Editor’s note — Bishop Thomas John Paprocki recently delivered the keynote address at the North West Regional Canon Law Convention in Portland, Ore. In addition to his civil law degree, Bishop Paprocki is a respected authority on matters of church law. His remarks before fellow canon lawyers centered on the topics of marriage and divorce, both of which can become muddled unless a clear understanding of canon law is applied. Here are the highlights from his May 2 presentation entitled “Doctrine, Law and Practice in Light of Mitis Iudex and Amoris Laetitia.”
PORTLAND, Ore. — There are many issues pertaining to justice and mercy in relation to doctrine, canon law and pastoral practices regarding marriage and divorce that have arisen, said Bishop Paprocki, from two documents issued by Pope Francis: first, his Apostolic Letter, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, by which the canons of the Code of Canon Law pertaining to cases regarding the nullity of marriage were reformed, effective Dec. 8, 2015; second, his Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation, Amoris Laetitae, on love in the family, issued March 19, 2016.
Addressing the question of whether God is a just judge or a merciful father, the Catholic answer to such a question is not either/or, but both, said Bishop Paprocki. The main point with regard to the theme of mercy and justice is that these attributes of God are not contradictory, inconsistent or incompatible. God is all merciful as well as all just. Just as Jesus is true God and true man without either nature canceling or detracting from the other, God is always merciful and always just.
This must be kept in mind, then, he said, when looking at a practical application of mercy, law and justice in relation to the Post-Synodal Apostolic Exhortation Amoris Laetitia. The Holy Father’s great love of the family is evident in the papal exhortation. At the same time, Bishop Paprocki noted that there are no changes to canon law or church doctrine introduced in this document.
With regard to the question of holy Communion for the divorced and remarried, Pope Francis suggested in footnote 351, “In certain cases, this can include the help of the sacraments.” The qualifier, “in certain cases,” means that there is no indiscriminate, universal or blanket permission for the divorced and civilly remarried to receive holy Communion.Some examples of these certain types of cases would be what is known in the church as the brother-sister solution, in which the couple lives together publicly as husband and wife but abstains from all sexual intercourse. In such cases, the couple who agree to live as brother and sister may receive holy Communion with the approval of the bishop, provided there is no danger of scandal.
Another possible case where a divorced and civilly remarried couple without an annulment may be admitted to holy Communion involves what is known as the internal forum solution. In contrast to the external forum, where acts of ecclesiastical governance are public and verifiable with objective proofs, such as in a diocesan tribunal, the internal forum deals with matters of conscience, such as in confession or spiritual direction. Pope Francis makes reference to the internal forum in Amoris Laetitia, Bishop Paprocki said.
The use of the internal forum solution, however, is premised on being precluded from obtaining an external forum solution. This may be the case when the grounds for invalidity cannot be proved through objective and verifiable evidence, but which may be known to a party with private information that cannot be shared or proven publicly. As in the case of the brother-sister solution, this approach requires a lack of danger of public scandal.
Another possible case would be an impoverished diocese with no canon lawyers and no functioning tribunal. The inaccessibility of the parties to a competent ecclesiastical forum should not be the reason for denying them access to the sacraments if they otherwise have the verifiable proofs needed for a declaration of nullity. In this case, however, Pope Francis has made some rather significant changes to canon law to increase accessibility to an external forum solution. In all cases, an external forum solution is to be preferred not only for the sake of the parties but also for the common good of the church and the well-being of the institution of marriage.
In 2015, Pope Francis issued a document entitled, Mitis Iudex Dominus Iesus, formally changing canon law to expedite and simplify the procedures for handling cases petitioning for a declaration of nullity of marriage. In his presentation, Bishop Paprocki addressed some of these technical changes, which included the elimination of the mandatory appeal.
Bishop Paprocki also addressed the connection between the church’s judicial processes for determining the nullity of marriage and the pastoral care for those who find themselves in the unfortunate situation of a broken marriage. He also explained the proper understanding of conscience in response to those who would prefer to bypass ecclesiastical authority altogether, saying that they just want to “follow their conscience.” For a Catholic, a properly formed conscience means to share God’s knowledge and the church’s teaching about right or wrong.
Bishop Paprocki concluded his talk by reaffirming his agreement with the Holy Father that the gravest problems of marriage and the family in the 21st century have to do with the harsh fact that “the family throughout the world is in crisis.” The best way for us to help families and to show justice, mercy and love to all people is to speak the truth, and act accordingly.