Why “Relaxing Pastoral Practice” is a Bad Idea

In little more than a year’s time, Catholics who hope for a potentially disastrous relaxation of the Church’s doctrine and pastoral practice on marriage have made remarkable progress toward achieving that goal.

Last October’s “extraordinary” assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family and the controversial relatio post disceptationem (report after the discussion, issued midway through the meeting) were important steps in that direction. Now a confused and acrimonious debate taking place among Catholics testifies to what has already been achieved. If the proponents of change have their way, the “ordinary” synod assembly next October and Pope Francis’s post-synodal document some time later will bring the process to what they imagine will be a successful conclusion.

There is little doubt that, if they succeed, other elements of Catholic moral teaching will be targeted just as the teaching on marriage, and especially indissolubility, have been. To a considerable extent, in fact, it’s already happening. This makes it doubly important that traditional Catholics understand the arguments for change now being advanced.

To my mind, they boil down to three.

First, the Orthodox in some circumstances permit people in second marriages whose first marriages haven’t been annulled to receive Communion. Since the Orthodox do it, so should we.

Second, the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage isn’t in question here. We’re only talking about pastoral practice, not doctrine.

Third, the teaching is true, but it’s an ideal, not a norm, and it’s unrealistic and unreasonable to insist that ordinary people consistently live up to ideals. The Church needs to show compassion to people with problems, not burden them with rules that it’s impossible for them to keep.

Let’s take these arguments one at a time. First, the Orthodox permit people in second marriages to receive Communion. The best response to this is also the simplest: So what? It’s easy to think of many areas where other churches believe and do things that conflict with what the Catholic Church believes and does. Does it follow that the other churches must be right and the Catholic Church must be wrong?

Yes, the Catholic Church can learn from other churches (as other churches can learn from the Catholic Church). But the case for jettisoning Catholic beliefs and practices in favor of someone else’s must be more rigorous than simply “They do it so we should too.”

“Christ and the Adulteress” by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1540
“Christ and the Adulteress” by Lucas Cranach the Younger, c. 1540

That’s so, especially, because the change envisaged would bring the Church into line with the conventional wisdom of the secular culture. In the present situation, the change being advocated runs head-on into Christ’s stark declaration that someone who puts away a spouse and marries another “commits adultery” (Mt 19:9). Surely that carries more weight than “they do it, and so should we.”

As for the notion that what’s at issue is pastoral practice but not doctrine, that rationalization won’t wash. Pastoral practice and doctrine are distinguishable but not separable. As New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan said recently, “doctrine and pastoral practice are inseparably linked.” Not only that, he added, “the purpose of pastoral practice is to faithfully present the truth of the Gospel precisely as good news for today’s families.”

True, there are some really hard cases involved here – women, especially, who were the innocent parties in the breakup of their first marriages, who remarried for the sake of their children, and who now are genuinely distressed at not being able to receive the sacraments. It’s for their sake that the norms and process of marriage annulment require reexamination, even as these people are offered all the legitimate pastoral solicitude the Church is capable of providing. But none of this should be at the expense of doctrinal integrity.

Finally, there’s the idea that indissolubility is an ideal but not a norm. In real life, it’s said, people always fail to realize ideals inasmuch as these say how things would be in a perfect world, which this one emphatically is not. That being so, the Church not only can but even must make generous allowance for people who fail to realize the ideal of indissolubility, instead of punishing them for not doing something it’s unfair to expect them to do.

Don’t expect, however, to hear anyone say, “The indissolubility of marriage is a beautiful ideal, but it’s only an ideal, and ordinary people can’t be expected to live up to it.” That’s putting it too bluntly. But the principle can be seen already in operation in the case of the teaching on contraception, which often receives the ideal-but-not-a-norm treatment in popular religious discourse.

The great advantage this approach offers to those who buy into it is being able to say sincerely that they accept the doctrine – on contraception or indissolubility or whatever it may be – even as they deny its binding force. If accepted in regard to indissolubility, this will soon spread to other matters: e.g., lying to cover up an honest mistake, having an occasional adulterous fling, aborting a seriously deformed fetus, killing a prisoner in wartime to make other prisoners talk, and much else.

Pope Francis memorably has described the Church as a field hospital busy treating those wounded in battle. Note, though, that he significantly developed this metaphor in his talk at the end the October synod when, along with castigating rigidity, he also cautioned against “the destructive tendency to goodness” [buonismo—perhaps better translated as do-goodism] “that in the name of a deceptive mercy binds the wounds without first curing them and treating them; that treats the symptoms and not the causes and the roots.” This, the Pope said, is “the temptation of the ‘do-gooders,’ of the fearful, and also of the so-called ‘progressives’ and ‘liberals.’”

Whether they recognize it or not, this is what proponents of weakening doctrine and distorting pastoral practice in order to excuse Catholics who’ve divorced and remarried without annulments advocate doing. Let’s hope they don’t succeed.

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw

Russell Shaw is former Secretary for Public Affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference. He is the author of Nothing to Hide and also To Hunt, To Shoot, To Entertain: Clericalism and the Catholic Laity, and his most recent book is American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America (2013).

  • ron a.

    Pastoral relaxation has been going on in the Church for many years now, most notably since the mid-sixties. It’s simply a “slippery slope” where apostasy continues to gain momentum. Hence, “change” has become glorified and euphemistically termed “progress”. (Dare I say “enlightenment”?)

    This idea of “making messes” and not being “comfortable’ in one’s faith are mere justifications for (and manifestations of) the change of Faith that is in progress.

    For many, the result of all the nonsense is confusion, despair and, finally, loss of faith. The time has never been better—in my opinion, to heed Jesus’ words: “Come hither, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, I will give you rest.” Yes, “REST”, in an earnest, conscience directed, eternal vocation before God.

    The ‘vertical’ is where IT all must start, and where IT all will end.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    “First, the Orthodox in some circumstances permit people in second marriages whose first marriages haven’t been annulled to receive Communion. Since the Orthodox do it, so should we.”

    This really does not do justice to this particular argument. Amend it to read, “The Orthodox, following the teaching of the holy Fathers and faithful to the tradition of the Undivided Church, in some circumstances permit…” That is its proponents’ contention.

    Now, the reason to reject this argument is simple: that the teaching of the Church is not something to be searched for in the records of the past; rather it is something to be heard and accepted in the living present. As Cardinal Manning said, “The enunciation of the faith by the living Church of this hour, is the maximum of evidence, both natural and supernatural, as to the fact and the contents of the original revelation. I know what are revealed there not by retrospect, but by listening.”

    Thus, Bl John Henry Newman said of the Orthodox, “they rely on things more than on persons, and go through a round of duties in one and the same way, because they are used to them, and because in consequence they are attached to them, not as having any intelligent faith in a divine oracle which has ordered them; and that in consequence they would start in irritation, as they have started, from such indications of that Oracle’s existence as is necessarily implied in the promulgation of a new definition of faith.”

  • Chris in Maryland

    Should these evils be somehow be “adopted” at he so-called “Synod-on-the-Family” it will be the end of anything serious in the Catholic Church. The young will begin to realize that the Catholic Church’s “call to holiness” is just marketing, per David Warren, just a logo, without The Logos. It would be the end of meaning.

  • Mj anderson

    Would anyone care to guess, if divorced and remarried Catholics are admitted to Communion on the basis of “pastoral care”, how many Catholic couples will be divorced in the following year?

    • Casper

      And for how many would it be a 3rd of 4th divorce? I don’t think that these arguments would be limited to just 2nd marriages.

  • Dave

    Ron A. is right, it is already relaxed. Mr. Shaw points us to what would be a greater disaster, one that would require divine intervention for recovery: a formal change — which, really, is a formal repudiation — of the Church’s teaching. We must pray and fast that this not come about: once the Church capitulates on this, she capitulates on everything.

  • Guest

    My question is, does not an annulment of marriage make the children of said marriage bastards? This is a serious conundrum. I am not saying we should appease sinners, but are we or are we not ALL sinners? I can’t help remembering Jesus telling Mary Magdalene “go and sin no more”. And I personally don’t think I would continue in the Catholic faith and participate in mass if I was never allowed again(that is without paying $5000) to receive communion. Where is the forgiveness? If one goes to confession and repents? Where is the mercy? Our Lord said “I take no pleasure in the death of anyone. Repent and live!” And this fee that is supposed to buy you an annulment? Really? It makes me seriously question those in authority of the catholic faith?! This belief is what drove Martin Luther(who by the way was a devout catholic) out of the catholic faith. To say with said fee we can get you an annulment is seriously troubling and NOT biblical to me. Are not the priests that participated in child sex and the priests that protected them sinners of the worst kind? Yet, they are up on the altars saying mass and giving communion. What are we as catholics to believe then? They confessed and repented? Jesus clearly states in Matthew, “woe to those who are stumbling blocks to the little children”. And yes, I know, priests are mere men, but to forever ban a soul from participating FULLY in mass, unless they pay an onerous fee, rings of corruption to me. Why were the pedophile priests not excommunicated or banned from receiving communion then? For their sins are an abomination! I am sorry to verbalize this, but I think when this scandal came to light, it was forever a fatal wound to the Vatican and all the clergy. The faithful will still practice their faith, but the clergy has been diminished!

    • frkloster

      Yes, we are all sinners. God’s command to stay true to our vows is inviolable. We do not pay $5000 to receive communion. We pay legal fees just like we would to a secular lawyer. The services to investigate and adjudicate canon law cases are not free! It’s not the Judicial Vicar’s fault that someone’s marriage failed! Yes, the Church does have the authority to annul marriages and it is indeed biblical. “Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (MT 16:19)

      How careless of you to throw in the “red herring” of the clergy scandal in 2002. If you are a married man, statistically speaking you have more of a chance being a pedophile than I do as a Catholic priest. Perhaps you are unaware of the many priests who were laicized or had their faculties removed due to their behavior? There were penalties for illicit actions proved before a legitimate ecclesial authority. Your argument in completely incongruous.

      Everyone makes their own bed and Christ is very clear about our judgment in this life and the everlasting sentence to come. For you or anyone else to seemingly defend immoral behavior (divorce and re-marriage) with a veneer of justification since another’s sins have come to light, is hardly a serious argument.

      • JGradGus

        According to the Catholic marriage rites once a couple has declared their consent to be married, the priest prays for God’s blessing on the couple, and declares, “What God has joined, men must not divide.” How then can any Catholic marriage be annulled? How can any man, woman, priest, bishop or tribunal say, ‘oh, one or both of these people did not enter into the marriage in the right frame of mind SO GOD DID NOT JOIN THIS MAN AND THIS WOMAN and this marriage is therefore annulled.’ Seems to me that this is the definition of hubris. A Catholic marriage is either indissoluble or it is not. An annulment is nothing more than a Church sanctioned divorce. The slippery slope the Church is on regarding marriage is not new. It goes back to when the first annulment was granted.

        • allmyusernamesaretaken


          I wouldn’t throw out annulment so quickly.

          What if it turns out that one of the parties in the marriage is already married? Did God join them in a true marriage?

          What if one of the parties deliberately lied about his vows, never intending to keep them in the first place? Would God make a true marriage there?

          Only the Church is qualified to decide such cases.

          I do think it is worth asking whether the ‘immaturity’ of one or both of the parties is really factor that could invalidate a marriage, but annulment itself is absolutely necessary for the Church to do its responsibility of overseeing and adjudicating agreements and disputes among its members.

          The abuse of a thing does not take away its proper use!

    • allmyusernamesaretaken

      I share your frustration, but the comparisons you make aren’t fully reasonable. If a priest were to continue in a sexual relationship after repenting it, then of course he should not receive communion. Nobody is saying that people should be banned from communion just for getting a civil divorce. The problem is civil ‘re-marriage’, which implies a sexual relationship, and thus ongoing and unrepented adultery.

      One cannot get married if one is already married. That would be bigamy. To be married in the Church after a previous Catholic wedding, one has to prove that the first putative marriage was never valid in the first place.

      I’m not sure where the idea that one would be making one’s children bastards by getting an annulment comes in. Even if it were true (which I think it isn’t according to canon law – as long as you were in a putative marriage when they were born, they are considered ‘legitimate’), why in this day and age would such a thing matter to the child?

    • Patti Day

      The Church does not consider children born to a couple in a putative marriage to be bastards. Bastard is a civil term. The cost of anullment proceedings are closer to $500, not $5000, and in many dioceses, like mine, are zero to the parties seeking anullment.

  • Michael Dowd

    To a large extent what is being proposed in the Synod is already de facto in many dioceses. Now instead rendering these abuses quasi legitimate the synod should be taking steps to put a stop to them. This would require that our Bishops refocus their attention on helping us achieve eternal life by emphasizing the need for faith and sacrifice. Christianity without the Cross is meaningless. The Synod by trying to make life easier for some folks could be removing their means of getting to heaven.

  • The mystical body of Christ remains in the Church to the end of time. The Protestant Revolution did not change that. Men have changed for good and for evil for two millennium and here we are. Judas did not undermine the Rock in the beginning and we have Christ’s assurance it will not happen now or ever. Now take a deep breathe and rather than wringing our hands pray, do good and stay strong.

  • pj

    Christ’s words specifically refer to the party that initiates the divorce as the one committing adultery. In this modern world of no-fault divorce, there can indeed be an “innocent party” to a divorce. And “it is not good for man to be alone.” It is not at all clear to me that a non-consenting party to a divorce should be denied anullment; after all the other party’s willingness to divorce for improper purposes suggests they weren’t believers in a catholic conception of marriage. If that were the case, then the pastoral concerns would be addressed without intrusion upon Scripture. And in a country which requires consent from both parties for divorce, which was the case until recently in Christendom, there would be no grounds for anullment and all divorcees would be forbidden communion (justly).

    • Paul

      “Christ’s words specifically refer to the party that initiates the divorce as the one committing adultery.”

      Not quite.

      “But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”

  • Howard Kainz

    Our talk about “can it happen?” is probably superfluous. As I mentioned in my Dec. 13 column last year, if my pastor is correct, he and numerous other parish priests are already granting permission to receive communion to remarried divorcees using “in foro interno” prerogatives. If so, we are dealing with a fait accompli.

  • Sebastian

    As some commentators have pointed out from time to time, this whole issue arises because of the complete abandonment (in practice, at least) of the doctrine regarding worthy reception of the Eucharist. It’s understandable that the civilly divorced and remarried would feel marginalized when they are conspicuously the only ones who don’t receive communion in many parishes. Renewed catechesis about worthy reception and restoration of the three-hour fast would cause the divorced-remarried to be less singled-out as ostensibly the only class of people who can’t receive communion.

    Additionally, this entire debate risks irredeemably obscuring or destroying Catholic teaching on mortal sin. If people who are married to one person but living as if they are married to another person are permitted to receive communion, then presumably any baptized person can receive communion regardless of unrepented mortal sins. Or, alternatively, the definition of mortal sin will be narrowed to the point that it is meaningless–maybe murder will remain a mortal sin but everything equally or less serious than adultery will no longer be a problem.

    An outside observer listening to pronouncements of the previous synod would be astounded to believe that the Church truly believes that there are sins that, if unrepented, will send a person to Hell. For what shall it profit a man if he shall be made to feel “welcomed” or “valued” but lose his own soul?

  • Jim L

    As a lawyer who practices in family law, it is my humble observation that most Catholic couples going through divorce have stopped paying attention to what the Catholic church teaches a long time ago. They are, as a rule, both unaware and uninterested in the idea that a second marriage equals adultery if the first marriage is not annulled. To bend the Church’s doctrine to accommodate the presumed wishes of the largely disinterested seems folly at best. Many describe themselves with secular glee as “recovering catholics.” They will not be storming the Communion lines if the unthinkable happens re the Synod. And those that still seem to care a little probably are in line behind the 90% plus contraceptors cheerily following their consciences and not bothered or burdened by the shackles of Church teaching. And for the tiny minority of faithful souls victimized by divorce, they can and do find relief in the current annulment process (yes of course it could be improved), but it’s there and it works. I do not believe that throwing out the rule book will result in increased Catholic attendance–it will open the already wide flood gates to more fun and hip big box churches who have the same non rules.

    • Pat M

      Bingo. I sometimes wonder if priests and bishops may have a skewed perception because people they encounter are usually on their best behavior, and they get the idea that most divorced Catholics would be helped by this? Hopefully they will also take into consideration viewpoints like yours.

    • Chris in Maryland

      Precisely right…its the phony pretext for something more stupid…and sinister.

    • Jim, thank you sharing your experience as a family lawyer what regrettably are the attitudes of so many Catholics who divorce and blithely remarry with little or no concern for their marriage vows.
      Previously, I stated: “Now take a deep breathe and rather than wringing our hands pray, do good and stay strong.” “Doing good” for those who, tempted or not, separated or not, who honor their marriage vows and remain chaste for the sake of their souls are the virtuous witnesses of their love of God, their children and others in the world. My website, Family and Child, deals with these matters.

  • Rene

    Let’s hope that Pope Francis agrees with you. Let’s hope the bishops (and the Pope) take to heart St. John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation “Familiaris Consortio” passage 84, where the issue of communion to those in invalid second marriages was supposedly settled! Why do they want to revisit this issue with the apparent complicity of Pope Francis? What does this accomplish?

  • ssoldie

    “They knew only too well the intimate bond that unites
    faith with worship, the law of belief with the law of prayer, and so, under the
    pretext of restoring the order of the liturgy to its primitive form, they
    corrupted it in many respects to adapt it to the errors of the

    Leo XIII, Apostolicae Curae

  • Pat M

    Might this also lead to same-sex homosexual couples with a phony marriage certificate from the civil authorities, approaching, hand in hand, for communion? I think the church needs to be very careful they don’t dig their own grave on this issue. They don’t seem to have been too smart so far in how they’ve handled things. They certainly botched the catechesis of contraception. Only a tiny percentage of Catholics fully believe it. I hate to say it, but the bishops appear quite incompetent in these matters. I hope that is not a sin to observe publicly. I pray for them and don’t want to be insulting, but somebody has to tell the emperor he is nude.

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    As for the Orthodox practice, like their one on celibacy, it is the result of the control of Cesaropapiist Emperors on the Church throughout the centuries. This became worse when they finally separated from the See of Rome. Popes repetatedly supported Othodoxy in the various fight which went on there such as Pope Martin I, in the case of monotelism, and several Popes in the case of Inonoclasm and later on in the Photian problem when the Emperor deposed the Patriarch Ignatius and imposed the then layman Photius on the Church of Constantinople. They have deviated from tje Gospel and this has to be a topic of ecumenical dialogue with them.
    As for the notion that indissolubility is an ideal, it has absolutely no support in the Gospel. If it were a mere ideal, Jesus would hardly have contradicted Moses, the most authoritative figure in the whole Old Testament.

  • Dennis Embo

    This may be far afield, but the Church MUST make an unequivocal statement defending both the sanctity of marriage and the impossibility of assigning anything resembling “marriage” to relationships between people of the same sex (their civil contract notwithstanding). Perhaps our Holy Father at this critical time needs to call a general ecumenical council that would, once and for all, and in no uncertain terms (a dogmatic constitution on marriage and the family, no less), put an end to these controversies. Is this a serious crisis or is it not? An ecumenical council dogmatic constitution would (as they say) “nail it.”

  • a fool

    “But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except for unchastities, makes her commits adultery. And whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” Matt. 5:32, Mark 13:31, Luke 21: 33. it is necessary for any divorced couple to go through an Annulment. Purity of the soul is in deed needed to receive the most Pure and Precious Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ The Lord into one’s being. Be worthy of HIM!
    Please, let us follow the Teaching of Jesus Who is The Word made FLESH. His fleshed lived every Word He spoke so to give us “the Way, the Truth and the Life” for us to live and to follow. The Breath that He used to give us His words were Breath of Eternal Life from which Adam was made. Jesus is Eternity! We can’t mess around with His Words!