Pope Francis talks with Cardinal Peter Erdo of Esztergom-Budapest, Hungary, relator for the extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family, before the start of the afternoon session on the first working day of the Synod at the Vatican Oct. 6. CNS photo/Paul Haring

Pastoral solutions will come out of local Churches

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  • October 19, 2014

More than 190 bishops and 60 experts have begun a worldwide conversation about how we live our lives, how we love, how all we are and hope to be continues from generation to generation, from hope to glory, from heart to heart. Now, the bishops say, it’s over to you. 

“The dialogue and meeting that took place in the Synod will have to continue in the local Churches,” wrote Cardinal Peter Erdo in the Relatio post disceptationem after a week of presentations. 

That dialogue is a brush fire already burning among Canadians who spend their working lives thinking about the Christian family. 

Msgr. Roch Pagé, canon law professor and senior canonist on the Canadian appeal tribunal for marriage cases, can hardly contain his wide-eyed wonder over all that’s happened since Pope Francis opened the Synod with a speech about frank, honest, pastoral discussion. 

“When he (Pope Francis) mentioned (that we) put on others’ shoulders what we cannot carry ourselves, I said wow, wow, wow, wow,” Pagé told The Catholic Register

For moral theologian Paul Flaman, who teaches on the subjects of marriage, sexuality and family at the University of Alberta’s St. Joseph’s College, watching the Synod is a little like an astrophysicist watching stars form up close. This is a chance to see doctrine develop. 

“There can be a growth of understanding and maybe articulation of new aspects (of doctrine), but that doesn’t mean that we’re going to contradict something that was true before — whether it’s dogma or understanding Jesus’ teaching on marriage. He was the truth incarnate,” Flaman said. 

In the first report out of the Extraordinary Synod on the Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization, Erdo hammers away at the dangers of theorizing and abstract language and the necessity of realism. 

“It is necessary to accept people in their concrete being, to know how to support their search, to encourage the wish for God and the will to feel fully part of the Church,” Erdo writes. 

Whether it’s failed and broken marriages, an institution of marriage increasingly reserved for the diminishing population of the stable middle class, marriages across religious lines, a culture that dismisses ideals of marriage as impossible fairy tales or cumbersome and lengthy annulment processes, it now falls to local Churches to come up with pastoral solutions ahead of the 2015 ordinary Synod, said Erdo. 

“The Synod dialogue has allowed an agreement on some of the more urgent pastoral needs to be entrusted to being made concrete in the individual local Churches, in communion cum Petro et sub Petro,” he wrote. 

That kind of talk can’t come soon enough for Pagé, who believes the primary problem with the annulment process is that it’s being used to solve problems that don’t have a legal solution. 

“After two years and a half on our appeal tribunal, I wonder sometimes whether we do not grant little divorces,” Pagé said. “This is terrible, what I am saying now… I’m not saying there are no unions that are not null at the origin. Clearly there are some weddings that have never been marriages. This is clear to me. I have no problem with that. But I have some problems with borderlines.” 

When real marriages fail, the problem may be social, theological or pastoral — or a combination of all three — but such problems can’t be solved by a court applying the law, Pagé said. 

“To what extent do we not do too much to solve a problem that is first of all not juridical?” he asked. 

Both Pagé and Flaman wonder whether Catholics should think more seriously about what constitutes consummation of a valid marriage. Is there more to it than just sex? Sex by itself doesn’t make a marriage. We don’t pretend consensual sex between a man and a prostitute makes them married, said Flaman. We need to look more deeply at what the Book of Genesis says about how “Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” 

“Hebrew for ‘one flesh’ certainly denoted heterosexual intercourse, but flesh for the Hebrews denoted the whole person,” Flaman said. “So it’s talking about more than just coitus or copulation. It’s talking about a profound union of persons.” 

If people have sex, even under the legal cover of marriage, but reserve a part of themselves, they have in some sense failed to give full marital consent, he said. 

“As persons, if they haven’t given themselves to each other — which in a sense would be true of marital consent — then they are in a sense lying with their bodies. Their bodies are saying they are totally giving and receiving, because that’s the natural language of their bodies,” said Flaman. 

Legally, the Church has the right to dissolve a valid marriage that has not been consummated. If consummation is more than just sex, if it includes the bonum coniugum or good of married life together, then perhaps the Church can reserve the legal process for annulments to cases where there’s a clear absence of consent and then deal pastorally with marriages that have failed to flourish because consummation was never quite there, said Pagé. 

Pagé speculates that this may open the path to the kind of mercy Pope Francis is preaching. 

“My deep conviction is the Church has not gone to the end of her mandate from Jesus to forgive,” he said. “Yesterday, I said Mass to this intention — that the bishops finally realize that a murderer can be forgiven but those who made a bad choice of spouse cannot be forgiven if they choose another one.” 

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