Relative Morality

When was the last time you heard a priest or bishop denounce the evil of divorce? Just as sermons inveighing against contraception have almost disappeared from Catholic pulpits, so too has preaching against divorce. The Catholic church has certainly not changed its teaching about the indissolubility of the marriage bond or its ban against divorce and remarriage, but divorce is certainly not high on the list of major sins for either high or low clergy. Why?

Could it be that just about every bishop and priest has a divorced sibling, niece, nephew, or cousin? A fair number of younger priests and seminarians have divorced parents. Back in the fifties, anyone from a "broken home" would have been kindly but firmly told that he could not be ordained for a major archdiocese like Chicago or Boston. No more! Today, divorce is no longer a remote aberration but a pressing and unhappy reality which has touched the majority of American families. More than half of all marriages in the United States end in the divorce courts and among second marriages the percentage is even higher. It is inevitable, therefore, that the Catholic clergy are not only counseling angry and alienated couples in the parish office but also confronting the pain of divorce among their own relatives.

A priest’s or bishop’s divorced sister or brother is seen not as a sinner but rather as an unfortunate victim to be granted a declaration of nullity by the Vatican so they are free to remarry and try again.

I recently attended the marriage of a cousin, a baptized Catholic, and a graduate of Catholic schools. He was marrying a divorced woman, mother of a four-year-old girl. His bride, I was told, "was rediscovering her Jewishness" and, in fact, the traditional wine glass was stepped on at the reception and an uncle addressed us in Hebrew. However, the wedding was celebrated in a former Catholic church by a minister of the Church of Religious Science. Other priests have told me that they have had similar experiences after being invited to the weddings of the "mix and match" generation, who are invariably "spiritual" but not especially "religious"- and certainly not interested in "institutions."

Many, of course, do not bother to marry in the first place. Nearly one in four persons over eighteen has never been married. About one-third of all children born in the United States today are born out of wedlock. How does the pastor respond when the single mother stops by to arrange her baby’s baptism? Probably with a somewhat greater sensitivity and compassion when he thinks of a relative in the same situation.

The Catholic church has been viewed by the homosexual community as stern and uncompromising. The official words from Rome have offered little consolation. But, as an American bishop remarked when his own brother "came out," attitudes can change. As a former seminary professor, I have seen former students contract aids and die. These were not, I think, evil men. Their classmates, to their credit, were quick to support them, visit them, and fill the church at their funerals. It is difficult to be judgmental when a brother, a nephew, or a fellow priest is found to be gay. In the local parishes and dioceses lesbians and gay men are finding the rhetoric to be less harsh and pastors and confessors far less condemnatory. Even cardinal archbishops have shown up to celebrate Mass for the gay community, to welcome and encourage these brothers and sisters of the Lord, to help them live the Christian life, and to lift the burden of guilt. Gay activists may not feel that enough has been done, but it is clear that both bishops and priests have come a long way in thirty years!

Families and friends have also been a powerful influence on the clergy’s attitudes concerning women’s issues. When your ten-year-old niece, already an "altar girl," expresses her outrage that she can never be a priest or bishop, you must, as an ordained minister, start to pay attention. You may or may not be convinced that there are theological arguments which make a female clergy quite impossible, but you also discover that your sisters, nieces, and even your mother and aunts have come to see this as a matter of simple justice. And even a convinced celibate knows he should never underestimate the power of a woman, especially one in his own family. It is not easy at family holiday parties to face an irate niece who finds the Catholic position illogical and deeply unjust, and to discover that every woman around the dining room table is on her side!

Could it be that the curial cardinals and monsignors, who have left their homes and families for powerful positions in the Vatican, would have a more benign approach to the hopes and foibles of humanity if they spent more time with their relatives?

Published in the 2000-11-03 issue: 

The Reverend Willard F. Jabusch is chaplain emeritus of the University of Chicago.

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