Sunday, April 10, 2016
A Reflection on the Recent Words of Pope Francis
THE POPE, DIVORCE & COMMUNION
I am not Catholic, and never have been. My wife was Catholic when we first met, but as she was recently divorced, she was struggling with her ambiguous standing in the church to which she had given her time, treasure and effort, with doors closed to communion should she choose to move on in life, as she, indeed, has. In those days, I was able to hear from a personal perspective what it feels like to have doctrine and dogma run over persons and pain. But this week, there were headlines out indicating that things might be changing.
There was an article by Anthony Faiola and Michelle Boorstein with The Washington Post outlining some recent proclamations by Pope Francis that are being interpreted as offering hope and opportunities for those divorced and remarried in the Catholic Church. According to the article, Pope Francis released a family life document Friday that:
“amount to an exultation of traditional marriage while recognizing that life, in his own words, isn’t always ‘perfect.’ Yet rather than judging, he commanded, that church should be a pillar of support.”
The article goes on to say that there is no clear change in church law in the document, but there was a certain vagueness that suggests Pope Francis is supportive of local priests being able to make determinations in a case by case basis whether to allow some divorced/remarried to partake of the Eucharist. Interestingly enough, the statements have met with a very mixed response, with some individuals outright opposed to making any accommodation, equating such actions with “coddling sinners.” Others have complained that the message didn’t go far enough, and wanted the Pope to also address gay marriage positively in the document, which he does not, according to the article. But the fact remains that the pope calls for the church to not take the posture of judgmentalism, but to apply moral teaching in conjunction with compassion and recognizing that,
“the church must deal with the world it lives in, not the world it wants,”
according to the article. The article summarizes the document by saying that it
“emphasizes and reemphasizes a single point: Support families.”
It isn’t my place to tell the Catholic Church what it should or should not do, but I sure seems to me that it is about time their theology begins to address the realities of life on a planet filled with sinful people. After all, when Jesus took on flesh to dwell among us, and gave himself upon the cross as penalty for our sins, he did not offer that grace to a select few, or to those who failed only in certain ways. Time and again in scripture, the new birth commemorated in the Lord’s Supper is offered to “whoever,” “any,” and “all,” not just a select few that people deem worthy to come. After all, the only truly worthy one is Jesus, not any human in any church or church office.
My observation has been that churches of all flavors have wrestled with the realities of divorce and remarriage, and have had difficulty determining how to stand for the sanctity of marriage while also standing for individuals who need grace and encouragement when their marriages come to a screeching halt in divorce.
I appreciate the need to consider each person’s situation on its own merits. The practice of blanket policies have meant that spouses who have been abused, cheated on and neglected have been lumped in with those whose marriages ended because of their having slept around or committed atrocities against a spouse.
I believe the Pope is making a positive step in the right direction, though as I am not Catholic, there are plenty of other issues with which I take exception anyway. But those of us who claim to be followers of Christ, no matter what church affiliation, need to honestly take long, hard looks at ourselves to determine whether we are living and acting in ways that draw people to Christ or push them away.
Being supportive of families can include families in which only one parent remains, or families where children live in more than one home. Those of us who have been through divorce know how critical support in such times can be. As I have said before, the scriptures themselves in both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament make clear provision for the possibility of divorce, even though they also express sorrow over the conditions that lead to divorce and its devastating aftermath.
Personally, I continue to find most telling the ministry of Jesus with the woman at the well described in John 4. Jesus pulled no punches about the woman’s troubled past and present in relationships, and yet she clearly recognized that he had a place for her, and in fact she became one of the best and earliest advocates for Jesus recorded in scripture.
Let me close with a single thought If you have been divorced, and struggle because you find that your church either has no place for you, or chooses to put constraints upon you as a second class Christian, I encourage you to follow the model of that Samaritan woman. She no longer cared what other people thought, because she knew that the most important person of all, the Messiah Jesus, had accepted her and valued her.
God always has a place for “whoever,” whether the church does or not!