Saturday 18 April 2015

The Mythology of Re-Marriage

In the run-up to part two of the Synod, I fear that I am going to have to return to this theme more than once.

So perhaps I should start this post (which is a follow-up, as promised, to this one) by stating my credentials. I am no moral theologian, or scholar of religion. However, when it comes to this topic, I do have some life experience to bring to bear. I am a sinner from early childhood, so understand something of the dynamics of sin and self-deception; and I have been married for more than thirty years, for better and for worse, and know a little about that.

But much more importantly, I have been raised in the Faith of the Church, and simply seek to pass on what I have received.

It seems to me that the movement in favour of telling divorced and re-married people that they may receive Holy Communion must rest on one or more of the following errors.

  • A false understanding of mercy and compassion
  • Confusion about the reality of sin
  • A lack of belief in the teaching authority of the Church
  • A desire to change the Church's teaching
  • A belief in the necessity of erotic love

So let us address them in turn.

A false understanding of mercy and compassion. The argument is often couched in terms of mercy or compassion. That may be the underlying intention indicated by this: I see no reason why one cannot believe in the indissolubility of marriage in a doctrinal sense, but still think that it is right in practice to make allowances and bend rules for people whose lives go wrong. In fact I think this is far more Christlike than treating them as uniquely sinful.

The general drift is that we mustn't be too hard on people, because that is not kind; and we all make mistakes (or even, in more reactionary circles, 'we all fall into sin'). Therefore, we should overlook the fact that someone is divorced and remarried, in the name of mercy or compassion.

However, that is not the approach taken by Christ, who surely is our model, nor the approach taken by the Church, His Mystical Body, animated by the Holy Spirit. Rather, Christ's approach, and the Church's approach following His example and inspiration, is to call sin by its name, and to call sinners - that is all of us - to repentance.

Of course, Christ is compassionate; of course, the Church is; of course we must be. We must reach out in love to everyone.  But it is a false compassion to teach people that sin is good, and needs no repentance.

Moreover, the kindness advocated by those calling for change is very unkind, and indeed unjust, to others; not least abandoned spouses and children. It also creates a moral climate in which more people are likely to suffer abandonment in the future. It strikes me as the kind of compassion that buys the drunk another drink at the bar, rather than the tough love that would insist on walking him home...

Underlying that error is another, I think, that is at the root of the problem for many people: 
Confusion about the reality of sin. The problem here is that many of us know people who have been divorced and re-married. We know that they are not evil people. We know they are often devoted to their new families. So surely their new relationship cannot be harmful. Even if, technically, it is not legitimate, if it is based on love, and their conscience is clear, what can be wrong with that?

This view confuses two things: the subjective and the objective. About the subjective, we are forbidden from judging: indeed how can we possibly know the state of someone else's conscience? We may, charitably, assume that they are acting according to their best lights, and therefore recognise that the guilt associated with their illicit relationship may be negligible (if, for example, they truly believe that their first marriage was invalid). We are certainly forbidden from reaching a negative judgement about another's conscience.

However, the subjective does not over-ride the objective. A (hypothetical) abortionist who sincerely believes that his vocation is to help women in difficulty, and is therefore subjectively innocent, nonetheless kills an unborn child every time he performs an abortion. Further, he does himself genuine harm each time: he gives Satan a further foothold in his soul (and the macabre case of Kermit Gosnell, for example, demonstrates the cumulative impact of that, as does the willingness of other abortionists to perform the visibly evil partial-birth abortions).  The point is that sin is bad for us (and others), even if we do not fully understand that it is sin, or fully consent to it. There is an objective reality at work here.

It is distressing when even Cardinals of the Church seem to forget this truth, and say that the old language – of mortal sin, for example – was a misguided attempt to motivate the faithful (see here).

In the case of the divorced and re-married, there are several things going on at this level. One is the continuing breach of the solemn promises made at the first marriage. A second is the objective act of adultery committed each time the new union is consummated. A third is disobedience to the teaching and authority of the Church. Even where subjective guilt is minimal, these objective facts will cause harm to the person committing the sin. That is why it is a false mercy to pretend to the person that it is all right to continue to do so: in doing so, we are colluding with the individual doing great harm to himself or herself, and inevitably to others, too (for such is the nature of sin); not to mention offending God. For, and this is the really tricky bit, the teaching about re-marriage being adultery, and adultery being sinful comes straight from Christ Himself.

There is one other aspect to this. Many pastors seem to think that the issue should be left to the conscience of the individual. That is to overlook another reality: Original Sin. Part of the damage we suffer (known as concupiscence) is that we are not the best judges in our own cases: the merest self-reflection reveals how quick we are to make excuses for our own sins. It is a false compassion to allow people to delude themselves on so vital an issue.

As mentioned, persistence in believing that, though divorced and remarried, one should be free to receive Holy Communion, also demonstrates a lack of belief in the teaching authority of the Church. The Church has clearly and consistently taught that those in a state of mortal sin thereby exclude themselves from communion, until they have confessed their sin, with a firm purpose of amendment. That teaching, of course, follows logically from what has been stated above, that sin is bad for the sinner, and from St Paul's admonition. Therefore, the Church, in her maternal love, calls the sinner to repentance, just as Her Lord did. One of the reasons for the current confusion, I think, is that the Church has not been sufficiently clear about this in recent decades. For everything I argue here also applies to anyone in a habitual state of sin which he or she is not repenting of and striving to amend - such as the Catholic couple who use artificial contraception, or the priest who entertains impure thoughts or uses pornography, and so on. 

The leads us to the next error I identified: A desire to change the Church's teaching.
My instinct is that the corruption of the faithful, and possibly the clergy, at this level underpins this call for 'compassion.' It is much more comfortable to call for the 'rules' to be changed than to confront the need to submit to the change that Christ demands - and will accomplish, if we allow Him to.

However, the Church can no more change the moral law than she can change the nature of the Trinity. She can only pass on the truth entrusted to her - or fail to do so. And in the case of so many of our pastors, it is the latter we find. They fail to teach the truth, and in failing to do so, end up losing their grip on it themselves. 

And in large part, I think that is due to them succumbing to a particularly peculiar error: 
a belief in the necessity of erotic love.  This seems to underlie comments such as the suggestion that repentance followed by living “ as brother and sister” as laid down in Familiaris Consortio is ludicrous and cruel.' (here, 4th letter). We know that the deepest and truest love need not be expressed through sexual intimacy: again we have the example of Christ to follow here, as well as His Blessed Mother, countless saints through the ages, and many celibate priests, religious and lay people in our own time. But in a post-Freudian, post-sexual-revolution world, many of our bishops and priests seem to think that such a truth is unteachable. Which is an error that is visibly causing immense harm to the Church and many, many families.


As I mentioned at the start, I am no moral theologian, and am always open to correction if I have misunderstood or misrepresented anyone or anything in this blog, just let me know. But my fear is that my analysis is correct, and that the battle at the Synod will be damaging.

Sub tuum praesidium 
Sancta Dei Genetrix.

Nostras deprecationes ne despicias in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta.



See here for my additional thoughts on hard cases, and the love and compassion of God.

1 comment:

Sarah said...

Fascinating! The title is great. I'm a big fan of sexual ethics, and since becoming Catholic, I've thought about marriage totally differently. This post was refreshing. I'll be back!