Compassion has nothing to do with it

Back in canon law school, Dr. James Provost once told us soon-to-be-canonists that “Compassion without competence is a cruel hoax.”

A batch of recent articles by solid Catholic writers assures worried readers that Pope Francis has not changed Church doctrine on the permanence of marriage—which he has not, of course, though I guess some rattled Catholics are comforted to hear that; instead, these writers claim, Francis’ changes to the annulment process reflect his desire to inject “compassion” into the process. Now, that latter claim—that Mitis Iudex brings ‘compassion’ to the annulment process—is debatable, but here I pose a preliminary question: What exactly does ‘compassion’ have to do with the annulment process in the first place?

If you had to choose, would you want a compassionate doctor or a competent one, a compassionate accountant or a reliable one, a compassionate airline pilot or a skilled one? Don’t misunderstand: I am all in favor of polite physicians, accounts who care about how my day is going, and pilots who smile and thank me for flying with them. But what I really need is a physician who monitors my cholesterol competently, an accountant who knows whether kids’ braces are deductible, and a pilot who lands us safely at our destination. Compassion, it seems, ain’t always everything; oft times, it’s next to nothing.

Back in canon law school, Dr. James Provost († 2000), an amazing lawyer and teacher, once told us soon-to-be-canonists that “Compassion without competence is a cruel hoax.” He was spot on. People do not turn to physicians, to accountants, to pilots, or to lawyers (civil or canonical) for ‘sympathy’; they turn to these professionals for skilled service and accurate information. Specifically, people do not come to tribunals for ‘compassion’, they come—as pope after pope has taught—to know the truth of their (matrimonial) status in the Church. If some faithful do not understand that point (and frankly some don’t) then it is up to Church leaders and opinion-shapers to remind them that Church tribunals are, first and foremost, in the truth (about the specific marriage before them) business, and that only in the truth is one free to live in the Lord. When various prelates and columnists talk, however, as if they never met a lawyer they didn’t dislike, it is left for canonists themselves to try to explain, albeit to an increasingly biased audience, how canon law serves our religious society—and meanwhile, to bear with the incessant Pharisee jibes.

So let me say it once again: Christ teaches that marriage by its nature is permanent, that remarriage after divorce is adultery, that most things that look like marriage are marriage, but that some things that look like marriage aren’t. Canon law accepts all of these truths and, under the governing power that Christ left to his Church, it defends them, in season and out. Now, in an annulment case, the tribunal asks a single fundamental question: are the two people before it, who appear to be married, really married? The answer to that question has, of course, huge pastoral implications (and helping people to process the answer to that question might well require considerable charity, compassion, and sympathy), but, at its core, this sole question before the tribunal admits only of a yes-no answer: the two people before a tribunal are either (as far as human knowledge can determine) married or they aren’t married. That can be known only by examining the relevant facts of a specific case in light of the applicable law in that case. Law is rarely simple, and human lives never are, but Christ knew all of that when He set before his Church what marriage really is, and what it sometimes isn’t, and charged us to live in accord with that Truth. 

In regard to marriage, there is no substitute for the truth, and in regard to annulments, there is no other path to the truth except that one paved with law and fact. Compassion, quite simply, has nothing to do with it.

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About Edward N. Peters 120 Articles
Edward N. Peters, JD, JCD has doctoral degrees in canon and common law. Since 2005 he has held the Edmund Cardinal Szoka Chair at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit. His personal blog on canon law issues in the news may be accessed at the "In the Light of the Law" site.