Penitential path: Theologians discuss promise, pitfalls of process - Catholic Courier

Penitential path: Theologians discuss promise, pitfalls of process

IMAGE: CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz

By Cindy Wooden

VATICAN CITY (CNS) — The discussion at last year’s
extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family was lively — some media coverage
made it sound like a battle — and a new book from the Pontifical Council for the
Family shows the debate continues.

“Family and Church: An Indissoluble Bond,” published this
summer only in Italian, is a collection of presentations by theologians and
canon lawyers gathered by the council for three full days of discussion and

Their consensus is that the church must do something to
present more clearly its teaching on marriage; it must do more to help young
couples prepare for marriage; it must be more effective in helping couples in
trouble; and it must reach out to those who divorced and remarried without an annulment.

At the same time, the text indicates that many bloggers and
reporters are wrong when they try to pigeon-hole church leaders as being in either-or
categories of loving ministers of God’s mercy or strong defenders of God’s
truth. The challenge lies in being both.

The meetings brought together two dozen participants, men
and women, most teaching at pontifical universities in Rome, including the
Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. The
experts — Europeans, an Indian, Africans and South Americans — met in January, February and March.

Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, president of the family council,
told an Italian Catholic magazine that finding pastoral approaches to express
God’s mercy while being faithful to church teaching is complicated. However, he
told Famiglia Cristiana, “It is pharisaical to limit ourselves to repeating
laws and denouncing sins. The church must be frank in admonishing, but it also
must be ready to find new paths to follow.”

One of the paths suggested before and during last year’s
extraordinary Synod of Bishops on the family was a “penitential process” that gradually
would lead some divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to confession, absolution and

Participants at the family council’s meetings explored the
idea, giving suggested steps and highlighting potential pitfalls beginning with
the obvious danger of signaling to the couples and the world at large that
perhaps some sacramental marriages are not indissoluble after all. But doing
nothing, several said, risks signaling that entering a new union — even after
being abandoned by a husband or wife — is the only situation where the church
cannot be a minister of God’s forgiveness.

In his presentation, Father Giampaolo Dianin, an Italian
professor of moral theology, insisted forgiveness is not “some kind of
amnesty.” In Catholic teaching it is “a free and full gift of God which asks
for and provokes a commitment to repair, begin again and rebuild.”

A possible “penitential path,” he said, would include:

— A diocesan bishop appointing a priest or a team of
qualified people to evaluate individual cases and accompany the applicants,
first determining if they have the grounds for an annulment, which would allow
them to have their new union blessed as a marriage.

— For a spouse who was abandoned, the process would aim at
promoting forgiveness of the offending party. For all involved, the process
would include recognizing their sins and ways they contributed to the
destruction of the marriage.

— Evaluating the solidity of the second union and the
commitment of the couple to live seriously as Christians.

— “Readmission to the sacraments could be full or partial.”
Some might maintain that permanent readmission downplays the fact that the
second union is not a sacramental marriage, Father Dianin said; they would
allow the couple to receive absolution and Communion during the Easter season
and on special occasions.

In Father Dianin’s process, there is no requirement that the
couple abstain from sex, living “as brother and sister.” In current church
practice, that is what is required of divorced and civilly remarried Catholics
who want to receive the sacraments.

Father Dianin and several other participants said that
beyond the difficulty, and perhaps impossibility, many couples would have in
fulfilling that requirement, there is a theological problem in suggesting that
the spiritual and corporal aspects of love can and should be separated. In
addition, Father Alberto Bonandi, another theologian, said it gives the message
that the sexual relations in a new union are the only way the couple is living
in conflict with their original marriage bond when, in fact, they have
withdrawn their affection and are building a life with someone else.

Father Eugenio Zanetti disagreed. The Italian canon lawyer
outlined not a “penitential path,” but what he called a “path of conversion to
Love,” meaning to God who is love.

The process would begin with a year of individual and group
prayer and reflection, particularly looking at the obligations that remain to
the spouse and any children from one’s sacramental marriage, he said. During
Lent, the prayer would intensify and the reflection would include attention to
the Christian understanding of sexuality. At the end of Holy Week, the couple
would be invited to confession, “recognizing their sins, including their complex
and not fully correct marriage situation.” As a condition of granting them
absolution, the church would ask for a promise that they abstain from sexual
relations during the Octave of Easter, which would permit them to receive
Communion on Easter and on Divine Mercy Sunday.

Publishers have announced the coming release of other books
on Catholic teaching and the family before the world Synod of Bishops on the
family begins Oct. 4. One of them, coming from Ignatius Press, is: “Eleven
Cardinals Speak on Marriage and the Family: Essays from a Pastoral Viewpoint.”

The book, widely expected to be cautious about broadening
the church’s “penitential path,” is described by the publisher as steering “a
wise and merciful course that engages genuine concerns, while avoiding false
compassion, which compromises both truth and authentic love.”

The discussion and debate continues.

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