Everyone is on edge waiting to hear what Pope Francis has in mind. Will he lift the ban on divorced and remarried Catholics receiving communion? Will he talk about couples who live together before marriage? Will he address questions on birth control? It’s anyone’s guess as to what direction the October gathering of bishops is going to take.
But recently the pope may have tipped his hand when he presided over the weddings of 20 couples from the Diocese of Rome, many of whom already had children or had been living together.
During the wedding Mass, Pope Francis said, “This is what marriage is all about: man and woman walking together, wherein the husband helps his wife to become ever more a woman, and wherein the woman has the task of helping her husband to become ever more a man. Here we see the reciprocity of differences.”
There is a big question about how the Catholic Church sees marriage here. The key word in the pope’s remarks is “together.” Marriage is about a man and a woman living their married life together, through sickness, financial burdens, good times and bad. But often one party just finds these vows too difficult to live out and strays from marriage into another relationship or simply away from his or her spouse. Any movement away from your spouse betrays an intention to not live out your marriage vows.
In the case of the weddings that the pope presided over recently, it’s clear that he sees these couples moving toward one another in married love, despite their past choices. It’s important to note that living together before marriage is not an impediment to marriage in the Catholic Church. Neither is conceiving a child out of wedlock. So, the Pope isn’t making any changes in Church tradition here. Instead, once again, the difference is tone.
The expectations are mounting also that Pope Francis will lead the Church in the direction of being more compassionate toward Catholics who had every intention of living out their marriage vows, but whose partner did not. We’re talking about annulments.
So, what realistic outcomes can we expect? A gathering like the one about to happen in Rome often raises many issues for discussion and then results in few action items. Recently Providence Bishop Thomas Tobin shared his hope for the upcoming synod:
Well, for starters, can we at least think about simplifying the annulment process so that it’s more akin to the current practice of receiving various dispensations for marriage, handled completely at the local level with the oversight of the Diocesan Bishop? Can we eliminate the necessity of having detailed personal interviews, hefty fees, testimony from witnesses, psychological exams, and automatic appeals to other tribunals?
There are many Catholics who got a divorce from their spouse and are looking to remarry, or may have already remarried (either in another religious tradition or civilly), and they would have preferred to do so within the Catholic Church, especially where both parties wishing to remarry are divorced Catholics.
Most of the marriages I know of that have ended in divorce would very clearly have been eligible for annulment without much need for research. The issues aren’t always complex. It’s often clear that one party or the other did not consider marriage to be a sacrament and had no intention of living out their marital vows. These marriages ended for good reasons, reasons that the annulment process would likely bring out, but it seems that this process often places an undue burden on people and is unnecessarily lengthy.
Pope Francis sees the divorced’s faithfulness to Catholicism — these are the people whom the pope wishes to help. And it appears he’s already working on it with the creation of a commission to study the process of matrimony in the Church.
Revamping the annulment process is the big change that we can look for with regards to the synod. Again, this is not a change in Church teaching, rather it is a huge change in Church administration. The pope is a good Jesuit, and many Jesuits have proven themselves to be excellent administrators. Pope Francis is setting a course for compassion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
The pope explained to the couples at the wedding Mass that marriage is not easy: “Daily life becomes burdensome, even nauseating. The path is not always a smooth one, free of disagreements, otherwise it would not be human. It is a demanding journey, at times difficult, and at times turbulent, but such is life.”
Ever the pragmatist, the pope seems to be sending the message that if you want to get married in the Catholic Church, we should find a way to make that happen. He’s inviting those who have been living together outside of marriage and those who always thought that there was no way they could be married in the Church to reconsider. Because marriage might just be the right opportunity for people to come back to the Church.