The Art of Not Forcing It

The media love a good squabble, and they also love to frame squabbles in a particular way, which is why newspapers like the L.A. Times run headlines like this one:

Conservative opposition to Pope Francis spurs talk of a schism in the Catholic Church

Note the dichotomy: it’s “conservative opposition,” rather than the Holy Father’s own doctrinal undertakings and impulses, that is threatening a “schism.” I guess this is the “Republicans Pounce” of the Catholic beat.

It is repugnant to imagine a Catholic encouraging, much less desiring, anything resembling a “schism” within Church hierarchy: we are called to be “one Body, one Spirit in Christ,” which is a little difficult to do if you’ve driven a wedge between yourself and your brothers, as the Protestant Revolution so aptly demonstrated some several centuries heretofore. Really, the gap between Pope Francis’s pastoral ambitions and the “conservative opposition” of the cardinals is best styled not as schismatic but rather logical, viz:

As Francis enters his fourth year in office, his conservative opponents have chosen to stand and fight over his 2016 apostolic exhortation titled “Amoris Laetitia,” or “The Joy of Love,” in which he suggested bishops can use discretion in granting Communion to Catholics who divorce, then remarry in a civil ceremony.

Francis’ guidance was seen by many as contradicting the ruling, which dates to the early days of the Roman Catholic Church, that couples are living in sin if they remarry, because their first marriage is still valid in the eyes of the church.

The passive voice (“was seen by many”), the weasel construction (“as contradicting the ruling”)—it all undersells the rather inexplicable and indefensible nature of the whole proposal. Unquestionably, Francis’s idea flies in the face of Catholic teaching, which holds that “divorced” and “remarried” Catholics are unable to receive Communion. But this is simply a workaday application of the Church’s long-established rule that forbids Catholics from receiving communion while in a state of mortal sin. And so the Kasper proposal ultimately strikes at the heart of the Church’s understanding of sin itself: if one objectively mortal sin is okay—if bishops are going to permit Catholics to consciously and deliberately live in mortal sin as a principle feature of their lives while behaving as if they are reconciled to, and in full communion with, the Church—then why not another one, or two more, or all of them? Why even preach against sin at all, if ultimately you are prepared to proactively tolerate it?

I have not yet found or been presented with a way to resolve this dilemma; the best explanation that pro-Kasper folks have been able to give usually runs along these lines: “If we don’t allow [Catholics living with mortal sin] to receive communion, then they’ll feel alienated and leave the Church.” It is mystifying to me why these appear to be the only two options—why more vigorous catechizing and moral instruction is overlooked or otherwise ignored—and moreover the proposed solution is effectively worse than the problem: rather than instruct against one mortal sin, we might—by encouraging these folks to receive communion—have them commit two! Surely we can do better than this; we do not need to throw around words or concepts like “schism” to recognize that this is a bad path for Christianity, which is to say ultimately the Christian faithful.


  1. Joan Shook

    I do not pretend to know what another’s conscience tells him. Long-standing Catholic teaching is that one cannot violate one’s conscience. My conscience will not let me judge the state of another’s soul. I believe this is what the pope is getting at: There are those who in good conscience are divorced and remarried. THEY ARE NOT LIVING IN “MORTAL SIN.” One who violates his own conscience is the one who sins. Please read the scripture and note how often (Not!) Jesus is troubled by divorce. Then note how often He is troubled by judging.

    • Daniel Payne

      Well, I haven’t “judged the state of another’s soul,” if that’s what you’re implying here—that is beyond my capabilities (thank goodness) and is reserved properly to God and God alone. I am merely pointing out that, by the measure of centuries upon centuries of unambiguous Church teaching, Catholics who are “divorced and remarried” (even those who do so “in good conscience”) are in a state of mortal sin. The Pope can’t change that.

      Anyway, I am not quite sure what to make of the notion that one’s “conscience” somehow allows one to sin with impunity. By this rendering, one could be a murderer, rapist, child sex trafficker, terrorist—heck, you could join ISIS, go on killing sprees declare yourself an enemy of the Church—and still consider yourself a Christian in good standing so long as you believe you’re “following your conscience!”

      This is silly. Surely the Church’s teaching on conscience isn’t some sort of blank slate for doing whatever you feel like. It must be something more nuanced and complicated than that.

      As for Jesus’s teachings on divorce: I don’t know what to tell you—going off of Scripture, Christ is very troubled by divorce—his teachings against it are so strict that many people believe it would be better not to be married at all! There’s not a lot of room for ambiguity there.

  2. Joy

    Daniel, I think the issue is actually more complex–and I definitely think Francis’ position is more in line with the Gospel and is definitely consonant with Church teaching. I’m not sure how much you have read of this issue–at least this much, I fervently hope:
    Now, I wouldn’t pay too much attention to what the Pope allegedly said toward the end of this article, some important issues about the state of marriage but peripheral to the question at hand. He does seem to get a bit off-track sometimes. But essentially this simply has always been true, all the things he says about ‘attenuated culpability’ and the absolute responsibility of local bishops, in communion with their priests, being able to discern and counsel about the entire healing, inclusive ministry of God’s holy church. Seriously–you are a devout and serious Catholic and you are also young in the faith and reflections on the Church’s teaching on (a) the primacy of conscience, (b) the meaning of sin, (c) the magisterium and its sacred duty, and about 10 or 15 other subjects will continue to deepen and will enrich our church for many years. Of that I have no doubt. But on this issue you are off the mark. There’s not a scintilla of evidence that this Pope or his bishops believe anything different about the sacred indissolubility of marriage than what has been proclaimed from the beginning. This is not about being ‘nice’ or ‘kind’ or ‘letting people off the hook.’ I’ll leave it to you to ponder just what it IS about if Joanie and I are right and you are wrong.