A friend brought to my attention a piece by the well-respected Dr. William Oddie, which can be found here. Its title, “Is there Growing Confusion over Church Teaching?”, is perfect because there clearly is. What has surprised me is that the confusion seems to be on the part of Oddie and the rest who have defended the orthodox-sounding statement of a Fr. Tarcisio Vicario. Here’s the backstory.

marriageBack in June, Fr. Vicario made a statement about marriage no doubt in light of the upcoming questions on marriage, divorce and communion. The parish priest was scolded by his bishop, Bishop Franco Giulio Brambilla, and by none other than Cardinal Lorenzo Baldisseri, who called the statement “crazy talk.” Cardinal Baldisseri is the Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops who will be taking up these questions about marriage and divorce. And so the reactions of the bishop and this all-important Cardinal have given Catholics another reason to be worried about the synod on marriage.

Here is the statement that caused such a stir:

For the Church, which acts in the name of the Son of God, marriage between the baptized is alone and always a sacrament. Civil marriage and cohabitation are not a sacrament. Therefore those who place themselves outside of the Sacrament by contracting civil marriage are living a continuing infidelity. One is not treating of sin committed on one occasion (for example a murder), nor an infidelity through carelessness or habit, where conscience in any case calls us back to the duty of reforming ourselves by means of sincere repentance and a true and firm purpose of distancing ourselves from sin and from the occasions which lead to it.

Dr. Oddie describes the above as “pretty unexceptionable.” And admittedly, I thought so too. I took Oddie’s word for it at first, and I did so not just because I happen to think the good doctor is a bright fellow but also because it sounded orthodox and because this story was first reported by Sandro Magister, who is no slouch. The story was then picked up by Fr. Tim Finigan of The Hermeneutic of Continuity blog. He called the statement “a mainstream and orthodox opinion, expressed with clarity.” The inestimable Fr. Z even drew attention to it presumably agreeing with Magister and Finigan.

Oddie laments that Cardinal Baldisseri and Bishop Brambilla would slap down such an unexceptionable statement. Taking his cue from Magister’s original piece, he goes on to compare Vicario’s words to the words of Cardinal Collins of Toronto, Canada, who said something similar. Oddie then wonders:

What exactly is going on, when Bishops and parish priests can so radically differ about the most elementary issues of faith and morals – about teaching which are quite clearly explained in the Catechism of the Catholic Church – and when simultaneously one Cardinal describes such teachings as ‘crazy’ and another simply expounds them as the immemorial teachings of the Church? Does nobody know what the Church believes any more?

Well, apparently not. But as I say – and I do tread lightly here – I think it is Oddie and the rest who have it wrong. I’m not a canon lawyer, and I’m not as bright as the other commentators. Nevertheless, I can and did pick up my Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1625-1626).

Fr. Vicario stated that marriage between the baptized is “alone and always a sacrament.” That statement is true if we are strict about what marriage means. But then he states that “civil marriage and cohabitation are not a sacrament.” This is problematic because a civil marriage actually can be a sacrament.

The Church’s teaching is that all valid marriages between the baptized are sacramental. And so according to the Church, two Lutherans married by the state would be presumed to have a valid and sacramental marriage. See Canon 1055 §2, which states that valid marriages between the baptized are de facto sacramental.

Maybe Fr. Vicario was only commenting on Catholics who seek civil marriages, but he doesn’t say he is. He only refers to “the baptized,” which includes non-Catholics. Maybe Father was talking about the divorced who then contract a civil marriage, which would explain why his words were compared with Cardinal Collins’. Except, the word “divorce” doesn’t appear here. Sandro Magister doesn’t give us any more context but the statement above.  So all we know is that Fr. Vicario is talking about marriage between baptized persons. Given just that, Father is wrong to say that civil marriages cannot be sacramental, but he goes on.

“Therefore those who place themselves outside of the Sacrament by contracting civil marriage are living a continuing infidelity.” This makes the statement rather offensive. Two validly and sacramentally married Lutherans are not “living in continuing infidelity.”

Worse, one could take Fr. Vicario to be suggesting that the standard of fidelity is sacrament; as though, if it is not a sacrament, then it is not fidelity. That wouldn’t be true either. A Catholic and a non-baptized person can have a valid marriage but not a sacramental one. Since they “place themselves outside of the sacrament” are they “living a continuing infidelity” too? The Church would disagree with him, if indeed that’s what he’s saying.

marriage2Finally, Fr. Vicario contrasts cohabitation and civil marriage from murder and habitual infidelity and seems to conclude that the former is actually worse than the latter. According to this logic, at least with murder and the occasional but habitual adultery the conscience can still call the sinner back to repentance. Cohabiting, though, is a continuing sin. I suppose he thinks it is impossible for one’s conscience to call them “back to the duty of reforming.” I understand that repentance with no firm purpose of amendment is no real repentance, but is it impossible to make such an amendment? Even if technically true, is it wise to argue that cohabitation is worse than murder?

I understand what Father Vicario was trying to say, I think. But at least at face value his commentary seems a bit harsh. I’m beginning to understand why Cardinal Baldisseri called this “crazy talk.”

As for the comparison of Fr. Vicario’s words to the words of Cardinal Collins of Toronto, I think that is unfair to poor Cardinal Collins. The Canadian prelate’s statement is explicitly about those who are divorced and remarried. Yes, the two statements are alike in that they both mention murder and adultery, but the tone and the substance of the statements are remarkably different.

Back to Dr. Oddie’s piece, his larger point is that there is a growing confusion about Church teaching. This confusion seems to be the fault of Pope Francis, whom he avers has so unwittingly destabilized matters through the numerous gaffes and blunt talk that “orthodox” statements like Fr. Vicario’s are slapped down. This destabilization has left Dr. Oddie with less to say these days.

Well, I agree with him that there is growing confusion. I agree that Pope Francis’ language and the repeated interviews with Scalfari have been a factor. But I disagree that it is wholly the pope’s fault, though I apologize if I’ve misunderstood Dr. Oddie.

For me, this situation with Fr. Vicario demonstrates well what I think Pope Francis is trying to communicate; namely that “sounding conservative” is not the ultimate standard of pastoral care he wants met by parish priests and bishops. Just because it might be true, doesn’t mean the manner in which Fr. Vicario delivered the truth at that time, to that parish, in that circumstance was the right, Christian thing to do. Have we never been in a situation where we are technically correct but have done grave damage to a relationship which is far more valuable?

Is there growing confusion over Church teaching? Yes, there is. But I’m beginning to see that it is in part the confusion of orthodox-sounding rhetoric with actual doctrine. It is sometimes the confused equating of imprecise language with heresy. It is the failure of appreciating that sometimes, just sometimes, the Catholic left might have a point when they lament the emphasis on doctrine over real care for real people.  This is why we, all of us, myself included, need to be more careful with what we say and write.


Omar Gutierrez writes from Omaha, NE. His new book, The Urging of Christ’s Love:The Saints and the Social Teaching of the Catholic Church can be purchased online and at Catholic booksellers.