Pope Francis and divorce
The sin of a second marriage is not serious enough to justify excluding people of good intentions from the sacraments.
Last weekend, Tim Kaine, the Democratic vice presidential nominee and a churchgoing Catholic, briefly escaped obscurity by telling an audience of LGBT activists that he expects his church to eventually bless and celebrate same-sex marriages.
In short order, his bishop, Francis X. DiLorenzo of Richmond, Virginia, had a statement out declaring that the Catholic understanding of marriage would remain “unchanged and resolute.”
In a normal moment, it would be the task of this conservative Catholic scribbler to explain why the governor is wrong and the bishop is right, why Scripture and tradition make it impossible for Catholicism to simply reinvent its sexual ethics.
But this is not a normal moment in the Catholic Church. As the governor was making his prediction, someone leaked a letter from Pope Francis to the Argentine bishops, praising their openness to allowing some divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion.
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The “private” letter was the latest move in a papal dance that’s been going on since Francis was elected. The pope clearly wants to admit remarried Catholics to Communion, and he tried by hook and crook to get the world’s bishops to agree. But he faced intense resistance from conservatives, who pointed out that this reform risked evacuating the church’s teaching that sacramental marriages are indissoluble and second marriages adulterous.
The conservative resistance couldn’t be overcome directly without courting a true crisis. So Francis has proceeded indirectly, offering studied ambiguity in official publications combined with personal suggestions of where he really stands.
This dance has effectively left Catholicism with two teachings on marriage and the sacraments. The traditional rule is inscribed in the church’s magisterium, and no mere papal note can abrogate it.
But to the typical observer, it’s the Francis position that looks more like the church’s real teaching (he is the pope, after all), even if it’s delivered off the cuff or in footnotes or through surrogates.
That position, more or less, seems to be that second marriages may be technically adulterous, but it’s unreasonable to expect modern people to realize that, and even more unreasonable to expect them to leave those marriages or practice celibacy within them. So the sin involved in a second marriage is often venial, not mortal, and not serious enough to justify excluding people of good intentions from the sacraments.
Which brings us back to Kaine’s vision, because it is very easy to apply this modified position on remarriage to same-sex unions. If relationships the church once condemned as adultery are no longer a major, soul-threatening sin, then why should a committed same-sex relationship be any different? If the church makes post-sexual revolution allowances for straight couples, shouldn’t it make the same ones for people who aren’t even attracted to the opposite sex?
An allowance is not the same thing as a blessing. Under the Francis approach, the church would not celebrate second marriages, and were its logic extended to gay couples, there wouldn’t be the kind of active celebration Kaine envisions either.
Instead, the church would keep the traditional teaching on its books, and only marry couples who fit the traditional criteria. But it would also signal approval to any stable relationship (gay or straight, married or cohabiting), treating the letter of the law like the pirate’s code in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movies: More what you’d call “guidelines” than actual rules.
The cleverness of this compromise, in theory, is that it leaves conservative Catholics with that letter to cling to, and with it the belief that the church’s teaching is supernaturally guaranteed. Thus, there is no crisis point and less risk of imitating Anglicanism’s recent schisms.
In the short run, this may indeed be clever. (Clearly, conservative bishops have no idea how to handle Francis’ maneuvers.) But how long will liberal Catholics be content with a settlement that still leaves same-sex relationships in a merely-tolerated limbo and that leaves open the possibility that a new pope — an African conservative, let’s say — might reassert the letter of the law and undo Francis’ work?
How long can conservative Catholics persist in waiting for such a pope, and in telling one another — as they’ve been doing, rather miserably, of late — to obey the church of 2,000 years rather than the current pontiff?
And how effectively can a church retain the lukewarm or uncertain if it keeps its most controversial teachings while constantly winking to say, “Don’t worry, we don’t actually believe all that?”
This instability makes it unlikely that Francis will be remembered as a great conciliator or unifier. It’s more likely now that his legacy will be either famous or infamous.
If liberal Catholics have read Providence’s intentions rightly, he will be the patron saint of all future reformers.
If not, he will join a group even more select than the communion of saints: The list of popes who came close — too close — to teaching something other than the Catholic faith.