equal to that of the standard rate, which is horrible. Perhaps this will move the pope to consider something related to reform of marriage preparation. Or perhaps it will call attention to those who are remarried and yet agree to live “as brother and sister” and avoid relations, as many convert couples often have to do if their situation cannot be regularlized – it is a cross they choose to carry. And from what I’ve heard, the synod the pope has called is to address the family, not specifically divorce-and-remarriage, although perhaps that will constitute a part of it.

    There are a lot of things to consider, but let’s stop this conjecture before we even know what may or may not happen. You are only shortening your life by this.


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