Churches urged to develop better pastoral approach to divorce, marriage

St. Louis — Eastern and Western Catholic and Orthodox churches would do well to challenge one another about how they handle divorce and remarriage, said a presenter at a canon law conference.

A pastoral approach that doesn't renounce the indissolubility of the sacrament, yet doesn't automatically exclude the faithful from full communion with the church is needed, according to Maronite Chorbishop John Faris, an assistant professor of canon law at The Catholic University of America.

He spoke to about 350 people Oct. 16 at the 76th annual Canon Law Society of America convention in St. Louis.

In a flight to Rome from Rio de Janeiro in 2013, Pope Francis spoke to reporters about the need for a stronger pastoral approach to marriage and divorced people and made a parenthetical reference to how Orthodox churches handle the breakup of marriages. "The Orthodox have a different practice," he said. They "follow the theology of oikonomia [economy or stewardship], as they call it, and give a second possibility; they permit" a second marriage, the pope had said.

That offhand comment has sparked the interest of canonists "seeking alternative approaches for the pastoral care for the millions of remarried Catholics who cannot receive the Eucharist," Faris said.

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But he stressed that the Orthodox church and Catholic church have failed in two areas: teaching the faithful about the holiness and permanence of marriage; and providing an effective pastoral, healing response to those whose marriages have failed.

"The Catholic church and the Orthodox church both have the responsibility to teach the sanctity and unity of marriage -- which is ultimately designed to help couples get to heaven -- and to be cognizant and merciful when faced with human frailty," he said.

He said a solution could be found through penance and dispensation.

Penance can be "a pastoral response to the problem of a marital breakdown and a successive marital union," he said, adding that penance, including acts of piety and charity, has a long-standing tradition in the Eastern Church. While penance doesn't return a situation to the status quo, it does serve a purpose in healing the offender and repairing damage to the ecclesial community, he said.

"Perhaps both the Orthodox and the Catholic churches could accept the challenge to formulate a pastoral approach that does not abdicate responsibility to consider the facts of the former marriage, the spiritual state of the faithful who are seeking to remarry and the possibility that persons who remarry are not automatically excluded from full communion with the church," Faris said.

A concern among canonists is that adopting oikonomia elicits a reaction that the "law has been abandoned and a 'feel-good' approach has been adopted," he said. But the Catholic church does have a developed, codified understanding of economy: the dispensation.

A dispensation is an administrative act, not a legislative act, that relaxes "the obligation contained in a law but does not affect the juridical stability of the law itself, which retains its force and is not thereby abrogated," Faris said.

"The dispensation does not affect the juridical stability of the law itself, which prohibits the reception of the Eucharist by those who are generally considered unworthy because of their irregular unions, but does address the spiritual needs of individuals," he said.

While the law must be upheld, condemning in blanket fashion those who have divorced and sought to remarry doesn't help the situation, he said. "What we need to do is converse. For me, abortion, for example, has no gray areas. But when (we approach) someone who has had an abortion, we have to be merciful. It's a horrible thing that has happened. But after the cross, God brought life. The church needs to teach the truth in mercy."

[Jennifer Brinker is a staff writer for the St. Louis Review and Catholic St. Louis, the newspaper and magazine, respectively, of the St. Louis archdiocese.]


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