One of the more difficult and stressful decisions a pastor frequently makes is finding a right balance between what the “rules” require and what seems pastorally appropriate but which is not entirely within the rules. In other words, when is the greater good served by making an exception to the rules?
Pope Francis is experiencing this same dilemma on a grander scale these days as he tries to respond to the desire of many divorced and remarried Catholics to participate more fully in the sacramental life of the Church, specifically by taking Communion without benefit of an annulment of their marriage. The rules, strictly applied, exclude these men and women from the table on the theory that they have broken from the Church community. Francis is searching for a pastoral solution which respects the Church’s traditional understanding of Eucharist as the sacrament of authentic unity and its long-standing teaching that only persons who are in true communion with the Church are to be invited to the table. In other words, sharing Eucharist among persons who are not in communion of mind and heart makes little sense.
On the other hand, Francis is well aware of the Church’s equally compelling understanding that rules and doctrines are not stones to throw at people in need and, specifically, that “Eucharist…is not a prize for the perfect, but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak.” The Joy of the Gospel, para.47. Quoting Thomas Aquinas, Francis wrote, “mercy is the greatest of all the virtues.” The Joy of the Gospel, para.37. In other words, Eucharist is not only a sign of existing unity; it also is a remedy for dis-unity. It can effect reconciliation where communion has been damaged or is wanting.
So how to give due consideration to the rules, which, after all, are meant to protect and promote values that are dear to the Church, while at the same time acknowledging the pastoral and other needs of very human men and women? It would not be right to carelessly ignore the rules, as if they served no good purpose. Neither would it be right to mechanically apply the rules in a way that harms some greater interest, or that fails to consider the unique circumstances of the real people who are trying to negotiate a complicated life in good faith. The Gospels repeatedly show Jesus letting go of the rules when their application causes harm to another without at least an equivalent benefit to the community. One who is in the position of applying rules should be mindful of their purpose and the good that they are meant to serve, as well as the situation of the one standing before him.
So what would you do?
Should the priest give the Sacrament of Anointing to one who has just died. The rule is that sacraments are to be given to the living. Code of Canon Law, #1005. Indeed, the purpose of the anointing is to heal and strengthen the one who is ill, to reassure her that Jesus is with her, and even to prepare her for death. Once the person has died, the possibility of benefit to that person is past. But what about the family members who desperately want their loved one to receive this sacrament? Might they be comforted and reassured if the deceased person is anointed?
Or should the priest agree to baptize a child whose parents are not active Catholics, who have no intention of becoming active Catholics, who are, at best, ambivalent about raising the child to be a practicing Catholic, but who nevertheless insist that their child be baptized “so that she can be in a relationship with Jesus?” Catholics believe that baptism is about more than coming into solitary relationship with Jesus. Catholics believe that baptism is about coming into relationship with Jesus precisely by coming into a meaningful relationship with the Catholic Church. Indeed, the rule is that the baptism of an infant is “not licit” if there is no “founded hope that the infant will be brought up in the Catholic religion.” Code of Canon Law, #868.
Or should the priest accept as a baptism sponsor, or godparent, one whom the parents insist that she is a wonderful person and will be a good example to the child, even though this one is not a baptized Catholic? The rule is that, in order to qualify as a baptism sponsor, one must be a baptized Catholic leading a “life of harmony with the (Catholic) faith.” From the Church’s perspective, the purpose of a baptism sponsor (or, for that matter, a
Confirmation sponsor) is to provide an example of faithful, Catholic living. Can one who is not a committed, practicing Catholic carry out this responsibility? Is it even respectful of that one’s good faith choice not to be a Catholic to ask that one to act like a “good Catholic” for the sake of the child?
You who are parents or otherwise in positions where you are responsible for preserving multiple interests which often come into conflict with one another know what this is like. Any decision-making inevitably involves choosing one interest over another. In the end, we all do our best to find a balance that reasonably serves all. As the Jesuits say, “Whatever is for the greater glory of God.”