The great problem I'm experiencing with Pope Francis is not just the carefully cultivated public relations exercises that are going on around him, but the extraordinary way in which the presentation of his personal virtues are set at odds or in contrast to the everyday, untelevised, unreported lives of those ordinary, almost unknown priests who live their priestly vocations.
Since the beginning of this papacy much of the spin circulating around the Pope has portrayed the Catholicism as the new and merciful Francis versus the antiquated, unmerciful Church.
It must, too, be said that, thanks to various addresses and insults Pope Francis has issued to 'kinds of clergy' and 'kinds of bishops', as well as 'kinds of Christians', Francis himself has done nothing to dispel this notion that he is good and the Church, moreover, is bad. Among those hard-working, often very holy priests will be a considerable number of canon lawyers who are trained in the detailed and nuanced laws of the Catholic Church concerning such issues as annulments. I'm not absolutely clear, having never sought an annulment, on the method by which annulments are issued or decreed, but I am aware that each Diocese has a tribunal process for such matters.
One thing I fear, in this age in which the Pope is presented to 'the masses' as being a 'cut above' the rest of the Church in terms of humility, charity and mercy, or that rare 'breath of fresh air' that still sees him portrayed as what Austen Ivereigh calls 'The Great Reformer', is that, more and more this trend of Francis battling against the Church will keep focus on Francis himself, earning the Supreme Pontiff waves of mass popularity and general goodwill, while the Church, or, at least, the average priest, continues to be perceived as the notorious, stubborn enemy within society that simply won't learn to sing the new tune. You know, the 'rigorist' canon lawyer who won't just rubber-stamp your annulment because in his conscience he thinks it is genuinely valid, or the 'restorationist' who insists on reverence for the sacred liturgy.
|"Hi Father, I've bought you today's annulments post."|
Such concepts as 'lack of faith' as a basis for an invalid marriage are just so nebulous that unless something much more detailed and concrete is produced to assist priests and bishops in this matter, faith - which, in terms of supernatural faith, let's face it, the Church has for 50 years become less and less insistent upon - validity of marriage is going to be completely in the eye of the beholder.
It will become less and less clear as to how someone seeking an annulment of a marriage which, in the consciences of those conducting the tribunal, is valid, to be turned down. Indeed, in such cases, those who are refused annulments because priests and bishops trained in canon law who know what constitutes a valid marriage and what does not constitute a valid marriage could, perhaps will, go higher up in the Church authorities to seek the overturning of that decision by appeal. Step forward, then, the personal saviour, the all merciful, the most benign and humble figure of Pope Francis or his personally hand-picked team. Does that sound unlikely?
It doesn't to me. Pope Francis has a habit of direct intervention into Diocesan life when he deems that something is awry. My opinion is that he also has a slight tendency towards micro-management. For evidence see the 'Bishop of Bling' media circus and other traditional bishops who have been taken out of action or down a peg or two by Pope Francis himself, while other more serious contenders for disciplinary action, rather than actually being disciplined, are instead invited to the Synod on the Family. In one way this measure is a 'distribution of papal power' to the Dioceses and to the Bishops (who will, if there are as many new annulments as the Pope wishes to see, simply have to delegate to priests).
When the laws of the Church are radically altered on a whim then it leaves a great many very vulnerable indeed, a great many married couples could be deceived and a great many priests and bishops could, because of a new subjectivism and a cult of personality, have their informed consciences over-ruled. What happens to that person or those people's vocations and place in the Church? Will any priest or bishop, in this 'new springtime' of the Church pass the Pope Francis 'mercy' test, if he should dare to obey his conscience and say 'No' to an annulment claim despite the protestations of the person in the marriage assessed as valid by the tribunal?
Pray for Francis, pray for the Church of Rome, pray for all bishops and clergy.