I think Ross Douthat is clearly right. Pope Francis wants to let divorced and remarried Catholics take communion even if their first marriages were valid.
Francis is taking a rather well-worn, and perhaps I could say Jesuitical, path for Catholics, in somehow wanting to keep the doctrine and abandon the discipline of indissolubility by suggesting to bishops and priests that they can privately readmit divorced-and-remarried Catholics to communion after a suitable amount of “accompaniment.”
My non-Catholic friends point out that this divorce between doctrine and discipline is nothing new for the Catholic Church: annulments for Kennedys do seem to be more available than for others in the Church.
My cradle-Catholic friends tend to shrug and point out that popes come and go, that their private actions and utterances are of varying interest, and that Pope Francis, after begging the bishops to find a way to authorize communion in such circumstances, pointedly did what popes do and reaffirmed Catholic teaching, so what’s the big deal anyway? Ignore the chit chat.
It is reverts, like me, or converts, like Ross Douthat, who seem to be the most bothered by Pope Francis’s seeming desire to “get around” Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of marriage rather than, oh say, preach, teach, and try to implement it.
To me in my twenties, the Catholic Church’s profoundly and prophetically countercultural teaching on marriage was like a light in the lugubrious wilderness of the sexual revolution. It was with wonder that I saw the Catholic Church holding fast to truths about sex and marriage and human life. Marriage wasn’t just a promise, not just words, it was a consecration that changed reality, made out of two different people one new flesh, open to the future, to babies.
As I read the Biblical teachings, my wonder deepened: Other Christian communities had abandoned the clear words of Jesus. How did the Catholic Church hang on to Christ’s amazing words on marriage when so many Christian communities — indeed, as far as I can see, every single other denomination — had lost them or lost faith in them?
An Orthodox friend tells me I’m just not well informed, that her community allows divorce only for good reasons, such as adultery, abuse, abandonment.
But if Jesus was saying only that you should have a good reason before you divorce your wife, why were his own disciples so shocked at the teaching? “If this is the situation between a husband and a wife, it’s better not to marry!” his disciples said.
In Luke, Jesus laid down the new teaching that remarriage is a form of adultery: “Everyone who divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery, and he who marries a woman divorced from her husband commits adultery.”
Matthew 19:9 includes an exception: “I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.”
The exception word being translated here is “porneia,” which could mean sexual immorality but also meant relationships that could never be real marriages, such as incestuous ones. This Catholic interpretation of the exception clause makes more sense given Jesus’s repeated emphasis that remarriage while a spouse still lived was adultery.
Like much of what Christ told us – “turn the other cheek” leaps to mind — this teaching on marriage seems too hard for us to do.
“Great, I can be alone the rest of my life” one Facebook friend, whose wife left him for another man, told me.
In the real world it seems to many (not just to Pope Francis) to be uncharitable — “unchristian,” even — to tell an abandoned woman who is happily civilly remarried that she must be celibate. And it is not good for man to be alone.
That is why it’s not surprising that just about every Christian community has accepted adultery as a real exception to indissolubility and expanded on acceptable reasons from there.
But the earliest Christians from Paul for several hundred years did not reason thus: They did not accept that remarriage was possible after divorce for any reason. I find this further evidence for the truth of the Catholic interpretation of Jesus’s words forbidding remarriage: For what community would impose this standard on itself if it had any choice in the matter, if Jesus’s teaching were not clear?
The wonder of the Catholic Church is that it has been faithful to this plain teaching that marriage creates a real one-flesh union that cannot be dissolved — it is faithful intellectually, conceptually, and legalistically, it could be said (and often is).
Cradle Catholics shrug their shoulders at the idea that the Church is not living up to its own teachings very well. Pay less attention to the back-of-the-bus mutterings of the Holy Father, they tell me.
But converts like Ross Douthat and me came to the Church looking for a home, a refuge from the wilderness, a place where our own faith could be less intellectual, more rooted in a lived reality where we could feel less alone.
The mutterings make that more challenging to me. Why cling to what even the pope wants to discard or modify?
But then, as I look out, where would I go? Not to the Orthodox, who gave up indissolubility a thousand years ago. Not to the Protestants or the LDS, who reason much as Pope Francis does on the matter.
Sometimes home is an ideal place with a grand and loving father to protect you. Sometimes it’s just the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.