What Really Matters Here: Pope Francis on abortion and “annulments”

This will be a long one, because we’ve got two big announcements to look at.  It’s basically two posts attached to each other.  I’ll try to keep it concise.

Last week, the media were all abuzz that Pope Francis is forgiving everyone’s abortions.  Today, the media are all abuzz that Francis is bringing no-fault divorce into the Church.  Both are, of course, gross misrepresentations of what he actually wants to happen.

My intent here is not to “set the record straight” (the best blogger to read for that is Jimmy Akin; here he is on last week’s and this week’s announcements).  My intent is to go beyond the details of the changes, take a closer look at what Francis himself has to say about the changes, and pinpoint the larger lessons we should be learning from him.

First, abortion.

Francis’ decision “to concede to all priests for the Jubilee Year the discretion to absolve of the sin of abortion those who have procured it and who, with contrite heart, seek forgiveness for it” came in the context of a letter to his “front man” for the Jubilee Year of Mercy, Abp. Rino Fisichella.  Francis wrote the lettter to announce the channels of mercy he wishes to open for the faithful in the context of this Jubilee Year.

The largest part of the letter actually covers the plenary indulgence Francis is proclaiming for the Jubilee Year, which is attached to making a pilgrimage through the “Holy Door” of any cathedral or basilica that has set one up for the Jubilee.  (A “Holy Door” is an entrance to the cathedral that has been sealed until the Jubilee begins, when it will be opened again as a symbol of the Church throwing its doors open for the Year’s festivities and welcoming all to the banquet.)

Under the usual circumstances for an indulgence, namely:

  1. Make a good confession within 3 weeks on either side of performing the indulgenced act;
  2. Receive Holy Communion worthily within 3 weeks, etc.;
  3. Pray for the Holy Father and his prayer intentions;
  4. Be free from all attachment to sin, even venial, at the time of performing the indulgenced act (a commonly forgotten requirement)

all the faithful who make a pilgrimage through a Holy Door may receive a plenary indulgence.  Those who are unable, through no fault of their own, to make the pilgrimage may receive the indulgence by fervently uniting their prayers and devotions to the Jubilee message of mercy.  Particularly, those who cannot because they are in prison may receive the indulgence in the prison chapel by thinking of the threshold of their cell as a Holy Door.  We can also obtain the indulgence for the poor souls in Purgatory.

In short, Francis is going out of his way to remove every obstacle to any soul receiving full remission of temporal punishment due to sin during the Jubilee Year.  This mercy is to be denied to no one, especially not to those who would feel closed off from it by circumstances out of their control.

Now, Francis doesn’t tie the abortion issue directly to the plenary indulgence; it is a separate topic.  But by its connection to the Jubilee Year of Mercy and its close proximity to the bit about the indulgence, I think the message is the same: no one must feel closed off from mercy during the Jubilee Year.  The same goes for extending absolution faculties to SSPX priests: the mercy of forgiveness this year is not even denied to those faithful who receive their sacraments illicitly from priests who are not even in communion with the Holy Father!

In these U.S. of A., the abortion grant doesn’t really change anything; almost every U.S. bishop has already extended to all his priests his personal prerogative to remit the excommunication associated with procuring abortion.  But even here, the proclamation is not something to ignore just because we’ve “gotten used to” mercy around here.  (Plus, if a Catholic who has been suffering from exclusion from the Church didn’t yet know she could be absolved, this grant is a new proclamation of mercy to her.)

On to “annulments” .  This is the last time I’ll use that word, because it’s the wrong word.  It implies making something null that was not null before.  Really, a declaration of nullity finds that the marriage was null from the start.  Also, no link to the text this time, unless you can read Italian – or Latin.

Here I will ignore the new norms themselves (though if anyone wants to discuss Jimmy Akin’s #6 and #7 in the comments, I’d be happy to offer my thoughts).  I want to look at Francis’ introduction to the new norms and briefly discuss what I see as the three overarching themes of his desire to simplify the nullity process.  I’ll provide some quotes as well, of my own translation.

First, Francis makes it clear in several places that “the marriage bond is indissoluble” and “the hinge and wellspring of the Christian family”.  An interpretation of this procedural change that suggests Francis is thinking of nullity as “divorce” is a false interpretation.

But Francis recognizes that the disciplines of the Church are “always able to be made more perfect”.  In one sense, this means “easier and more flexible”, so that “the hearts of those faithful who are waiting on the status of their decision should not be kept in darkness for very long”.  This perfectibility also means, though, that “ecclesiastical discipline should be more and more coherent with the truth of the faith that it confesses.”  So in Francis’ view, these changes do not only simplify and speed up the nullity process; they also do a better job than the old ones of representing what marriage and nullity really are.

Second, Francis is requiring the local Bishop to get directly involved in the nullity process much more often than before.  In setting up tribunals, in hearing appeals (which now only happen if a spouse demands it), and now even in deciding the nullity question himself in an accelerated procedure, the Bishop is the point of reference for nullity cases.

Francis is thus recapturing the theological truth of the Bishop’s primacy within his own diocese.  This is not the first time Francis has undid something St. JP2 did, in order to shift the symbolism of authority down the hierarchical ladder.  A major theme of Francis’ pontificate has been rediscovering the meaning of synodality and collegiality between the Pope and his Bishops.  He is insisting that Bishops, “sharers in the ministry of the Church,” be judges of nullity precisely to display the Bishop’s “catholic unity, in faith and discipline, with Peter.”

This doesn’t mean Francis is intentionally diminishing the role of the papacy in the Catholic Church.  He did, after all, convene the panel of canonists to revise these norms and promulgate them himself without even waiting a month to consult the Synod of Bishops on marriage and the family.

But it does mean that he wants the Church to practice the same balance of subsidiarity and solidarity that it preaches to the world.  It’s messy and inefficient as a business plan, but it lets those who know the local situation be the ones in position to handle them, while still maintaining the single unity of the Church.   If the Bishop is the first pastor of his diocese, as we say he is, he should act the part.

(Incidentally, Francis is now allowing two of the three tribunal members to be laypersons.  Another of Francis’ central themes is reclaiming the role of the laity in the life and work of the Church.  To those who complain that making Bishops nullity judges adds to their already oppressive workload, I suspect His Holiness would respond by asking whether the Bishops are wasting time on administrative duties that laypersons could handle just as well – or better, if they have the training.)

Finally, and tying things back into the Jubilee, Francis states that “zeal for the salvation of souls, today no less than yesterday, remains the final end of the Church’s institutions, laws, and norms”.  If it happens that the current nullity process rules are impeding the salvation of souls, “charity and mercy require that the Church make herself close, like a mother, to her children who feel separated from the flock.”  They do seem to deter people from returning to full communion with the Church, so they must be changed.

Again, mercy is an interpretive key.  It is no accident that December 8 – feast of the Immaculate Conception, 50th anniversary of the closing of Vatican II – is also the beginning of the Jubilee Year and plenary indulgence and abortion grant and the date these new norms take effect.  It is vital to Francis that the Church begin the Jubilee Year of Mercy with a bang, bringing forth from the storeroom both new and old vessels of compassion and reconciliation for the faithful who so desperately need it.

And that, dear readers, is more than enough for one post.


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