In a brief commentary at the Catholic Thing, Fr. Gerald E. Murray rebukes Cathleen Kaveny and Fr. Anthony Spadaro, S. J., for contradicting the “plain meaning” of Christ’s teaching about divorce and remarriage at a recent conference on Amoris laetitia. (For background on the conference, see my colleague Matthew Sitman’s report.) Murray, a canon lawyer, has been a vocal critic of Amoris laetitia since its publication, and his criticism of Kaveny and Spadaro is really just an extension of his earlier criticism of Pope Francis and Cardinal Kasper. Responding to Kaveny’s claim that “we do not need to disturb Jesus’ teaching in order to refine and develop it,” Murray writes:
Jesus’ teaching cannot be disturbed…but it can be ignored or falsified. The admittance of invalidly married couples to Holy Communion is not a refinement or development of that teaching, it is a betrayal. One can claim to uphold a teaching by refining and developing it in a way that totally changes its meaning, but such a claim is false. Either adultery is always wrong, or it is never wrong. There can be no middle ground. To redefine some forms of adultery as not adultery is an offense against the plain meaning of Christ’s words. It’s wishful thinking that endorses immorality and would have the effect of destroying the unity of faith taught by the Church.
Murray is outraged by Spadaro’s statement that “it is no longer possible to judge people on the basis of a norm that stands above all.” Murray calls this “a direct contradiction of how the Church has always understood Christ’s teaching.” For him, judging people on the basis of norms “that stand above all” is what the Church is all about. It is, if you like, the Catholic thing, without which the faith would crumble into incoherence and irrelevance. “It’s horrendous,” he writes, “to suggest that Christ’s teaching should no longer be preached in its plain sense as taught from the beginning by the Church….. I am reminded once again of the title of Cardinal Sarah’s book God or Nothing. That is what it comes down to as we experience, with sadness, this escalating crisis over the meaning of God’s truth about marriage, divorce, adultery, and Holy Communion.” Why would the current controversy over sacramental discipline, relegated to a footnote of Amoris laetitia, remind Murray of the title God or Nothing? Because “there can be no middle ground”: on one side there is God and His Holy Church and its unchangeable code of conduct, rooted in the Gospel and unambiguously presented in canon law. On the other side—the side of such people as Kaveny and Spadaro—there is Nothing, an abyss of betrayal and deception seductively presented as mercy.
Murray’s position has the undeniable appeal of clarity and simplicity. His is the sober, straightforward tone of someone insisting on an inconvenient truth. That tone is rhetorically effective because most of us, whether we call ourselves liberals or conservatives, have become suspicious of any theological argument that seems designed to make Christianity as easy and inoffensive as possible. Murray is more suspicious than most. He demands straight answers and is quick to spot any equivocation passing itself off as a nuance: “Either adultery is always wrong, or it is never wrong…. To redefine some forms of adultery as not adultery is an offense against the plain meaning of Christ’s words.”