Sandro Magister reports from Rome that Fr. Alberto Bonandi, a famous moral theologian, has published an article in Teologia , the journal of the Theological Faculty of Milan and Northern Italy, in which he argues that Catholics, married in the Church but subsequently divorced and remarried civilly, may be admitted to Holy Communion. As Magister explains, "the path proposed by Bonandi . . . presupposes both the permanent validity of the previous marriage and the full continuity of the second living arrangement, including sexual relations. And it is in the last part of this that the novelty of his proposal lies."
Novelty indeed. A moral theologian whose stature rather exceeds that of Fr. Bonandi, our Lord Jesus Christ, taught that, Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery (Mark 10:11). Another moral theologian of somewhat lesser stature, but still greater than Fr. Bonandi, St. Paul the Apostle, taught regarding admission to Communion that, Whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily sins against the body and blood of the Lord (1 Cor. 11:27). From apostolic times onward, therefore, the Church has not admitted to Communion those who¯in the now quaint-sounding phrase¯were living in sin.
This adultery business is rather difficult to get around, and so, not surprisingly, adultery seems to figure but little in Fr. Bonandi’s understanding of the problem. I’ll have something to say in coming days about his exact theological arguments, but for now I want to comment on what Fr. Bonandi thinks is the "typical case" in which he would readmit to Communion a man divorced and remarried. He writes,
Ten years ago, [the parishioner approaching his parish priest] began, after a certain interior and emotional decline, to cheat on his wife, who, on the other hand, did not cease to remain faithful to him. At a certain point he decided to abandon his wife and child, to begin a relationship with another woman, and finally to divorce and contract a civil marriage with the second woman. This gave rise, after a few years, to the birth of a child. The man now fully meets all of the financial obligations stemming from his marriage, and participates, as much as possible, in raising his first child.
Bonandi sees only the man in his office asking to be readmitted to Communion; he never takes with complete moral seriousness the interests of anyone else. So, when the man in his office says that he fully meets all his financial obligations to his abandoned wife and child and participates, as much as possible, in raising this child, Fr. Bonandi simply takes the man at his word. It never occurs to him to meet with the abandoned wife and child and ask them whether, in their judgment, the man is living up to his obligations. Most children of divorce could enlighten Bonandi as to what the "typical case" really is¯and, in the process, expand the moral theologian’s moral perspectives.
[The erring husband] begins to develop a renewed appreciation of the Gospel, which he had opposed in spite of the good Christian education he received. He recognizes its depth and value even in relation to marriage. For some time he has nourished a profound sentiment of repentance and of desire for reconciliation with God and the Church.
Not so profound, we shall soon learn, that he’s willing to give up sex with the younger, slimmer, blonder woman who used to be his secretary, of course, but still quite profound, to be sure.
Confronted by the minister with the Church’s request in the matter of sacramental reconciliation, he makes it known that in many ways, his condition in life is not reversible.
Confronted, that is, with the Church’s request that he intend to avoid the sin of adultery in the future, the man flatly refuses because "his condition in life is not reversible." But of course, it is "reversible"; the man simply does not wish to reverse it. Bonandi is shockingly, but perhaps unwittingly, candid about this:
It isn’t so in emotional terms, because of the new ties he has established through his own initiative: he recognizes honestly that he cannot imagine himself living as a single man.
When St. Augustine, in the garden in Milan, could not imagine himself living chastely, he saw this as a measure of his own concupiscence, which God, through his grace, eventually helped Augustine overcome. For Bonandi, such concupiscence is the moral justification for continuing in adultery. Do I exaggerate? Not at all:
He confesses that he cannot yet guarantee, in spite of a sincere personal commitment, permanent sexual continence with the partner with whom he has begun a serious personal relationship; partly and above all because his partner is asking to continue to foster a normal emotional relationship and a healthy exercise of sexuality, and also to have a second child. The man himself honestly admits he is in a similar emotional condition.
So, prolonging the adulterous relationship, including in order to produce more illegitimate children, is now "a healthy exercise of sexuality." Healthy, perhaps, in the sense of involving frequent and vigorous copulation, but not healthy in the sense of morally permissible. Do not deceive yourselves: no adulterers will inherit God’s kingdom (see 1 Cor. 6:9¯10).
Note, too, how Bonandi trades on ambiguity here. The man "confesses that he cannot guarantee, in spite of a sincere personal commitment, permanent sexual continence" with the new partner. Normally, this would mean something like, "The man wants and intends to be sexually continent, but he foresees that it is likely that, sooner or later, he will succumb to temptation." This is a common phenomenon. For example, I want and intend to be patient with theologians who produce fantastical justifications for sin, but I know myself and realize how likely it is that I shall, sooner or later (and perhaps within the next paragraph or two), lose my patience and say something very unkind. In such cases, it is perfectly appropriate for the confessor to give the penitent absolution and for the penitent to receive Communion: Repentance demands a sincere intention to avoid sin in the future, not a certain knowledge of one’s future conduct¯which is something no one ever really has.
But Bonandi, in the language about "a sincere personal commitment," means something quite different from all this: He intends the language in a sense in which it’s perfectly compatible with the man’s present intention to go on having sex with the new partner and even intentionally producing more illegitimate children with her. For him, the quoted language means something like, "Gee, Father, I wish I could be continent and all that, but I have no intention of telling Lola that there will be no more sex, much less to actually cease sexual relations with her. We have tickets for the Caymans next week, and we both enjoy sex on the beach. Besides, although I have two teenage children from my first marriage, Lola is only twenty-three, and she really wants to have a baby. She is, you know, a great respecter of motherhood and family."
Having accepted this sort of thing in lieu of a sincere intention to avoid sin in the future, Bonandi would
remind [the man] that the first union was and remains the only marriage of his life. And in consequence, a second union as a sacrament of Christ’s love for the Church is unthinkable. He then proposes a journey of reconciliation with God and with the Church.
Ah, yes, a journey. After all, as St. Paul said, "Character is a journey, not a destination." Oh, wait, no, that was Bill Clinton, wasn’t it? But, Clinton is, come to think of it, an authority on adultery. And a greater one, I think, than Fr. Bonandi, for Clinton knew that his relationship with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky, had to end. Back to Bonandi:
This irregular member of the faithful must submit his own good will to the penitential discipline of the Church. . . . Furthermore, his reconciliation and readmission to Eucharistic communion at the end or at a certain stage of the penitential journey naturally requires the fulfillment of his obligations toward the persons involved in the marriage and in the new relationship.
Nevertheless, his eventual reconciliation in no way signifies: a) that his marriage has been declared juridically or recognized morally as null, or in any case as no longer subsisting as an obstacle to a second marriage; b) that the present union has a precisely matrimonial and sacramental validity and quality. It, as an act of this man who has desired it and brought it about, bears the mark of sin in a penal sense, even though, with the accomplishment of reconciliation, it no longer bears the fault of sin.
So a man abandons his wife and children, and his punishment is that he should continue sexual relations with the woman he prefers to his lawful wife, and moreover, when he does so, no further guilt attaches to this. In fact, enjoying the second woman is a form of penance. May I substitute that penance for abstaining from meat on Fridays of Lent? Verily, verily I say unto you, what God has joined, let no man put asunder, but if any man should put it asunder, let him have adulterous intercourse forever and ever, world without end. Amen.
And so the remission of sin and Eucharistic communion would be granted, as a sub-optimal choice with respect to the commitment asked of Christians in marriage, under these conditions: a) recognition of the gravity of the sin of infidelity and of the inviolability of the sole marriage; b) acceptance of the penance proposed by the priest; c) complete attentiveness to the commitments of the present union, which involve the entire life of persons such as the partner and children.
Notice how the obligations to the first wife and the children of the first marriage have slipped from Bonandi’s mind. It is no accident that the moral theologian is forgetting the offended spouse and child, just as the straying husband did. Here we see moral theology pandering to sin.
I grow tired of famous theologians engaging in abject special pleading for sexual sins. Imagine, if you will, that the sin in question were not sexual but financial. We have not an adulterer but a thief who comes to the priest and says, "Father, I used to be an honest man, making a modest livelihood digging ditches, but that was a drag, so I became a professional thief. I do big heists now¯artwork, jewelry, antiques. I’d like to be readmitted to Communion, but thievery is now the only livelihood I know. I’ve acquired special skills, formed business relationships with dealers in stolen property, have plans for big heists in the future. It’s just emotionally impossible for me to imagine living as an honest man. Besides, my wife and children are accustomed to the lifestyle thievery provides. If I had to repay all I stole, I’d have to liquidate my securities portfolio, sell my house, pull my kids from Catholic school, not buy them iPods for their birthdays, and so on. There are people depending on me, Father, and the only way I have to keep them in the material things they deserve is by stealing. So what do you say? If I do some penance and follow the Bonandi path, may I receive absolution and be readmitted to Communion, even though I’m going to continue stealing? After all, I wish I had never become a thief, but I did, and I can’t change that now. Can you help me out?"
Now suppose some silly theologian writes an article saying that we ought to absolve this man and readmit him to Communion, even though he’s going to continue thieving. Wouldn’t this be absolutely absurd? But let the sin be a sexual sin, and we’ll believe anything, publish anything, tolerate anything. No nonsense is too patent for us.
As for Fr. Bonandi, I suspect he simply lacks the moral courage to tell the man in his office that he has to do what Christian morality has always demanded. Bonandi seems to have forgotten that there’s an exact precedent for all this in the gospel. Left alone with the woman caught in adultery, Christ did not say to her, Do penance, then enjoy a healthy sexual relationship with your paramour. He said, rather, You may go, but from now on, avoid this sin (John 8:11). Fr. Bonandi should go and do likewise.
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