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Catholicism, Permissiveness, & Mercy

A mixed response to Pope Francis's Amoris Laetitia

My pal and sometime intellectual sparring partner Damon Linker makes some good points in his latest piece, which expresses frustration with conservative Catholics (and, I would suppose, fellow travelers like me). The title of the column — “The Retrograde Intransigence Of Conservative Catholics” — tells you where he’s coming from. Excerpts:

A straightforward reformer of the church seeks to change its doctrines. A stealth reformer like Francis, on the other hand, keeps the doctrines intact but invokes such concepts as mercy, conscience, and pastoral discernment to show priests that it’s perfectly acceptable to circumvent and disregard those doctrines in specific cases. A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.

Stealth reform ultimately achieves the same reformist goal, but without inspiring the intense opposition that would follow from attempting to change the doctrine outright.

That describes precisely what Pope Francis has done on the issue of permitting divorced and remarried Catholics whose first marriages haven’t been annulled to take part in the sacrament of communion.

Damon talks about how he was attracted to Catholicism (from secular Judaism) 16 years ago, when in the midst of a profound personal crisis. It was the Catholic Church’s solidity that made it seem like an oasis to him:

For someone who feels troubled by a culture in a constant state of instability and change, the Catholic Church can feel like a rock in a stormy, windswept sea. Finally, something is steady, permanent, unchangeable, fixed, immobile. The church’s very stability can end up looking like the strongest sign and confirmation of its divinity. Everything changes! But not God and his church.

For someone drawn to Catholicism by the promise of order and stability, any sign of change in the church will be unwelcome, threatening. The fact that social and cultural mores shift and develop around it is an argument for retrenchment and improved outreach to a world tempted by sin in new ways. It certainly isn’t a sign that the church should adjust its teachings on faith and morals, accommodating them to the latest trends. Any such adjustment would risk diluting the Truth, and (perhaps just as bad) serve as a potentially fatal concession that the church’s teachings can be fallible. Once that door has been opened, there may be no way to close it. Remove even a single brick from the foundation, and the whole edifice could come crashing down.

Damon talks at some length about conservative Catholics he respects — people like Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty — who hold to a firmly orthodox position on marriage, re-marriage, and communion.

But I can’t do it anymore. In my own case, at least, it’s come to feel more like an expression of a personal (and unhealthy) psychological need than a genuine response to and requirement of divinely revealed Truth.

Read the whole thing. 

A reader writes:

In some respects, I would say that he makes a fair point. I just wish he would have had the intellectual honesty to say that people who agree with him ought to do like he did and leave the Catholic Church. Framing it as an issue with “conservative Catholics” is unfair and wrong, because it’s really just an issue with “Catholics.” Which is fine — I am Catholic, but I am not going to demand that Damon Linker or anyone else be Catholic — but if you’re going to be Catholic, be Catholic.

That’s pretty much my view — or, if not leave the Church, then at least quit demanding that the Church change her teaching to accommodate their personal psychological needs.

This requires some explanation on my part.

In my case, one big reason I was attracted to Catholicism myself had to do with its being a solid rock in a tumultuous sea of relativism. In particular, it was Rome’s teachings on the meaning of sex and marriage that appealed to me, precisely because I was convicted of the disorder in my own pre-conversion life. Rome offered a deep and comprehensive way to understand sex and sexuality, one that was uncompromising, Biblically sound, and because of that, merciful. Chastity was the hard teaching that I did not want to accept, but I had enough intellectual honesty back then to know that it was not an option, not for Christians who were serious about faith. The Bible, and the continuous witness of the historic Christian church, was uncontestable on this point. The world does not want to hear this, and neither did I. But the Catholic Church — particularly in the person of Pope John Paul II — proclaimed this truth.

When I finally wanted God more than I wanted myself and my own will, I submitted. It was a miserable time, dying to myself in that way. There is nothing in our popular culture to support doing what I had undertaken; in fact, exactly the opposite. The thing I did not really understand until I became Catholic is that there is very little within the culture of ordinary American Catholicism to support it either.

Now, if that’s not been your experience, count yourself lucky. It was my experience in a number of parishes and places. For example, my bride-to-be and I were committed to being faithful Catholics and observing Natural Family Planning. She found a teacher in Austin, Texas, where she was finishing her degree, and I looked for one in the Archdiocese of Miami, where I was then living. I had trouble finding one, and when I finally did locate a teaching couple, they told me that they had been forbidden from teaching NFP in a number of area parishes. The parishes simply did not want to deal with presenting an unpopular teaching.

On two different occasions I got into an argument in the confessional with the priest on the other side of the screen over what’s a sin regarding sexual morality. In one case, the priest and I agreed to drop it, he said the absolution, and let me go. But it wasn’t even close to being an honest dispute. The priest flat-out rejected authoritative, binding Roman Catholic teaching. In the other case, a priest in the confessional at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in NYC advised me to use contraception in my marriage. I challenged him, and he gave a sigh that said oh, one of those, absolved me, and sent me on my way.

Those are some brief examples, fairly outrageous ones, from an orthodox Catholic point of view. Mostly, Catholic priests and parishes don’t even talk about this at all. Their silence says everything. What it says to Catholics like I once was, both as a single man and as a married man, struggling with chastity (= rightly ordering the gift of sexuality): You’re on your own, pal. 

Speaking only for myself here, that was enough. I knew the Egypt that had once been my dwelling place, and I preferred the desert to returning there. Still, the desert was a dry and difficult land, a place to wander all alone. In my case, I never felt all that inclined to judge fellow sinners who attempted to live by the Church’s teachings and failed. So did I! Thank God for the sacrament of confession, which was a great mercy to me. What made me really angry — really angry — was the way so many priests and lay leaders within the Church either explicitly or implicitly denied the Church’s teachings. It was one thing to deny Catholics like me the help we needed to live out the Church’s teaching. It was another to spit in our faces and call us fools for trying to do the right thing.

I have been an Orthodox Christian for ten years, and I have come to appreciate better the Orthodox approach to matters like contraception and divorce. In fact, I think Orthodoxy has a more realistic and merciful approach — and in the case of communion after divorce, Pope Francis’s recent teaching is closer to the Orthodox understanding. So why does Pope Francis’s teaching worry me on behalf of my Catholic friends?

A couple of reasons come to mind. First, Orthodoxy and Catholicism have fundamentally different approaches to understanding how marriage is understood in the sacramental economy. An Orthodox priest explains it briefly like this:

For Roman Catholics, Holy Matrimony is a binding, ostensibly an unbreakable, contract. The man and the woman marry each other with the “church” (bishop or priest) standing as a witness to it. Hence, no divorce under any conditions – no divorce but annulment of the marriage contract if some canonical defect in it may be found which renders it null and void (as if it never took place).

In Orthodoxy, Holy Matrimony is not a contract; it is the mysterious or mystical union of a man and woman – in imitation of Christ and the Church – in the presence of “the whole People of God” through her bishop or his presbyter. Divorce is likewise forbidden, but, as a concession to human weakness, it is allowed for adultery. Second and third marriages are permitted – not as a legal matter – out of mercy, a further concession to human weakness (e.g., after the death of a spouse). This Sacrament, as all Sacraments or Mysteries, is completed by the Eucharist, as St. Dionysius the Areopagite says.

There’s a lot more to it than that, obviously, but the relevant point is that within the Roman Catholic sacramental system, pastors have less room to maneuver and still stay faithful to the teaching. People say to me, “But the Catholics are becoming more like the Orthodox; why doesn’t this make you happy, as an Orthodox?” The answer is because I don’t believe in consequentialism. If the Catholics are becoming more like us for reasons that violate their self-understanding and weakens their overall strength and witness, then this is at best an ambiguous outcome.

More important, at least to me, is that the Pope is loosening a teaching that is rarely proclaimed in the first place. I can see that I was too legalistic as a Catholic, and certainly the experience of suffering helped me to understand more fully that the law was made for man, not man for the law. This is why I sympathize with Francis’s pastoral instincts in Amoris Laetitia. That said, I know perfectly well how most American Catholic parishes are going to interpret and implement this teaching: as an excuse to ignore the teaching in the first place (as if most of them needed an excuse).

(To be fair, I don’t know how this is handled in most US Orthodox churches. I have been in only a handful of parishes over the last 10 years, all of them primarily convert parishes. It may well be the case that most Orthodox parishes are just as negligent as RC ones.)

Remember what Damon Linker said:

A doctrine officially unenforced will soon lose its authority as a doctrine. Where once it was a commandment sanctioned by God, now it becomes an “ideal” from which we’re expected to fall short. Before long it may be treated as a suggestion. Eventually, repealing it is no longer controversial — or perhaps even necessary.

You can teach a lie just as effectively by declining to teach the truth. That’s what I fear is going to happen in the Roman Catholic Church in the wake of Amoris Laetitia, however well-intentioned Francis is. I don’t believe that the Roman Catholic Church has never, ever changed its doctrine, and I know, it’s no longer my church, so not really my concern. But I live in this post-Christian culture too, and it bothers me a great deal to see any Christian church weaken its standards, precisely in the area of morality where the historic Christian teaching is the greatest sign of contradiction to the age.

What is the difference between mercy and permissiveness? There is one, I’m sure. Which one is Francis preaching, in effect? I’m not sure.



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