A (Somewhat) Radical Proposal for Pope Francis and his "Year of Mercy"

There was a small, seemingly technical element, buried within Pope Francis's announcement of the Jubilee Year of Mercy that caught my eye.  Paragraph 18 says:

During Lent of this Holy Year, I intend to send out Missionaries of Mercy. They will be a sign of the Church’s maternal solicitude for the People of God, enabling them to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith. There will be priests to whom I will grant the authority to pardon even those sins reserved to the Holy See, so that the breadth of their mandate as confessors will be even clearer.  

There are not a large number of these so-called "reserved" sins, and the vast majority of them involve actions by clergy--ordaining folks without Vatican approval, grave abuses of the Confessional (like a priest conspiring with someone to commit some act and then absolving the accomplice of that act), profaning the Eucharist, etc.  Though, it is worth noting that the hard-right Traditionalist Rorate Caeli blog makes a seemingly persuasive argument that the automatic excommunications for women who get ordained might also fit into this category, which is interesting.

Be that as it may, this provision is very likely to have little impact on regular people, who are not usually running around illicitly ordaining bishops or something.  But, it got me thinking.  In the normal course, these reserved sins are adjudicated by the Apostolic Penitentiary, basically a court in the Vatican.  You know what else is ultimately adjudicated by a court in the Vatican?  Annulments.

Suppose Pope Francis expanded this program of the Missionaries of Mercy, and designed certain priests in every diocese to adjudicate annulments on the spot.
People could come in, talk with this person, get a ruling on their annulment situation, and then these people would be "enabl[ed] . . . to enter the profound richness of this mystery so fundamental to the faith."  It would not be a permanent change, but a one-time deal connected with the Jubilee year.  Or, to use the language of the immigration debate, it would be an amnesty opportunity for everyone in an "irregular" situation.

This would, in a pretty significant way, cut the Gordian knot of the divorce-and-remarriage issue.  First, there is no question that Pope Francis could implement this proposal on his own initiative.  It is well established that the Pope can make permanent changes to Canon Law without any sort of consultation or review process, and that he has essentially unlimited power to grant dispensations from Canon Law on an ad hoc basis.  If he is free to side-step the process of sending reserved sins to the Apostolic Penitentiary and delegate that authority to specific local people, then he is free to bypass the normal tribunal process in the same way.

Second, it would allow Pope Francis to implement the substance of the Cardinal Kasper proposal in a way that accommodates the concerns of the traditionalists, or at least blunts their ability to complain.  No permanent changes are necessary, and all of the technicalities of the form of annulments are preserved.  All it does is put every annulment on a super "fast track" process.  Plus, assuming that it was publicized widely (which it almost inevitably would be) and a sufficient number of these "Missionaries of Mercy" were designated to handle the volume, if someone didn't take advantage of this opportunity then that is on them.  The Synod then could follow up with some modest process changes to the annulment procedure to try to prevent future backlogs, and the problem is greatly reduced, perhaps without the knife fights over the issue we saw last fall.

Third, it fits well into the themes that the Pope is articulating with this Jubiliee.  Basically, it is saying "whatever you individual problem is, there is a solution to be had, and we are going to do everything possible to facilitate you finding and taking advantage of that solution."  Jubiliee years in the Hebrew Scriptures included things like the forgiveness of debts and other previously binding commitments, in order for people to get a fresh start.  Well, here you go--whatever complex or irregular situation you are in, this Jubilee year is going to allow you to have a clean slate.

The hardcore folks are going to complain that this is "cheap grace," but they are complaining about that with this Year of Mercy, anyway.  If the problem of divorced-and-remarried folks not being able to receive Communion is a problem, let's create a way to fix the problem.


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