The Pope’s homily for Friday, February 28, surely is a trial balloon that has been launched with the Synod on the Family in mind. The past weeks have seen a number of statements and conversations about the debated issue of whether a divorced and remarried person can receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. It would seem that the recent statements made by Cardinal Müller about the indissolubility of marriage and the impossibility of a change in pastoral practice concerning divorced and remarried Catholics would put the question to rest (cf. the recent post on Rorate Caeli). But the voice of the Prefect of the CDF and the Catechism of the Catholic Church seem no longer to put an end to much of anything. Where there is a will, there is a way.
The Pope’s homily this morning was based on the text from the 19th chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, where the Pharisees ask Jesus a pointed question about divorce. There follows the ensuing conversation, ending with Jesus’ clear condemnation of divorce and remarriage. The Pope frames his homily in terms of the "casuistic" attitude of the Pharisees in contrast with Jesus’ response grounded in the love of God in the creation of man and woman. Surely I am not the only one who smiles at the thought of a Jesuit using the term “casuistry” in the most negative way possible: as a sign of the legalism and hypocrisy of the Pharisees. I hope that Suarez, Molina, and even Pascal, can appreciate this irony, not only with respect to the Jesuits being cast as Pharisees, but also with respect to taking away the very basis of the casuistic approach, which, at least in the Catholic Church, is tenderness to the sinner. It is this concern, this tenderness, one may even say love, for the sinner, that drove the casuists. It was for this that some, including Pascal, believed that they had stepped over the line into moral laxity.
In this homily the Pope said (my translation):
“Always the small case. And this is the trap: behind casuistry, behind the casuistic way of thinking, there is always a trap. Always! Against people, against us, and against God, always! ‘But is it lawful to do this? To put aside one’s wife?’ And Jesus responded asking them what the law said and explaining why Moses had instituted that law in that way. But it does not end there. From the casuistry of the Pharisees Jesus goes to the heart of the problem and goes to the days of Creation itself. That point of reference of the Lord is so beautiful: ‘From the beginning of the Creation, God made them male and female. For this reason a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to his wife, and the two become one flesh. In this way they are no longer two, but one flesh.’ ”
One would have expected at this point an exposition of Jesus’ words about the indissolubility of marriage. But this is totally absent. Instead the Holy Father takes up how marriage is used as an icon, so to speak, of the love that God has for his people.
“The Lord takes this love of the masterpiece of creation to explain the love that he has for his people. And a little later: when Paul needs to explain the mystery of Christ, he does so also in relationship, in reference to his Bride: because Christ is married, Christ was married, Christ had been married to the Church, his people. As the Father had married the people of Israel, Christ married his own people. This is the story of love, this is the story of the masterpiece of creation! And before this path of love, before this icon, casuistry falls down and becomes pain. But when a man leaves his father and mother and joins himself to a woman, when he makes himself one flesh with her and goes forward and when this love fails, because it fails so many times, we have to feel the pain of the failure, we have to accompany those persons who have experienced this failure of their own love. Not to condemn them! To walk with them! And to not take a casuistic attitude towards their situation”.
The Pope goes on to describe marriage and family as a sign of love that has the blessing of God and that has not been destroyed even by original sin. His conclusion is that “how close we should be to those brothers and sisters that have had in their lives the misfortune of a failing of love.” He ends the homily in this way:
“We here also need to be attentive that love does not fail! We talk too much of Christ as unmarried: Christ married the Church! And we cannot understand Christ without the Church and without the Church we cannot understand Christ. This is the great masterpiece of the Creation. May the Lord give us all the grace to understand this and also the grace to never fall into the casuistic attitudes of the Pharisees, the Doctors of the Law”.
One cannot help but notice, as remarked above, the absence in the Pope’s homily of a reference to Christ’s words that are the climax to this gospel passage: the teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. This is perplexing not only because of its fundamental role in the Church’s understanding of marriage, but also of the Church’s assertion that marriage is a Sacrament. It is the latter that will be the stumbling block for those who wish to radically change the pastoral practice of the Church regarding divorced and remarried Catholics. One would have thought that a positive Jesuit casuistry would be one route towards approaching this real problem. But Pope Francis in this homily has cast casuistry into the darkness of moral rigorism within a life lived as hypocrisy. What would St. Alphonsus say about this?
A phrase repeated several times in the Pope’s homily is the “failure of love”. It is not clear what this means. In terms of syntax: is love a subjective or an objective genitive? That is, is he speaking of love’s failure or is he speaking of the man and woman in the broken marriage failing to love? If Christ is the Love that binds the man and the woman in the Sacrament of Marriage, then dare we say that Christ has failed to impart his grace that is Love in that marriage, or that somehow he has abandoned that marriage, as if he could abandon the species of bread in the consecrated Host? God forbid! If the “failure of love” means that the couple have refused the grace of the Sacrament, that they have not willed to love each other using that grace, that they have given up on the possibility of love in their marriage: then this is not only tragic and sad, but it is sinful.
Who can deny that the Pope’s concern for the pastoral care of the divorced and remarried is genuine and real? Who can deny that the Church must walk with them in love and caring? But a pastor must never shepherd his sheep forgetting or denying the clear words, the hard sayings, of the Pastor, the only Pastor, He who is the Way, the Truth and the Life. However important it is to be with sinners in this valley of tears, to show them the love of Christ’s Church for them, to care for them, uphold them, we must always remember this: this road of love always leads to the Cross. The pastoral road always ends up on Calvary. It is there that the sinner confronts both his own sinfulness and the means of his salvation. Without a pastor bringing his people to that confrontation: this is a true failure of love.