Monday, October 6, 2014

The Pastoral Council of Trent

His Eminence Donald Cardinal Wuerl
(Photo: CNS)
Earlier today, Cardinal Donald W. Wuerl, Archbishop of Washington, D.C., was asked in an interview why Pope Francis has called for the Synod on the Family. He gave the following response:
I think one of the reasons we're having this Synod, one of the reasons the Holy Father has asked for two Synods, is to reflect on the situation today. When we talk about doctrinal 'givens,' things that are 'fixed,' we're talking about something such as, in what marriage consists. The reception of Communion is not a doctrinal position; it's a pastoral application of the doctrine of the Church. And that involves a number of things: it involves the mercy of God, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the conscience of the individual person, the state of the soul of that individual person - all of those things are quite distinct from a statement in the doctrine of the Church concerning the nature of marriage. And I think we have to sort those things out. And that's probably what's going to go on in these two Synods. We're not in a position to say, "This is how this must be understood today," if all we intend to say is, "It must be repeated," i.e. what we said in the past. We have to repeat the doctrine, but the pastoral practice is what we're talking about. That's why we're having the Synod, and just to repeat the practice of the past, without any effort to see, "Is there some awareness, openness, influence of the Spirit, that might be helping us - in total continuity with our past practice - to find a new direction today?"
To listen to the good Cardinal, one would think that the Church has always made this distinction between magisterial decree and pastoral application; that, while doctrine is fixed and immutable, pastoral practice is a matter of fluid discipline which can be adapted and molded to suit the needs of a particular age; that the magisterial office and the pastoral office, though bequeathed upon the One Church by her Head, Our Lord, are nonetheless separate spheres requiring different hermeneutics and different methods.

It might be helpful at this point to review some of the things the Church has said - in the form of dogmatic canons - regarding such pastoral practice, in particular those touching upon the matter of the reception of Holy Communion on the part of the divorced and "remarried".

On the matter of the indissolubility of marriage, and the mortal sinfulness of any subsequent adulterous relationships:
If any one saith, that on account of heresy, or irksome cohabitation, or the affected absence of one of the parties, the bond of matrimony may be dissolved; let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Session 24, Canon 5)
If any one saith, that the Church has erred, in that she hath taught, and doth teach, in accordance with the evangelical and apostolical doctrine, that the bond of matrimony cannot be dissolved on account of the adultery of one of the married parties; and that both, or even the innocent one who gave not occasion to the adultery, cannot contract another marriage, during the life-time of the other; and, that he is guilty of adultery, who, having put away the adulteress, shall take another wife, as also she, who, having put away the adulterer, shall take another husband; let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Session 24, Canon 7)
On the matter of "streamlining" the annulment process so as to exclude ecclesiastical judges from the process:
If any one saith, that matrimonial causes do not belong to ecclesiastical judges; let him be anathema. (Council of Trent, Session 24, Canon 12)
On the matter of receiving Holy Communion worthily, and the freedom of prelates to teach that one guilty of mortal sin - such as adultery - need not receive absolution prior to receiving Holy Communion:
If any one saith, that faith alone is a sufficient preparation for receiving the sacrament of the most holy Eucharist; let him be anathema. And for fear lest so great a sacrament may be received unworthily, and so unto death and condemnation, this holy Synod ordains and declares, that sacramental confession, when a confessor may be had, is of necessity to be made beforehand, by those whose conscience is burdened with mortal sin, how contrite even soever they may think themselves. But if any one shall presume to teach, preach, or obstinately to assert, or even in public disputation to defend the contrary, he shall be thereupon excommunicated. (Council of Trent, Session 13, Canon 11)

As it turns out, Trent was very much a "Pastoral Council". Who knew?


  1. Good post, thanks. What all this says is that God has commanded us to do things that are TOO HARD.

    Of course, this is not possible. Almighty God does not tease us with HARD rules, then punish us for not BEING ABLE to follow them.

    The end is nigh.

  2. I sometimes wonder, dear Barbara, whether people have become spoiled rotten. We seem to have collectively forgotten that Our Lord's clear teaching on divorce is motivated precisely out of His mercy and His desire to help us avoid suffering. The Bishop of Oran, for example, recently expressed "outrage" at the "suffering" experienced by the divorced and remarried. But he was not referring to the suffering of the wife rejected by her husband in favor of a younger, more beautiful woman, nor to the suffering of the husband rejected by his wife in favor of a richer, more affluent man, nor to the suffering of the children who have become objects of strife between the parents they love - all of which can be avoided by adhering to Our Lord's teachings. No, the good Bishop was referring to the "suffering" inflicted upon such people by the Church and, indirectly, by Our Lord, in calling their relationships "adulterous". It's like prosecuting a doctor who amputates a gangrenous leg for assault with a deadly weapon. Heaven help us!


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