Monday, October 27, 2014

There Are Worse Things Than Divorce

Ross Douthat sounds like a guy who stopped by the cafeteria, only to discover that the chef may be changing some of his favorite dishes:
On the two modern occasions when a pontiff defined a doctrine of the faith, it was on a subject — the holiness of the Virgin Mary — that few devout Catholics consider controversial....

But something very different is happening under Pope Francis. In his public words and gestures, through the men he’s elevated and the debates he’s encouraged, this pope has repeatedly signaled a desire to rethink issues where Catholic teaching is in clear tension with Western social life — sex and marriage, divorce and homosexuality.
What has Douthat so concerned?
And in the synod on the family, which concluded a week ago in Rome, the prelates in charge of the proceedings — men handpicked by the pontiff — formally proposed such a rethinking, issuing a document that suggested both a general shift in the church’s attitude toward nonmarital relationships and a specific change, admitting the divorced-and-remarried to communion, that conflicts sharply with the church’s historic teaching on marriage’s indissolubility....

In the end, the document’s controversial passages were substantially walked back....

Over all, that conservative reply has the better of the argument. Not necessarily on every issue: The church’s attitude toward gay Catholics, for instance, has often been far more punitive and hostile than the pastoral approach to heterosexuals living in what the church considers sinful situations.... But going beyond such a welcome to a kind of celebration of the virtues of nonmarital relationships generally, as the synod document seemed to do, might open a divide between formal teaching and real-world practice that’s too wide to be sustained. And on communion for the remarried, the stakes are not debatable at all. The Catholic Church was willing to lose the kingdom of England, and by extension the entire English-speaking world, over the principle that when a first marriage is valid a second is adulterous, a position rooted in the specific words of Jesus of Nazareth. To change on that issue, no matter how it was couched, would not be development; it would be contradiction and reversal.
If we're going to invoke the horror of Henry VIII wanting an annulment from his first marriage such that he could marry Anne Boleyn, might it not make sense to ask if the Church's decision was the right one -- let alone a decision driven by theology as opposed to politics? Might it not also make sense to look at Henry VIII's subsequent history and hesitate -- to contemplate that just maybe it's better that annulments and divorce be more freely available than to have a husband decide that the best way out of a marriage is through decapitation? As Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich can attest, it is much easier now to get a divorce and yet remain a Catholic in good standing, by virtue of annulment, than it was in Henry VIII's time -- but politics are still involved and it seems much easier for the wealthy, powerful and connected to get an annulment from the Church than for most others.

While the notion that the Church might find a way to accommodate the millions of Catholics who are separated from their faith by virtue of a divorce may deeply offend some Catholics -- a minority — sometimes a small minority — among self-identified Catholics in the West -- a faction that apparently includes Douthat, it's interesting to see how dismissive Douthat is of Catholics who feel every bit as strongly about homosexuality. Douthat appears to be very concerned that "conservative Catholics" believe something that he, himself, does not appear to believe -- the doctrine of Papal infallibility.

My guess is that many of the same people who, on the issue of divorce, Douthat praises as "the people who have done the most to keep the church vital in an age of institutional decline: who have given their energy and time and money in an era when the church is stained by scandal, who have struggled to raise families and live up to demanding teachings, who have joined the priesthood and religious life in an age when those vocations are not honored as they once were", are every bit as opposed to his progressive views on homosexuality. It would be interesting to hear them surveyed, in retrospect, as to whether the Church made the correct decision with Henry VIII.

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