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Looking at Cbp. Faris’ remarks on marriage

October 24, 2014

Maronite Chorbishop John Faris won’t remember this, but 25 years ago I took his Eastern Canon Law seminar at CUA and was fascinated by it. Since that time, I have seen Faris’ work favorably reviewed several times by the canonical community, such that today one might fairly say, as did the old commercial, When Chorbishop Faris talks, people listen.

That’s why I am concerned over how Faris’ remarks on marriage as presented to the CLSA convention this week are being reported. CLSA papers are published in the annual proceedings so we will eventually be able to read Faris’ remarks directly, but for now, let’s look at what he seems to have said. Faris in italics, my observations in regular font.

Penance can be “a pastoral response to the problem of a marital breakdown and a successive marital union,” he said …

     What “marital union” would that be? The Catechism of the Catholic Church refers to such relationships not as “marital unions” but as “public and permanent adultery” (CCC 2384).

[P]enance, including acts of piety and charity, has a longstanding tradition in the Eastern Church, [and] while penance doesn’t return a situation to the status quo, it does serve a purpose in healing the offender and repairing damage to the ecclesial community, he said.

     Penance (the sacrament thereof) requires, according to the common and constant opinion of learned persons, the penitent’s firm resolve to put away the sin being confessed. How does entering or remaining in “public and permanent adultery”—or at least using that “second marriage” as the occasion for sexual relations appropriate only to married couples—evidence a firm resolve to put away the sin? In the absence of such resolve, how could absolution be conferred and reconciliation be effected?

“Perhaps both the Orthodox and the Catholic Churches could accept the challenge to formulate a pastoral approach that does not abdicate responsibility to consider the facts of the former marriage, the spiritual state of the faithful who are seeking to remarry and the possibility that persons who remarry are not automatically excluded from full communion with the Church,” Chorbishop Faris said.

     Skipping the first two obviously-true assertions, divorced-and-remarried Catholics are not excluded from full communion because the Church says they are excluded, but rather, the Church understands Christ’s words against divorce and remarriage to mean that such persons are excluded from full communion. There is absolutely no point in debating Church practice here unless one directly confronts the words of Christ himself.

A concern among canonists is that adopting “oikonomia” elicits a reaction that the “law has been abandoned and a ‘feel-good’ approach has been adopted,” he said.

     Permit a chuckled, Yup.

But the Catholic Church does have a developed, codified understanding of economy: the dispensation. A dispensation is an administrative act, not a legislative act, that relaxes “the obligation contained in a law but does not affect the juridical stability of the law itself, which retains its force and is not thereby abrogated,” Chorbishop Faris said.

     Dispensation. A canonical concept, to be assessed canonically. Fine. Canon 85 defines dispensation as “the relaxation of a merely ecclesiastical law”. Merely ecclesiastical. But it is two doctrinal truths (each reflected in various ways in canon law) that are involved here, namely, Christ’s rejection of divorce-and-remarriage, and, the obligation to withhold the Eucharist from the publicly unworthy, no? Now, I know of no canonist who holds that the Church has authority to dispense from divine law, so, I do not see how “dispensation” from either divine directive could be granted to allow those entering or living in “public and permanent adultery” to be given holy Communion.

“The dispensation does not affect the juridical stability of the law itself, which prohibits the reception of the Eucharist by those who are generally considered unworthy because of their irregular unions, but does address the spiritual needs of individuals,” he said.

     I do not understand this sentence.

While the law must be upheld, condemning in blanket fashion those who have divorced and sought to remarry doesn’t help the situation, he said.

     Sigh. Defenders of doctrine and traditional practice in this area may have grown accustomed to being portrayed as “condemning” this group or that, but it is still insulting to many discussants. Let’s not go down that path.

“What we need to do is converse. For me, abortion, for example, has no gray areas. But when (we approach) someone who has had an abortion, we have to be merciful. It’s a horrible thing that has happened. But after the cross, God brought life. The Church needs to teach the truth in mercy.”

     No defender of Church teaching on divorce-and-remarriage has the slightest problem with this example. Abortion is a terrible sin but it can be forgiven under the usual conditions (which include the firm resolve never to commit the sin of abortion again). Entering or living in “public and permanent adultery” is a terrible sin but it can be forgiven under the usual conditions (which include the firm resolve not enter or live in such a union as if one were married again). What is not clear about that?

Well, as noted above, we’ll be able to read Cbp. Faris’ actual remarks in due time. Till then I caution against assuming that media reports of his views are accurate and, even if they are accurate, that they admit of no reasonable rebuttal.

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