Traditionally, social conservatism has enjoyed the support of Catholicism, whose body of teaching on morals is a mother lode of ideas and arguments that retain much of their force even apart from their theological context. Rumors that the Church is poised to relax its position on the indissolubility of marriage are therefore troubling or encouraging, depending on which side you stand in the culture war.
Tomorrow, a synod of bishops will convene in Rome to discuss the family. It’s a big topic, but what has developed as the headline item on the agenda is a question that on its face is technical and narrow: Should divorce and remarriage when the first spouse is still living continue to prevent a Catholic from receiving Communion? How the question is answered will affect only a sliver of the Catholic faithful directly, but its ramifications will eventually touch everyone, Catholics first and then, as the news sinks in, the culture at large.
The Church holds that husband and wife remain married to each other until death. In civil law, they may be divorced, but in the eyes of the Church they are not, so that for either spouse to enter into a new marriage would be adultery, a grave matter standing between that person’s soul and the Eucharist, the source and summit of Christian life.
A move to soften that impediment to the reception of Holy Communion is being led by Cardinal Walter Kasper, bishop emeritus of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. Pope Francis has warmly praised his approach to the issue. You can keep the rule on the books, Kasper argues. But mercy dictates that pastors should have freedom to stretch it at their discretion. The question is pastoral, we hear repeatedly.
For pastors, pastoral care should be like Saint Francis’s instruction on preaching: Do it diligently, and when necessary use words. An excess of them usually signals trouble. In the contemporary Church, the rhetoric of pastoral care is often sheep’s clothing, a layer of euphemism for the push to elevate practice over doctrine and law. It goes like this: First establish facts on the ground. Our interpretation of what’s on the books will come to reflect them soon enough. When it does, that’s when you should invoke the authority of canon law, the Catechism, and even Scripture. Until then, don’t. Understand that praxis determines doxa, not vice versa.
Other cardinals have voiced strong objections to Kasper’s proposal. Many observers now predict that it will fail but that it will force the synod to agree on a “compromise” whereby the Church will maintain its teaching on marriage, in theory, while in fact changing the rules to make it easier for any married couple to obtain an annulment, a determination that their marriage was never sacramentally valid. A marriage that is annulled is not dissolved; it’s judged never to have taken place, for any of several reasons indicated in canon law. The law can be interpreted strictly or broadly. In the United States, it tends to be interpreted broadly, reflecting the same attitudes underpinning no-fault divorce in civil law. Canon 1095 in particular, which stipulates psychological criteria that a person must meet for the marriage he enters into to be valid, is treated as a gaping loophole by tribunals that are predisposed to approve every annulment case that comes their way.
In a related development, a special commission “for the study of the reform of the matrimonial processes in canon law” was established by the Vatican late this summer, during the run-up to the synod on the family. It is widely assumed that streamlining and expediting the annulment process is the commission’s main objective. Even Vatican Radio refers to it as a “commission to reform [the] marriage annulment process.” Edward Peters, an American canon lawyer, argues that what those who clamor for simplification really want
is to eliminate the annulment process precisely as a juridic process. Their proposal comes in different guises: let the couple make the determination about whether they are married (you know, because divorced couples are so good at agreeing on things), or let their pastor decide for them, or their (presumably Catholic?) marriage counselor, and so on. Inescapably, though, such a proposal requires this: dropping the . . . presumption that when people wed they marry validly, so we don’t need a [legal] process to determine whether that presumption withstands objective scrutiny.
Again, law is demoted in favor of the notion that every man should have the freedom to do what is right in his own eyes. It’s the same maneuver that’s at the heart of the Kasper plan for allowing the divorced and remarried to take Communion, only here it’s translated from one sacrament to another — from the question “Who may receive the Eucharist?” to the question “What is matrimony really, anyway?”
Scholars and marriage advocates have sent an open letter to Pope Francis, urging him to uphold the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of marriage. The 48 signatories are disproportionately American and Catholic, but not exclusively. They include, for example, the Italian Marcello Pera, an atheist who nonetheless cherishes the “ecclesiastical exceptions,” as Lionel Trilling once called them, to the intellectual dominion that liberalism exercises over our contemporary Western culture.
For purposes of ratifying the sexual revolution, which has devastated the formation of stable family life across vast swaths of the globe, the Church’s retreating on the requirements for reception of Holy Communion would be as effective as its retreating on the permanence of marriage. In either case, Rome would suddenly be countenancing sexual behavior that for nearly 2,000 years it had deemed harmful. Every culture draws boundaries with respect to sexual activity. The Church’s boundaries are different from those of mainstream secular society; if you think the latter are more generous, ponder the anxiety and confusion on college campuses where casual sex intersects with feminist pieties about “rape culture.”
Many people would prefer to conduct their romantic and sexual lives according to the traditional vision that the Catholic Church stands for but has failed to sustain against the ideology of sexual liberation. It might succeed if it tried harder. It could learn from those Orthodox Jewish communities, in Brooklyn and elsewhere, that have created for themselves social environments in which the devout can date and marry according to Orthodox courtship rules, which are essentially the same as those that the orthodox, small “o,” of most major religions embrace.
Lacking such institutional support, conservative single Christians in secular societies find themselves without direction or support, adrift in dating pools where the noble principles to which many churches still give lip service function more like millstones than life preservers. In practice, sexual liberation is a kind of libertarianism: It grants no religious exemptions for those who attempt to play the game while defying its rules, which are unremittingly laissez-faire. Catholics already have reason to feel that their pastors have abandoned them in this arena.
Do not underestimate the resolve of some Church leaders to reinforce the message that, yes, the Church has evolved and, while it still encourages restraint, fidelity, and so forth, it no longer in practice proscribes sex outside marriage. Consider this underreported but highly telling recent event:
On September 14, at a wedding ceremony presided over by Pope Francis at St. Peter’s Basilica, some of the 20 couples being married were already living together, as the Diocese of Rome lightly noted in a press release before the big day. Did the whole world really need to know? Anyway, surprise: Nothing in canon law says that cohabitation makes a couple ineligible to be married in the Church. However, unless they were living as brother and sister, or had separated and gone to confession at some point during their marriage preparation, they would be in sin too grave for them to receive that other sacrament, the Eucharist, at their wedding Mass. They would be ineligible to take Communion for the same reason that it is denied to most Catholics who remarry after divorce: They were having sex outside marriage.
The news story here should have been not that cohabiting couples were married by the pope but that they took Communion. Did they? It would be remarkable for a Catholic couple to refrain from it at their wedding. Media reports included no mention of any such anomaly, and so anyone to whom the thought occurred was left to conclude that probably they did receive the Blessed Sacrament — and that the Vatican in the process nodded to premarital sex, gesturing its concession to the downgraded status of marriage in our troubled culture, which it should be trying instead to repair.
— Nicholas Frankovich is a deputy managing editor of National Review.