By FR. KEVIN M. CUSICK
Emotions often figure large in any life. Throw in a divorce, custody disagreements, visitation, remarriages, and then top it all off with faith concerns and you can have quite an emotional firestorm for individuals and families involved.
In a recent discussion among priests, one described a situation of elderly homebound parishioners in second marriages without the Sacrament of Matrimony. He described his decision to give them Communion as “pastoral” despite Church practice against it because they are elderly and the process for a decree of annulment has taken “too long.” He described canon law as being against the needs of persons and an unwanted obstruction. His decision may have been “pastoral” for himself because it made him feel better in a difficult situation, but it was not pastoral for the others involved because it was not based upon truth.
Canon law is not against persons, but rather it is the effort of Church to serve the rights and needs of all in the Church for the common good of salvation. The laws of the Church have been hammered out through a good portion of the 2,000 years of the Church’s history as a result of the effort to provide pastoral care for all.
When a pastor demonizes canon law, he touches upon the doctrine of Christ which it serves for the sake of persons. Every person in the Church has rights and sometimes the rights of one person conflict with those of another. In such a case one of the persons must reasonably expect to get a negative determination.
Canon law should always be honestly described not as the problem, but as part of the solution.
If people don’t receive the answer they were seeking in a request for a declaration of nullity in a previous marriage, they may certainly seek adjudication and a second look. The reaction of saying that the fault lies with canon law because someone does not get the answer he wants is irrational, however. An emotional reaction to a negative determination of a marriage case may indicate a problem of the person and not of the law.
Pastoral care always seeks to give the sacraments to any Catholic who is well disposed and who asks for them. The highest law of the Church is the salvation of souls, and Jesus Christ present through grace in the sacraments is the sole Savior. Choosing God, however, must have an effect on other choices in the life of one who sincerely seeks God. If someone has freely chosen another person incompatibly with a choice for God, then pastoral response is to make them aware of that truth.
Sacraments work by conferring grace. The state of grace is the disposition of living with a clear conscience in well-founded and hopeful expectation of eternal life as St. Paul described it in Scripture. The priest cannot “give” the state of grace by welcoming persons who are gravely sinful to Communion. The priest may not use the sacraments to make himself feel better by papering over an uncomfortably difficult pastoral challenge.
Giving sacraments when they cannot confer grace because of an objective moral lack of disposition may feed egotism, but this also results in a kind of scandal where those receiving them falsely believe they are in expectation of salvation. The priest does not have the power to confer a state of grace when disposition is lacking; he rather perpetrates sacrilege and is responsible for a deception.
Also, the baptized take part in the sacraments as full participants through free cooperation of intellect and will in order to receive grace. The priest restores others to the state of grace under normal circumstances only through absolution in the Sacrament of Confession. When confessing, for example, the penitent must make a sincere intention to avoid the occasions of sin in the future because this is part of sincere sorrow for sin.
Without this the penitent cannot reasonably expect to fully benefit from the grace of the sacrament because full participation in the sacrament is lacking.
Much of the stress surrounding the sacraments results from a lack of knowledge. It’s never too late for anyone, no matter their personal situation, because in danger of death the Church gives everything. The faithful should be encouraged to remain close to the life of the Church, welcoming the visits of the priest if homebound, for example. Family members should ensure that hospitals are aware that a person is Catholic when admitted so that they can receive consistent pastoral care.
Call the priest and inform him when someone becomes sick or receives an adverse diagnosis. Many people assume the priest knows they are ill or under treatment when this is in fact not the case.
We are saved by the grace of faith which requires both intellect and will. This goes for the grace of the sacraments which we must seek with faith and which in turn nourish and confirm our faith in Jesus Christ.
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(Follow Fr. Cusick on Facebook at Reverendo Padre-Kevin Michael Cusick and on Twitter @MCITLFrAphorism. You can email Father at firstname.lastname@example.org.)