As dust collected on copies of canon law in chanceries after Vatican II, scandals multiplied—grim proof that the widespread indifference to canon law reflected not the presence of “pastoral” concern but its absence.
Even at this late hour, as the aftershocks of scandal continue to reverberate down chancery corridors, many bishops hesitate to apply canon law, regarding it as somehow incompatible with “pastoral ministry.”
The victims of abuse, among others, would disagree. “Canon law, as an instrument of Church governance, declined hugely during Vatican II and in the decades immediately after it,” wrote Justice Yvonne Murphy, identifying one of the main causes of the monumental sex abuse scandal in Ireland.
Pope Benedict XVI is also drawing attention to the malign neglect of canon law and its faithful application. In late January, he delivered an important speech to the Tribunal of the Roman Rota on the dangers of “pseudo-pastoral claims” that distort a proper understanding of canon law.
The explosion of easy and false annulments in recent decades occasioned his observations, but they apply to other scandals in the Church as well, such as the “pastoral” reluctance to withhold Communion from pro-abortion Catholic politicians.
The speech drew upon a central theme of his pontificate: that true charity is inseparable from justice. It is that separation which lies at the root of false pastoral claims and the view of canon law as a relic of a less enlightened era.
“Canon law is at times undervalued, as if it were a mere technical instrument at the service of any given subjective interest, even one that is not founded on truth. Instead, canon law must always be considered in its essential relationship with justice, in the recognition that, in the Church, the goal of juridical activity is the salvation of souls,” he said.
Canon law, in other words, is not contrary to Jesus Christ’s plan for the salvation of souls, but essential to it. Consequently, churchmen who ignore or manipulate canon law are not behaving compassionately but callously, leaving souls in an objective state of sin.
“It is necessary to note the widespread and deeply rooted, though not always evident, tendency to place justice and charity in opposition to one another, as if the two were mutually exclusive,” the Pope said. “In this regard, with reference more specifically to the life of the Church, some maintain that pastoral charity could justify every step towards declaring the nullity of the marriage bond in order to assist people who find themselves in irregular matrimonial situations.”
This is worldly, not Christian, thinking, he said, and he warned against the deception to which it leads.
“One must avoid pseudo-pastoral claims that would situate questions on a purely horizontal plane, in which what matters is to satisfy subjective requests to arrive at a declaration of nullity at any cost, so that the parties may be able to overcome, among other things, obstacles to receiving the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist…. It would be a false ‘good’ and a grave lack of justice and love to pave the way for them to receive the sacraments nevertheless, and would risk causing them to live in objective contradiction to the truth of their own personal condition.”
Quoting Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict described this “misplaced compassion” as a counterfeit of charity, “sentimentality, pastoral only in appearance.” He called churchmen to courage, which becomes “more relevant the more injustice appears to be the easiest approach to take, insofar as it implies accommodating the desires and expectations of the parties or even the conditioning of the social context.”
He also had pointed words for those working in tribunals that almost operate like annulment assembly lines: “All those who work in the field of law, each according to his proper function, must be guided by justice. I am thinking particularly of the advocates, who must not only pay full attention to respecting the truth of the evidence, but also, as trustworthy lawyers, carefully avoid assuming patronage of causes which, according to their conscience, cannot be objectively supported.”
The self-consciously “pastoral” Catholicism at which the Pope’s speech takes aim has produced few pastors, scattered many flocks, and provided plenty of cover for wolves in sheep’s clothing. No authentically pastoral Catholicism can separate the life of the Church from the law governing it.
The Pope’s words, though directed to tribunals, also shed light on an age that is “pro-child and pro-choice,” talks endlessly about “unconditional love,” then dissolves it hastily through divorce.
He tied many of his remarks back to his encyclical, Caritas in Veritate, in which he warned that cutting off the concept of charity from truth and justice gives rise to a culture where “love becomes an empty shell, to be filled in an arbitrary way” by passing emotions and opinions, and where the word love comes to “mean the opposite.”
As the mounting misery from a culture of death and divorce makes increasingly clear, the separation of charity from justice results in neither.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!