Synod on the Family, Part IV

by Michael Sean Winters

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Yesterday, I sketched what I thought were the major themes in both Cardinal Walter Kasper’s treatment of the issue of divorced and remarried Catholics and the treatment of the same issue by those who disagree with Kasper, using an essay by five Dominicans and a canon lawyer as illustrative of that opposition. Today, I would like to turn to my own wrestlings with this difficult issue, mindful that this autumn’s Synod will not be looking for solutions but, instead, focusing on the state of the question.

The first problem with our current pastoral practice is that it puts the focus on the wrong marriage. We do not tell a person that they must refrain from taking the Eucharist when their first marriage fails, but when they contract a second marriage. Hopefully, that second marriage will be a source of grace and life for the couple. Certainly, we can assume they view it as such, at least in comparison to the first, failed marriage. Whatever one thinks of the praxis of the Eastern Orthodox churches, at least they focus on the first, failed marriage, expect penance for that failure, and while not offering a second, sacramental marriage, bless the second, civil union and do not deny communion to those who enter into it. Whatever moral failure exists – and sometimes, as in the case of spousal abandonment, the language of moral failure seems inappropriate – but, nonetheless, it is the first marriage that has failed which should be the starting point for whatever spiritual remedies the Church can provide.

This leads to a second issue that is deeply problematic with our current praxis. There are three promises considered essential for a valid Catholic marriage: fidelity, permanence and an openness to the procreation of children. Yet, we only apply the stern penalty of denying admission to the Eucharist when the first of these promises, fidelity, is broken by the entering into a second marriage. It is the divorce, not the second union, that breaks the promise of permanence and, as well, ends the openness to the procreation of children, at least for that first marriage. There is an inconsistency here it seems to me, and a particular type of inconsistency at that, one that focuses not on the whole relationship but exclusively on the sexual act. As we witnessed regarding the issue of same-sex couples, an over-emphasis on sexual relations almost always distorts the fullness of the Church’s teaching.

Third, if all the sacraments are sacraments of faith, and they are, I do not see how we can presume the sacramental validity of a marriage contracted by two non-Catholics. I leave aside the fact that I have never understood why a Catholic marriage is considered invalid, as opposed to illicit, if it is not performed by a priest with witnesses as required by the Council of Trent. But, it was not until the 1917 Code of Canon Law that the Church assumed that marriages contracted by other Christians, outside the form prescribed by Trent, were valid. So, a Catholic who gets married without proper form has an invalid marriage but a Protestant who gets married without proper form, as we Catholics understand proper form, has a valid marriage. This is crazy. Nor does it help to argue that natural marriage points to the sacrament of marriage: That sort of argument may have been persuasive when most people more or less understood natural law the way the Church understands natural law. But, ever since Darwin, natural law has had a rough time of it and, as a matter of catechizing, its usefulness is pretty well spent.

This concern may seem abstract, but let us consider a real life example, one that a friend of mine who is a priest in the South faces with some frequency. A woman in her late twenties decides she wishes to become a Catholic. She was raised a Baptist. When she was eighteen, she married her high school sweetheart, also a Baptist and neither of them ever thinking that marriage was any kind of sacrament. Her high school sweetheart turned husband turned out to be a cad, and he beat her up, and when she threatened to call the police, he fled. She got a divorce and subsequently met a nice man who takes care of her. Both of them have decided they want to become Catholics. Yet, they can’t really become Catholic, can they? They cannot be confirmed and they cannot partake of the Eucharist. She entered into a first marriage, not in the Catholic faith and unaware of the promises we attach to a sacramental marriage. Why should she now have to go through a convoluted canonical process which may or may not find that her first marriage was invalid?

Fourth, the current juridical process is flawed for reasons Cardinal Kasper cited, to be sure, especially when the jurists in the second instance have papers, not people, in front of them as they assess the case. And, I mentioned yesterday that any juridical process has rules of evidence that may or may not allow us to get to the heart of the matter: There are circumstances in which we all “know” something to be the case but it can’t exactly be proven. But, here is another difficulty with our current praxis. We presume a marriage is valid. To procure an annulment, it must be proven by the applicant that the marriage was invalid. But, why not take the fact that a marriage has failed as prima facie evidence that the marriage probably was not valid? Surely, the fact that the marriage failed suggests that one or both parties did not fully grasp the depth of the promises they were making. This concern is different from that raised above regarding marriages by non-Catholics. And, I raise this concern mindful of Cardinal Kasper’s observation that “It is the dignity of the human person to be able to make permanent decisions.” But, this ability presumes a certain degree of freedom and knowledge, does it not? Getting back to what we discussed on Tuesday, about the difficult of raising a person in our consumerist culture capable of promising “forever” and fidelity, we must ask if the fact that a marriage failed validates our current assumption that all marriages are valid. Especially in cases of spousal abandonment, expecting the abandoned spouse to prove anything seems heartless.

Concerns about the current canonical process lead us to a further concern: Why is the process essentially juridical and not pastoral? How is the parish priest involved? Too often people use the phrase “pastoral theology” to suggest something mushy or soft. But, it is good to recall that the Holy Father has placed the issue of the family in the context of evangelization, the Church’s most essential mission. The question must be faced by those who wish to retain the current praxis without amendment or development: How could this process possibly constitute good news? This is not just a concern about tone, although the tone of those who defend the current methods can be shockingly insensitive, focused more on categories than on people, and more on particular sins than the sinful condition in which we all approach the altar. How can the way we minister to the divorced and remarried bring forth the proclamation of the Gospel? This is a question that must be faced.

Relatedly, the Synod Fathers must realize that this discussion has as much to do with our theology of the Eucharist as it does with our theology of marriage. The Eucharist is not a prize for those who live blameless lives. And, if we treat it as such, do we not put ourselves in the position of the proud man, who sits at the front of the synagogue and prays, “I thank thee, Lord, that I am not like other men.” We are all sinners. We all need to keep our heads down, sit in the back, and pray, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I understand that those who advocate change often do not evoke this sensibility. That is why pastoral involvement is essential. There must be evidence of conversion if the Church is to accommodate someone who has been unable to fulfill a permanent decision. I would also point out that our Lord not only spoke strongly against divorce, he also said that if a man lusts after a woman, he has already committed adultery in his heart. Is communion to be restricted to those who have never seen Angelina Jolie in a movie? Seriously. On this point, Kasper’s book Mercy is more instructive than his talk to the cardinals.  If our theology had paid as much attention to the biblical witness of God’s mercy as it has to Greek philosophic categories, I think we would have a different understanding of what it means to be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

This brings us, of course, to the ultimate issue: Can the sin of a failed marriage be forgiven and a person restored to full communion? Should we adopt a praxis akin to that of our Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters? Does it matter that a second marriage is not experienced as “adulterous” but may have opened new avenues of grace in a person’s life, avenues that will only be strengthened by admittance to the Eucharistic table? These issues are far above by theological pay grade, I admit. But, Pope Francis has, it seems to me, touched something very profound when he calls us to become a Church of mercy. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI each touched this same chord in different ways. Mercy presumes repentance, to be sure. It does not presume perfection.

In 1953, Isaiah Berlin published his essay on Tolstoy, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.” The title was drawn from a fragment of an ancient Greek poem that read: “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Berlin While acknowledged that he was oversimplifying things, and even said the metaphor was not intended to be taken as seriously as it was. But, he thought that one could classify the greatest minds in history as the one or the other, foxes who focused on the many and the varied, or hedgehogs for whom one thought or insight was dominant. So, Berlin characterized Aristotle, Erasmus, Shakespeare, Goethe, Pushkin and Joyce as foxes, and Plato, Dante, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky and Ibsen constituted the hedgehog team. (Tolstoy was a bit of both.) In the debates about how the Church should pastorally care for divorced and remarried Catholics, we have heard so far only from the hedgehogs. Those who want no change in the Church’s practice towards divorced and remarried say the teaching in unchanged and unchangeable. Those who want a different approach ask, now without warrant, where is God’s mercy in all this? (Similarly, those who advocate for gay rights dismiss any residual commitment to traditional marriage as mere bigotry. Those who advocate traditional marriage paint gays and lesbians as a civilizational threat.) What is needed – at the Synod and among the bishops worldwide – on issues like there are more foxes, people who recognize both sides of an equation, who admit the good faith of those with whom they disagree, who do not feel it necessary to try and beat other people over the head with natural law arguments but who propose the Church’s teaching in its fullness as a proposal, not an edict. Better to say, we need bishops like Tolstoy, bishops who have the heart of a hedgehog but the skill of a fox.

We need something more too. The twin Synods on the Family will be Pope Francis’ first synods as pope. He brings with him to the papacy a long experience with the Latin American bishops’ conference (CELAM) meetings, before which extensive consultation is conducted, down to the parish level, in the years before the meetings, the discussions are more open and free-wheeling than a typical Roman synod, and there is much more time for prayer. Everything Jesus said, about marriage and about mercy, was spoken in the promptings of the Holy Spirit, and that Spirit remains active in the life of the Church. All of us who are not Synod Fathers should pray fervently for those who are, that the Holy Spirit will guide their deliberations, and open their hearts and their minds to His promptings. At the end of the day, I am sure there must be change in how the Church approaches these issues, but whether that change be large or small, canonical or theological, was is key is that those changes flow from the promptings of the Spirit. We are not being called to conform ourselves to the age. We are being called, in this age, in every age, to be conformed to the Spirit. 




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