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.