John Allen Jr on the Italian essence of the Vatican

Most interesting. Especially this:

Anglo-Saxons believe laws ought to describe what people actually do. If we adopt a 55 mph speed limit, for instance, we expect people to comply; if they don’t, the appropriate response is either to launch a crackdown or to change the law, but either way, a situation in which people aren’t following the rules strikes us as intolerable.

That’s not the classic Italian understanding. For them, law is more akin to a descriptor of a perfect state of affairs, and everyone realizes most people will fall short to varying degrees. There’s an old Italian saying that captures the point: Le legge vengono scritte come se gli uomini fossero angeli, which means, “Laws are written as if men were angels.”

If you want proof of the point, stand on any Italian sidewalk sometime and watch how they approach traffic laws.

There’s certainly a shadow side to this trait. Italians are endlessly creative in finding reasons why the law shouldn’t apply to them. My wife and I, for instance, paid our rent in cash for eight years because our landlady in Rome insisted the tax code is for thepezzi grossi, “big shots,” not for her. (In his essay on Berlusconi, Parks makes the valid point that one reason Italians may be ambivalent about his downfall is because they don’t want to be held accountable for their own “small misdemeanors and tax evasions.”)

Yet here, too, there’s an upside.

As applied to the Vatican, this understanding of law means that officials typically make a strong distinction between rules and application. Law is the realm of universal and timeless norms, while pastoral practice is where accommodations are made on the fly to reflect real-world situations.

I once attended a book presentation featuring a senior Vatican cardinal, who was asked during a Q-and-A about Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. His answer was classic. As a Vatican official, he said, the law of the church is clear; as a pastor, however, I can’t presume to judge your situation, and you have to make the choice in conscience that you believe best corresponds to the truth of your situation.

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10 Responses to John Allen Jr on the Italian essence of the Vatican

  1. Pingback: John Allen Jr on the Italian essence of the Vatican | Catholic Canada

  2. EPMS says:

    This is probably why North America accounts for over 80% of the world’s annulments. Marriages break down in Europe too, but Catholics there often do not feel the same necessity to deal with divorce and remarriage in a “legalistic” way. So they just continue to turn up at Mass and things go on as before. Presumably even in North America, most priests adopt a “don’t ask” policy regarding artificial birth control and the almost total absence of the once-common Catholic families with 5 or 10 kids.

    • Rev22:17 says:

      EPMS,

      You wrote: Marriages break down in Europe too, but Catholics there often do not feel the same necessity to deal with divorce and remarriage in a “legalistic” way. So they just continue to turn up at Mass and things go on as before.

      I wish that were the case. In much of France and Germany, the Catholic churches are pretty empty on Sunday mornings because many of the people decided that the church was not particularly relevant to their lives and stopped going to mass long ago.

      And that is also why The German Shepherd, Pope Benedict XVI, would deem the “New Evangelism” to be so urgent.

      You wrote: This is probably why North America accounts for over 80% of the world’s annulments.

      Splitting hairs, the tribunals of the Catholic Church do not grant annulments — that is, decrees nullifying otherwise valid marriages. Rather, the tribunals of the Catholic Church grant decrees of nullity — that is, declarations that what appeared to be valid marriages were defective in some material way and thus really were not marriages in the first place.

      Also, your statistics are a bit off. According to the 2013 edition of the Catholic Almanac, Catholic tribunals granted 51,950 decrees of nullity worldwide, of which 28,382 were in the United States, in 2010, the last year for which statistics were available. That works out to just under 55% — not exactly the 80% that you cited. Canada probably also amounts for a relatively high proportion, but I doubt that the rest of North America adds up to 25% of the total.

      But having said that, the fact that the tribunals of the dioceses located in the United States, and probably also the tribunals of the dioceses located in Canada, grant such a high proportion of the decrees of nullity granted throughout the world entails a combination of three significant factors.

      >> 1. Attempts at marriage in modern western culture — that is, North America and Western Europe — are failing at a much higher rate than in other cultures. This is especially true of attempts at marriage between parties who are less than thirty years of age, and apparently is related to their lack of maturity at the time of the wedding.

      >> 2. A much higher proportion of North Americans than Europeans whose attempts at marriage end in failure actually care about remaining in the church in good standing, and thus pursue decrees of nullity.

      The only way to cure this problem is for the church to take on the role of guardian of the sacraments more seriously. The discernment of the vocation of marriage should be just as rigorous as the discernment of the vocation of holy orders and the vocation of religious life, both of which are a lot more rigorous now than forty years ago.

      You wrote: Presumably even in North America, most priests adopt a “don’t ask” policy regarding artificial birth control and the almost total absence of the once-common Catholic families with 5 or 10 kids.

      It is not the confessor’s job to give the penitent the “third degree” in the confessional. It is, rather, the penitent’s job to examine his or her conscience honestly and to make a complete confession. Thus, a “don’t ask” policy is precisely what the confessor should take.

      That said, there should be programs of continuing faith formation for adults in every parish, coupled with an expectation that every confirmed member of the parish participates in such programs in a manner consistent with his or her spiritual maturity and situation in life. Those programs certainly should encompass all aspects of Christian living, including moral issues. There should not be widespread ignorance of the canonical penalties for “procurement” of a successful abortion — and in this context, the word “procurement” encompasses any knowing act or omission that enables the abortion to occur.

      Norm.

      • EPMS says:

        My statistics were taken from an article which appeared in Walrus magazine but on closer inspection it appeared in 2005 so perhaps is no longer accurate. Of course churches are emptying in Europe but not necessarily because of divorce and remarriage, so this does not really address my point. And I was not suggesting the confessional as the place where a discussion on birth control would best take place. I was observing that on this issue the laity have for the most part made a decision not in keeping with the Church’s official teaching and their pastors are accepting their decision, in the same way as the Cardinal suggested decisions about divorce and remarriage are being accepted in Italy.

      • Rev22:17 says:

        EPMS,

        You wrote: Of course churches are emptying in Europe but not necessarily because of divorce and remarriage, so this does not really address my point.

        Rather, I think you missed my point. People who don’t care enough about the faith to go to mass on Sunday also won’t care enough about the faith to pursue a decree of nullity for a failed marriage so that they can marry again in the church. Thus, when their marriages fail, they don’t bother to pursue a decree of nullity. Thus, where there are empty churches, there are few petitions for decrees of nullity.

        You wrote: I was observing that on this issue the laity have for the most part made a decision not in keeping with the Church’s official teaching and their pastors are accepting their decision, in the same way as the Cardinal suggested decisions about divorce and remarriage are being accepted in Italy.

        First, there are a lot of people who regularly receive communion in violation of the norms in the United States, too. The norms are clear: anybody who is living in an ongoing sinful relationship cannot receive either sacramental absolution or sacramental communion. Note that sincere repentance is an absolute requirement for absolution of sin, and repentance includes intent not to repeat the sin, or not to continue the pattern of habitual sin. This requires a fundamental change in any relationship of habitual sex apart from sacramental marriage — “shacking up,” civil marriage, an ongoing homosexual relationship, etc. Of course, there is no enforcement, so many people continue to receive communion even though they are living in these intrinsically sinful relationships.

        The situation of sacramental marriage, however, is one where the church has real mechanisms of enforcement. Every marriage in the Church is annotated on either the baptismal record or the record of reception into the full communion of the Catholic Church, as applicable, for each party the marriage — and one must present a recent copy of one’s baptismal certificate or certificate of reception, with annotations (or with the attestation “no annotations” if there are not any), as part of the documentation required to marry in the church. If there is an annotation of a marriage, one must also present either a death certificate for the prior spouse or a decree of nullity for the prior marriage. If this documentation is not complete, a wedding in the church cannot proceed.

        Norm.

      • Foolishness says:

        And, I might add, admission to the Church will not proceed either.
        Becoming Catholic is as difficult as applying for citizenship in a new country. Here’s where you see the real difference in how the Catholic Church treats sacraments, not in what happens at Communion.

  3. Too funny. Maybe the country of my birth has somehow taken precedence over the country of my blood, but I find this attitude positively infuriating!

    It happens as the direct result of living under laws that are excessive, capricious, and selectively applied. I see it happening here in the U.S. The laws multiply and get stupider and stupider (sometimes even immoral) and it’s hard to maintain a rationale for strict obedience anymore.

  4. EPMS says:

    Presumably the people who are being cavalier about the Church’s marriage discipline are already members. A 2011 article in Our Sunday Visitor notes that the number of marriages celebrated by the Church in the US has declined by 60% since 1972 despite a significant growth in the number of Catholics. They continue to marry at the same rate as the general population, just not in approved Catholic ceremonies. In the UK, the 2011 figures show that Catholic marriages are about a quarter of what took place in 1965, again despite a significant rise in the Catholic population.

    • EPMS says:

      PS As I have mentioned before, most parish websites I have seen assure prospective members that “marriage issues” need not deter them from seeking to join the Catholic church, since their staff will “work” with them. If we were looking for an analogy with a citizenship application, this seems tantamount to saying that our knowledgable staff will help you file an application for refugee status, or admission on compassionate grounds, which indeed is a service on offer, though not from reputable firms.

    • Rev22:17 says:

      EPMS,

      You wrote: Presumably the people who are being cavalier about the Church’s marriage discipline are already members.

      Yes, of course. People who are not members of the church are not bound by the church’s discipline on marriage, and thus do not violate it by attempting marriage in a secular forum, a forum of a non-Christian religion, or a non-Catholic Christian forum.

      You wrote: They continue to marry at the same rate as the general population, just not in approved Catholic ceremonies.

      In other words, they are living by the ways of the world rather than by the ways of faith, and thus really do not belong to the church even though canon law makes them officially members. Here, I really think it would be better to align canon law with the reality.

      But that said, for those who were baptized in the Catholic Church but not living by faith, and thus are canonically bound by the Church’s marital laws, it’s actually much easier to deal with an attempt at marriage in a secular forum than a marriage in the church. In such cases, the tribunals can declare the marriage to be null pro forma, the only necessary documentation being the baptismal certificate and the marriage certificate. There’s no need for an extensive investigation that encompasses psychological evaluations to prove gross immaturity that rendered the person incapable of marriage, extensive theological discussions to prove a defect of intent, etc.

      You wrote: As I have mentioned before, most parish websites I have seen assure prospective members that “marriage issues” need not deter them from seeking to join the Catholic church, since their staff will “work” with them. If we were looking for an analogy with a citizenship application, this seems tantamount to saying that our knowledgable staff will help you file an application for refugee status, or admission on compassionate grounds, which indeed is a service on offer, though not from reputable firms.

      Actually, legitimate law firms also provide the services that the less than reputable agencies purport to provide — but with three significant differences.

      >> 1. The legitimate law firm has competent lawyers who know the law and who will apply it properly. The staff of the illegitimate agency might not be so competent, and will tell people to say the right words to obtain a fraudulent result.

      >> 2. The illegitimate agency actually seeks to subvert the law of the land, whereas the legitimate law firm seeks to find the provision of the law that’s legitimate most favorable to the client.

      >> 3. The illegitimate agency depends upon fraudulent immigration as its sole line of business, whereas the legitimate law firm also provides other services.

      The fact that parishes are saying “we will work with you” in their bulletins is simply an acknowledgement that this issue has become an obstacle for many people.

      There are many criteria by which a tribunal can declare a marriage null. Unfortunately, the Church’s discernment of marriage in the various marriage preparation programs has been so shoddy that most marriages within the Church probably manifest three or four of them. A canon lawyer who can’t investigate the matter and put the case together is not exactly competent as an advocate.

      The solution to this problem is two-fold.

      >> 1. We need to get raise the bar of expectation for members of the church.

      >> 2. We need to strengthen the Church’s discernment of marriage.

      Until that happens, the parade of decrees of nullity will continue.

      Norm.

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