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What Is the Proper Catholic Way For Marriage To Fail?

A question about Amoris Laetitia for Alan Jacobs and Ross Douthat.

I’m even less of a Catholic than Alan Jacobs is – I’m not even a Christian, and I’m a pretty poor excuse for a Jew these days. Nonetheless, I want to say something about the debate about Amoris Laetitia apropos of Jacobs’s piece in these pages and Ross Douthat’s response.

I understand Pope Francis’s argument in pretty much the way Jacobs does: that nothing has changed about doctrine regarding the indissolubility of marriage, but that individual priests can exercise prudential judgment about how and when best to apply discipline (such as withholding communion) as a means of teaching that doctrine.

The heart of Douthat’s response as to why this is a problem is basically this:

[O]n an ecclesiastical level, here’s where I’d like to place my trust: Not in any individual priest or pastor or bishop, but in a process, however flawed and fallible, that treats a broken marriage as something that might still be real, whose vows might deserve to be respected even in permanent separation, and whose participants and offspring therefore have rights and claims that deserve a hearing from someone other than the inevitably-partial, pressured and overburdened pastor of a typical Catholic congregation in the year of our Lord 2016.

And what conservatives fear, what has us grim-faced even in our relief that the pope did not do something that explicitly contradicts the church’s doctrine on marriage, is Francis’s implicit dismissal of the need for such a process in cases where the divorcee seems sufficiently “responsible and tactful,” where the second marriage seems sufficiently stable and happy and permanent and, well, bourgeois.

Because a church that tells people that no protections for their possibly-sacramental first marriage are necessary so long as they are tactful in their request, real in their regrets, and respectable in their new life, a church that does not provide any real safeguard for what it claims is an absolute and cosmic reality, an icon of Christ and his bride … can such a church be said to really believe any longer in the indissolubility of marriage, no matter what kind of flowery language its high officials use?

Another way to put this would be: why should bourgeois respectability be grounds for special mercy? Why is their cross especially hard to bear? I have some sympathy for this critique – but I wonder whether Douthat will follow it all to way to what I think is its logical conclusion.

I like my Christianity pretty Tolstoyan, which is to say, I have little or no use for the supernaturalism, but I recognize the power of a highly original ethical critique. As I understand that critique, Christians are called to a much higher standard of morality than was articulated by the rabbinic tradition, one that, pretty much explicitly, is unachievable by anyone but the saints. And then, Christians are exhorted to be vastly more merciful towards those who fail to achieve that saintly standard – more merciful than, frankly, anyone but saints can be with any kind of consistency. Jesus of Nazareth says that anybody who experiences lust has committed adultery “in his heart,” and he also says, defending the woman about to be stoned for adultery, “let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”

What does this mean for the indissolubility of marriage? Earlier in his response to Jacobs, Douthat says:

A Christian marriage is not a high moral goal, in other words, like charity or chastity or piety, which human beings chase after and to which they imperfectly aspire; it is an ontological and sacramental reality, created by the spouses’ vows and by God himself. In which case no power on earth can dissolve it, no feeling of repentance or regret or five-step Walter Kasper-approved “penitential path” can make it disappear, and no pastoral accommodation can transform the departure from those vows into something other than adultery, or the taking of new vows into something other than a promise to live in public defiance of the Decalogue.

Fair enough: I see the difference between a norm of moral behavior, where Christianity arguably demands the impossible, and a sacramental institution that has its own reality, within which people live as best they can. If you bear or sire a daughter, that daughter exists even if your feelings about her, or your own ability to be a parent, change. But what of . . . fidelity? What side of that dichotomy does it fall on?

It seems to me that, plainly, it must fall on the side of the other virtues – as an ideal, an aspiration to which, in its perfect form, only saints can achieve, and that most of us fall very far short of. It’s hard enough to live up to in the form presented to Moses on Sinai, and Jesus of Nazareth raises the bar all the way to heaven. And the prohibition on divorce comes pretty quickly after the unachievable standard for adultery; Matthew 5:27-28 is just as clear and uncompromising as Matthew 5:31-32. So if Christian marriage is an “ontological and sacramental reality” while fidelity is an aspirational ideal, then it is an ontological and sacramental reality that must be expected to endure despite regular and repeated infidelities. Indeed, based on the standard for fidelity that Jesus of Nazareth articulates, I would venture that most nearly every marriage that does endure does so under precisely those conditions.

What are the implications of this understanding? Well, as I understand it, the problem with simply welcoming divorced and remarried Catholics back into communion is that they are not merely sinning (according to the Catholic church’s lights), but living in a state of avowed sin; the act of remarrying is a public expression of the intention to continue in a state that doctrine says is adulterous. (Since a marriage can’t be ended, you need to establish, through the process of annulment, that it never really existed in the first place.) But what about a man who lives adulterously according to our common understanding, and not merely the uncompromising standards of the church? A man who takes up with another woman, has children with her, without ever divorcing his wife or marrying the new woman? How does his spiritual state differ, fundamentally, from that of the divorced and remarried man?

It seems to me that, on one level, it doesn’t differ much at all. In both cases, you’ve got a marriage that failed, and a new family. Good respectable bourgeois Pharisees, of course, would say that there are a host of important differences – that going through the process of divorce and remarriage makes the new life more stable, lets everyone properly understand their social and financial place, and provides generally for a better social order. These are some of the reasons why, in fact, we have the divorce laws we do.

But, if I understand correctly, Douthat’s position ought to be that the second fellow is more accessible to mercy than the former, because he is not living in an avowed state of sin. He hasn’t divorced; he hasn’t remarried; he hasn’t pretended that what he is doing has anyone’s blessing. He has committed adultery, yes – repeatedly. But he hasn’t vowed to keep committing it. If I’m wrong about this, I’m open to correction, but I think I’ve got that right. And if I do have that right, then isn’t that, from a Catholic perspective, a better way for marriage to fail than the more respectably bourgeois route, precisely because it is more honest about what that failure actually signifies?

I’m not bringing up this alternative as a straw-man, suggesting that of course nobody could defend the idea that the latter situation is preferable to the former and therefore Pope Francis is right and his conservative critics are wrong. On the contrary – one could readily use that understanding as the basis of an alternative social order. You don’t even have to imagine a world in which “first wives” retain certain rights and privileges unto death even as concubinage is widespread. After all, that’s pretty much how polygamy works in the parts of Africa where it is common.

My question for Douthat is simply this: assume that nobody knows the practical consequences in terms of the prevalence of divorce or of adultery or of church attendance or of any other social consequence that might result either from greater leniency or greater stringency on the matter of divorced and remarried Catholics. Assume, further, that the goal on all sides in this debate is to strive to prevent marriages from failing – that nobody is actually being cavalier about that question. Granting these premises for the sake of argument, what is the best way for a marriage to fail, where two people conclude: we cannot live together and we cannot live chastely apart? What should be tolerated – by the couple and by the community – as a way of enabling a troubled marriage to survive as an “ontological and sacramental reality” if not as an idealized form of communion? And if Amoris Laetitia extends special mercy in the wrong direction, is there a better direction in which to extend it?

Or do we just need tougher love all around?