Has Pope Francis ended Catholic marriage?

Has Pope Francis ended Catholic marriage? December 1, 2016

“The church itself plainly does not believe in Catholic marriage anymore.”

This is the grim conclusion of New York Times columnist Ross Douthat, who supplemented his Sunday column on the implementation of Amoris Letitia with a lengthy blog post today entitled “The End of Catholic Marriage.” Now, I’m not Catholic but I do spend a lot of time around them and rather like the Jesuit pope. (I also liked his two immediate predecessors just fine, and see more continuity between them than most observers.) So, not my people not my problem.

But I have followed the Catholic debate over Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried for a number of reasons. For one, I myself am a divorced and remarried person. For another, it’s just a classic issue exposes intractable questions of orthodoxy and heresy, sin and grace, faith and family.

It’s a great issue because the Church holds that a person who is civilly remarried without an annulment is living an objective state of mortal sin. If he receives Communion, he profanes the sacrament by receiving Christ unworthily (a further mortal sin). The remarried Protestant at the communion rail is a good churchman. A remarried Catholic is grievous sinner flaunting his adultery and profaning the Very Body and Blood of Christ. It’s not like disagreeing over saints, natural law, Bible translation theories, or even doctrines of grace.

What is the civilly remarried Catholic to do? All of the options pretty much suck.

  • He can live with the woman with whom he has contracted a second (or third or fourth or…) civil marriage “as brother and sister,” foregoing sexual relations so that he is not committing adultery against his (first) wife). If he goes to confession and really means it, then he can probably receive communion sometimes at least. But it’s hard to imagine he’s really sorry. Maybe he is. I’m not sure how this Catholic would teach his children about marriage.
  • He can abandon the woman with whom he has contracted a civil marriage and reconcile with his wife. This is obviously pretty impractical, especially considering obligations to children of the union(s).
  • He can seek a Declaration of Nullity from a diocesan tribunal. These are usually granted, especially in the United States. But in the aggregate, you really can’t say that *every single marriage* that ends in divorce was necessarily invalidly contracted to begin with.

The Catholic debate over Communion for the civilly remarried truly is a problem without a solution.

Some Catholics, including evidently Pope Francis, believe there may be circumstances in which a civilly remarried person can return to Communion. This possibility absolutely infuriates many conservative Catholics because it undermines or at least tinkers severely with the Church teaching that marriage is indissoluble.

Douthat goes on to point out that all this amounts to a formalizing of what has been occurring over time in other ways, what I call the protestantization of Catholicism:

Drop the mention of annulments and the pro forma nod to “indissolubility,” replace “priest” with “pastor,” and there is nothing in his language that couldn’t be reproduced by a Protestant church dealing with the same issues and seeking to reintegrate its remarried members to fellowship and the Lord’s table. It is a plausible approach if you don’t believe what Catholics are supposed to believe about the sacraments; it is perhaps well-suited to Christian traditions that do not. It is reasonable-sounding response to modern realities; so is Episcopalianism.

Usually Douthat strikes liberals as a merciless grump, but in this piece he nods to the very real human difficulties that arise in these situations:

I am the child and grandchild of divorced couples; I know well the emotional complexities involved in getting to a stable place where people can manage the holidays, deal with blended families, behave decently to one another, etc. Indeed to Bishop McElroy’s first point, I know very well the emotional costs of the annulment process for the people touched by it, the extent to which the church’s requirements can seem to add burdens to people already going through a lot, and also the extent to which an annulment process that errs on the side of mercy can itself seem like a way in which the church doesn’t take the first marriage’s possible reality as seriously as it should.

So that’s nice, as far as it goes.

But for all the ink that has been spilled on this matter, I think two points need to be clarified.

First, is the internal forum of conscience simply a green-light for every sexual sinner in the Catholic Church to receive Communion untroubled (a common occurrence, let’s be honest — compare the lines at Communion at multiple weekend Masses to the slow trickle of penitents seeking the Sacrament of Reconciliation on Saturday afternoons)? Maybe, just maybe, the conscience-forming will lead lots of Catholics to seek annulments or even live chastely for a season, in obedience to Christ’s teaching, deference to the Church’s authority, and reverence for its Holy Sacraments.

And second, what does Ross Douthat really want for civilly remarried Catholics? To upend their families and go back to their sacramental marriages, which were at a minimum unhappy and possibly much worse than just that? To sit in the pew every Sunday, encouraging their children to receive Communion while their parents honor the sacrament by foregoing it? To live as brother and sister, holding hands (maybe? is that allowed?) to show their children what marital affection looks like but otherwise living chastely until death as a punishment for their sins? I think the trads need to say what the best solution is, vigorously defend it, and point to models.

Again, this is a hard question. In my view, there is no perfect answer. There are no easy answers. I think it’s very premature to suppose that Pope Francis and a few bishops “beloved-of-progressives” have created a new reality in which the Catholic Church does not believe in Catholic marriage anymore.

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