3/16/2017 9:00:00 AM BISHOP'S COLUMN Building up the family Divorce, annulment and keeping Catholics active in the Church
LAWYERS' LUNCH: The Catholic Lawyers Guild of the Albany Diocese ushered in the Lent with a Mardi Gras luncheon in Albany at which the guest speaker was Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger, who is a lawyer and guild member. He addressed 28 judges, lawyers and guests on topics including Lent and divorced and remarried Catholics. The Catholic Lawyers Guild allows Catholic lawyers to meet with others of shared values and to discuss issues related to faith and their profession. To learn more, contact Peter Kehoe, firstname.lastname@example.org.
BISHOP SCHARFENBERGER VISITS the Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program last week at the diocesan Pastoral Center in Albany. Certified volunteers, including students from the accounting class at Catholic Central High School in Troy, file income tax returns at no cost for clients who have a yearly income of $54,000 or less. VITA is a combined program of Catholic Charities and the CA$H Coalition. See www.cashgreatercapitalregion.org or call 211. (Kathleen Lamanna photo)
'Lent is a time for reconnecting with our spiritual energy, our spiritual source, our spiritual guide -- which is Jesus Himself. The discipline of Lent, which involves prayer, fasting or penance, and charitable giving...helps us to make connections. We can't do that alone. We need some help -- and that's what Lent is all about.'
Bishop Scharfenberger, from a Lenten video series produced by the diocesan offices of Prayer and Worship, Information Technology and Communications. Watch the series at at www.rcda.org.
BY BISHOP EDWARD B. SCHARFENBERGER
(Editor's note: This column is the last in a three-part series on marriage and on support for those in marital stress or collapse. Read previous columns at www.evangelist.org.)
Following the 2014-15 Synods of Bishops on the Family, Pope Francis issued his apostolic exhortation, "Amoris Laetitia" ("The Joy of Love"), which I have described as a "pep talk" to encourage us all to support family life, especially where it is most vulnerable.
In troubled marriages, single-parent homes and unions that are not sacramental because some essential ingredient needs to be added, people often feel they are not welcome, or even feel shunned by the Church.
One of the most dramatic and painful sanctions that the Church employs on rare occasions is excommunication. Although certain actions on the part of an individual may bring this on automatically, in most cases this only occurs after warnings about the consequences of persisting in manifest and seriously sinful behavior.
What is often not realized, even by the faithful, is that the purpose of such a sanction is not primarily to punish -- though being cut off from holy communion is about the worst state imaginable -- but to motivate the person to make amends and return to the full practice of the faith.
Many people assume divorced people are excommunicated somehow just for being civilly divorced. This is not so, nor has it ever been so!
There was a period of time where, in the United States, divorced persons who attempted a new civil (or non-canonical: that is, not recognized as lawful by Church law) union did, in fact, incur this sanction. That was because the U.S. bishops specifically requested that the Holy See impose this sanction for a period of time in which they thought this might discourage the growing practice of divorce.
That period was from roughly the time of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore (1884), when many states were passing permissive divorce legislation, until 1977, when Pope Paul VI lifted this sanction -- again, at the request of the U.S. bishops -- because it was deemed ineffective and detrimental.
No divorced person today, therefore -- whether civilly married a second time or not -- is excommunicated for that reason.
Even knowing this, however, many divorced persons feel cut off or even stigmatized by the Church or by people who do not know or understand Church law. Divorced people who are living a single life or, at any rate, avoiding any cohabitation that includes the physical intimacy reserved to the marriage state alone, are in no way to be regarded as reprobates or second-class church members.
Furthermore, if they are canonically remarried after a Church annulment, they remain in full communion with the Church.
Difficult cases have always arisen where Catholics are living in another (non-canonical) union. They are even more complicated when there are children for whom they are clearly responsible, whether their own or those of their partner, adopted or not.
The first thing to note is that they remain our brothers and sisters, whom we love and wish to bring both the truth of our faith and to God's healing mercy, which always provides the grace to take the necessary steps to live the truth of the faith.
However, we need to accompany them, as Pope Francis exhorts us. This is not a journey that they can or should make alone. Church doctrine on the indissolubility of a valid marriage has not and cannot be changed, despite some confusing reports we have been hearing, since it is based on the clear teachings of Jesus Christ.
The first step in extending mercy is to tell the truth. The second step, then, is to walk the walk together toward living that truth.
As Church, we proactively support and promote marriage and family life as central to our mission. The Church is family, after all, and a family for those without family. The Catholic Church will continue to teach and witness to the sanctity of marriage and family life, supporting it in every way through its institutions and programs.
Where marriages run into difficulties, referral to professional counseling is always to be recommended first. Most dioceses, including our own, maintain or sponsor such services. The diocesan Tribunal has legal, canonical and pastoral resources which can offer counsel and support to those with serious marriage problems.
The well-skilled and pastoral sensitive Tribunal staff work with persons whose marriage has come to the point where a civil divorce or annulment seems likely or may already have occurred. Every effort is made to assess whether the root causes of the marriage problems can be traced to circumstances at the time of or before the wedding.
Often, people marry for wrong reasons -- to escape violence or hardship, to avoid some form of pressure, to save face or legalize someone's status -- or they simply lack the emotional maturity to know and evaluate themselves or the other person as a suitable candidate for marriage.
No one should assume they do not have sufficient reason or grounds to seek a declaration of invalidity, commonly known as an annulment.
Money should not be a factor. The Diocese assumes all costs.
Often, persons who have entered a subsequent civil union or who may even have children are led to make wrong assumptions about how this might affect their chances or status of their children. No judgment is made or stigma attached to any party, let alone the innocent children. Children are never rendered illegitimate by a decree of invalidity.
A great act of mercy, during the season of Lent, would be to refer a friend to the Tribunal -- or do yourself a favor and make that call!