Thursday, April 2, 2015

A Question That Still Haunts: Who Am I To Judge

Even a pope can get

In my last posting I mentioned that opposition to Pope Francis is being orchestrated before the second session of the Synod on the Family that meet this coming October. The divide in the Church is growing wider every day as one part of the Church is embracing Francis’ theme of mercy in the hope that the Church will find someway to more fully incorporate those Catholics who are in irregular unions into the sacramental life of the Church while another faction is closing ranks to maintain the current official discipline that those who are married outside the Church (including those who have remarried after a civil divorce but without a Church annulment) or who are in committed same-sex relationships, or otherwise sexually active outside of a Church marriage be barred from receiving the sacraments except in periculo mortis.
It was suggested by some in the Church, particularly Cardinal Walter Kasper, that we might look to the discipline of the Eastern (Orthodox) Churches and bless a non-sacramental form of marriage for those who have been divorced but not annulled.  In practice, the Catholic Church does not question the canonical practices of the Orthodox Churches including these marriages where the parties’ Orthodox priest has performed the rites after a penitential period during which the formerly married persons have examined their hearts and repented of the reasons that caused the breakup of their sacramental bonds.  I say that in practice we do not question the Orthodox canons because the official line is that such parties must still have their marriages annulled by a (Catholic) Church tribunal before the second marriage can take place in a Catholic Church.  However, as we do recognize the validity of marriages between Catholics and Orthodox, even when it is performed in the Orthodox Church and without the proper dispensations, there is this little squeak-hole through which the divorced can squeeze.
I have been doing some reading on the Orthodox practice, however, I am doubtful if the Catholic Church could officially recognize—much less appropriate for our own—the Eastern canons on this practice.  It seems that the Orthodox practice emerges not from scriptural warrant or even from the patristic commentaries but rather from pressure on the Church by the Imperial government of the Byzantine (and later Russian) Empire.  The Greek Church was totally under the control of the Emperor (and the Russian Church under the control of the Tsar) who could make and break patriarchs at will and while the Church remained orthodox in its Christology, its moral theology suffered considerably as it accommodated the various marital (and extra-marital) escapades of the Emperors and their families.  From the time of the Patriarch Photios in the ninth century the Church began to acknowledge reasons for which a divorce could be obtained.  Photios, you may remember, was the Patriarch whom the Emperor Michael III installed after removing Patriarch Ignatios.  Ignatios had offended the Emperor Michael’s uncle, Caesar Bardas, by refusing him communion because Bardas was publically carrying on an affair with one of his daughters-in-law.  Pope Nicholas I refused to recognize the Emperor’s deposition of the Patriarch and consequently refused to recognize the legitimacy of Photios’ patriarchate.  This led to a schism of that divided the Latin and the Greek churches fro 863-870.  It is not a moment in which the Greek Church can take much pride.  Photios was deposed in 869-870 and unity restored to the Church.  He was legitimately elected patriarch in 877 and he served the Church well in his patriarchate.  No one can deny that he was a great bishop.  Ironically, his son was elected Pope Theodore II in 897, though is reign lasted only three weeks.
The Greek practice is not an annulment of a marriage as Church tribunals grant in the Catholic Church.  It is an ecclesiastical divorce that does not “undo” the first marriage.  That is why the rite for a second—and in rare cases, a third marriage is substantially different from the rite used for the first marriage.  The practice of “crowning” the nuptial couple at the first marriage is not repeated which symbolically implies that in the Kingdom of God the first spouses will be reunited eternally: how that reunion is supposed to reflect the bliss of the eternal heavenly banquet is unclear. 
The practice of the Church recognizing certain divorces might have worked out differently in the west had not the Popes been able to break imperial control over the Church during the Gregorian Reform in 11th century.  While the Ottonian Emperors of the 10th and early 11th century had in fact been able to use their power to enforce reforms on the papacy, the tide turned by the middle of the century and the Popes began a long battle to free themselves of an Imperial supervision which had begun benevolently but was turning into a political subservience that was undermining the Church’s integrity.  Going back before the Ottonian revival, when Pope Stephen III had warned Charlemagne not to divorce his first wife, Himmeltrude, the Emperor had ignored him without any consequences and entered into several subsequent marriages.   Charlemagne’s great-grandson, Lothair II, a junior member of the Imperial family, was initially denied an annulment of his marriage by Pope Nicholas I (the same Nicholas who defended Patriarch Ignatios of Antioch against the Emperor Michael III and Photios), but Pope Adrian II eventually granted Lothair and his wife the requested annulment. It is hard to say “no” to an Emperor or his family unless you are free of their dominance.  Had the Emperors in the west been able to establish and maintain the same control of the Church that their Byzantine counterparts had, we may well have come to find ecclesiastical divorces in the west as well. 
It really is difficult to see how the Orthodox practice could be accepted in the Roman Church, but I personally don’t see that as the problem.  From an ecumenical standpoint, while I don’t see how we could justify adopting the Orthodox practice as it lacks scriptural or patristic foundation, I think we need to recognize the Orthodox right to determine their own practices without our criticism.  Unity does not require conformity; there are legitimate diversities even in moral issues.  I think the problem is our presupposition that some sort of moral uprightness is a pre-requisite to the reception of the sacraments. I think—and again, I am no theologian—that we need to take a long look at our basic moral theology and come to a deeper understanding of sin, grace, and the role of the sacraments. 
Cardinal Burke’s egregiously stupid statement that persons with same-sex attraction and who are kind, dedicated, and generous are equivalent to “the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people” is not only amazingly stupid—even for him—but is so theologically unnuanced as to be obviously a bigoted rant rather than a serious moral evaluation.  What organizes the Cardinal’s primitive moral schema is his sad lack of pastoral experience whereas good shepherds pick up from their contact with the people of God a sensitivity to the complexity of the mystery of sin and grace in our lives. Pope Francis alludes to his in his famous remark that shepherds should smell like their sheep.   It is far too easy to live in a blinding blizzard of moral ignorance if you never have to deal with real people in real life situations.  Of course, a sound spiritual life introduces one to the contradictions within one’s own soul but if all one knows is the superficial pieties of an exaggerated devotionalism—as, for example, the faux “spirituality” propagated in most seminaries today—it is all too easy to remain in one’s own fortified tower of denial, not unlike the pious Pharisee in the story about the Pharisee and the Publican. 
Catholic moral theology has been stuck in a rut for the last forty years.   While Biblical scholarship, liturgical/sacramental theology, canon law, and even—to a great extent—Dogmatic theology have been allowed a considerable range of freedom of scientific investigation, any innovation in moral theology—at least as regards issues of human sexuality and reproduction—has been a lightening rod to attract quick and negative response from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith.  The distinguished German moral theologian, Bernard Häring, an innovative and acclaimed author even in the reign of Pius XII and one of the leading periti at the Second Vatican Council, fell from favor after the election of John Paul II because of the though questions he was posing about the entrenched moral theology of the day.  Other moralists who tried to integrate insights from the social and behavioral sciences have found their books banned and they themselves banished from Catholic faculties.  There is a desperate need to reexamine not only the particularities of the variety of sins to which we mortals foolishly give ourselves, but to look at sin itself.
I understand why a person in an ongoing relationship other than marriage—and marriage as defined by the Catholic Church—that involves sexual intimacy should not approach the sacraments.  A non-canonical marriage or union can be defined as a persistent state of sin and membership in such a relationship does not show repentance.  I will, at least for a moment, accept that premise.  But I do have two questions.
The first question is quite concrete, even specific.  Jeannette X who sings in our parish choir, is an openly racist individual.  She speaks very negatively of African Americans, Hispanics, and Asians.  She comes to our church—a ten-mile drive from her own parish—because she does “not want to Mass with those people: they smell bad.”  Yet she marches up to communion, first in line with the choir, every Sunday with head held high, like she is Mother Theresa.  Her bigotry, to which she gives expression, is a persistent state of sin and yet no one suggests that she should not go to communion. 
My second question is a bit more abstract, but I will put it in concrete terms.  X and Y are two middle-aged men who have been together for fifteen years and civilly married for five.  X graduated from a Catholic seminary (he was ordained deacon, but left before priesthood.)  Y had also attended a Catholic seminary for several years in his native Spain before moving to the United States twenty years ago.  He currently teaches music twice a week in a rather traditional religious community of women who are aware of his status.   Both attend Mass not only on Sundays, but frequently through the week.  Both find their relationship to be spiritually deep and a source of grace in their lives in a way that is analogous to how a devout married couple might find their marriage to be life-giving.  Why should they not be able to receive the sacraments?  They do not experience their relationship as sinful but only as a source of God’s grace.  How can third parties make an evaluation that ignores the experiential evidence? 
So then, why do some “persistent states of sin” bar people from communion but not others?   Why can a man who beats his wife come to confession and be absolved without having his anger treated, but someone who is remarried after a divorce not be able to receive absolution and communion?  Why can a drunk be absolved without entering an AA program but not a person who lives with another person of the same sex to whom he or she is committed? 
I don’t want people—even wife-beaters or drunks—to be barred from the sacraments.  I guess what I am asking is not for the Church to start restricting more and more people from the sacraments, but to realize that the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, have a remedial purpose in which the sinner finds the strength to look at his or her life and correct the course to put us more in line with the Will of God.  Again, I am a historian and not a theologian, and I recognize that throughout its history the Church has barred those in serious sin from the Eucharist, but when I hear the Gospel account of Jesus sitting at Table with sinners (Matthew 9:9-13), I am not sure that we get this right. I don’t have answers, but there are questions I think we need to be brave enough to discuss.


  1. You say, in reference to the Orthodox situation, "there is this little squeak-hole through which the divorced can squeeze". There's actually another, much more common one: just don't tell anyone. Thousands - maybe hundreds of thousands - will receive Holy Communion this weekend without telling anyone they are divorced and remarried and while it will not be endorsed by the Church, neither will anyone really know unless 1) you live in a very small town, or 2) you are a public figure. Now I understand that this practice is not legitimate, does not impart the grace sought according to the Church, and is a sin by itself. But it happens. In a similar way, I suspect many Catholic couples have been going to Communion regularly while practicing some form of birth control and just not telling anyone. This isn't particularly healthy for anyone, not even the self-righteous.

    It's a thorny problem, and won't be easy to solve, but a little openness and candor would be a good first step.

  2. let me say first of all, that I don't publish all the comments that come in and I have received one that I would very much like to publish but have decided not to as, on addition to some very valid points, it goes some "places I don't want to go," at least in this entry. But that being said, I agree that there is much hypocrisy in this whole matter of who goes to communion and who is told--more often than not by their fellow laity, though all too often by young and inexperienced priests--that they should not. But that is in part why I think we need to reexamine the whole idea of what sin is (and isn't) and how sin--all sin--should be dealt with pastorally.
    that being said, let me say in regard to Olllddude's remarks that yes, there are a lot of people who will be coming to communion this weekend who, strictly speaking, maybe should not be coming to communion. But I am not the communion police and frankly I don't think anyone else should be either. that is my opinion. Jesus is a big boy and he is well used to the company of sinners; I doubt that he cringes in repulsion in anyone's soul but gets right down to work scrubbing us clean with his mercy and his grace. but, as I always remind my readers, I am a historian, not a theologian. I really don't know how he feels.

  3. I didn't mean to suggest that I was an officer in the Communion police force - or that anyone should be - only that there is a substantial amount of goofy "don't ask, don't tell" going on that is fostered by the current teaching. And that really isn't good for anyone. I am just suggesting that if church leaders can recognize that problem, they might find a path to a more useful solution. Eventually.

    1. I didn't take you to be an officer in the Communion police force. And I agree, we need to let communicants come out of their various closets and find a welcome at the table of the Lord

  4. Unlurking to wish you a Happy Easter, and to hope that Pope Francis is able to cut through the obstacles and allow those who divorce and remarry without a Church annulment to receive Communion. The indignity of denial of Communion particularly stings when you realize that for a long time, the institutional Church failed to take action against the clergy who committed sexual abuse, but were permitted to function as priests. They granted absolution, celebrated Mass, and consecrated the Eucharist while in their sins. We don't need liturgical police, clerical police, or Communion police. We need to do as Jesus did and welcome all.

  5. "I don’t have answers, but there are questions I think we need to be brave enough to discuss."

    That's what I want. I want a Church that is brave enough to have difficult conversations.