In guidelines for implementing his pastoral letter on marriage and family life, Archbishop Alexander Sample has urged truth-telling and patience as a path to joy.
“Catholic belief, rooted in Sacred Scripture, sacred Tradition and the natural law, reserves all expressions of sexual intimacy to a man and a woman covenanted to each other in a valid marriage,” the archbishop wrote in guidelines distributed to parishes this spring. “We hold this teaching to be true and unchangeable, tied as it is to our nature and purpose as children of a loving God who desires our happiness.”
With that as a foundation, the guidelines’ practical steps follow from the archbishop’s pastoral letter, “A True and Living Icon,” which clarified church teaching for households in many situations: validly wed couples, Catholics who are separated or divorced, couples who divorce and are civilly remarried, cohabiting couples, and Catholics who experience same-sex attraction.
“Amoris Laetitia,” an apostolic exhortation released in 2016 by Pope Francis, said that neither church teaching nor the canonical discipline concerning marriage has changed. The pope urged a merciful approach.
Archbishop Sample wants western Oregon’s pastoral ministers — priests, deacons, religious and laypeople — to accompany couples and singles graciously, explaining church teaching.
“Pastors should strive to avoid both a subjectivism that ignores the truth or a rigorist approach that lacks mercy,” Archbishop Sample wrote.
The pastoral letter and guidelines are meant to help “a culture that is already deeply confused about complex matters of marriage and sexuality,” the archbishop wrote. He reminded pastoral ministers that their primary responsibility is to “help lead people into a grace-filled communion with God and his Church that will lead to eternal life.”
For Catholic married couples, the archbishop’s guidelines affirm that Christian marriage is permanent, monogamous and open to life. It’s also a vocation of subordinating one’s needs to others, he said, urging pastors to suggest home prayer, Scripture reading, frequent confession and Communion, and building mutual support with committed Catholic friends and family.
“The church community must find ways to engage and help families who are burdened by illness, financial setbacks and marital friction,” the archbishop wrote in the guidelines.
Separated or divorced
For Catholics and Christians who are separated or divorced — and not civilly remarried — the archbishop encouraged compassion and outreach. Such people may be feeling great pain and loneliness, he said.
“Pastors should offer these persons friendship, understanding, introductions to reliable lay mentors and practical help, so they can sustain their fidelity even under pressure,” the archbishop wrote.
Those who are divorced and who have not entered a new union should be told that their marriage status poses no obstacle to Communion and other sacraments, the archbishop explained.
Divorced and civilly remarried
For Catholics and Christians who are divorced and civilly remarried — one of the more difficult situations pastoral ministers face — the archbishop first urged welcome and invitations to attend Mass, pray and take part in the activities of the parish.
“Pastors should ensure that they do not consider themselves as ‘outside’ the Church,” the archbishop wrote. “On the contrary, as baptized persons, they can (and should) share in her life.”
Pastoral ministers, he explained, should help such couples understand their situation according to the teaching of the church and the archdiocese’s guidelines, including an urging to reflection and repentance.
“Priests must help the divorced and civilly remarried to form their consciences according to the truth. This is a true work of mercy,” the archbishop wrote. “It should be undertaken with patience, compassion and a genuine desire for the good of all concerned, sensitive to the wounds of each person, and gently leading each toward the Lord. Its purpose is not condemnation, but the opposite: a full reconciliation of the person with God and neighbor, and restoration to the fullness of visible communion with Jesus Christ and his Church.”
The archbishop said that often it makes sense to ask about the validity of the original marriage bond to see if there are grounds for a decree of nullity — commonly called an annulment. If that is the case, pastors should urge people to seek the help of the marriage tribunal.
He did warn that decrees of nullity are not automatic and cannot be granted informally or privately. He urged members of the tribunal and others investigating marriages to be “both compassionate and alert to the truth” and asked that investigations take place “in a timely way.”
Those who are divorced and civilly remarried, yet who have not received a declaration of nullity and had their civil marriage convalidated by the Church, may attend Mass and go to confession. But, the archbishop explained, they cannot receive Communion because as with any Catholic, serious sin must be remedied before receiving.
Their first path to receiving Eucharist is completing the process of receiving a declaration of nullity and having a convalidation. The second path, said the archbishop, is to refrain from sexual intimacy by living as brother and sister, and confessing any sins. Archbishop Sample said pastors who give Communion to couples living together chastely must be careful to do so in a way that will not make it appear that the parish is setting aside Christ’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage.
Before they resolve their marriage irregularity, divorced and remarried people are not to hold positions of responsibility, such as sitting on the parish council, and ought not serve as liturgical ministers, the archbishop wrote.
The archbishop recognizes that many unmarried couples live together because of financial concerns, immigration issues, fear of a final commitment, or a desire to try out relationships.
Cohabitating couples without children should prepare themselves for marriage by living separately, the archbishop said.
But when such couples have children, the archbishop says those children have a natural right to be raised by both parents. “Pastors should try, to the degree possible and when a permanent commitment of marriage is viable, to strengthen existing relationships where a couple already has children together,” he wrote.
He cautioned that couples must have the maturity to turn their relationship into a permanently committed marriage. If they do not, they should be encouraged to separate. If they are in a good disposition to marry, the couple should be encouraged to practice chastity until they are sacramentally or canonically married.
“They will find this challenging, but again, with the help of grace, mastering the self is possible — and this fasting from sexual intimacy is a strong element of spiritual preparation for an enduring life together,” the archbishop wrote.
Pastors, said the archbishop, should guide all cohabitating couples to an awareness of their situation before God, so that they can make a confession before their wedding, “and so begin their married life in a state of grace and with joy in the Lord.”
Regarding those who experience same-sex attraction, the archbishop says the same call to chastity and holiness of life applies equally to all persons. The church does not recognize Oregon’s same-sex marriages as sacramentally valid.
“Those with predominant same-sex attractions are therefore called to struggle to live chastely for the kingdom of God,” Archbishop Sample wrote. “In this endeavor they have need of support, friendship and understanding even if they fail.”
The archbishop urged pastors to treat those who experience such attraction with the same love and respect the church seeks to offer all people.
“Ministers of the Church should emphasize to such persons that they are loved by God, that Jesus desires them to receive an inheritance as adopted sons and daughters of the Father, and that, as with every Christian, this is made possible through the gift of grace,” the archbishop wrote.
He said the church welcomes all people, whatever their circumstances. But he explained that it would be a “serious counter-witness” to Catholic belief to extend positions of responsibility or liturgical ministry to people in active, public same-sex relationships.
The archbishop concluded the guidelines by reminding priests, deacons and other pastoral ministers of their identity as “agents of God’s mercy and truth” with a primary responsibility to “help lead people into a grace-filled communion with God and his Church that will lead to eternal life.”