Ross Douthat highlights the stark and meaningful difference between Pope Francis’s ideals on communion for the divorced and remarried, and what they actually mean in the Archdiocese of San Diego. Douthat credits theologian Rocco Buttiglione with pointing out serious and painful marital situations that Amoris Laetitia is designed to address: a modest stretching of church discipline for the sake of mercy. But the progressive
Archbishop Bishop of San Diego, Robert McElroy, uses the same logic to more or less abandon standards entirely. Excerpt from Douthat’s characterization of the Archbishop’s Bishop’s teaching:
This is a teaching on marriage that might be summarized as follows: Divorce is unfortunate, second marriages are not always ideal, and so the path back to communion runs through a mature weighing-out of everyone’s feelings — the feelings of your former spouse and any kids you may have had together, the feelings of your new spouse and possible children, and your own subjective sense of what God thinks about it all. The objective aspects of Catholic teaching on marriage — the supernatural reality of the first marriage, the metaphysical reality of sin and absolution, the sacramental reality of the eucharist itself — do not just recede; they essentially disappear.
Which means that is not at all a vision under which a small group of remarried Catholics in psychologically difficult situations might receive communion discreetly while they seek to sort those situations out. It is, in fact, by implication almost the reverse: The only people who might feel unready for communion under Bishop McElroy’s vision of spiritual maturation are Catholics whose lives are particularly chaotic and messed-up, who don’t feel sure at all about where they stand with God, to say nothing of their kids and ex-spouses or lovers or boyfriends or whomever. Is Sonia the prostitute from Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment” ready for communion in the diocese of San Diego? Maybe not; maybe she should wait a while. But the respectable divorced father of three who gets along well enough with his ex-wife and has worked through all his issues in therapy can feel comfortable receiving ahead of her. This is not communion for the weak; it is communion for the stable and solid and respectable.
Here’s the deeper meaning of all this:
At prior points in the Francis-era Catholic controversies I have noted with a certain alarm that the “liberal” side and the “conservative” side don’t seem to have much of a theological language in common; we argue past each other because we almost seem to belong to different Christian communities, with different baseline assumptions all the way down to the question of who Jesus actually was. But what is striking about reading Buttiglione and McElroy back-to-back is that here we have two supporters of Pope Francis who seem to be speaking different religious languages — Buttiglione trying to interpret “Amoris” in consonance with older Catholic ideas and categories, the bishop of San Diego essentially acting as those those ideas and categories have been superseded; Buttiglione envisioning a change that affects a few; the bishop of San Diego envisioning one that’s clearly for the many; Buttiglione laboring to treat “Amoris” as a modest development of doctrine; the bishop of San Diego entirely unconcerned with potential contradiction with the Catholicism of the ancient and very recent past.
Perhaps both men’s readings of Francis’s intentions are plausible; certainly the pope’s public commentary on marriage is now extensive enough to admit of multiple interpretations, modest and sweeping and everywhere in between.
But you will note that only one of these men is a bishop, a public teacher of the faith, a Francis appointee. I am uncertain of the wisdom of the dubia offered by the four conservative cardinals, fearful (unlike certain heighten-the-contradictions traditionalists) of what might happen in the church if the pope actually clarified his teaching and intentions. But if Pope Francis does not mean his apostolic exhortation to be implemented along the sweeping, come-all-eventually-back-to-communion lines proposed by Bishop McElroy, he should say so, and soon. Because in the diocese of San Diego, there may be something called the sacrament of matrimony, but the church itself plainly does not believe in Catholic marriage anymore.
Read the whole thing. This is why Douthat and the other Catholics critical of Pope Francis in this matter are not simply a bunch of grumps who want to be mean to fellow Catholics in difficult and painful marital situations (as Douthat notes in his post, his parents are divorced, as are at least one set of his grandparents). It’s that within the theological economy of Roman Catholicism, you can’t do what the Pope has done without there being logical consequences. And no amount of wishing them away will change that.
This principle is not simply an issue for Catholics. People like me have been saying the same thing about things like same-sex marriage. What looks on the outside like a relatively small adjustment of the marriage discipline for the sake of accommodating same-sex couples in fact destroys the idea of traditional marriage, Christian and otherwise. It is true that this formal shift could not have happened without certain facts on the ground having already been established. Similarly with Catholics, the Pope’s move in one sense only ratifies what is already happening in Catholic parishes in many, many places. Nevertheless, the formal granting of same-sex marriage rights, and its legitimization in law, institutionalizes the Sexual Revolution’s radical effect on the concept of marriage. Similarly — if Douthat et al. are correct — Francis’s Amoris Laetitia is a radical document that, however mercifully intended, removes a doctrinal and conceptual keystone that held up an already-strained arch.