OUT OF THE DITCH
Paul Baumann wrote an excellent review of Ross Douthat’s To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism (“A Precarious Unity?” May 4). Douthat’s position basically boils down to “don’t ask, don’t tell.” In a 2014 New York Times article, he wrote, “The formal teaching barring the remarried from Communion coexists, inevitably, with individual choices that contravene the rule, and in the Western world especially many Catholics looking for straightforward laxity can very easily find what they are seeking.” Nothing to see here folks, just move along. People who want to take Communion can find a way to do so, but just don’t say they can. The reason is the hidden tension between the lax and the orthodox. If an attempt is made to resolve the tension in favor of the cafeteria Catholics, the “faithful” Catholics will have to leave; there will be an open schism instead of a hidden one. I don’t know if Douthat sees the irony in an exit by the “faithful” while the “unfaithful” remained through all those conservative popes. We’re all cafeteria Catholics, it’s just that “faithful” Catholics liked more of the menu until now. What are we left with if nothing changes? It’s all very clear.
The church’s position is that marriage is indissoluble, except when it isn’t. Which may be okay, because that’s what Jesus said (in Mark), except when he didn’t (in Matthew). Baumann says that Matthew exercised his authority as an apostle. But, it’s not that. Matthew doesn’t exercise authority, he quotes Jesus as making an exception, although it’s not very clear to us what that exception is. Is it adultery or scandal? What kind of scandal? Jesus also says in Matthew, “Let anyone accept this who can.” What about those who can’t? The other early apostles made no exceptions, except when they did (the Pauline Privileges, for example).
There is, according to Baumann, the Brideshead option. You simply leave your current spouse and head back to the other. After all, it’s easy to leave your second spouse and children. They’d understand why you were leaving. Just tell them, “It’s not that I don’t love you, God made me do it.” No moral issue in abandoning them to return to the first spouse, who would always gladly take you back.
Annulments are clear. There’s no question as to whether it should be harder to get one (St. John Paul II) or easier (Pope Francis). No one questions that most Catholic marriages are valid, except Benedict and Francis. It’s quite easy to remember exactly what you believed about the indissolubility of marriage years later. No issue of whether on top of a divorce you’d want to revisit all that pain for yourself and ex-spouse in an annulment process. You would never really be able to get more than one, except when you can. No real problem for the children to have to go through an annulment after going through a divorce. It’s easy to understand that the children of the first marriage are legitimate even though they were born to a marriage that never existed. If the remarried parents haven’t annulled, the children probably don’t have any problem with their parents “living in sin” and on their way to hell.
According to the church, you can remarry as long as you live as brother and sister. It’s easy because it reduces marital fidelity to sex. Even if you marry someone else and love and support them financially, emotionally, and spiritually, those don’t count in the marital-fidelity calculus. It’s all about sex. I’m not so clear whether desiring someone, but not doing anything about it, constitutes the lust in your heart that qualifies as adultery. That’s quite a tightrope Holy Mother Church is asking you to walk. I know I couldn’t do it.
Nope, nothing to see here. We should all just move along. Douthat is right that opening the door a crack will result in its being opened wider and wider. But, as the quote from his Times column shows, he already knows it’s open a crack. I don’t know if Douthat recommends turning in those who have found laxity when presenting themselves for Communion or whether lax priests should be reported to the proper authorities.
There are many people trying to live morally: divorced, remarried, annulled, or trying to live as brother and sister. Marriage and divorce is not all black and white. It’s not as simple as saying one spouse is innocent and the other guilty. I think Merton said, “You and I are just fellow travelers along the road, fallen among thieves, trying to help each other up out of the ditch.” Would it really be so bad to try to do that? Francis seems to be willing to recognize institutionally what Douthat says is already happening. That small crack may be too much and Douthat may walk through it the other way, which would be a shame. As Baumann points out there have been other cracks in other doors that became wide open. The church survived those changes and it would survive this too. In the meantime, though, many more people would be helped up out of the ditch on their journey to God.
George M. Opsincs
A GOOD SHEPHERD
We are so blessed to be members of Fr. John Baran’s parish and to have had him as our pastor for a number of years. This wonderful tribute in Commonweal (“Fr. Nonomen,” May 4) beautifully demonstrates the spirit of Fr. John, and of the community that loved him. As a same-sex couple, my husband and I were unsure how we would be received, but we both have great love for and devotion to the Catholic Church. When our next-door neighbors and dear friends repeatedly talked so enthusiastically about Fr. John and the parish community, we were encouraged to attend. We were quickly welcomed and embraced by the community and especially by Fr. John. He became a wonderful friend and was truly the Good Shepherd. We knew we’d found a home, and his love is always with us.
New York, N.Y.
HER WHOLE PERSON
I loved Paul Griffiths’s “A Life, Not a Grammar” (March 9). If I were explaining the topic to my granddaughters, none of whom has graduated from college yet, I would tell them the story of the greeter at a church I once attended. She had a big smile and greeted each person enthusiastically, sometimes with a hug. She had Down syndrome. When she greeted someone she committed her whole person to it. Like the person who we receive in the form of bread and wine.
AN ASSET, A FRIEND, A SACRAMENT
Thanks to Massimo Faggioli for his gentle reminder to Catholic theologians (and other Catholic-Studies scholars like me) that we have ecclesial responsibilities (“A Wake-Up Call to Liberal Theologians,” May 18). Recent history suggests that most of us are ready to offer commentary but, when the chips are down, we are content to leave the church to the bishops. The politics of the church may have counted in the past, but that was about kings and cardinals, not us. Few of us (with Boston College a rare exception) offered time, treasure, or talent to Voice of the Faithful, which thought we all might share responsibility for responding to the crisis of sexual abuse, or to Catholics in Alliance for the Common Good, which tried to deal with right-wing hijacking of Catholic social teaching in 2004 and after. Both groups had their shortcomings (CACG could not get GOP Catholics to join Catholic Democrats) to be sure, but almost no one tried to help or, if that didn’t work, to organize alternative groups to accept historical responsibility. Does anyone recall February 2004 when the first sexual-abuse Review Board offered an invitation to dig a little deeper? No one noticed and the church in the United States now drifts toward ignorant triviality (if not deep corruption) and almost no one tries to help.
Why should we? The fact is that all of us need our church: a) because we think the deep values of Christianity are in fact true—that is what the much abused “Catholic intellectual tradition” is about; b) because success in any of our ministries, lay or clerical, depends on the help of others who share our—let’s say it—faith; c) because dignity and freedom and solidarity are the right way—for everybody; d) because this remarkable global and local church is a wonderful means of connecting with one another across multiple boundaries—race, class, gender, nationality, and generation. We don’t have to do it all because we are part of a major-league movement.
Most of all, we all need broad Catholic intelligence and imagination about human dignity and solidarity, open and helpful to everybody, so that Catholic Christianity is credible and attractive, not least of all to our open-hearted and smart children. Let us find ways to let people know what we have always believed: that Catholicism is an asset, a friend, even a sacrament, of our shared hope for justice, peace, and beyond hope, joy.
Emeritus Professor of History
College of the Holy Cross