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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  • Don’t you think the issue has been dealt with on a pastoral level? Much like the latest from the Vatican about not making the ritual of peace too long and joyful.

  • Pingback: “Not even an ecumenical council”? Unpopular Church Teachings and the Appeal to Impotence | Gaudete Theology()

  • I think Fr. Daly’s article, without intending to do so, shows much of the problem had on these subjects. The Church’s doctrine on contraception is closely tied to the sacramental theology of marriage; in all major Church documents on the subject, the primary issue in view is how it messes with marriage as a sign of the union of Christ and His Church. Since openness to life is intrinsic to the Catholic understanding of marriage as a sacrament, it shouldn’t be any more difficult to find Scripture passages relevant to talking about contraception than it is to find passages to talk about marriage or children; and it’s not as if the Good Book never mentions marriage or the having of children. Openness to life in marriage is related to marriage as a sign of the salvation of souls (i.e. re-birth into new life); and it is not as if there’s a serious lack of passages in Scripture relevant to the topic of salvation of souls. If a priest can go a year without saying, here and there, a lot on the sacrament of marriage, he’s doing something wrong. The material is all there for it, and you don’t end up coming across as if you’re just trying to shoehorn the question of contraception into the year some way somehow.

    I do agree with Fr. Daly, though, that in terms of action the Church is falling short. This was supposed to be avoided; people forget that the message of Humanae Vitae was not ‘Contraception is wrong’ but ‘Because of moral challenges like contraception, here is a whole string of things we need to be doing to live in ways that are friendly and appropriate to Catholic marriage, and give those in such marriages the support they need’. Which string of things we seem to have been studiously ignoring ever since. It reminds one of the bitter joke that, whatever their differences, all Catholics, liberal or conservative, can always unite together as brothers and sisters for the purpose of ignoring the pastoral teaching of the Church. On these matters we seem to be all stuck trying to put band-aids on symptoms rather than actually focusing on what preserves and is beneficial to the sacrament of marriage itself, which is the whole point in the first place. And I agree with you that somehow or other, it will have to come back to the question of how we can understand the sacrament of marriage more deeply, and perhaps even more importantly, how we can live lives appropriate to that sacrament.

  • Melody

    I think the two schools of thought on the indissolubility of marriage don’t really contradict each other. But I feel that they are talking past one another. On one hand, I agree with what the cardinal said, “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.” He seems to be talking about the stage in many marriages (maybe most?) where the initial feelings of excitement and euphoria of falling in love give way to the nitty-gritty of actually making the relationship work in the long term. He is right that this isn’t the “death” of a marriage, though many couples have been known to give up at this point, or at many of the other stress points along the road. However I think there is such a thing as a marriage being “killed” by abuse or betrayal, this is even somewhat alluded to in scripture. This could be true even in a situation where the marriage was valid in the first place. People change. I don’t feel that anything is gained by preventing people who want to return to the sacraments from doing so; that is cutting those who are most in need of grace off from it.
    I agree with you that we need to take a closer look at the Orthodox approach.

  • Ronald King

    When one is numb to the passion of love then empathy for another’s suffering mutates into any number of intellectual abstracts and maintaining order within the known becomes a primary objective. To limit expression of the sign of peace is an example of such a lack of empathy. This really disappoints me.

  • Melody

    Fr. Daly’s article was interesting; I was glad to read a priest’s point of view on the subject of contraception that didn’t conclude that all the problems were a result of bad catechesis; that it just needs to be “‘splained” better. In the first place that’s easier said than done, it’s going to take more than a paragraph or a couple of minutes in a homily to do it. In the second place, a lot of couples come to the conclusion that, “We understand it just fine, and agree with the principles, just not that it is at all times applicable to life as we have to live it.”
    I particularly wonder how priests think NFP is supposed to work if both spouses aren’t in agreement about it. Or in situations where the husband thinks he doesn’t have any responsibility to exercise the necessary self discipline. Because it is the wife’s “duty” to be there for his needs. This is maybe more true in some cultures than others.
    Basically it looks to me like Fr. Daly is handling it right. Putting the Church’s position out, giving couples the opportunity to learn NFP, but not haranguing. Because, like it or not, the decision is up to the people who have to implement it.

  • LM

    I think that much of the problem with the Church’s stance on contraception is that it takes an almost presuppositional approach to its teachings in general, assuming that any rational person should be able to use his or her reason and come to the same conclusions. However, this is not true, especially with regard to the contraception teachings; the countries and states that provide fact-based sex education and free/cheap contraception have the lowest levels of teen pregnancy, STD transmission rates, HIV infections, and abortion rates, while the opposite is true for those places that limit access to contraception and/or provide abstinence only sex education. The facts on the ground simply don’t line up with the “truth” that the Church is teaching. It doesn’t help that these “truths” are being transmitted by a group of ostensibly celibate men who have no experiences with navigating the demands of sexuality or family life or that the model for Catholic families is the decidedly atypical Holy Family (e.g., a married couple that never consummates their relationship, the child is half-man and half-divine and not raised by his natural father, a mother who may not have actually engaged in the physical act of giving birth).

  • Alexandra

    I think that the major problem with the Church’s approach to everything connected with marriage is the fact that the decisions are made by single, celibate men (or, at the very least ,men who profess to be celibate). For them, this entire issue comes down to a very abstract discussion, not much different from the question of how many angels can dance on the point of a pin. The permanence of marriage is an important societal value, and casual sexual liaisons arguably devalue our treatment of each other as the precious creatures of God. However, until celibacy stops being such a highly held value and until those who profess to be celibate are no longer see as being especially holy, the Church will always have a sewed approach to sexuality.
    And then, of course, there is the whole issue of women in the church — are we virgins, or w…s, or mothers? Can we be trusted to make decisions, etc, etc,etc.

    • Mark VA

      L.M. and Alexandra:

      I truly fail to follow the logic of requiring that the teachings about marriage should not involve celibate men.

      First, these teachings originate with Christ, so, should He be excluded, because He was single and celibate?

      Second, the Church has a global advisory array at Her disposal, which includes lay experts – for one quick and salient example, examine some of the background work for the important encyclical Humanae Vitae:

      Third, I think that when it comes to Church teachings, it is important to remember that no particular cultural experience can claim primacy of place. An issue such as contraception may be seen differently in multiple cultures, but the Church has to find ways to apply Christ’s teachings to all of them.

      On a lighter note, it’s a little like clearly seeing one’s own ethnicity for the first time – how many of us can instinctively recognize hamburgers, hot dogs, and potato chips as ethnic foods?

      • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

        I tend to agree that the “celibate males know nothing of sex” can be a bit of a straw man. I think the real problem lies not in celibacy but in clericalism and the belief that clerics are collectively wiser and therefore do not need to consult with the laity. This could very well be a problem if we had married clergy, though celibacy might reinforce it.

      • Julia Smucker

        I essentially agree with both Mark and David here. The problem with the flippant question, “What do a bunch of celibate men have to say about marriage?” is the same problem with the equally flippant question, “What do a bunch of clerics and theologians have to say about economics?” I just recently came across John Paul II’s response to this in Sollicitudo rei socialis (41):

        The Church does not have technical revolutions to offer for the problem of underdevelopment as such….

        But the Church is an “expert in humanity,” and this leads her necessarily to extend her religious mission to the various fields in which men and women expend their efforts in search of the always relative happiness which is possible in this world, in line with their dignity as persons.

        Of course, he is talking mainly about the Church’s social teaching here, but he is also making the general point that the Church as an “expert in humanity” does have something to say about human flourishing in all its many dimensions.

        • LM

          I don’t see why the view of a theologian should trump the more informed views of a sociologist, psychologist, or medical researcher. The opinions of the theologian have little to do with empirical facts, yet such a person presume that this is enough to craft public policy. And why should the Catholic theologian’s beliefs be priviledged over those of the Jewish Talmud scholar or the Hindu god-man, both of whom are learned within their own respective traditions? The example of what happened with the development of HV illustrates how, when the facts contradict dogma, that the latter will win out over the former.

          On the wisdom of taking marriage and parenting advice from an ostensibly celibate man, I think it’s best to consider the situation if you were a “tabula rasa” individual, dispassionately considering the claims of the Catholic priest versus those of some other person with empirical evidence to back up their claims (e.g., child development psychologist, ob-gyn, a teacher, woman with experience as a mother and grandmother). The tabula rasa individual might ask what makes the former preferable to the latter. The Catholic could say that the priest has the knowledge of Catholic tradition and the Holy Spirit, but the tabula rasa individual would not be impressed, since there are thousands of religions in the world, all of which make similarly exclusive claims. We wouldn’t subject ourselves to surgery performed by a doctor whose only credentials consists of watching reruns of ER and “St. Elsewhere,” so why should we be expected to take marriage or childbearing advice by individuals who have no experience in either? The only way that the priest becomes a superior to the person with empirical experience is if you assume that the clerical state automatically confers certain supernaturally gifted insights that the rest of us lack.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          LM writes:

          “The opinions of the theologian have little to do with empirical facts,”

          in some cases that is true, but as a sweeping generalization it is false. To paraphrase something Julia said elsewhere, theological reflection (or at least good theological reflection) emerges out of pastoral reality. A priest who spends even a few years working in a parish comes to understand a great deal about the human situation. He is not married, but he has seen the entire arc of marriage: from newlyweds with stars in their eyes, to middle aged couples working through a rough spot, to elderly couples whose golden years are full of both joys and sorrows. Fr. Daly, quoted in the original post, is an example of this: he knows one hell of a lot about the human situation, certainly more than I do, despite the fact that he is celibate and I am married with three children.

          Your “tabula rasa” argument is equally sweeping and equally false. Why would such a (non-existent) person give credence to western science over, say, traditional Chinese or Indian medicine?

        • Peter

          LM, you’re acting as if some sort of “empirical evidence” from psychologists and sociologists (both highly ideological disciplines themselves) can prove something about whether or not an act is moral.

          I’m sorry, but it’s the “celibate old men” whose competence is to tell us whether God is going to throw us into hell for this or that act. Sociologists and psychologists have no particular knowledge of that.

        • LM


          Being a theologian isn’t the same as being a psychologist or a sociologist (i.e., examining human behavior from a secular standpoint). Many, if not most, theologians have never even been in a pastoral position, and those that have are not nessesarily acting in the same capacity as a secular counsellor. A non-birth control example is depression. A lot of theologically conservative people, not just in Catholicism but in other religions as well, think that depression is just the result of not believing enough in God and that if you keep trusting, all your problems will be solved. Except oftentimes depression not only doesn’t go away, it gets worse, especially if you ignore it using religious justification. The Church classifies “despair” as a mortal sin, which is the wrong approach. People suffering from despair need to see a psychologist and maybe to be put on medication, not to go to confession or be lectured about their lack of faith.

          If you don’t like the example of the tabula rasa, let’s just go with an average person, who knows a bit about the Church’s position on contraception (at least in the sense of knowing that it is against it), but isn’t convinced of it. You can tell that science-based medicine is superior to folk remedies of any origin by the fact that the former works consistently and the latter doesn’t. If you try to cure AIDS by drinking lots of cold-pressed juices and taking vitamins, for example, your outcome won’t be as good as someone who takes the more conventional route of anti-retroviral medicines, which won’t cure it but will at least make it managable. We know this because of peer-reviewed trials that one works over the other. Similarly, with contraception there is a large body of evidence that shows that it’s healthier for women to have fewer children, that hormonal birth control has health benefits that have nothing to do with whether the recipient is sexually active or not, and that abortion rates are lowered when the public has ready access to contraception. The burden is thus on contraception opponents to explain how they expect to improve public health on a program that doesn’t involve birth control.

  • Mark VA

    I think that the teachings of the Church on the permanence of marriage could be supplemented with some anthropology. My view is that not everything we’ve inherited thru evolution should be accepted as a-priori acceptable. We could be more discerning and selective.

    For example, it seems to me that the sex drive, perhaps more so for the male of our species, doesn’t always develop into the desire for a permanent attachment leading to marriage. In such a situation, it may become convenient for one or both partners (perhaps more so for the male) to contracept, since one or both expect the relationship to dissolve. I wish this chaotic way of living was better and more often described from the pulpit – young people need to hear it.

    In the more difficult context of married life, I think that a medical condition may necessitate a particular, private advise from the legitimate and medically competent Church authorities. This would increase individualized compassion for the couple, while helping them to remain true to the teachings of Christ.

    I’m truly at a loss when it comes to divorces and annulments. It seems that the Church is in the unenviable position of having to put back together someone else’s broken egg. No solution will make everyone satisfied. I hope that this is a transitory phenomenon, and that the current and following young generations will learn to avoid such unnecessary misery.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “I’m truly at a loss when it comes to divorces and annulments. It seems that the Church is in the unenviable position of having to put back together someone else’s broken egg. No solution will make everyone satisfied. I hope that this is a transitory phenomenon,”

      If it is transitory, it I believe it is also a recurring problem. One of the great breaks of the Protestant reformers was in allowing divorce and remarriage; this did not arise out of nowhere but in fact seems to have built up out of great discontent with the system of laws and regulations surrounding marriage in the late medieval period.

      • I have told you before, David, but you refuse to believe it, that Luther PLAINLY INDICATED, in his Table Talk that he was validating divorce, in contradiction to the prohibitions against it, in the Gospels, because he believed it supported his teaching of “Salvation by Faith Alone.” Luther, at least, himself saw–in contradiction of what you are saying here–that the “medieval” period’s marriage usages were not the same as the corruptions of the Church regarding simony and indulgences.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          I don’t disagree that Luther said this. But he said a great deal more. If you are interested (and for anyone else) my perspectives on the reformers and marriage was shaped by:

          John Witte, Jr., The Reformation of Marriage Law in Martin Luther’s Germany: It’s Significance Then and Now, Journal of Law and Religion, Vol. 4, 1987.

          I don’t know if this is behind a paywall or not, as I was at school when I accessed it.

  • Peter

    And yet all these issues only became controversial recently.

    Somehow, after 1950, humans became incapable of living without the “emotional necessity” of recreational sex and satisfying companionship.

    Absurd. Spoiled brats, I say

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Hardly. Recreational sex has been with us since the dawn of civilization, and probably before. Whole social structures grew up to provide it, primarily for men, who did not have to deal directly with the consequences of sex. (There could be indirect consequences, such as angry fathers, but that is different.) Read about middle class French men and their prostitutes at the turn of the 20th century, for example.

      What is true is that in the post-war period, changes in technology and social structure (i.e., the growth of feminism and women’s rights in general) have changed the ways these issues have played out.

      • Peter

        I never said recreational sex didn’t exist in the past. I said that the fact that it was taught to be a sin wasn’t controversial.

        However those Frenchman bore the cognitive dissonance of using their prostitutes…it wasn’t by whining to the Church for affirmation of the practice under a claim of psychological necessity.

    • LM

      Throughout most of history, “good women” have been expected to be virgins before marriage and monogamous during marriage, while men have been expected to be polygamous for all intents and purposes. Prostitution was considered to be a fact of life and a social nessesity, even during the days of Christendom, because it was feared that men would seduce respectable wives if they didn’t have prostitutes available to them. Of course, this scheme assumes that there will be a class of permanently debased women who have no other purpose in life but to be used and abused by men. In Louisiana, for example, there existed something known as the placage system, which was a sort of institutionalized concubinage for Creole women of color that the Church never once condemned:

      In the rest of the slave South, black women were sexually exploited by their masters and bred like cattle, something that was also not condemned by the religious leaders of the day.

      When thinking about the issue of divorce and remarriage, it’s worth remembering that in the past, “till death do us part” might have only been a few years. Given how often women died in childbirth and how often people in general died of various illnesses, there wasn’t really an expectation that a single marriage was going to last 40, 50, or 60 years. Hence, if one’s marriage wasn’t going well, it was quite possible that nature could solve that problem for you.

      • Peter

        Just because a specific instance of sin wasn’t singled out for condemnation doesn’t mean it wasn’t condemned. The Church had clear teachings on marriage, monogamy, and adultery. Everyone knew this. Why would a special statement have to be made about placage? It clearly doesn’t fit within the church’s moral bounds.

        Yet men didn’t leave the church over the church’s refusal to affirm it or institutionalize it as a positive good, nor was the church constantly haranguing sinners.

        Yet today, people refuse to live in such a state of humbling compromise with themselves. They don’t want to be sinners at all, and don’t want to have anything to do with a group in which they officially would be classed as such. They want something not merely tolerated (and the church is very tolerant of sin) but downright affirmed as good. How arrogant and bizarre.

        • Ronald King

          Peter, I was not going to comment on your opinions, however, I changed my mind. I have worked as a counselor/psychotherapist for over 30 years and my work has been focused on the pain which people have brought into my office in the hope of seeing someone who will have a compassionate approach and help with the healing. I have received referrals from priests and ministers in an effort to help with the psychological dimensions of human suffering which was beyond the scope of their education. Your generalizations about the social sciences are outright ignorant.
          One thing I would like to see discussed here are the basic differences of beliefs about human development between the social sciences and theology.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            “One thing I would like to see discussed here are the basic differences of beliefs about human development between the social sciences and theology.”

            This is an interesting question. In a discussion about Zizek I once criticized him from having a defective anthropology of the human person (a term I stole from St. JP II). Though we did not have time to carry this thought further, I could see my colleagues (several of whom were social scientists) were a bit surprised by this remark. Unfortunately, I do not know enough to post on it.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Here is a comparable example. Until the late Medieval period, usury was a sin. With the expansion of trade and mercantilism, merchants began to want to engage in it, or at least in contracts which could be interpreted as being usurious. They consulted moral theologians, a number of whom began to indicate exceptions to the Church’s teaching on interest. This led to a further expansion of business practice and the eventual acceptance of charging interest as being a moral practice for Catholics. The Church itself took a couple hundred years to catch up but it is now a given that neither I nor my banker are going to hell because I have a mortgage to pay for my house.

      So, in your turn of phrase, interest is not merely tolerated, but regarded as fully acceptable (other moral criteria being met). I am not saying that remarriage/contraception are equivalent, but I am suggesting that you cannot be so dismissive of the motives of the people pressing for change.

      • Thales

        Haven’t thought a lot about it, but it seems to me that usury is not like extra-marital sex in this comparison. The principle “theft is immoral” or “taking financial advantage of someone is immoral” is unchanged now as it was then; same as “extramarital sex is immoral.” And it seems to me that usury involves an application of the principle to particular facts, and that particular facts and circumstances might change (here, in economics), such that a practice isn’t “theft” or “taking financial advantage of someone” anymore.

        Just my initial thought — again, I’m not an expert and haven’t really thought very much about it.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


          don’t try to push the comparison too far: I raised it primarily to challenge Peter’s characterization of those pushing for change. However, I would suggest that no one (or very, very few people) arguing for a change in the treatment of people who are divorced and remarried want to argue that extramarital sex is immoral. Rather, they want to determine if the application of this universal to particular circumstances is correct, just as was the case with usury.

      • Peter

        Yes they consulted moral theologians; but the analogy re: social sciences would be if they consulted economists.

        I’m not sure I see any way for a similar evolution on sexual morality. With economic matters it’s arguable that the essence if the teaching remained, it’s just that the economy itself changed such that the “equivalent” ethic had to be “translated” across an evolving economic situation.

        I’m not sure how that would work with sexual morality which has always been personal not social.

  • Chris Sullivan

    Muller claims:

    “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.”

    But the Church, following St Paul, has always dissolved valid non-sacramental marriages between non-Christians in favour of the faith of a convert, when the non-Christian partner is not prepared to live in peace. And the gospel makes exceptions in the case of porneia, a term still disputed by scholars.

    The whole “valid marriage” argument is rather legalistic and also weak eg if 2 Catholics marry in a registry office the marriage is considered invalid and annulments are automatic.

    Cdl Ratzinger makes an excellent point in asking to what extent a marriage between non practicing Christians can really be sacramental in the absence of real faith ?

    One gets the impression that Muller needs to be more precise in some of his more extravagant doctrinal claims, and that rather more humility and openness to the pastoral difficulties faced by remarried Catholics would be in order.

    Maybe we’d do better to stop judging the remarried and look closer at the gold standard for admission to the Eucharist – Jesus’ admission to the last super of mortal sinners like Judas and the apostles who we’re arguing over who would be the leader.

    God bless

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      ‘But the Church, following St Paul, has always dissolved valid non-sacramental marriages between non-Christians in favour of the faith of a convert, when the non-Christian partner is not prepared to live in peace. And the gospel makes exceptions in the case of porneia, a term still disputed by scholars.”

      Noonan, in his book The Church that Can and Cannot Change, has a chapter on divorce and the Pauline and Petrine privileges. I recommend it as it shows that in at least some narrow cases, the Church has held for a millenium that it can dissolve a putatively valid marriage.

  • Julia Smucker

    I think, as I’ve said before, that (re)marriage and reception of the Eucharist should be treated as separate questions – for the same reasons you mention here, David. In the Church, marriage is and must continue to be “a sacrament … predicated on a life long commitment” rather than “a contract to be dissolved when no longer convenient”. The struggle to uphold this amid the pressures of a largely contractual culture may be all the more reason we all need the grace of the Eucharist, which as Pope Francis has said is not a prize for the perfect but a medicine for the sick.

    On the other hand, there is a vital connection between receiving the Eucharist and witnessing to the one whom we receive by living a just and moral life. I suppose this is where the tension lies.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Julia, though I did not quote it, Mueller does speak to this in part of his interview:

      ” Eucharistic communion is an expression of a personal and communal relationship with Jesus Christ. Unlike our Protestant brothers and in line with the tradition of the Church, for Catholics this expresses the perfect union between Christology and ecclesiology. So I cannot have a personal relationship with Christ and with his true Body present in the sacrament of the altar and at the same time contradict the same Christ and his mystical Body present in the Church and in the ecclesial communion. Therefore we can affirm without error that if anyone finds himself in a situation of mortal sin, he cannot and must not receive communion.”

      Mueller also speaks to Eucharist as medicine for the sick, at least obliquely:

      “I witness with a certain sense of amazement how some theologians use the same reasoning on mercy as a pretext for allowing the divorced who have remarried civilly to receive the sacraments. The premise is that since Jesus himself took the side of those who suffer, offering them his merciful love, mercy is the special sign that characterizes all authentic discipleship. This is true in part. Nonetheless, a mistaken reference to mercy involves the grave risk of trivializing the image of God, according to which God would not be free but rather obligated to forgive. God never tires of offering us his mercy: the problem is that we tire of asking for it, of recognizing our sin with humility, as Pope Francis has insistently recalled in the first year and a half of his pontificate.”

      There is a lot to these arguments, though I do not find them overwhelming. As I said in a previous post, if the Church makes a mistake, it should be on the side of mercy, and I think that extends even to mercy not fully understood.

      • Peter

        The more interesting question, perhaps, is why people want this medicine of mercy to be given WITHOUT confession rather than with it.

  • Melody

    I agree with Julia when she said, “…(re)marriage and reception of the Eucharist should be treated as separate questions”, and again when she said, “On the other hand, there is a vital connection between receiving the Eucharist and witnessing to the one whom we receive by living a just and moral life. I suppose this is where the tension lies.”
    David quotes Cardinal Mueller, “Therefore we can affirm without error that if anyone finds himself in a situation of mortal sin, he cannot and must not receive communion.” And therein lies the rub. The binary system of classifying every sin as either “mortal” or “venial” Is perhaps not very helpful and not very accurate. Most people realize that sin is a continuum; one could think of it as murder and torture being on one end of the spectrum, and things such as calling your little brother a name being on the other end. I’m not at all saying that because adultery isn’t as bad as serial murder, that it gets a pass. However, when I was a kid in Catholic school (back when dinosaurs roamed the earth!) we were taught that there is basically no such thing as a venial sin in anything involving sex, even if it was just a thought. And mortal sin = you get sent to hell. I think there is still a bit of that mindset around, and it has the consequence that it is hard to deal with sexual matters in any kind of a rational way in the Church. We are told in scripture that the only unforgiveable sin is the sin against the Holy Spirit, which most define as rejection of God and final impenitence. The breakup of a marriage is a tragedy, almost always involving sin on someone’s part. But to hold remarriage as the unforgiveable sin is not rational.

  • bill bannon

    Contraception is unique because there are problems within the tradition as e.g. Augustine was pivotal on the topic but was not simply celibate. He had a decade of sinful sex only ( never vowed committed sex) as a Manichaean who used natural methods to avoid all child birth (it failed) and he denounced those methods later in one letter. Because of that and the weight of his devotees, Rome herself only explitcitly allowed the natural methods in 1853 in an explicit answer to dubia as to whether Catholics could now follow the new scientific insights into the cycle of fertility. The Church met resistance from Augustine followers like leading moral theologian Arthur Vermeesch S.J. who helped Pius XI with Casti Connubii in 1930 and who saw the natural methods as a lesser evil to be recommended only to onanists. The local Bishops’ Council of Malines warned that using the cycle would bring abortions when it failed to work. The modern Popes had to steel themselves to march forward against such voices just to reach where we are today. Along came HV and the very educated dissent of two Periti from Vatican II ( Rahner and Haring ) complicated things for many as did the book “Contraception” by John Noonan Jr. who at that time supported Rome but raised so many historical problems within the tradition that educated Catholics were left with a never confronted past series of saintly oddities…e.g. both Augustine and Aquinas following him verbatim said each asking for the marriage debt minus the explicit will to have children was a venial sin. But Aquinas said venial sins are dispositive toward mortal sin if repeated in one area. Ergo the two most influential writers saw the will to have sex at all as not an inclination toward love ever but rather always concupiscence…unless procreation was explicitly willed in each case. Ergo educated cradle Catholics who took the trouble to read were now troubled by the sources which were rarely Popes until the 20th century. The sources were saints but their views entered Catholic canon law (decretals) in the Middle Ages. Several of the earliest saints saw procreation too as the only just reason for sex but this is not biblical but is found exactly in the Stoic Musonius Rufus: ” Men who are not wantons or immoral are bound to consider sexual intercourse justified only when it occurs in marriage and is indulged in for the purpose of begetting children, since that is lawful, but unjust and unlawful when it is mere pleasure-seeking, even in marriage.”. That is rejected by the modern Popes but found in the earliest saints like these:

    St. Clement of Alexandria (2nd-3rd century): ” To have coitus other than to procreate children is to do injury to nature” ” The Instructor of Children” 2:10:95:3.
    Lactantius (3rd-4th century): ” the genital [’generating’] part of the body, as the name itself teaches, has been received by us for no other purpose than the generation of offspring” (Divine Institutes, 6:23:18).
    St. Jerome (4th-5th century): ” Does he imagine that we approve of any sexual intercourse except for the procreation of children?” (Against Jovinian 1:19 [A.D. 393]).
    St. Epiphanius (4th-5th century) voices the Stoic view also: ” There are those who when they have intercourse deliberately prevent having children. They indulge in pleasure not for the sake of offspring but to satisfy their passion.” (Adversus Haereses Panarium, PG 41, 339). Either procreation or passion is a binary refuted by Humanae Vitae.

    • Peter

      If you imagine that HV would reject the idea that venial lust can occur in the marriage bed on account of considerations similar to gluttony’s “too soon, too expensively, too much, too eagerly, too daintily”…you’re nuts. Marriage may be a licit outlet for concupisence, but there is always an obligation to moderation.

      In reality the church will always be suspicious of sex in the spiritual life and should just admit that the attitude is basically, “it’s best to stay away from entirely, but the human race needs to (responsibly) reproduce so we’ll allow for the imperfect a structure sanctioning an outlet in light of that purpose.” It’s always going to be seen as a messy and dangerous matter spiritually given its power, even if ways are found morally to expand things a little beyond requiring a direct active intent to procreate every time. This is, I suppose, why a “contraceptive spirit” is warned against with NFP.

      Trying to gussy it up re: TOTB is as foolhardy as trying to put a positive spin on something like even a defensive military. Yes the church will allow a standing army for “defense,” and even have army chaplains. Catholics can become soldiers, and not merely when there is a draft for a real defensive crisis. But the church really, in the end, is never comfortable with the whole institution of soldiering even if she’s softened a bit from the total pacifism of the early centuries.

      I think TOTB and attempts at “sex positive” Catholicism are going to wind up being seen like the Crusades (the maximal peak of the Church trying to be “military positive.”) A mistake that betrays the profound ambivalence which should be the Christian’s real attitude.

      • bill bannon

        First, thanks for the diagnosis on mental health…I’m sure you bring a lot of people not to the Church but at least to Bill Donohue’s version of it…the verbal abusive version. Why are all the hyper chaste abusive of tongue?Second I’m glad to see that one other person on earth read the Summa Theologica on gluttony. Thirdly, were you correct on all eagerness in sex being venial concupiscence…then the Church would have by now forbade the marriage of the sterile couple since all their sex is in your view venial sin. But if you read the entire Summa Theologica like I did, you’ll remember that repeated venial sin disposes toward mortal sin…Aquinas cites the OT…” he that contemneth little things shall fall little by little”. Ergo the marriage of the infertile and the elderly would lead inexorably to mortal sin in your and Aquinas’ logic and the Church would forbid it. The actual Catholic Church disagrees and not only permits infertile couples to have sex but it issues no encyclical on how many times a week they can have sex. If they have a job that’s stressful then…don’t worry…they are having the normal amount despite the imaginary excess permitted to them. The early saints were copying Musonius Rufus not scripture which I read entirely also. Jerome tells you in Against Jovinianus that he got marriage ideas from “our Seneca” and he intends to get more ideas from him. ” Our Seneca” also believed in infanticide but Jerome glosses over that red flag. Stoicism ruled the saints on sex because scripture as to I Cor. 7:5 was not easy for celibates to accept as coming from God. Here was God through Paul telling some not all marrieds to have quite a bit of sex lest satan tempt them to going outside their spouse. Celibates were giving up all sex and here is God telling other humans to have it frequently IF they were of the type that had to marry to avoid fornication. Musonius Rufus unlike God in I Cor.7:5 sounded better to celibates because Rufus wasn’t urging what God was urging. I Cor.7:28 is about group 2… Christians who marry without the need to avoid fornication.
        There are two groups in scripture…one group in Rufus and the early saints who were reading Rufus instead of I Cor.7:5.

        • Ronald King

          ” Why are all the hyper chaste abusive of tongue”
          Bill, that is an interesting question and I believe it has a relationship to core beliefs about God, self, others and the development of the structure and practice of faith. This discussion of marriage is one example in which differing core beliefs cause friction and create an opportunity for developing a compassionate understanding of the underlying influences which result in the expression of one’s dominant disposition in relationship with another whose ideas and beliefs are different.
          An example is Julia’s comment above, “… rather than “a contract to be dissolved when no longer convenient”. That is not my experience of working with couples in crisis for 3 decades. That statement diminishes or rather excludes any thought about the suffering which occurs in every relationship which starts with what is felt as love and then begins to slowly disintegrate into a bond of mutual and isolating suffering.

        • bill bannon

          You are correct…huge paradigms at stake that are larger than sex.

        • Dante Aligheri

          Last month, I finished Ilaria Ramelli’s “Christian Doctrine of Apokatastasis,” and it really hit upon a lot more than simply universal reconciliation in the early Church – especially on this topic.

          Essentially Jewish ideas became re-articulated through Hellenistic categories (risking oversimplification) by both Jews and Christian intellectuals trying to avoid calumny against the Bible by demonstrating its rationality concerning God, humans, and the eschaton. In Judaism, God had a substance of some kind – a fluid, incomprehensible, boundless form differing it from all created things but still a form. When the distinction emerged between form and matter was introduced, YHWH’s incomparability and the Jewish doctrine of creatio ex nihilo had to be maintained over matter – making YHWH synonymous with the Form of the Good. Suddenly, YHWH is identified with something decidedly more “soulish” and spiritual.

          Thus the image of God in man is relocated from his function as priest and his body, male and female, to his soul alone – specifically, his reason. The Fall thus entailed the image of God, the rational soul, to descend from a contemplative body, a vehicle transparent to reason, into a heavy body complete with passions and mortality. This was a reinterpretation of the Jewish idea that Adam and Eve lost priestly and angelic garments for a garment of mortality. Lines between theosis and “angelosis” were very thin. Oddly enough, Augustine will dispense with Origen’s descent of the soul (which defended free will and providence) but keep the “warring passions” conception. In Judaism, angels had bodies, ate and drank.

          In the Patristic conception, however, “being like the angels” did not merely entail luminosity and god-likeness (as theosis in Enochic and Merkabah literature did) but almost being bodiless intelligences. Embodiment at best was a pilgrimage to the subtle body from which the soul fell. The human soul, as the image of God, almost represented a tether or link by which the attendant body remained with God so that the soul had to “save” or subsume the heavy body into the refined one. Just as, as a breath-taking passage describes, the Logos subsumes the logoi (the soul) as the Body of Christ in the final resurrection which is “submitted” to the Logos and the Father. The key point, however, is that the body is like an animal to the soul – much as St. Francis called his body a stubborn beast.

          When Philo read Moses as ascending Mount Sinai and taking off his sandals, he saw it as an image of the soul divesting itself of bodily passions to sight of God. The High Priest taking off his robes for a white garment represented the soul switching the heavy body for the refined and subtle one – a Hellenic rereading of the “angelic garments” in Genesis, one that posits the soul over the (present) body. Most Christian teachers retained, however, the resurrection but declared it to be a body quite unlike and less fleshly than the one we know, allegorizing geographical paradise into a purely intellectual activity. Again, Augustine advocates a literal Paradise but keeps the view that stood behind the allegorized one.

          This stands behind much rhetoric against marital life. It seems to me it was only for the doctrine of the Creator that kept Christianity from going completely Manichaean or Cathar since a lot of intellectual undercurrent, pagan and orthodox Christian, favored those outlooks.

          In effort for intellectual integrity in Late Antiquity left us with a position which seems “unintellectual” today – not that I am for the modern trends by any means. But, given the formative and rich value of our patristic and ascetic heritage and their views of Scripture, what can be done?

          As you said, we are left with “saintly oddities,” but at what point do the “saintly oddities” become the majority of voices? Whether we like it or not, Rufus stands behind (and this Jewish-Hellenic dialogue) our tradition.

        • Dante Aligheri

          By the way, I do value the contributions of the Fathers and the results of the Jewish-Christian-Hellenic dialogue. It is simply that the more I have studied Christianity in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages one is struck that no matter how wondrous are their creations – “the past is a foreign country,” and we are left with both their greatness and foibles which nonetheless were seamlessly together for them.

      • Peter

        Oh don’t pretend like Paul wasn’t ambivalent too. If anything, the problem with early rigorists wasn’t their ambivalence but that they were seeking too much clarity in the opposite direction.

        I’m not sure where you got me saying that all infertile sex is necessarily immoderate. Some Fathers may have said that. I didn’t.

        • bill bannon

          If you believe Paul is writing sporadically inspired and sporadically uninspired, you’ll never read the entire Bible prior to death which will put you with 99.999% of Catholics. I actually believe Paul is inspired by God. Aquinas, the only really thorough Catholic Bible quoter, and Vatican II concur with the latter stating it this way:
          ” holy mother Church, relying on the belief of the Apostles (see John 20:31; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Peter 1:19-20, 3:15-16), holds that the books of both the Old and New Testaments in their entirety, with all their parts, are sacred and canonical because written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, they have God as their author and have been handed on as such to the Church herself.(1) In composing the sacred books, God chose men and while employed by Him (2) they made use of their powers and abilities, so that with Him acting in them and through them, (3) they, as true authors, consigned to writing everything and only those things which He wanted. (4)”

          Only those things which He wanted. That makes I Cor.7:5 as originating in God.

        • Peter

          Huh? I never said Paul wasn’t all inspired. I said the inspired text taken as a whole conveys a profound ambivalence about sex. For every statement that can be taken as positive, you can find one that would make it look very negative indeed. Our attitude should, then, be similarly ambivalent.

      • The problem with this analogy is that war is by nature evil. Even a just war is evil–the idea in just war theory is basically the law of double effect, where a just war is the least of a number of evils, and the good produced is proportionately greater than the evil. Certainly, war is a result of fallen human nature.

        By contrast, humans were obviously designed to reproduce sexually. This would have been the case whether humanity had fallen or not. Thus sex is not only not an intrinsic evil, as war is, but it is an intrinsic good. It can obviously be over-indulged, abused, used sinfully, etc.; but it’s not something just tolerated, like war–or it shouldn’t be viewed that way.

        I agree that the TOTB and the whole “sex-positive” stuff is stupid and out of line with tradition; but I don’t go with the older perspective that views sex as such with suspicion. It seems to me that lots of Magisterial documents tend to conflate, or come awfully close to conflating “venial lust within marriage” with the normal sexual desire spouses have for each other. It’s not gluttonous to like food and enjoy eating; but the Church often implies that it is lustful to like sex and to have fun having it with your spouse!

        • Dante Aligheri

          The problem, however, is that there was a very strong strain (tempered by the doctrine of Creation, nonetheless) which did view reproduction and the “heavy” body as a result of the Fall. Some of the Fathers (and Macrina), the Cappadocians, in Ramelli’s readings, believed sexual differentiation itself was a result of the Fall, which will be lost upon the resurrection. Despite literalizing what Origen, his followers, and the ascetical tradition had allegorized, Augustine still retained the Origenian theology behind the Fall [the passions of the fleshly body pitted against the soul as the image of God] without free will protology of the Origenians. In effect, we have multiple voices in the Church’s tradition which do not fit together which have been tried to fit together.

          We are left with all of these pieces but without the original framework which they made sense originally due to reassertion (rightly) in the Church’s official doctrines of the creation against those who went too far, like the Valentinians or Cathars. Yet in many cases the spirit, prior to and separate from the doctrinal life of the Church, behind the so-called “Orthodox” and “Gnostics” were much more akin to one another despite how much apologetics likes to haphazardly assign the label “gnostic” to anything objectionable. At least, that’s what seems to me.

        • Peter

          Well, sort of.

          I don’t think the analogy is between sex and war as such, but more something like sex and “safety.”

          Safety is naturally a good, but in fallen man sometimes the only way to achieve it is defensive violence, which requires an aggressive adrenaline-induced shake-up of the passions.

          Sexual reproduction is a good, but fallen concupiscence makes almost every instance a frenzy of passion and “suspension of reason.”

          Now Aquinas says that sometimes there can be a “reasonable suspension of reason” and he actually compares sex to sleep in this regard.

          Still, the Fathers seen to indicate that before the fall, erections would have been voluntary whereas now they happen involuntarily (and if you want one to happen, have to stir up the lower appetites by providing them with real or imaginary stimuli, not merely a command like moving your arm).

          This disconnect between the flesh in sexuality and control by the mind has always been problematized and should be because it means that there is a motion of concupiscence, of intra-personal dis-integration, in almost all fallen sexual arousal.

  • Let me suggest that the theology of matrimony has turned into a type of quasi-Donatism. Let me unpack that:

    The Donatist heresy, of course, held that sinful clerics could not dispense valid sacraments. St. Augustine maintained that the moral status of the cleric was irrelevant to the validity of the sacraments confected–this was the view that won the day.

    Now the following things are necessary for a valid sacrament: The proper minister (usually a priest or bishop), the proper matter (e.g. the bread and wine for the Eucharist), the proper form (the right words, e.g., the Words of Institution at the Mass), and the proper intent (the intention to do what the Church intends). This last isn’t usually discussed much, but it is considered to be a necessity. For example, if I film a movie with a baptism scene (as in O Brother, Where Art Thou?), the minister (anyone can validly baptize), matter (immersion in water or pouring), and form (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit) might all be correct, and yet it’s not a valid baptism since it is not intended to do what the Church intends, i.e., to be an actual baptism. The intent, by contrast, is merely to make a movie; therefore, there is no baptism that occurs.

    Now with obvious exceptions, such as just mentioned, intention is rarely given much attention. However, hypothetically it could make or break a sacrament. If a priest were having a crisis of faith, for example, and went through the motions of offering Mass without the proper intention, the Mass would possibly be invalid. In general, though, this is not something that’s worried about. After all, there’s no way to read a person’s mind, and the assumption is that most clerics under most circumstances have the right intention. To assume otherwise is the road to chaos, as the ever schisming groups and subgroups of the Donatists proved, and as Augustine realized when he taught ex opere operato. Even in the case of an invalid sacrament received in good faith by the laity, the doctrine of Deus providet assures that they will still receive the equivalent grace. For example, if I receive absolution from a priest who does something that invalidates it, but I am unaware of that and am in good faith, God won’t “hold it against me” if I die before my next Confession.

    The one exception, though, in modern times, is marriage. When an annulment case goes to tribunal it gets to be all about arcane attempts to decide what each spouse reeeeally intended, if they gave proper consent, if they were capable of giving consent, and on and on. If every other sacrament was parsed the way marriage is at a tribunal, nothing would be valid. Was Father really in the right frame of mind at Mass today? Was the bishop properly disposed to confirm the kids this year? You see how it goes.

    I think it would be more honest to assume that most marriages are in fact valid, exceptions being few and far between (e.g. a man who already has a wife in a different city), and then to handle divorce like the Orthodox do. I don’t see that happening anytime soon; but it would be more consistent with sacramental theology in general, less byzantine in its working, and more human for everyone involved.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Initially, I thought this was a bit strained, but then I recalled the quote above from Cardinal Mueller, who discusses further attempts to determine whether marriages are valid based on a finer reading of intent….I must say, you have got me thinking.

      • Not only that, but the Pope has suggested that fifty percent of Catholic marriages today are invalid, theologically speaking, because most people lack the proper understanding of marriage that the Church teaches and thus are not intending to do what the Church intends for them to do when they get married. One could make such a case; but is that really where we want to go? I agree with this article that such a view is a slur on the laity who are presumed to be “too confused and ignorant to know what a marriage is.” Not only that, but it sure sounds Donatist.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Actually, I think it is a place we want to go, but not in order to speed the annulment process. Rather, I think it points to a need to reinvigorate the meaning of a Church wedding. The Church is always going to have folks on the margins, including folks who see a Church wedding as the “right” thing to do for all the wrong reasons. But these are folks I hope we can invite in a little deeper. Helping them ton understand more deeply what a church marriage means might be the place to start. Perhaps we should have a version of mystagogy for the newly married: catechesis on marriage grounded in their lived experience. Trinity, where I teach, has new faculty orientation before classes start. But they invite new faculty who have been teaching for a year to join the new cohort—both to share their experiences and to have an opportunity to reflect and develop further. I could imagine have a “post-cana” process to complement “pre-cana” with the idea of addressing, in some small way, people whose understanding of marriage is defective or incomplete.

        • That’s actually a good idea. My concern, though, is implementation and getting through to people. As it is now, couples tend to view pre-Cana as another annoying hoop to jump through to get married, rather than as something important to their spirituality and their marriage–how are you going to get them to view a post-Cana any more favorably? The danger, in short, is that something perceived as yet another hoop might drive even more people away from Church weddings (the rates are discouragingly low as it is).

          Also, I think the quality of a lot of pre-Cana is abysmal right now. The one my wife and I went through in 1999 was mostly happy talk and psychobabble with a thin veneer of Catholicism. I came away from it not feeling that I was integrating my spirituality into my impending marriage or learning about the deeper meaning of marriage, but rather “Well, there’s a bunch of hours of my life I’m never getting back.” I think your suggestion needs to be part of a more general overhaul of the whole system and attempts to figure out how to reach the ones on the margins more effectively.

          • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

            My wife and I did pre-Cana in Chicago in the 1980’s and it was a pretty good weekend. The sex talk was given by this “old” couple (well, they looked ancient to my 22 year old eyes—I guess they were in their late 50s or early 60s) who really focused on thinking about it in an integrative, holistic manner. And it laid the groundwork for my wife and I to develop (slowly) a joint spirituality as a married couple.

            But I definitely hear what you are saying about hoops, etc. I don’t think we could require post-Cana; the trick would be to develop a program that was attractive enough young couples would go willingly and then recommend it to their friends.

    • Peter

      Minor quibble: the valid intent is “to do what the church DOES,” not “to do what the Church intends.” The latter would require having an intention (and thus understanding) the same as the church. The former requires merely that the minister identifies their action as “the same thing those people do” even if he thinks, personally, that thing is meaningless.

      It’s an important distinction: if it was “what the church intends”…a faithless priest would render sacraments invalid. Fortunately it is “what the church does.”

      • OK; but with the current understanding of marriage, intending what the Church intends–having the same understanding as the Church–is necessary. That’s what the Pope essentially said. The pre-Vatican II conception of marriage was indeed more or less “the same thing those people do”, with annulments (at least for non-royals) being extremely rare and mainly granted in cases of bigamy or obvious mental incompetence. Now it’s turned into a complicated game of “guess the intention”, which was my main point.

        • Yes I fully agree. Not that a psychological impediment might not exist, but determining it in the external forum seems a paradox, as it would seem to be by nature an internal forum/conscience sort of thing. The whole “understanding is required” canon is a real threat to all marriages even if the goal was to make annulment easier for immature people who probably shouldn’t have been allowed to marry in the first place.

  • Oneros

    I think the debate over divorce and remarriage and communion, currently, is like the left/right political spectrum in the United States. Which is to say, it excludes “third ways” according to a false narrative whereby the only two paths are basically fully recognizing second marriages as non-adulterous even without annulment…and keeping people from communion permanently.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Well, I have been suggesting we consider the Orthodox model, which is definitely a third way. And I think it is unfair to Cardinal Kaspar to say that he is simply calling for full recognition of second marriages as non-adulterous.

      • Peter

        Are you really going quite so far as the orthodox model?

        I think it could draw a lot from it, but never go so far as to justify the new sex.

        I think we might recognize the second relationship (but not as marriage/the sacrament of matrimony), which is arguably the Orthodox approach given the difference in form between the first ceremony and the second.

        I agree with turmarion that the number of annulments is ridiculous and that it’s probably better to find a solution that recognizes the first marriage for what it is (outside rare cases like consanguinity, etc) and removed the “psychological” impediment from canon law given how much doubt it casts all marriages into.

        However, this couldn’t be a carte blanche for adultery. The “brother and sister” ideal would have to remain in these new unions…though, there would be no need to “police” it, you could give the benefit of the doubt and leave it up to them. But theoretically they should be confessing every time before communion if sex took place.

        I’d also point out that it seems to me that this logic would also lead to recognition of “supposed-to-be-celibate-but-who-really-knows” same-sex relationships, not as marriage or the sacrament of matrimony, but as similar companionate unions.

        The orthodox don’t go so far (unless you count adelphopoeisis) and it would probably alienate a lot of conservatives, but it’s the ultimate conclusion of recognizing “oikonomic unions that aren’t the same as the ideal one-time First-time Marriage”

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO


          you seem to be misunderstanding the Orthodox model. The second marriage is different as it has a penitential aspect to it, but the Orthodox make no pretense about a “brother/sister” mode of living. The twice married couple is readmitted to communion with no stipulations or presumptions about their sex life.

        • Peter

          Right, and that’s the issue and why the Catholic Church can’t adopt that model wholesale.

          The second union can be recognized maybe, but not as “marriage” which would be allowing a sort of polygyny.

          While polygamy for men might not strictly speaking be against the primary precepts of the natural law, polyandry for women is, and besides in the Christian dispensation marriage as a Sacrament assumes total monogamy. Approving another sexual union as such, a sort of concubinage, would amount to toleration of adultery.

          Well, the Church tolerates many things and could certainly “look the other way.” We could look into how the Church handled Charlemagne’s concubines, etc. But outright positive approval or recognition as any sort of “marriage” (sacramental or merely natural) just won’t fly.

          And at that point, how many modern Catholics are going to accept the fact that their second union is treated as second-class?

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  • This is a taken from Peter’s comment above:

    “I’m not sure how that would work with sexual morality which has always been personal not social.”

    Speaking very charitably, isn’t this the flaw in our present course? It seems to me that the considerable weight given to marriage and sexual matters is precisely because it is far more a social concern than a personal failure. When the Jewish elders throw the adulterous woman in front of Jesus for condemnation he seems far less concerned with her sin and more intent on exposing their flawed sense of justice.

    One can hardly read scripture without sensing that the discussions of marriage are more about ‘proper order’, social arrangements (who’s wife is she?), and family and social stability and the women’s residual claim of widowhood. Add to this the fact that women were ‘given in marriage’, unable to survive their husbands with property, etc., and that wives (and other property) were not to be coveted or one fails in God’s commandments. Even the condemnation of adultery (and sexually irregular behaviors) was more likely seen as a disturbance in the social fabric than either in actual fact (something happened publicly) or in potential fact (some behaviors could lead to future public consequences). A bill of divorce was a further social disturbance, especially to the disenfranchised wife who was powerless and hopeless without a male legal connection.

    It’s helpful to remember that in the union of male and female the wife gained a higher status and upgraded connection to the covenanted community that was good ‘until death’ whereupon she relied upon her title of ‘widow’ which was a moral (and perhaps neglected) claim upon justice alone. All of this would have been short circuited by divorce.

    • Peter

      Well I guess what I meant was this:

      With usury we could define the essence as something like “making private profit off credit which is a public good” or something like that. “Making money merely by having money” as the medievals may have framed it.

      In an ancient economy with a pretty fixed money supply and no real opportunities for productive investment, charging any interest whatsoever was thus usury.

      Nowadays, the nature of money has literally changed. The money supply is no longer fixed, and money represents value according to a very different logic structurally (though it seems the same in “day to day” interactions).

      There are practices that are definitely usury today (it’s arguable the whole monetary system), but interest charged on a real loan from deposits is not under this system.

      But that’s because were comparing apples and oranges. Medieval money and modern money are, really, two totally different things that only seem similar on the surface. They’re expressions of two totally different structures of symbolizing economic value. So the fact that interest on one is usury really has nothing to do with whether interest on the other is usury.

      Money is a man-made invention, so we can change the nature of money or replace one model with another…and the concrete application of the principles to these different things will naturally be different.

      But human sexuality and reproduction is not a human invention, and I can’t really see an argument whereby it could “change” in its very essence in such a way as to make the concrete application of the same principles to be radically different. We’ve gotten better at gaming and cheating human sexuality, but we haven’t changed human nature in the same way as we invented an essentially different monetary system.

      The point was that no change in social structure or circumstances is going to change the very nature of human sexuality in such a way as to require a “translation” of equivalence from one set of concrete applications of principle to another. You’d have to make humans evolve into a different animal to do that (and if you do that, theology and ethics have bigger problems!)

      Analogous to usury (which actually was, medievally, often analogized to unnatural sex acts) the principle behind the Church’s sexual morality is perhaps something like “desire should not desire itself” or “desire should not generate desire as an object of desire.” And I don’t really see a way to apply that to sexuality that doesn’t wind up, exactly, with the Church’s teaching re: the concrete specifics.

    • Peter, my point was that marriage is not simply about the personal sexual activities and failures of the husband and wife, though I do agree that the sexual relationship is integral to marriage. And yes, the sexual fidelity or defilement is extremely important, but my miniscule research indicates that Jesus was taking a position that could bring about a marriage reconciliation (even when defiled) whereas the prevailing and opposite opinion was that a Jewish man must divorce his wife if she were unfaithful. This is the context in which Jesus is questioned about divorce.

      Notwithstanding, what I was trying to bring forth is the social dimension of marriage to the covenanted community. I’m speaking in the sense of ‘leaving and cleaving’ where one bond (parent/child) is altered and a new bond (family unit) is created (husband/wife). What exactly does ‘one flesh’ mean? To me it means the new family bond, which is significant and not trivial. In my opinion, when Jesus nullifies what Moses had permitted (MT 19:1-12) his overriding concern is the fracturing of this familial bond, this ‘one flesh’. The sexual fall/sin (the personal morality) is reconcilable as is displayed in the story of the elders who catch the woman in adultery; and it is a lesser concern.

      The sexual intercourse is the ‘sign or seal’ of this new covenantal relationship which is why it’s integrity must be guarded. But just as we can break our covenant with God and each other, the covenant can be restored with forgiveness and mercy. And Jesus is taking this position in his teaching on divorce.

  • Well David, when I first saw this post my eyes rolled and I thought ‘I’m just going to avoid making any comments…this is simply opening up a can of worms’. But I was drawn into it anyway and I apologize for the length of this comment in advance.

    Now I can’t be sure of the sources but I have seen references claiming that the context of ancient Jewish divorce law debates was highly relevant in the response that Jesus gives about divorce and remarriage (MT 19:1-12). Apparently, some positions (1) required mandatory divorce for serious offenses (adultery) and others (2) allowed for divorce or dismissal of the spouse for something as trivial as a burnt meal.

    Interesting, St. Joseph may have been confronted with this predicament (position #1) when he discovers that Mary is with Child. His initial response (prior to his dream) was to ‘divorce her quietly’ in spite of his presumption of her infidelity, and spare her the horror of the ‘ancient justice’ that was often imposed. Years later Jesus, in response to ‘the divorce question’, teaches that a defiled marriage is reconcilable and should not be mandated out of existence (what God had joined no man should tear apart). This is a defense of the marriage bond, the ‘one flesh’ that is instituted by God. The second position is more recognizable in today’s world where either party abandon’s the other for ‘irreconcilable differences’. Even here, the marriage covenant is defended by Jesus against the selfish and immature failings of the differing spouses.

    Now it seems clear that Jesus is defending (and defining) the sanctity of this sacred union. I would suggest that the Church must remain true to Christ in proclaiming, defending and defining the sanctity of marriage. But the questions remain on how to (a) recognize this union when its contested and (b) deal with those (one or both parties) who fail to live up to its standards.

    Regarding question (a): There are a multitude of responses as to what constitutes a valid marriage – even within the Church. Nowadays, the culture is so poorly formed about this covenant-relationship (any many do not regard marriage as a sacrament) that they are completely unaware of the union being formed. Some (in the extreme) see this as a result of sexual intercourse (the mixture of genitalia) and place no value on the knowledge or intention of forming a true union, sanctioned by God. Others see a wedding ceremony as irrelevant or a mere public declaration that is only slightly beyond cohabitation. Indeed, some see marriage ceremonies and church witnessing as ‘giving in’ to social pressures and a betrayal of the current lifestyle. What is the Church to do with those who finally enter into and respond to proper formation?

    Regarding question (b): Here there are a few examples of Jesus’ interactions. Specifically, for those trapped in adultery there is (JN 8:1-11). I pointed to this encounter in an earlier comment, but it is interesting to note Jesus’ dialogue with her, Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

    But, in my mind, the most profound text, by far, as relates to Jesus and the divorced/remarried is in the story of His meeting of the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:1-42). I suggest that anyone contemplating how the Church should respond to their plight should read this passage slowly and very carefully, thinking of the implications for the relationship between our Savior and the divorced/remarried.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Tausign: well, as you may have noticed, I enjoy posts that deal with complicated questions! 🙂

      With regards to your post I think you have summarized things well. Your last point:

      “But, in my mind, the most profound text, by far, as relates to Jesus and the divorced/remarried is in the story of His meeting of the Samaritan woman at the well (Jn 4:1-42). I suggest that anyone contemplating how the Church should respond to their plight should read this passage slowly and very carefully, thinking of the implications for the relationship between our Savior and the divorced/remarried.”

      is quite challenging. How do you read it? I know that some theologians point to Jesus’ offer of water to the woman, without imposing any requirements on her, as a sign that that the Church should likewise offer the sanctifying grace of the Eucharist to the divorced and remarried. What this would mean in practice in terms of Church teaching on marriage, I leave to my commentators.

      • OK, I’ll try to draw out some of the implications of the woman at the well story. But first I want to remark about Cardinal Mueller’s interview. I don’t find it as ‘off-putting’ as you and I agree with nearly all the facts as he describes them, particularly that a valid marriage is indissoluble. And he does seem to concede that there is much work and study needed regarding how to assess whether individual marriages are valid or not. It does seem that Church officials recognize that the current cultural circumstance tilts us towards a norm in which most marriages are severely lacking in proper formation and understanding of the nature of the marital bond.

        Perhaps, my greatest concern is how he describes the inherent conflict of their life circumstance (existing in mortal sin) and their inability to receive the Eucharist (binary thinking). This is where the interaction of Jesus and the Samaritan woman has relevance. Using the Church’s understanding Jesus is conducting this entire episode with someone in mortal sin. He initiates the contact and makes a request of her. He discerns her true condition, reveals her condition to her, she acknowledges his insight. He reveals his true nature to her and promises that she and others will find deeper understanding and worship in Spirit and Truth. She leaves and evangelizes Jesus in her community, bringing many into his presence. They believe in Jesus and welcome him into their village where he remains two days with them.

        The issue is not the Church’s praise, promotion and defense of valid marriage as taught by Jesus (I don’t think this should be diminished or overruled). The concern is how to interact and grow people toward a closer union with Christ and the Church, if they are responsive to God’s call. I’m not going so far as to call for a removal of the Eucharistic ban…but in some ways this is like the early Church position that required circumcision before being allowed in. I have always regarded the biggest impediment to partaking in communion (which today seems to be ignored) as being the discernment or acknowledgment of the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist.

        • Peter

          What is this aversion to just having people go to confession first??

          Would it help if we took the Orthodox approach in that regard and said that NO ONE should receive communion for more than a consecutive week without having to go to confession again (mortal sin or not)?

  • Melody

    Peter said, “What is this aversion to just having people go to confession first??Would it help if we took the Orthodox approach in that regard and said that NO ONE should receive communion for more than a consecutive week without having to go to confession again (mortal sin or not)?”
    I don’t think anyone has said anything against going to Confession. The thing is, that implies certain conditions: a conviction of sin, being sorry for the sin(s), a firm purpose of amendment, and the resolution to avoid the near occasion of sin. If some or all of those are missing, there’s not much point. For instance if someone feels that their remarriage and the sexual expression thereof is in fact not a sin, isn’t sorry for it, and isn’t going to end the marriage or move into the guest room; then confessing it before Mass in order to receive Communion is an exercise in hypocrisy.
    As for the Orthodox customs regarding frequency of confession, my understanding is that it varies a lot, kind of like the western Church. The idea that one should always go to Confession before receiving Communion even if there is no mortal sin seems more Jansenist than Orthodox.

    • Peter

      But that’s just the thing, isn’t it.

      This whole push isn’t about “mercy for sinners.” It’s about coddling people who refuse to believe what they’re doing is problematic at all.

      Your explanation is honest, and it’s honesty that refutes Kasper’s word-mincing theories. “Tolerated but not accepted” is not the problem. They’re already tolerated. What they want (but can’t ever have) is acceptance, affirmation, celebration.

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