Two Perspectives on Two Vexing Questions

Two Perspectives on Two Vexing Questions August 2, 2014

I think it would be fair to say that two vexatious questions for the Catholic Church today (or at least the Catholic Church in the West) are contraception and divorce and remarriage.  They are not the most important issues facing the Church:  both Pope Benedict and Pope Francis are correct that the central problem for the Church today is evangelization.   But on these two questions a number of forces have come together:  the tension between pastoral practice and Church teaching, the relationship between the Church and the modern, secular world, the simmering conflict over the  voice of the laity in the Church and its relation to the sensus fidelium.  And  lurking in the background, is the collapse of the Church’s moral authority on sexual matters because of the child abuse scandals of the last 30 years.

We have written numerous times about these two questions in the past:  for a small (and essentially random) sampling, see here, here, here, and here.  I want to revisit them because I encountered two different articles on these questions that illustrate to me why they are such thorny questions.   The first is an article by Fr. Peter Daly, a parish priest in the archdiocese of Washington DC who writes a column for the National Catholic Reporter.   His perspective is very much shaped by his pastoral duties;  he is  “in the trenches”, as it were, in a large suburban parish.  The second is an excerpt from an interview with Cardinal Ludwig Mueller, prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith—the Pope’s theological watchdog.    The cardinal is, unsurprisingly, very concerned about the doctrinal issues involved.  The interview was posted and framed by Sandro Magister, an Italian vaticanista I read regularly.   The context is very important for understanding both articles.   The liberal stance of NCR, one which is open to questioning Church teaching on a number of matters,  is well known.  Sandro Magister was a strong supporter of Pope Benedict, and has been positioning himself for the past 15 months as a respectful critic of Pope Francis.  In particular, he has set himself up as a strong defender of Church teaching on marriage, and has given a platform to the critics of Cardinal Kaspar and his supporters who have suggested a change in Church practice with regards to divorce and remarriage. 

Both of these articles reminded me of a blog post I wrote a few years ago.  In this short post I wanted to start a conversation about the tension between “pastoral” and “doctrinal” approaches to problems in the Church.    I think two important points came out of this discussion.  First, a number of commentators pointed out that an “either/or” dichotomy was not the best way to frame the discussion:  many people thought that “both/and” was a better way to see the tension.  Second, my colleague Julia made the important point that while doctrine is often discussed abstractly (and she defended doing so), doctrine comes out of the lived pastoral experience of the Church.    I think Fr. Daly is trying to achieve a “both/and” balance;  Cardinal Mueller, on the other hand, comes across as tone deaf to the kinds of pastoral concerns Fr. Daly articulates.   (Fr. Daly has also written about divorce and annulments:  see this post.)

Fr. Daly is a priest who wants to teach what the Church teaches, but who finds his efforts unsuccessful and who, in his heart of hearts, is troubled by what he is teaching.    He begins his article by affirming his commitment to the teaching of the Church:

What does our parish do about contraception? We teach as the church teaches….

Once a year or so, I try to preach on the topic. It is not easy. There are almost no Scripture readings that lend themselves to homilies against contraception. When I do preach on it, I try to keep the emphasis on the positive aspects of NFP than the negative of birth control as a sin.

Whenever people come in for marriage preparation, I give them a CD by Janet E. Smith titled, “Contraception, Why Not?” I also give them some brochures from Our Sunday Visitor and brochures from our family life office on NFP. I also encourage each couple to take a class in NFP. It is hard to “require” an NFP class because many couples live in different parts of the country, and often, they are in religiously mixed marriages. We also cover the church’s teaching in RCIA, adult education classes, and in the confirmation classes for youth.

But then he frankly acknowledges that his words seem to fall on deaf ears:

Our teaching isn’t having much of an effect on our people. I once asked a doctor in my parish, a very devout Catholic, what percentage of his Catholic patients were practicing some form of artificial birth control. “Do you think it is as high as 80 percent?” I asked. He thought for a moment and replied, “No, more like 90 percent.”

As Bishop Robert Lynch from St. Petersburg, Fla., said back in February, on the matter of artificial contraception, “That train left the station long ago. Catholics have made up their minds and the sensus fidelium [the sense of the faithful] suggests the rejection of church teaching on this subject.”

And he freely shares his own doubts and concerns that Church teaching does not satisfactorily address the lived experiences and needs of his parishioners:

As a pastor, I have to say that the teaching of the magisterium on contraception does not seem to take into account the reality of most people’s lives.  While we pay lip service to the difficulties married couples encounter in living the church’s teaching, we don’t provide much of an answer. What are people supposed to do in difficult situations like the ones I have encountered in ministry?

What do I say to a mother of six children in her late 30s, who came to me once? She had chronic high blood pressure and diabetes. Her doctor told her that another pregnancy would be life threatening….Neither abstinence nor NFP seemed to be an answer. She clearly had a responsibility to her six children and her husband, as well as to an openness to life….What do we say to women in abusive marriages? Leave your husband? Abstain from sex with him and risk his increased anger?….We don’t seem to have a good answer for the complex ethical struggles that beset our people. Our teaching, at times, seems inadequate. Even worse: At times, it seems insensitive. But we just continue on as before.


In his interview, Cardinal Mueller stakes out a definitive position and does not admit to any significant doubts or pastoral concerns.  The interview is long and dense, but here are a few key passages.  (I urge everyone to read the whole thing.)  It begins with a categorical statement of Church teaching:

Q: The problem of the divorced and remarried has recently been brought to public attention again. On the basis of a certain interpretation of Scripture, of the patristic tradition, and of the texts of the magisterium, solutions have been suggested that propose innovations. Is a change of doctrine on the way?

A: Not even an ecumenical council can change the doctrine of the Church, because its founder, Jesus Christ, has entrusted the faithful custody of his teachings and his doctrine to the apostles and their successors. We have a well-developed and structured doctrine on marriage, based on the word of Jesus, which must be offered in its integrity. The absolute indissolubility of a valid marriage is not a mere doctrine, but rather a divine dogma that has been defined by the Church. In the face of the de facto rupture of a valid marriage, another civil “marriage” is not admissible. If it were, we would be facing a contradiction, because if the previous union, the “first” marriage – or rather, simply the marriage – is really a marriage, another subsequent union is not “marriage.”

Later, he expands on this, addressing suggestions (pace Cardinal Kaspar) that a revision is needed in the understanding of marriage:

Q: There is talk of the possibility of allowing spouses to “start life over again.” It has also been said that love between Christian spouses can “die.” Can a Christian really use this formula? Is it possible for the love between two persons united by the sacrament of marriage to die?

A: These theories are radically mistaken. One cannot declare a marriage to be extinct on the pretext that the love between the spouses is “dead.” The indissolubility of marriage does not depend on human sentiments, whether permanent or transitory. This property of marriage is intended by God himself. The Lord is involved in marriage between man and woman, which is why the bond exists and has its origin in God. This is the difference.

With regards to balancing the pastoral and the doctrinal, he says:

Q: At this point there emerges the great challenge of the relationship between doctrine and life. It has been said that, without touching doctrine, it is now necessary to adapt this to the “pastoral reality.” This adaptation would suppose that doctrine and pastoral practice could follow different paths.

A: The split between life and doctrine is characteristic of Gnostic dualism. As is separating justice and mercy, God and Christ, Christ the Teacher and Christ the Shepherd, or separating Christ from the Church. There is only one Christ. Christ is the guarantee of the unity between the Word of God, doctrine, and the testimony of life. Every Christian knows that it is only through sound doctrine that we can attain eternal life.

The theories you have pointed out seek to make Catholic doctrine a sort of museum of Christian theories: a sort of reserve that would be of interest only to a few specialists. Life, for its part, would have nothing to do with Jesus Christ as he is and as the Church shows him to be. Strict Christianity would be turned into a new civil religion, politically correct and reduced to a few values tolerated by the rest of society. This would achieve the unconfessed objective of some: to get the Word of God out of the way for the sake of ideological control over all of society.

I must confess that I find Cardinal Mueller’s argument off-putting:  in its abstraction it seems to dismiss the complexities, the  anguish of ordinary Catholics dealing with failed marriages.   Their desire to participate in the Eucharist, which Vatican II called the “source and summit” of our faith, is dismissed as a mistaken application of Enlightenment ideas of individual “rights”.  (I am not saying that this is not a factor, but I think it is not the only thing driving this.)     He is equally dismissive of any but the most cautious theological attempts to address this pastoral problem.  His one exception is a question raised by Pope Benedict:

Benedict XVI made insistent appeals to reflect on the great challenge represented by nobelieving baptized persons. As a result, the congregation for the doctrine of the faith took note of the pope’s concern and put a good number of theologians and other collaborators to work in order to resolve the problem of the relationship between explicit and implicit faith.

What happens when even implicit faith is absent from a marriage? When this is lacking, of course, even if the marriage has been celebrated “libere et recte,” it could be invalid. This leads us to maintain that, in addition to the classical criteria for declaring the invalidity of marriage, there must be further reflection on the case in which the spouses exclude the sacramental nature of marriage.

With regard to the solutions adopted by the Orthodox, a practice which under narrow circumstances allows divorce and remarriage for the good of the faithful, Cardinal Mueller dismisses them without engaging them:

Of course, in the Christian East a certain confusion took place between the civil legislation of the emperor and the laws of the Church, which produced a different practice that in certain cases amounted to the admission of divorce.

As I have indicated before, I am partial to the Orthodox approach, though I think there would be real problems in attempting to implement it in the Western Church in this day and age.    But I think that any serious reflection on Church teaching must address the Orthodox arguments in detail.

But despite my reaction to Cardinal Mueller’s approach, I think many of his points are valid ones.  Marriage is a sacrament and it is predicated on a life long commitment.   There are times when what we perceive to be merciful is in fact merely compromise with a non-Christian culture that reduces marriage to a contract to be dissolved when no longer convenient.

I do not know the answer to any of these questions.  I suspect that if there is one, it will come from (initially) avoiding them and instead focusing on the deeper question of marriage itself.  What is the deeper reality of sacramental marriage, and how is it to be lived in the modern world?  This in turn will require a renewed discussion of men and women, their differences, similarities and complementarities.  As Pope Francis said, we may need a renewed theology of women in order to proceed.    If we can collectively (re)discover what these things mean, and as a Church both begin to live them more fully and share them with a world that yearns for them even as it rejects them, then perhaps these vexatious questions will answer themselves, with doctrine flowing naturally out of our life in Christ.

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