Today is not only the canonization of two Popes, it’s also Divine Mercy Sunday. Prompted by recent news hyperventilation, and Ross Douthat’s column today, I thought it might be a good idea to run a thing I wrote a long time ago. My own thoughts on the issue are a muddle, and so this shouldn’t be read as an argument for a position so much than an argument for the idea that it’s possible to reasonably disagree on this issue and that to do so doesn’t rend the seamless garment of Christ.
In any case…
The question of the divorced-remarried and the sacraments is taking up a lot of our time. How should we look at this?
One of the many confounding things about the Jesus of the Gospels is that he fulfills the law, even strengthens the law, and yet extends mercy to literally anyone who wants it, no matter how deep their transgressions, and adopts a resolutely passionate attitude with sinners. This is encapsulated by his words to the adulterous woman: “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
As with all aspects of our faith, structured with paradox as it is, the temptation is always to strengthen one side of the “equation” too much at the expense of the other. We fail to honor our Lord when we use Biblical verses as cudgels instead of understanding our Lord’s law of mercy. “Judge not lest ye be judged”! “Adulterers will not inherit the kingdom!” Nyah nyah nyah nyah.
This road leads to idolatry, as the evangelical message (the good news!) becomes a tool in our political-partisan disputes, with “progressives” on one side and “conservatives” on another slinging (quasi) anathemas at each other instead of trying to be the Body of Christ. Jesus says “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” One camp will say “He said ‘I do not condemn you’!!!!!” One camp will say “He said ‘Go and sin no more’!!!!!”
The Church is the Body of Christ and must strive always to imitate Him in all things.
It seems to me that the excesses go in these ways. The progressive excess is to use mercy as a (however well-intentioned) pretext to amend the law. The conservative excess is to use the law as a (however well-intentioned pretext) to refuse mercy.
Yes, God lays down the law. But God provides infinite mercy. More importantly, it provides infinite “fellowship.” God walks with us on this Earth.
God’s main vehicle for mercy and fellowship, through His Body which is the Church, are the sacraments.
The reason why many divorced-remarried couples are denied the sacraments is a juridical aporia. To receive communion, one must be in free of mortal sin. To be free of mortal sin if one has committed one, one must either receive the sacrament of penance or effect perfect contrition—both of which must involve a serious resolve not to sin again. For one who lives maritally outside marriage and thus commits the sin of adultery, this resolve will not be granted. And so neither can the absolution nor the other sacraments be granted.
Now it must be said that the Church actually does provide a way out of this for couples in this state, which is to live chastely. Particularly for those divorced-remarried couples who have children, and for whom it would be scandalous to separate, the Church advises to live “like brother and sister.”
This is actually not trivial. And it should be noted that I didn’t actually know this until I read documents on this subject—I never heard of this. It brings to mind the conservative critique of Francis’ words about “obsessing” about sex issues—I’m a churched Catholic and I’d never heard this.
It also brings to mind the way that the Church’s sexual ethic is completely forgotten, even by many in the Church. For the Christian, continence should be the default state. For the world, the default state is sexual activity. If the default state is sexual activity, then the chastity of a particular life looks like sacrifice. If we have this frame of “chastity as the default state” (which is clearly Jesus’ frame, as we see from his teachings on sexuality, nevermind His own life), then it is the state of the divorced-remarried that looks aberrant and scandalous. (Other very “conservative” thought: one reason why the Church’s teaching on homosexual relationships seems so cruel is because it has increasingly winked and nodded at heterosexual unchastity.)
All this is said and well taken.
That being said, whatever happens, I can’t shake off the idea that the Church’s mercy, these o so privileged avenues of mercy, which are confession and the Eucharist, shouldn’t be closed off to sinners, because we are all sinners. No, Jesus would not say “It’s cool” to an adulterer. But would he not embrace him or her? Would he not kiss him or her? And do we not all yearn for that kiss? And what is that kiss, on this Church’s pilgrimage on Earth, if not the sacraments?
One story that often inspires me is the story of St Mark Ji Tianxiang, which Jim Manney, SJ recounts in his post, This Addict Is A Saint. St Mark Ji Tianxiang is a martyr of the faith. But he was also an opium addict who was barred from receiving the sacraments because of his addiction. As Fr Manney writes, today nobody would do that. Nobody would deny the sacraments on grounds of addiction, because we understand how addiction impairs our will. Instead, on the contrary, we would use spiritual direction, and the sacraments, and confession, and the Eucharist, to accompany the addict.
Now of course, the “sin as addiction” frame is one that we should use very gingerly and with much discernment. It is not unproblematic. But are we not all addicts to sin? Are we not “sold under sin”? Is it not the addict who says “I do not understand my own actions, for I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”?
This is a serious and crucial point. The juridical gordian knot here is the necessary “firm resolve” not to commit the sin again. But it is not licentious to note that for all of us this firm resolve will be imperfect. Obviously, we don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. But if we search our hearts, do we not find that “firm resolve” is drawn in shades of gray, rather than black or white?
Let’s take an example. Let’s suppose that you are discerning with increasing clarity that God wants you to give up your prestigious and highly remunerative job and do something decidedly unprestigious and unremunerative. If not canonically, then spiritually, you will be in a situation similar to that of the divorced-remarried-unchaste person: your state of life is contrary to God’s plan for you.
If you are in that position—and anyone who’s seriously struggled with sin will recognize it—your will will be divided. You will struggle, you will oscillate. You will stumble in the shadows. Part of you wants one thing, and part of you wants another. In the Ignatian phrase, spirits of consolation and desolation will dogfight in your soul. You won’t know what is up and what is down. Is this not a place where the Church should want you to receive the sacraments, which are “surely efficacious” as means of grace? Is this not a place where it would be wisdom and truth to relativize, ever so slightly, a notion such as a “firm resolve” not to sin?
Many saints resist the divine call. We remember Jeremiah. Even Paul went off to the desert to pray for years, in between the event on the road to Damascus and his apostolic ministry, and I think we are naïve if we think this was not a period of soul-wrecking doubt for him.
In my own prayer and spiritual life, I recognize this often. I recognize God’s call to do something, and my first response is “I want to do Your will, Lord”. But if I search myself, I realize that I do notreally want to do it. Part of me wants to, but another—often stronger—part does not. I say I want to do it, but if I am honest with myself, I realize I do not really want it, otherwise I would already have done it.
A grace I often pray for is “God, make me want to do your will, and if not, make me want to want it, and if not, make me want to want to want it.” I often think of the oft-repeated prayer, “Lord, I do not know if my actions please you, but I think the fact that I want to please you pleases you.”
I think this is a grace we often overlook. God’s law is as hard as His mercy is infinite. And none of us are righteous under the law. And none of us, if we are honest, can even be said to want to be righteous under the law, in every single dimension of our life. But, particularly in these delicate and demanding aspects of sexual life and life situations, the grace of wanting to want God’s will is already very precious and important. And is it not in those phases, where we are broken down, and all we can muster the strength to pray for is to want to want, or even to want to want to want, that the Church should be most present with the succor of her sacraments?
In this vale of tears, human will is not a monolithic thing. If I am a divorced-remarried-unchaste person and, during the eucharistic liturgy, I cry out in my heart, “O Lord! I do not understand your law, and I do not have the will to follow it, but I love you, and I beg you for forgiveness of my sins and the grace to want to want to follow in your footsteps and to be able to humbly receive your body”, is this a contrition that is “sufficient” for me to be able to receive the Body of Christ?
I think so.
PS: Again, I go back to this issue of the vital importance of spiritual direction. While for many divorced-remarried-unchaste the desire for the sacraments comes from a sincere and humble yearning to unite with the Body of Christ, it is indubitable that for some (and also within the same person, I’m sure) this demand is really a demand for the Church to affirm their life situation, and/or to get some sort of punched ticket, which is something the Church can’t accept. How do we differentiate? Through spiritual direction.