It will suprise no one that I am strongly in favour of what the Pope has recently had to say on the subject of the pastoral care of divorced Catholics. I am one myself, and the current system took a very long time to come to the conclusion which was obvious four years earlier. The idea that it is up to the Bishop, as the successor of the Apostles, to decide such matters in accordance with the laws of the Church, seems wise, sensible and a welcome reinforcement that it is the indvidual bishop, not some conference of them, who exercises the authority to bind and loose. Those whose vivid imaginations had imagined a liberal Pope capitualting to the demands of cardinal Kasper in such matters can calm down. If the repentant sinner cannot find redemption in Christ, whence can he or she find it? For anyone who appreciates the real presence of Our Lord in the Eucharist, the denial of it is torture; indeed, the more so as it denies him, or her, access to the healing which comes from communion with the Lord’s body and blood. It is an unspeakable mercy, it is a blessed balm for what ails us. To be denied it because one is unrepentant is one thing, to be denied it when one is repentant, is another. To be told that true repentance might include ending a marriage concluded outside the Church – with all the personal damage that will impose on others, would be monstrous. This is what mercy is for, and it is mercy that the Church shows here.
It is easy enough for those in a country where the existing tribunals work fairly promptly and efficiently – or at least exist and ought to – to forget about the vast swathes of the Catholic world where none of these things is true – where there are no tribunals and no access to their services. The Holy Father has not forgotten his children in such places. It is clear from the language he, himself, has employed, that he is very mindful of the need not to diminish the significance of the sacrament of marriage, but in acting as he is, he is not doing that; he is exercising the prerogative of mercy. There is no blanket pardon or exemption. it will still be necessary to present a case to the bishop, and he will always have the opinion of not accepting it; repentance and amendment of life are necessary still – as they are always to all of us. We are not rigorists – it is not the case that if we fall away we cannot get up; neither is it the case, as some seem to want, that one can only get up with huge mortification of the flesh and spirit; it is not given to us all to be the stuff of martyrs, and the Church has never demanded that of her children.
As the Pope recently reminded us – ‘if you cannot forgive, you are not a Christian.’ Some seem to think that it is easy to ask for forgiveness, or that the receiving of it should be made hard. But that was not Christ’s way – he asked only for repentance and the attempt to amend life. He did not insist on prolonged and painful penance. As anyone who has sincerely repented of their sins knows, one’s conscience can exact that any way. No, the Church offers what Christ offered to us all. We are, all of us, sinners, we are, none of us, worthy of the sacrifice Christ made for us – but, and what a marvel it is – we are offered forgiveness if we repent. That is the Church, that is Christ, that is the miracle of faith.