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Was Pope Francis “Pushing the Envelope” by Presiding over the Marriages of Cohabiting Couples?

AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino

Catherine Ruth Pakaluk - published on 09/19/14


On the other hand, if we live in a world where couples seeking marriage have never understood what it is to be married—if they are nearly entirely uncatechized, unevangelized, and unconverted—then the right approach might be more like the approach taken by missionaries to new lands. It is very hard to imagine that they would have asked native peoples to refrain from conjugal living, to repent, and only then to be married properly.  

One might object, of course, that these natives knew nothing of the Gospel. They had no catechism. They could not have sinned in living together without a proper marriage. And I would say this is the point exactly. So it comes down to a question of what kind of world we think we are living in.

I believe we can read the evidence described in the New York Times as making a pretty strong case that we are living in a world more like the one encountered by the missionaries. And this is discouraging when we consider the sacrifices made by those great men and women. But there is nothing in this life that guarantees that cultures always advance. In fact, if there is a norm at all, it is that cultures rise and fall. There is no blithe march forever forward.

And what about Pope Francis? Looking back now, I think that Evangelii Gaudium is an apologia par excellence for what he has been up to. Here he tells us quite plainly what kind of a world he thinks we are in: a world in which we must “attempt to put all things in a missionary key” (EG, 34).

Indeed it is hard to think that the Pope did not have the pastoral care of couples in mind when he wrote that

“the Church has rules or precepts which may have been quite effective in their time, but no longer have the same usefulness for directing and shaping people’s lives. Saint Thomas Aquinas pointed out that the precepts which Christ and the apostles gave to the people of God ‘are very few.’ Citing Saint Augustine, he noted that the precepts subsequently enjoined by the Church should be insisted upon with moderation ‘so as not to burden the lives of the faithful’ […] whereas ‘God’s mercy has willed that we should be free’” (EG, 43).

Pope Francis goes on to say that “these convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is the house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems” (EG, 47).

He concludes, “Let us go forth then, […] at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37)” (EG, 49).

Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion.She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.

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