In April, Pope Francis issued Amoris Laetitia where he called for a more pastoral approach in dealing with Catholic couples who divorce and remarry without getting an annulment of their Catholic marriage.  He suggests that each case be considered on its own merits.  He did not make any changes to Catholic doctrine in this document, so what he meant by "pastoral" was, as usual, interpreted by each in their own way.

In July, Archbishop Chaput of Philadelphia, who is considered very conservative, responded by saying:

Catholics in Philadelphia who are divorced and civilly remarried will be welcome to accept Holy Communion – as long as they abstain from sex and live out their relationships like “brother and sister”.

I found this to be a remarkably liberal statement coming from him.  But I also found it disturbing.  Is he saying that adultery begins with sexual relations?  Or is he using sexual relations as a convenient and unambiguous dividing line?  Will sexual relations become the new standard of adultery?

I present to you a story of a failed Catholic marriage.

There is a Catholic couple that I know who were married for almost 25 years.  At some point late in the marriage, the wife decided, entirely unilaterally and without mentioning anything to the husband, that the marriage was over.  Her first steps out of the marriage were to attempt to contact some of her many old boyfriends from the past and she was able to actually find some of them.  She then began to secretly correspond with them.  Eventually, she developed an emotional on-line relationship with one of them, although she apparently kept corresponding with the others as well.  During this entire period, she kept professing her love for her husband.  However, the intensity of her correspondence became harder and harder to hide and she was discovered.  She initially responded with outrage, saying that her correspondence was simply her exercising her right to have a personal life.  She admitted that in the case of this one man, she had engaged in what she called "some inappropriate correspondence", but she characterized it as an accident and would admit to no more than that.  She claimed that she had not had sexual relations with him, despite the fact that he lived within driving distance and that in retrospect she could not account for long days she had spent away from home.  But at this point, her husband no longer trusted her.  For various reasons, good and bad, and at her insistence, he left her and moved to an apartment nearby.  After he left, she almost immediately began dating again.  In about a year they were divorced.

From the husband's point of view, she had committed adultery, and the adultery began when she unilaterally decided that the marriage was over and she started looking up old boyfriends.  From his point of view, she was not engaging in a "personal life" but a "secret life", which he believed was something they had both given up when they had taken their marriage vows.  Her adultery intensified when she got emotionally involved with one of the men, whether she slept with him or not.  By the time she ended up sleeping with him, she had already been cheating on her husband for a long time.

My point here is that while having sex is a nice white line to draw, the true nature of what a sacramental marriage means is more complex.  It is not that anything goes up until the screwing begins.  So I would say that living like "brother and sister" solves nothing and further, that there is a great difference between lovers and brothers and sisters in any case.

I am happy for anything that will lead people back to the Church.  And I applaud Archbishop Chaput for making moves in that direction.  But one of the modern problems of marriage is that we, in our hypersexualized society, don't seem to look at what marriage is supposed to mean... as a sacrament.  A Catholic who remarries in a civil ceremony or who even simply cohabitates with someone is still committing adultery.  Having sex with their partner does not make it into some kind of special official adultery.  On the other hand, a couple entering into a Catholic marriage may actually have both entered into it for appropriately mature reasons at the time, which would seem to undercut any grounds for annulment.  Then they changed.  And any subsequent marriage or relationship they enter into, although being adulterous by definition, may in its practice be far more "Christian" than the legitimate marriage that they left.

The point I am trying to make is that Francis is right about the issue being a pastoral issue and that each case deserves to be looked at on its own merits.  And the unspoken thing here is that a couple would approach a priest or bishop to look at the case on its own merits in the first place.  Which to me, in this world where there are few priests, is actually what should be done.

unagidon is a contributing editor to Commonweal.

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