The Great Papal Shrug

What is marriage? When the Supreme Court was posed this question a few years ago, it gave a particularly tortured and inexplicable answer, finding that a heretofore purely dichotomous relationship could in fact be homogenous because—well, because Justice Kennedy said so. We might expect anthropological nonsensicality (and rank dishonesty) from the liberal wing of the Court. But one tends to prefer a little more stability and sensibility in one’s Vicars of Christ. So I am not entirely opposed to this particular missive:

In a 25-page letter delivered to Francis last month and provided Saturday to The Associated Press, the 62 signatories issued a “filial correction” to the pope — a measure they said hadn’t been employed since the 14th century.

The letter accused Francis of propagating seven heretical positions concerning marriage, moral life and the sacraments with his 2016 document “The Joy of Love” and subsequent “acts, words and omissions…”

When it was released in April 2016, “The Joy of Love” immediately sparked controversy because it opened the door to letting civilly remarried Catholics receive Communion. Church teaching holds that unless these Catholics obtain an annulment — a church decree that their first marriage was invalid — they cannot receive the sacraments, since they are seen as committing adultery.

Francis didn’t create a church-wide pass for these Catholics, but suggested — in vague terms and strategically placed footnotes — that bishops and priests could do so on a case-by-case basis after accompanying them on a spiritual journey of discernment. Subsequent comments and writings have made clear he intended such wiggle room, part of his belief that God’s mercy extends in particular to sinners and that the Eucharist isn’t a prize for the perfect but nourishment for the weak.

“Vague terms and strategically placed footnotes.” Whatever your feelings on Catholic marriage, it is essentially impossible to deny that Pope Francis, whatever his other merits (and he has more than a few of them), has effected profound and inexcusable chaos within the Church: rather than clearly enunciate the scandalous proposal he appears to advocate, he has instead offered an equivocal and dodgy approximation of it, a sort of papal shrug. It is a clever tactic because it accomplishes more or less the same thing as if Francis had just come right out and advocated for the ecclesiastical legitimization of adultery, but it does so in a way that allows for a measure of plausible deniability. It’s a bit like a prison guard casually whispering to a prisoner: “There’s a guard change at 12:03 AM. Nobody will be on watch for forty seconds.” Wink, wink.

Francis’s defenders, and presumably Francis himself, deny that Amoris Laetitia in fact “legitimizes adultery,” and on its face this is true. But the practical effect of the “case-by-case basis” approach to this affair is wholly foreseeable; even if this method were right on the merits (and it is not), the inevitable mission creep would render it moot. This is perfectly obvious: what starts out as a careful process involving a “spiritual journey of discernment” would invariably, inevitably turn into a blanket dispensation for all “remarried” Catholics everywhere. Does anyone think that the majority of Catholic priests—fallible, sensitive to optics, many of them scared of giving offense to prickly parishioners—would be okay telling one adulterous couple “Your situation is acceptable, I have decided you can receive Communion” while telling another, “No, you may not receive Communion unless you stop having sex and go to Confession?” Of course not.

Even allowing for the small number of priests who would be willing to make such distinctions, what do you think such theological realpolitik would do to the parishes in question? What about the friends and family members of the couple who were denied Communion—what do you think it would do to them to see other “remarried” couples receiving the Eucharist while their sons or daughters or best friends were forced to remain in the pews? Might such circumstances sow anger, bitterness, envy and hatred? The answer is yes, of course.

Francis’s exhortation, in other words, gave the Church an absolutely untenable dilemma: either offer what amounts to a “blanket dispensation” regarding the Church’s clear and unambiguous teachings on marriage, divorce and adultery; or else make the dispensation conditional, laying the groundwork for bitter factionalism and feelings of betrayal in parishes across the world. There is no good option here—unless, of course, the Church just follows its ancient teachings on marriage and divorce, teachings which apply to everyone no matter what the “case-by-case” may be. That would be the right thing to do. And it is a poverty that we are moving away from it, at the behest of the Pope, of all people.

One comment

  1. Adriana Mandon

    Yes, very clear article. More confusion for an already confused Western world (the others are not confused).
    He is a Pope of our times, people of diverse background love him, you can see t_shirts in the gay pride here in San Francisco, where his picture is printed with the words “who I am to judge”.
    Lately it looks like you can make a jock of everything, there’s not respect for anything, probably because of our lack of discernment, our ignorance our worship of fake idols as, for instance, liberalism or lefty utopian mandates. Also for the terrible ignorance that exist about Catholicism encourage from inside the Vatican as from the different external agents, like the media propagandist apparatus, that by the way, nobody cares about it, only the left because it his own doing, but they are preaching to the choir, very boring. Most of the people are center, are in the middle, look at both sides and just pick the less nut. But the head of the Church doesn’t have to keep with the times because, first, it’s timeless, it’s doctrine is unique and universal, in confusing times we should look for eternal and unchanging truth. Second, the Church, isn’t only in the times but it works in a different realm, the spiritual realm that is outside time, that is because we say that we live for eternity, our souls are eternal, in that big picture Catholics cannot take seriously anything that departs from orthodoxy. There is a renewal in the world for look to the old and traditional times. Latin masses are getting more parishioners and another diverse people, by the day, for the grace of God, Pope Francis is provoking the opposite effect, people are so confused that they want to know about the basis, about pre VII, about old rites. This is a moment that the true Church has to take advantage of and they are many brave priests out there. Of course there will be always priests that prefer the comfort of their vests and go with the times as it’s happening in Argentina, where divorced and second marriage parishioners are allowed to have communion. Jesus itself explained the value of the sacrament of marriage, Moses allowed Jewish people to divorce, personally I think that sometimes it should be allowed the divorce but that is my personal opinion, my free will, but I understand perfectly Jesus when he explained why we should stay married, after all nobody put us a gun in the head to make us marry a certain person, at least that should be the case, if not, there’s annulment. I listen to different arguments about what it can fail in a marriage, but that is the whole point, a marriage cannot fail because if you know that you have to spend the rest of your life with that person you will make it work, if you are seriously committed you must know for what u r signing of, if not, there’s a failure for part of the Church, and I think it is, to marry people without a grade of certainty and preparation. I heard so many times, that you never know, that is luck, but that is the wrong mentality, if you know that you will spend the rest of your life with a person, you would be very carefully in look for a partner for life. I have friends that are Indians, all of them have been introduced to their wives and married without much knowledge of their personalities or qualities or compatibility, that we Westerners put so much effort and consideration for, and I asked them how they do it?
    The answer is almost always the same,”we make it work”, and they do, because the divorce rate among them and also Asians is very low. Now they don’t have it by written but they respect their traditions, for Catholics is something God asked for and he gave us a solid reason, and his promise to us it’s that he will help us in the marry life, and we will gain so many graces for staying marry, we will be also spirituality superior over our flaws, we will grow in spirit and conquer our humanity to became more like him, the add benefits are the stability, the economic efficiency, you progress more economically putting together two salaries, being married allows you to focus in other important things for your well-being also, and you don’t waste time and energy in uncountable failure relationships, lost meaningless long dates nights with the risk that materialistic sex implies, diseases, unwanted pregnancies, etc. Children that grow in an stable marriage have advantage over others, they feel love and security,they have less self-esteem related problems, they don’t have to buy or look for love in the wrong places or behave in a certain way to feel that they are wanted, so yes, there’s a lot of advantages, because if something we can be sure of, it is that God is a practical being that knows what it is better for us, we just need to trust him more!