Father Dwight Longenecker is a Catholic priest, husband and father of four who serves as pastor of Our Lady of the Rosary Church in Greenville, S.C. Raised as an evangelical Christian in Pennsylvania, Father Longenecker converted to Anglicanism while attending Bob Jones University. He later studied theology at Oxford University and became ordained as an Anglican priest. After converting to Catholicism in 1995, he spent the next 10 years writing about Catholicism, eventually being ordained a Catholic priest in December 2006 under the pastoral provision for married former Anglican clergy.
Father Longenecker is a popular Catholic writer, blogger, conference speaker and retreat leader. He has written 15 books on Catholic apologetics and spirituality, including “The Romance of Religion: Fighting for Goodness, Truth, and Beauty” (Thomas Nelson, 2014). A regular contributor to the National Catholic Register, he has also published hundreds of articles in Catholic periodicals around the world.
On April 9, Father Longenecker wrote a blog entry in defense of Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation “Amoris Laetitia” on marriage and the family, noting that “real life is fuzzy, ambiguous and messy.” On April 14, I interviewed him by email about his perspective on the pope’s work.
On April 8, Pope Francis published “Amoris Laetitia” (“The Joy of Love”), his apostolic exhortation after the recent synods on the family. As a married priest with both personal and ministerial experience of family life, what did you appreciate about this document?
In Chapter Four, I found the Holy Father’s exposition of the famous chapter on love from 1 Corinthians 13 to be very moving. I was also touched by the grandfatherly advice on love that followed toward the end of Chapter Four.
I was impressed by his awareness of the many complex challenges to marriage and family life in the modern world. He obviously listened to feedback from around the world since he highlighted the many social, moral, theological, economic and cultural influences that have led to the current crisis in the human family.
I also appreciated the Holy Father’s incorporation of John Paul II’s “Theology of the Body” and the continuity of his teaching with Pope Paul VI’s “Humanae Vitae” as well as the teaching of Benedict XVI. His support of traditional marriage and condemnation of abortion was a solid reminder. It was, as it should be, a teaching document in continuity with the full teaching of the Catholic Church.
Despite the pastoral exception for former Anglican clergymen like you, married priests are very rare in the Catholic Church, particularly in the Roman Rite where the Eastern Catholic practice of married clergy below the rank of bishop is not normative. What are some things you’ve learned about love from 10 years of experience as a married Catholic priest and father of four?
Pope Francis mentioned some of the greatest benefits of married life, that it is a school of love and, to quote Pope John Paul II, “Chastity is the work of a lifetime.” To grow in love through the ordinary practicalities and realities of life is to learn that true love wears working clothes. However, I would add that I also appreciated the Holy Father’s passage on the gift of celibacy because I believe that both the celibate life and the married life are similar inasmuch as both must be the path for the individual to learn the way of self-sacrificial love.
As an institution, marriage has undergone many trials in the past five decades since the sexual revolution, with various social and other pressures fueling the rise of breakups and divorce. As a result, many Catholics now avoid church because they live in “irregular relationships” outside the sacrament of matrimony, leaving our pews empty. How would you characterize the pope’s response in “The Joy of Love” to this difficult situation?
The pope is very realistic about why some Catholics are alienated from the church, and I understand his point. The sexual revolution, like all revolutions, has been violent and many of our people are the walking wounded. This is why I like Pope Francis’ analogy of the church to a field hospital.
However, I would not be too hasty about blaming the Catholic Church alone for the problem. Many Catholics have known church teaching and deliberately departed from it, and have no wish to be reconciled to the church. Others have known very well the marriage discipline of the church and have disobeyed what they know to be good, beautiful and true out of their own willfulness. It is disingenuous of those who have separated themselves from the church to then blame the church for their own decision and expect the church to change the rules just for them.
In your April 9 blog entry “The Pope’s Exhortation—A Parish Priest’s Perspective,” you defend “Amoris Laetitia” from certain Catholic critics—specifically “armchair experts, Facebook moral theologians and Monday morning priests”—who feel the need to preemptively correct the Holy Father about church teaching on marriage before actually reading the document. What bothers you about this response from some Catholics?
I’m afraid I have been unable to read every comment and critique of the document, but from what I can gather there are those on the progressive side of the church and the mass media who have distorted the document’s message just as there are those on the conservative side of the church and mass media who have done so.
Some progressives will read the document as condoning every abuse of Catholic Church discipline possible while some conservatives will read it and conclude in horror that it is a carte blanche for moral anarchy. In the opening section Pope Francis specifically instructs us to read the document slowly, carefully and prayerfully.
Cardinal Raymond Burke, in an article at the National Catholic Register, adds to that instruction and advises all of us that “Amoris Laetitia” must be read through the filter of the whole magisterium of the Catholic Church.
Catholic teaching holds that civilly divorced and remarried spouses cannot receive Communion unless their first marriage is annulled (and the second union recognized canonically) or they live “as brother and sister” with their new partner. But in “Amoris Laetitia,” Pope Francis invites all Catholics to engage in a careful pastoral discernment that in footnote 351 seems to leave room for exceptions in certain cases. As a parish priest and married father of four, how might you go about this kind of discernment in your own ministry?
There has been much debate about footnote 351. Some think it leaves room for the divorced and remarried to receive Communion. I am of the opinion that it does not. The footnote talks about those in irregular relationships needing the sacraments. Indeed they do, but there are seven sacraments, not one. In certain cases the priest offers them appropriate sacraments according to their particular pilgrimage of faith. The footnote goes on to mention that the Eucharist is a “strong medicine for the weak,” and I do not disagree, but the faithful who are in irregular unions are encouraged to participate in the Eucharist by attending Mass, making a spiritual communion, and attending Eucharistic adoration. All of these are ways in which those in irregular situations may still participate in the sacramental life of the church.
When working with the divorced and remarried who wish to be full members of the church, I would therefore follow the discipline of the church, advise them to refrain from receiving Communion and accompany them as they attempt to put things right by having their previous marriages assessed by the marriage tribunal.
When they receive their decree of nullity we would then move forward to bring them to what the pope calls “fullness of communion.” I see nothing in the document which encourages me to “make an exception to the rule.”
Indeed, in his press conference on the way back from his visit to Mexico in March the Holy Father specifically addressed this issue, saying:
Integrating in the church doesn’t mean receiving Communion…. I know married Catholics in a second union who go to church, who go to church once or twice a year and say I want Communion, as if joining in Communion were an award. It’s a work towards integration; all doors are open. But we cannot say from here on they can have Communion. This would be an injury also to marriage, to the couple, because it wouldn’t allow them to proceed on this path of integration.
In your April 9 blog post, you give three case studies of civilly divorced and remarried Catholics (a man who married a fellow flower child in the 1960s before finding God; a man who married an alcoholic fellow Methodist and got a divorce before converting to Catholicism; and a woman whose husband came out as gay), pointing to the reality that some Catholics deserve annulments but cannot get them because their former spouses cannot be found or will not cooperate with the process.
In such cases where an annulment is deserved but has no realistic chance of ever happening, we seem to face the painful reality that very good and faithful Catholics who have done nothing wrong feel punished by lifelong exclusion from the sacraments. Some of these Catholics spend years of time and resources seeking an annulment they deserve but will never get in time for them to remarry. Based on your own experience, do you think it might be possible to give a dispensation for Communion in some of these cases? Why or why not?
I would sympathize with their situation, but I would not consider that I had the authority to formally admit them to Communion. From what I have read so far there is nothing in “Amoris Laetitia” which gives ordinary priests the authority to “grant a dispensation.”
I would try to be with them in their difficulties, to advise them to trust the Lord and to be integrated into the church in the ways I have discussed above.
If they are not yet remarried, I would remind them that all of us are called, at one time or another in our lives, to heroic virtue. I would also counsel them in the virtues and possibilities of celibacy.
One of the most heroic Catholics I know is a man who was married validly, but his wife walked out on him. He was denied an annulment and accepted that his way in life was therefore to be a single Catholic man.
We should be reminded that there are many people who live fruitful, abundant, courageous and inspiring lives without being married. There are many ways to happiness and fulfillment. The breakdown of their marriage and their abandonment might be the very thing that God would use to further their growth in holiness and bring them to identify more closely with the passion of his Son. In my ministry to them and with them I would not deny them this possibility.
In recent articles, some of the pope’s Catholic critics have accused him of “cowardice” and lacking confidence in Catholic teaching on marriage for suggesting pastoral discernment of possible exceptions for Communion in irregular unions. But there seems to be more underlying insecurity about Catholic teaching in these articles criticizing the pope than in anything the pope has written. What is the spiritual force, good or evil, driving the near-hysterical criticism of Pope Francis that seems to appear preemptively from some Catholics whenever he speaks?
Again, it is impossible to read all the critics of Pope Francis, but it seems on the progressive side that some are angry that “Amoris Laetitia” is not the reform document they had hoped for and the pope has “caved to the old white guys who run the Vatican.” On the conservative side, some extremists see footnote 351 as the crack in the dam breast which will bring about the deluge.
The spiritual force that drives such blindness is that old pair of madmen—Ignorance and Arrogance. To be good Catholics (no matter what our bias) we need to listen humbly to the church’s teachings and struggle first to understand and then to obey with joyful hearts.
If you could say one thing to Pope Francis about Catholic marriage today, what would it be?
Thank you for “Amoris Laetitia.”
What’s your favorite Scripture passage and why?
It varies, but this week I really like John 3:17—reminding us that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through him might be saved.”
I’m leading a Jubilee Year pilgrimage to Poland and that verse sums up our God who St. Paul teaches us is “Rich in Mercy” (Eph 2:4).
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.