You just slip out the back, Jack
Make a new plan, Stan
You don’t need to be coy, Roy
Just listen to me
Hop on the bus, Gus
You don’t need to discuss much
Just drop off the key, Lee
And get yourself free.
Paul Simon, Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover
The pope, too, has a pen and a phone. Has Francis’ motu proprio trumped the Synod? Or handicapped conservatives? Hard to say. But one thing now is certain: Marriage is indissoluble except when it is not. Put another way, indissolubility is revealed to be more soluble than we had previously understood.
Analyses of this latest twist of the mercy spanner have been piling up. Papal apologists offer their expected apologias; critics beg to differ. Among those with differences are some very serious, informed voices. Some insist nothing has changed; neater and kinder is all. Others discern a material shift: The language of endurance—until death do us part—still stands but the substance can be had gluten-free. Annulments are on track to be dispatched in short order; even, according to some commentators, in cases where one spouse contests. And a slam dunk is anticipated if both parties want out. Craft the right narrative, and your marriage never existed.
It is better to leave judgments on the complexities of canon law to others. But impressions are admissible. And, given the range of responses, the overriding impression is one of calculated incoherence and premeditated chaos. It is disquieting, this sense that the confusion is intended—that the Year of Mercy is a feint. Disarray begins to look like the opening move in an endgame designed to bring the Church into more congenial conformity with the world it was charged to leaven.
Are we witnessing the Cloward-Piven strategy adapted for pastoral ministry? A prized demolition tool of the Left, it was developed by two activist sociologists at Columbia University and published in The Nation in 1966. Roughly summarized, the maneuver proposes to overwhelm a system with a surfeit of demands; the resulting crisis can then be used to reshape the system according to a desired agenda. For Richard Cloward and Frances Fox Piven, the system targeted for collapse and total reconstruction was welfare. For Pope Francis, it appears to be the Church’s historic ordering of the obligations and consequences of an enduring marriage bond.
Cloward-Piven sought to eliminate poverty by first expanding welfare rolls and benefits. Sacramental marriage can be channeled along a similar route, propelled by easier, quicker, and less costly annulments on the mart to all comers. Cardinal Kasper has said that Francis estimates that upwards of half of all Catholic marriages are invalid. That is a bitter—to me, disingenuous—guesstimate, one that points to impatience with traditional insistence on permanency. If Church prohibition against divorce is seen as an impediment to evangelization, then increasing access to annulment can be considered self-justifying.
The casuistry already rife in annulment proceedings, worrisome to John Paul II, is poised to worsen. Incentive to conjure grounds for annulment out of the common regrets, resentments, and intangible strains of marriage has been given a boost.
The Diocese of Brooklyn under Bishop Francis Mugavero bears remembering. During his tenure, from 1968 until his retirement in 1990, Brooklyn was a recognized annulment mill. Word was: If you want your vows dissolved, establish a residence in Brooklyn and register with a local parish. The annulment process descended into the functional equivalent of back-dating a check to avoid penalty.
Streamlining, as it is called, risks normalizing the old Brooklyn approach. Worse, it gambles with the Church’s credibility on sexual ethics overall.
On my mind lately are the divorces I have known over the years. I was intimate with some, and watched others from a friendly distance. Of the twenty or so divorces familiar to me, only one could be called “no fault.” (Barbara and David simply found dating more satisfying than marriage. They jumped ship in less than a year.) All others were exceedingly sad.
Two women quit faithful spouses to pursue careers unencumbered by husband and child. One neighbor exchanged a decent man and a young son for a flashier mate. Another left the steady, conscientious father of her two teenagers when, one fateful day, she realized her heart sank when she heard his key in the door. She did not know why; she knew only that it did.
In every other instance, it was the husband who left. One was an ex-priest who walked out on his wife and two toddlers to live with another man. Each of the rest abandoned his wife for a younger woman. All had children.
One particular divorce still hurts to think about. Maggie and Bruce were an impressive, lively pair with four children, one of them adopted. To younger couples in their neighborhood circle, they were a spirited model of marital generosity and parental good sense. In their twenty fifth year of marriage, Bruce met a younger woman. Life fell apart. Maggie consented to divorce but not to annulment. Bruce remarried without it.
Divorce was sorrowful enough for the couple’s children, the younger ones still in their teens. Annulment would have inflicted on the three biological children the added wrench of knowing that, in the Church’s eyes, they were bastard products of an invalid—nonexistent—marriage. The adopted daughter, discarded at birth by one set of parents and again by her legal father, was already schooled in the fecklessness of men. Annulment would have provided added lesson in the skewed sympathies of clerics.
Bruce and his second family are the coveted objects of this current fever for mercy. But where is the kindness—or even courtesy—to Maggie and her children? To the many more Maggies? To all relinquished, humiliated spouses on the receiving end of these discounted annulments?
The law of unintended consequences is cunning and relentless—a true god of surprises. Something unsavory inhabits papal cooing about “Church, as mother” as a rationale for streamlining annulments and for lifting canonical penalties from second civil marriages contracted while the first still holds sacramentally. There is reason to fear this Year of Mercy will yield its own cruelties.
Note: After posting this, I read yesterday’s Rorate Coeli essay that quotes from a September 9th article in L’Osservatore Roman by Msgr. Pio Vito Pinto, Dean of the Tribunal of the Roman Rota. Pinto, who headed the Commission for the reformed annulment protocols, wrote this:
Francis makes a real beginning to his reform: by putting the poor at the center, that is, the divorced and remarried . . .
In other words, the divorced and remarried have been rebaptized as a victim class, like the poor. This pushes papal politics beyond leftism. We are into crackpottery now.