Clever publicity stunt or pastoral act of mercy? Reactions to the Holy Father’s foray into air-borne matrimony have been startlingly varied. I am not sure that either extreme quite captures the significance of the event.
The first question to be asked – and, with all due respect to all three parties involved, the hardest to answer – is who is telling the truth about it. The couple in question were quite clear that it was the Pope who suggested the ceremony. The Holy Father later claimed, in interview, that he was approached by the couple themselves; that due investigation was made as to their bona fides; and that they had undergone a form of preparation. Who can say? The event itself was so strange that both possibilities seem plausible.
But we can, I think, gain some insight into the Holy Father’s thinking and motivation from another source – the text of his message for the World Day of Social Communications (January 24). There he makes the following statement: “An impeccable argument can rest on undeniable facts, but if it is used to hurt another and to discredit that person in the eyes of others, however correct it may appear, it is not truthful”,
This flexible attitude to truth is itself very flexible. One can see how it could extend, for example, to canonical rules and requirements. Though good and true in themselves (and remaining so in the majority of cases), these rules and requirements are rendered less good and true in circumstances where pastoral sensitivities require otherwise.
So the Church’s prime legislator can tell a woman (over the telephone, as it appears) that if her parish priest refuses her Holy Communion she should simply take herself off to another church. So the Successor of Peter can say: ‘Who am I to judge?’
This is why Francis rails so often against the rigid and intransigent. Priests diligently following the rules are, on this reading, simply being pastorally obstructive. They put souls at risk.
But who is to be the arbiter of this sentimentalist view of truth and rectitude? And how are we to ensure that its operation is fair and just to all? How can sacraments operate as assurances of grace unless all are agreed what they are and what they require of us? These, apparently, are not problems for the occupant of the Holy See.
For the simple parish priest, however, they are real and tangible. He cannot jet off to a far country leaving the consequences to others.