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Review by Dr Pravin Thevathasan

Pope Francis, The Family and Divorce:
In Defence of Truth and Mercy

by Stephen Walford
Paulist Press

Here is a book that I have been waiting to go through. It is a commentary on
Amoris Laetitia. It has a preface by Pope Francis and it is endorsed by Cardinals Tobin and Maradiaga. The author also thanks Cardinals Wuerl and Murphy-O'Connor for their help. It is also written by someone who clearly loves the Church and wishes to serve the Church. There is much that is good here. Rather, indeed, like Amoris.

Walford is at pains to point out that Amoris changes nothing as far as Catholic doctrine on marriage is concerned. Marriage was indissoluble before and it remains so after. What Amoris is calling for is a certain realism.

But what does this mean? Supposing you have a couple in a second civil marriage. They love each other and have children. They know they are not married as far as Church teaching is concerned. Indeed, not in accordance with natural law. So, they try sexual abstinence. But this leads one or both to become sexually frustrated. There is the possible danger of the relationship breaking down. The children start to notice that the parents are quarreling. And so, under these difficult circumstances, they engage in sexual activity. They continue to receive Holy Communion without prior confession.

As I understand it, it is accepted that the sexual activity discussed here is not marital. But without sexual activity, a greater evil is committed: the breakdown of the relationship.

So, sexual activity here is seen as preventing a greater evil. To put it another way, God sometimes permits us to commit mortal sins in order to achieve some greater good.

To be fair, this argument is not new. We all know that most practicing Catholic couples are not following the teachings of Humanae Vitae. They have tried NFP but it does not work for them. The husband is often away during the infertile phase. Or the wife is ill during these times. The sex is not spontaneous. Sexual abstinence leads to frustration and possible marital breakdown.

What ought we to say to such couples? Firstly, they ought to be treated with great pastoral sensitivity. If they have reached out to the Church, they are really trying to live their lives as Catholics. They are in difficult situations. There might be failures over and over again. There is one thing the Church cannot teach: to tell people that they can continue to commit mortal sins in order to achieve some greater good. That would quite simply not be the loving thing to do. It is not truthful. Neither is it merciful.

When Amoris first came out, I found it ambiguous. A priest friend told me to read it in accordance with what has always been taught. Most recently, in Familiaris Consortio and Veritatis Splendor. I tried. After all, Pope Francis has become somewhat famous for his ambiguity. His supporters say he is being pastoral. His opponents say he is being a Peronist. I am now convinced that Amoris is a break with Tradition. This book has helped me in deciding this.

Pope Francis has helped me understand what it means to obey the Pope. When a Pope teaches as the successor of Peter on a matter of doctrine and re-iterates what has always been taught, that is infallible. I think of Pope Paul on contraception. Or John Paul on abortion and male only priestly ordination. As far as I am aware, Pope Benedict chose a pastoral approach. So has Francis. Francis has never said: "As the successor of Peter, I declare and define marriage is no longer indissoluble..God wills more than one religion...capital punishment is intrinsically evil...nations can never protect their borders...globalism is the best form of government" etc. This is not his way of doing things and none of his controversial comments have been declared as infallible.

So, Francis has taught me that I should love and respect the Office of Peter. But not everything Peter says requires obedience.

Copyright ©; Dr Pravin Thevathasan 2019

Version: 11th May 2019

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