The media, being completely ignorant of the very fundamentals of Catholicism, can see the transition from the papacy of Benedict to the papacy of Francis only in political terms: Benedict the “conservative”; Francis the “liberal”. First pope from the Americas. Blah blah.
But any educated and knowledgeable Catholic would understand that the most revolutionary aspect of the Francis papacy is that he’s a Jesuit. The first Jesuit pope. That is a very big deal indeed.
We’ve had limited dealings with Jesuits over the years, and we don’t think they are now what they once were, but we also think it can still be said that the Jesuits as a group are characterized by their formidable intellectual skills and high level of education. This in turn leads to one of the most needful things in evaluating any difficult problem: clarity of thought.
So over the summer Pope Francis issued some “motu propio” document or other about marriage and family and so on and it was called “Instrumentum Laboris” or some such. And among the circles we move in – to the extent we “move” in any “circles” as opposed to being mired in day to day solitary anguish – people are upset that the “liberal” pope is caving in on divorced and remarried Catholics and how they maybe can now get communion and so on, because historically they have been barred from the sacraments.
But it’s plain that Pope Francis, though he be a “liberal”, understands with perfect clarity something that many other high ranking Catholic clerics – bishops and cardinals and whatnot – don’t understand and apparently haven’t understood for a long time: there is no such thing as a divorced and remarried Catholic:
He said that the many problems needing attention can be found in the synod’s instrumentum laboris, but said he was glad to get a question on “Catholic divorce” and clarified that “it doesn’t exist.”
“Either it wasn’t a marriage, and this is nullity — it didn’t exist. And if it did, it’s indissoluble. This is clear.”
Many Catholic leaders outside the United States have noted for years – decades, really – that in the US the Catholic Church has granted all kinds of annulments of marriages so that remarried Catholics wouldn’t be “excommunicated” anymore. And it’s fair to say it’s been a scandal all by itself: you get people born and raised Catholic who married at a mature enough age and have children and then one or both of them flake out and the government grants them a “divorce” and then there’s another marriage and more children and to accommodate all this the Church pretends that they were never married in the first place. Which is, you know, wrong and scandalous.
But there comes a point where perhaps an accommodation must be made, if only because there are so many “divorced” and “re-married” Catholics, or people who call themselves Catholics, or whatever. And as with everything else Catholic, no one needs to reinvent the wheel, it’s all been said and written about before, usually more than once but almost always at least once.
And so here’s St. Thomas Aquinas on “bigamous” marriages:
Article 5. Whether it is lawful for a bigamist to receive a dispensation?
Objection 1. It would seem unlawful for a bigamist to be granted a dispensation. For it is said (Extra, De bigamis, cap. Nuper): “It is not lawful to grant a dispensation to clerics who, as far as they could do so, have taken to themselves a second wife.”
Objection 2. Further, it is not lawful to grant a dispensation from the Divine law. Now whatever is in the canonical writings belongs to the Divine law. Since then in canonical Scripture the Apostle says (1 Timothy 3:2): “It behooveth . . . a bishop to be . . . the husband of one wife,” it would seem that a dispensation cannot be granted in this matter.
Objection 3. Further, no one can receive a dispensation in what is essential to a sacrament. But it is essential to the sacrament of order that the recipient be not irregular, since the signification which is essential to a sacrament is lacking in one who is irregular. Therefore he cannot be granted a dispensation in this.
Objection 4. Further, what is reasonably done cannot be reasonably undone. If, therefore, a bigamist can lawfully receive a dispensation, it was unreasonable that he should be irregular: which is inadmissible.
Further, Pope Martin [Martinus Bracarensis: cap. xliii] says: “If a Reader marry a widow, let him remain a Reader, or if there be need for it, he may receive the Subdiaconate, but no higher order: and the same applies if he should be a bigamist.” Therefore he may at least receive a dispensation as far as the Subdiaconate.
I answer that, Irregularity attaches to bigamy not by natural, but by positive law; nor again is it one of the essentials of order that a man be not a bigamist, which is evident from the fact that if a bigamist present himself for orders, he receives the character. Wherefore the Pope can dispense altogether from such an irregularity; but a bishop, only as regards the minor orders, though some say that in order to prevent religious wandering abroad he can dispense therefrom as regards the major orders in those who wish to serve God in religion.
Reply to Objection 1. This Decretal shows that there is the same difficulty against granting a dispensation in those who have married several wives in fact, as if they had married them in law; but it does not prove that the Pope has no power to grant a dispensation in such cases.
Reply to Objection 2. This is true as regards things belonging to the natural law, and those which are essential to the sacraments, and to faith. But in those which owe their institution to the apostles, since the Church has the same power now as then of setting up and of putting down, she can grant a dispensation through him who holds the primacy.
Reply to Objection 3. Not every signification is essential to a sacrament, but that alone which belongs to the sacramental effect,* and this is not removed by irregularity. [Leonine edition reads “officium,” some read “effectum”; the meaning is the same, and is best rendered as above.]
Reply to Objection 4. In particular cases there is no ratio that applies to all equally, on account of their variety. Hence what is reasonably established for all, in consideration of what happens in the majority of cases, can be with equal reason done away in a certain definite case.
So clearly, if we are to credit St. Thomas – and what thinking person of any faith or none, to say nothing of a Catholic, could fail to credit St. Thomas, Aristotle’s truest disciple? – a dispensation can cure the “irregularity” of a bigamous marriage.
And the pope can grant a dispensation.
Which is not to say that any of this is easy. Popes don’t like to grant dispensations. It’s like presidents and governors granting pardons, and of course every protestant has been waving readily given “indulgences” in every Catholic’s face since the “reformation”.
But just like a jubilee may be the only genuine solution for our financial woes, maybe some sort of mass dispensation for Catholics who have divorced and re-married (sic) is in the works.
Liberal or conservative? Meh. The spiritual wreckage in Catholicism over the last 50 years is a simple fact that must be addressed, and bigamous marriages are a part of that.
Error recognition is a necessary precursor to error correction, someone we know often says. Correctly understanding the error is of course the only way to recognize it, and leave it to the Jesuits: they are still the Catholic Church’s clearest thinkers.