The Need for Fuller Pastoral Care

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Lanfranco, Giovanni; Christ and the Woman of Samaria; The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology;

By Paul C. Vitz, The Catholic Thing, Sept. 28, 2017

Paul C. VitzI write as a Catholic academic psychologist with much experience with clients, case histories, and the relevant research literature – and have published extensively in several areas related to questions raised about Amoris laetitia (AL).

Let me begin with some positive passages and a partial summary of AL. In the early sections, before we get to issues raised by Chapter 8, the pope makes many quite positive and unusual points.

He is right that we should keep in mind that the family is not an abstract ideal but instead is a complex concrete thing confronted and distorted by sin. Yes, cheers for “concrete realism” (his term) and his concern for daily life in thinking about the family. He further identifies today’s serious problem of “rampant individualism” and its negative effects. He also highlights the sufferings of children in family conflicts and, thus, in divorce situations. He rightly condemns divorce as an evil.

The eighth chapter is an invitation to mercy and pastoral discernment. The chapter has sections on the need for gradualness in pastoral care; the importance of discernment; norms and mitigating circumstances in pastoral discernment; and finally what the pope calls the “logic of pastoral mercy.” In this sensitive chapter, the Holy Father calls on us to remember that “the Church’s task is often like that of a field hospital,” all the while “avoiding any occasion of scandal.”

My primary concern is in Chapter 8, which fails to mention, much less to show, any pastoral concern for the many other people, especially children, who are hurt and affected by divorce.

This chapter is narrowly focused on the divorced and remarried individual seeking to be accepted back into the Church so as to be permitted to receive Communion. Focusing on the individual and ignoring the social effects of divorce, unfortunately, abets the narcissism and selfish individualism the pope abhors in earlier sections.

The Church has said there is zero tolerance for a priest who abuses one child, even once. But in divorce, the abuse of children commonly occurs frequently and over many years and often affects, not just one, but several children.

Furthermore, the rejected wife or rejected husband, along with the children, may suffer serious physical, emotional, or sexual abuse and in almost all cases will suffer greatly from the same psychological experiences of the children: betrayal, rejection, and abandonment.

These are three of the most painful and long-lasting forms of human suffering. Unless these consequences of divorce on the children and the rejected spouse are directly addressed in some kind of positive way, the effect of granting Communion to the divorced and remarried parent will often be devastating for members of his or her earlier family.

Unless these former family members are consulted in evaluating the remarried parent, their suffering will corrode respect for the Church and – presumably – sometimes their faith in God. Even those who harbor no hard feelings as a result of the divorce could deeply resent a Church that never consulted them about their former spouse or divorced parent.

Here are some very possible scenarios:

Case 1 – The husband and father of three children is an abusive alcoholic who physically and sexually abuses the children and his wife. There is a divorce agreed to by both spouses. The husband moves away and no longer is in contact with his wife and children. Later, in a different country, the husband goes through Alcoholics Anonymous and recovers. He starts a relatively good, new life and marries again. Then he petitions for reinstatement to full communion with the Church. No information of his earlier behavior is included in his evaluation, and he is granted his request as an example of pastoral mercy to a recovered sinner. In time, his abused former wife and his still abandoned children hear of this and feel betrayed and neglected by the father and the Church, they become atheists and seriously anti-Catholic.

Case 2 – The wife and mother of two children, initiates the divorce while she is involved in a sexual affair with a man. The children and husband were or become aware of the wife’s affair. Much suffering occurs for the children and husband. After the divorce, she marries this man. The children do not even like their new step-father, whom they refuse to acknowledge. The two families drift apart and end up living hundreds of miles from each other. After some years the divorced wife/mother asks for reinstatement. Hearing only her story, the bishop of her diocese grants her full communion with the Church. Later, her former husband and children hear of this and are shocked, hurt, angry and indignant. Their adulterous mother who abandoned them is now reinstated as a good Catholic! The husband and children leave the Catholic Church.

In summary, the omission of any serious pastoral concern for the many victims of divorce in the adoption of a policy of reinstating a divorced individual to full communion will certainly undermine the idea that the Catholic Church is truly committed to avoiding abuse of children. It will also undermine the doctrine that marriage is a sacrament that is permanently binding. These are very serious issues. And unless they are addressed the likelihood is that for every divorced Catholic reinstated to communion, there will be many others driven away from God and the Church.

One possible solution to the above issues would be to require that the Church arrange interviews with the prior spouse and children before granting any full communion. This would be much like the Church requires interviews with the other spouse when investigating whether to grant an annulment.

Of course, this would make things complicated – but then, the concrete realism of families and divorce is complicated.


Paul C. Vitz, is Senior Scholar at the Institute for the Psychological Sciences, Divine Mercy University and Professor Emeritus at New York University. His Ph. D. is from Stanford University. He has published widely in psychology, especially as it elates to Christianity. His latest book is Faith of the Fatherless: The Psychology of Atheism. He is married to Evelyn (Timmie), a professor at NYU; they have six children and 21 grandchildren.

Christ and the Woman of Samaria by Giovanni Lanfranco, c.1625 [Ashmolean Museum, Oxford]