Archbishop Chaput to priests: defend marriage bond wherever you can

Archbishop Charles Chaput Credit Joaquin Peiro Perez CNA Joaquin Peiro Perez

Priests must uphold the lifelong covenant of marriage as "a message of liberation, even when it's difficult," Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Philadelphia told a gathering of Filipino-American clergy.

Jesus' words about the indissolubility of marriage "can't be softened, or reinterpreted, or contextualized." he said at the National Assembly of Filipino Priests USA, in Houston on Nov. 8. Elsewhere in his remarks, he warned: "Christian marriage is never simply an 'ideal.' Describing it as an 'ideal' tends to open the door to excusing and then normalizing failure."

"For Christians, sexual intimacy outside a valid marriage can never be morally legitimate. And it's the Church that determines what a valid sacramental marriage is," he said.

The archbishop's topic was Pope Francis' post-synodal apostolic exhortation "Amoris Laetitia."

"It has passages of great wisdom and beauty on marriage and on family life," he said. "And it has other passages that have caused some obvious controversy. The controversy has obscured much of the good in the document."

The exhortation should be approached with open hearts and clear thinking, Chaput said. He stressed its "beautiful passages" about the elderly, the poor, migrants, persons with special needs, the importance of children and openness to new life. He also stressed the richness of the exhortation's fourth chapter, on love and marriage.

The archbishop mentioned his own role as a delegate to the synod, his role as secretary to an English-speaking working group, and his role on the permanent council of the synod.

Chaput also noted widespread concerns about one footnote in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia, which addresses reception of the sacraments by those in irregular marital relationships. These concerns have been voiced in public "but even more urgently and commonly in private."

"Critics see in the text a preference for ambiguity over clear teaching and a resentment toward defenders of traditional Church teaching that seem out of sync with the rest of the document," he said.  

In Chaput's view, at least some of these critics are persons of "fidelity and substance" and in his view their concerns can't be dismissed. The confusion is "regrettable," given that the point of the exhortation's Chapter 8 was to provide "merciful outreach" to those in irregular marital situations.

However, Chaput said, where confusion exists about a papal text, it must be interpreted in a manner consistent with the magisterium of previous Popes.

The archbishop also reflected on the situation of American priests. He noted that hundreds of priests ke knows worry that their people don't really know their faith, don't understand the sacraments, don't catechize their children, and don't know what a properly formed Catholic conscience is.

"Poorly formed, immature consciences are among the biggest pastoral challenges facing the Church. This is what makes delegating decisions about the nullity or validity of a first marriage to the internal forum a matter of real concern," he said, referring to a proposal for pastoral discernment about an individual's marriage and access to the sacraments.

Truth undergirds mercy, and mercy can never exclude "careful moral reasoning about right and wrong." Setting mercy against other virtues just makes it "a source of confusion."

According to Chaput, Amoris Laetitia "depends profoundly on the zeal and sensitivity of the priest."

"In other words, the vocation you have, brothers, has never been more vital for family life than it is right now," he told the priests' gathering.

When marriages do fail, couples need support.

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"But if grace is real, and God's word is true, then the joy of a permanent marriage is possible for anyone called to the vocation," Chaput said. Priests need to defend the permanence of the marriage bond "wherever and whenever we reasonably can."

Despite many cultural trends, God simply asks priests to be faithful, to speak and live the truth amid confusion, to be peacemakers amid conflict, to be sources of hope, and to be "the presence of God's love in the world."

"There's no greater mission of mercy than that, and no greater joy in the life of a priest," Chaput said.

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