When Cardinal Raymond Burke speaks, people listen. So when I saw NCRegister post an exclusive op-ed written by the His Eminence, I was eager to read. Considering the current debate on “individual conscience” and “discernment” as it pertains to reception of Holy Communion as a civilly divorced and remarried Catholic, I was curious what the sharp-minded, thoughtful, and always-orthodox cardinal had to say.
He first explained the role of the pope and how it relates to the Magisterium along with the purpose of such exhortations that follow synods. More interestingly he included some personal approaches to “irregular” family situations as a priest and bishop, stemming from a childhood experience.
Quoting from the NCRegister and adding my own emphasis:
[A] document which is the fruit of the Synod of Bishops must always be read in the light of the purpose of the Synod itself, namely, to safeguard and foster what the Church has always taught and practiced in accord with her teaching.
In other words, a post-synodal apostolic exhortation, by its very nature, does not propose new doctrine and discipline but applies the perennial doctrine and discipline to the situation of the world at the time.
I was raised on a family dairy farm in rural Wisconsin, the youngest of six children of good Catholic parents. Ten o’clock Sunday Mass at our parish church in the nearby town was clearly at the heart of our life of faith. At a certain point, I became aware of a couple, friends of my parents from a neighboring farm, who were always at Holy Mass but never received Holy Communion. When I asked my father why they never received Holy Communion, he explained to me that the husband was married to another woman and, therefore, could not receive the sacraments.
I recall vividly that my father explained to me the Church’s practice, in fidelity to her teaching, in a serene manner. The discipline obviously made sense to him, and it made sense to me. In fact, his explanation was a primary occasion for me to reflect on the nature of marriage as an indissoluble bond between husband and wife. At the same time, I must say that the parish priest always treated the couple involved with the greatest respect, even as they took part in parish life in a manner appropriate to the irregular state of their union. For my part, I always had the impression that, even though it must have been very difficult to be unable to receive the Sacraments, they were at peace in living according to the truth about their marital state.
Over more than 40 years of priestly life and ministry, during 21 of which I have served as a bishop, I have known numerous other couples in an irregular union for whom I or my brother priests have had pastoral care. Even though their suffering would be clear to any compassionate soul, I have seen ever more clearly over the years that the first sign of respect and love for them is to speak the truth to them with love. In that way, the Church’s teaching is not something which further wounds them but, in truth, frees them for the love of God and their neighbor.
It may be helpful to illustrate one example of the need to interpret the text of Amoris Laetitia with the key of the magisterium. There is frequent reference in the document to the “ideal” of marriage. Such a description of marriage can be misleading. It could lead the reader to think of marriage as an eternal idea to which, in the changing historical circumstances, man and woman more or less conform. But Christian marriage is not an idea; it is a sacrament which confers the grace upon a man and woman to live in faithful, permanent and procreative love of each other. Every Christian couple who validly marry receive, from the moment of their consent, the grace to live the love which they pledge to each other.
Because we all suffer the effects of original sin and because the world in which we live advocates a completely different understanding of marriage, the married suffer temptations to betray the objective reality of their love. But Christ always gives the grace for them to remain faithful to that love until death. The only thing that can limit them in their faithful response is their failure to respond to the grace given them in the sacrament of Holy Matrimony. In other words, their struggle is not with some idea imposed upon them by the Church. Their struggle is with the forces which would lead them to betray the reality of Christ’s life within them.
Over the years and, in a particular way, during the past two years, I have met many men and women who, for whatever reason, are separated or divorced from their spouse, but who are living in fidelity to the truth of their marriage and continuing to pray daily for the eternal salvation of their spouse, even if he or she has abandoned them. In our conversations, they acknowledge the suffering involved but, above all, the profound peace which is theirs in remaining faithful to their marriage.
Some say that such a response to separation or divorce constitutes a heroism to which the average member of the faithful cannot be held, but, in truth, we are all called, whatever our state in life, to live heroically. Pope St. John Paul II, at the conclusion of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000, making reference to the words of Our Lord at the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount — “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5, 48) — taught us the heroic nature of our daily life in Christ with these words:
As the [Second Vatican] Council itself explained, this ideal of perfection must not be misunderstood as if it involved some kind of extraordinary existence, possible only for a few “uncommon heroes” of holiness. The ways of holiness are many, according to the vocation of each individual… The time has come to re-propose wholeheartedly to everyone this high standard of ordinary Christian living: the whole life of the Christian community and of Christian families must lead in this direction (Novo Millennio Ineunte, 31).