Where’s The Line?

James A. Coriden’s essay “Conscience & Communion” (January 27) extends the issues raised in the series “A Modus Vivendi?” (January 13) to a possible here-and-now solution for the practicing Catholic who’s in an irregular union and seeking to return to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist. Putting conscience in its rightful place as the basic norm for personal morality is in line with Pope John Paul II’s Veritatis splendor: “The judgment of conscience is a practical judgment, a judgment which makes known what man must do or not do.... It is a judgment which applies to a concrete situation the rational conviction that one must love and do good and avoid evil.”

I appreciate that a Catholic spouse who meets the criteria, with proper disposition for penance and Communion, will be able to avail himself of the conscience option with all the safeguards mentioned by Coriden. But I have further questions. What of the baptized non-Catholic spouse of a Catholic—also in an irregular marriage—who enters RCIA and makes a profession of faith with a clear conscience? Could he, after receiving absolution in confession, be confirmed and receive Communion? What about a nonbaptized person who, after baptism, wishes to receive Communion? Assuming the good faith and well-formed consciences of all concerned, where does one draw the line?

Finally, Coriden writes: “The argument set forth here applies to the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, not to remarriage in the church. It does not suggest that a second marriage can be celebrated.” I understand that the conscience decision is made in the internal forum, but if it was made under the direction of a pastor and he is satisfied with the good faith of the parties involved, then why, given the absence of a scandal, deny a couple the grace of the sacrament of marriage?

Eamon Duffy, in the quotation that prompted the discussion in “A Modus Vivendi?” wrote: “Marriage is above all else a social institution, and if the church is not to decline into being a sect for the saintly, ordinary Catholic couples cannot realistically be expected to live lives untouched by the sexual expectations and mores of the culture as a whole.” Good Catholics must be puzzled by strange canonical restrictions imposed on those trying to live good moral lives when they are caught up in punishments for mistakes made in the distant past. So many Catholics now simply reject canon law, while others have found a welcoming home elsewhere.

Victor Whelan
Seymour, Tenn.

Doctrinal Development

I was disappointed to learn in Bernard Doering’s “On Good Authority?” (March 23) that Jacques Maritain and Cardinal Journet capitulated so readily to the condemnation of birth control in Paul VI’s Humanae vitae, despite their deep personal conviction that the pope was in error. Thankfully, Paul was not impeded by “definitive” teaching—let alone infallibility—when he “opposed [Peter] to his face because he clearly was wrong” (Gal 2:11) about imposing circumcision and other Jewish customs on the Gentile converts. Had it been otherwise, one wonders whether the Christian mission in the West would have succeeded.

John Lee Madden
Lumberton, N.J.

Jacques & Raissa

References to Jacques Maritain being scarce these days, I was pleased to read “On Good Authority?” Maritain was a hero to me as a studious young convert. Doering describes Maritain’s thoughtful likening of the two birth-control methods, “rhythm” and the pill, and how he nonetheless deferred to Humanae vitae. Maritain did not live to see the church’s enduring fracture following that encyclical, as the laity made their own decisions while most priests avoided the subject.

Recently I was surprised to learn that the Maritains undertook marriage as a brother-sister relationship, choosing continence and forgoing the parental experience. The ideals of the time would have presented theirs as a more saintly path—and their beatification is being officially pursued. If marriage has as its fundamental basis a coupling for purposes of procreation, was that grand friendship a real marriage as current conservatives define it?

William J. Pease
San Diego, Calif.

Subordinate Clause

Christopher Roberts’s letter in the April 6 issue (“Maritain’s Blind Spot”) criticizes Jacques Maritain’s inability to distinguish Natural Family Planning (NFP) and contraception. He writes, “NFP means subordinating your desires to a pattern not of your own devising.... NFP demands patience forbearance and restraint—even a sense of humor.... [Contraception] puts a couple at the liberty of their own appetites.” That seems to me a seriously flawed criticism.

Since sex with or without contraception involves two persons, every adventure in that area—every moral and sensitive adventure—involves “subordinating your desires to a pattern not of your own devising,” the state and sensitivities of the sexual partner. The sort of patience and restraint involved in NFP can be no more than a “prosthetic virtue,” using the biological clock and reluctance to conceive as an external restraint. The deep moral issue in sexuality is care for the other, which grounds the virtues extolled by Roberts.

Dennis O’Brien
Middlebury, Vt.

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Published in the 2012-04-20 issue: View Contents
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